The story below is a preview from our March/April 2016 issue. For the full story Subscribe today, view our FREE interactive digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Like her owner, Dolly the cat exuded traits tied to the land where she lived: a little reclusive, reluctant to accept help, determined to make her own way to the end.
The task of feeding dolly came from my friend Eric. I don’t consider myself a cat person, even though my family has two cats. But Dolly was Maude Shelor’s cat, and Maude Shelor was a member of our church. It was an easy decision.
Deep into her eighties, Maude had been ill, hospitalized and near death. Instead, she hung on, recovered and took a room at the South Roanoke Nursing Home, where she would live the rest of her days. Maude left behind an empty home and an outdoor cat in Floyd. Both were dear to her, but life alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains was no longer an option for the former high school science teacher, retired director of social services, mother, grandmother and widow.
Eric asked me to feed Dolly and make sure she had fresh water. She likes to be brushed, he told me. (There was an old discolored brush on a bench behind the house.) After Eric returned from wherever he had gone, he asked if I would take turns feeding Dolly, one week on, one week off. Then I took over, all weeks on. About two years of caring for Dolly stretched before me, although I didn’t know it at the time.
Nearly every day I made the short trip to Maude’s place south of town on U.S. 221, a national highway on which if you kept driving past her colonial-style home and followed the road until it ended would take you all the way to the Florida Panhandle. From the stoplight in town—there’s only one in Floyd, Virginia—it’s three miles to Maude’s. You head south on West Main Street and go past Food Lion on the right and Jessie Peterman Memorial Library on the left, past the laundromat and West End Market and past Slaughters’ Supermarket. This might take two minutes. Floyd is a small town. Even with all the changes in recent years, it’s still small and probably always will be.
Now you are out in the country, the up-and-down-and-all-around terrain of the Blue Ridge. The road winds through a wooded section and makes a sharp right before heading up a rise and into an open area. After cresting the hill, you pass a small, white, wood-framed church and follow a straight stretch of road for the next mile. This is noteworthy because “straight” and “road” are rarely used in the same sentence in this county of 15,279 people.
Down on the left, opposite a small used car lot, sits the Shelor house. Maude’s two-story home is white with black shutters. The colors are faded, but with a little effort you can picture this family home with a generous front lawn in its earlier splendor. Tall pines and a split-rail fence border the property. A roughly paved driveway crosses in front of the house and bends right, ending to the left and rear of the house. There are two outbuildings: a little crescent-shaped barn with rusted tools and farm implements and a small house used for storage. Beside it stands an aluminum structure where Dolly ate, drank and sought shelter from the weather.
Often times Dolly would appear, meowing, as soon as I got out of my 1996 Ford Explorer. Her medium-haired coat was a mixture of gray and brown, with a hint of yellow. She was small and skinny, an outdoor cat for all seasons. I would talk to her as I dished out wet and dry food and drew fresh water from the spigot. She talked back, meowing insistently. I would scratch behind her ears and sweep my hand across her back and tail. Sometimes I brushed her, but not nearly enough.
Other times she wasn’t there when I rolled up the driveway. “Dolly! Dolly! Dolly!” I’d yell over and over again. Does anyone know where cats go?
A few days could pass without seeing Dolly, and I would worry. Meanwhile, the food would slowly disappear. She’s still here, I’d think, or maybe I’m feeding a skunk or a possum. Then Dolly would appear. “Meow! Meow! Meow!”