I must have been three or four when Grandma bought me the Black Cat Tea Set. An unusual gift for a boy in nineteen-sixty-two, it was, none the less, treasured by its recipient.
A wide smile on its porcelain face, plastic whiskers shooting this way and that, and a molded tuft of fur that formed its lid, the Black Cat Teapot, and her noir kittens (a sugar bowl and creamer) captured my imagination the moment I unwrapped them. A service for two, the cups and saucers were white kittens with black patches. No matter the brew, summer Kool-Aid or apple juice, and hot chocolate when fall nipped the air, pouring teatime joy from the Black Cat’s spout into a kitten cup was the cat’s meow.
A small table sat below the low window in Grandma’s kitchen. A few yards beyond the panes of glass, a majestic maple, rising twenty feet of more from the earth, shared her virtues with us seasonally. From winter’s snow powder dowager to spring’s puce podded princess, nature’s beauty dazzled the Black Cat and I.
Her chair toasty warm parked by the wood stove, Grandma, come afternoon, broke from her endless list of chores to join me for a cupper. Greeting the tea pot as if it was a dear friend, she’d scold Old Puss, as she referred to her. “Too much honey will spoil your brood.”.
Snowbound in winter, with few interruptions from the outside world, Grandma linger longer at teatime. I’d climb onto her lap, and she’d recite her favorite poems or passages of prose that ignited her fancy. Children’s classics she read with ease. A white Ethel Waters, every line she uttered was soulful, poignant, and sincere.
When she passed away from cancer, I rummaged through her pantry, hoping to find my feline friend eager to host a stash of Oolong one last time. Her tribe long departed, busted, or broken; Old Puss sat alone on the shelf. Her whiskers brittle, her ear chipped, she wore a crack smile with the dignity of an Egyptian Sphinx.
Tears rushed down my cheeks and I cradled Old Puss in my arms. Her bamboo handle snaped as I slid her onto the shelf, and she tumbled out of my grip, smashing against the floor. Countless shards skittering across the linoleum. “No! No!”
Blurry-eyed and snuffling, I collected the fragments of Old Puss into a dustpan.
Too precious to toss in the trashcan, I gave my precious gift a proper burial under the majestic maple, alarmingly lovely in her spring jade. As dear as any pet, Old Puss had served with distinction. Childhood fancies fade to gray with age, but old friends are eternal.