My grandmother Maria has always been enamored with exotic wildcats. One day when I was very young she decided to satisfy her eccentric desire and bought from an exotic pet breeder an ocelot to keep as a pet, despite the fact that she lived in the very heart of the city, in South Philadelphia. For nearly 18 years, “Kitty” became a fascinating part of my family— she ate raw chicken, and sometimes leather gloves and collars, wrestled a Thanksgiving turkey to the ground and scared off burglars and my mother’s and aunt’s dates.
When Kitty sunned herself in the store window of the All in One Studio, the family photography business, she transformed the storefront into a zoo. People pressed their noses to the glass in shock when they realized they were not looking at a typical house cat. I was never allowed too close to Kitty. I would play with her by sliding a rolled up magazine under the kitchen door just to see her huge paws lunge from underneath the crack and would quickly touch them. I remember her gorgeous thick tawny colored coat with swirls of black markings that changed from stripes to spots. From what I could see from afar her underbelly was a rich cream color.
My grandmother’s personality mirrors Kitty’s wildcat traits in many ways. Like an ocelot, she is fiercely protective of her young, territorial and nocturnal (she used to work the night shift as a hotel operator). Also, despite an ocelot’s small size, they are strong and excellent hunters. My grandmother is small too, standing only 5 feet tall. But she is wiry, and notorious for throwing a good punch. The legendary family stories about my grandmother hitting a large, belligerent customer square in the nose and chasing down a bike thief solidified her larger-than-life character for me.
I was never scared of her, though, and most of my memories of my grandmother are of tickling and playful declarations like, “I’m gonna eat you up.” As I got older, she gave me valuable advice about men. She quoted from the book, The Natural Superiority of Women, by anthropologist Ashley Montagu, and agreed with its tenet that women are biologically superior to men. “It’s all about the Y chromosome,” she told me. Women were the kinder, gentler sex and men were the true savages. On the other hand, she’d ask about the latest guy I was dating and at times said, “If he doesn’t treat you right, I’m gonna hunt him down and kill him.” I would always laugh, but a part of me sort of believed her.
Given my grandmother’s strong feminist views, when my father, her son-in-law, entered the porn business and was prosecuted in the Deep Throat case, she definitely wasn’t happy about it. She had been influenced by women’s rights activists like Susan Brownmiller and Gloria Steinem who claimed that pornography encouraged violence against women. My grandmother had to know everything my father was up to in order to inform her opinion and make up her mind. She went to see the movie Deep Throat and even clandestinely visited my father’s strip club The Golden 33 in downtown Philadelphia. She trekked to the club on Locust Street, which at the time was not a nice neighborhood, and asked a man she met on the street to escort her inside because she felt it was improper and unsafe to go in alone. Hiding in her trench coat with the collar pulled around her cheeks and carrying a big umbrella (that doubled as a potential weapon), she slid into a chair at a small table to observe, to make her own judgment about what was going on.
She never revealed to my father that she made this visit. She disapproved of his career but strangely they liked each other. Maybe it was because my father was Italian or that his entrepreneurial spirit reminded her of her father, my great grandfather, who was a bootlegger and bar owner in the 1920s.
I asked my dad once, “Wasn’t she (my grandmother) a pain in the ass?” My father laughed and responded, “Yes, but that was what I liked about her. She had a lot of spunk.” He always had a great deal of respect for her strength and so do I. I only hope I have half of her guts and steely will. She is truly one of the most unforgettable characters in my book and a big part of my story and my life. This past February she turned 90. Happy birthday Grandma! There will never be another one like her.