There are cat people and there are dog people and then there is my mother. She once brought home an aging wheaten terrier and tried to be a dog person, but it didn’t really pan out. The rest of her life she’s spent being actively anti-cat.
Not in a pro-bird way. But, like Gareth Morgan, the Kiwi economist who called for the elimination of cats in New Zealand, and Audubon contributor Ted Williams, who caused a recent uproar for suggesting poisoning cats with Tylenol, my mother, too, wants a world free of felines.
It’s not that she’s worried about being mauled or scratched or even sneezy. The 66-year-old woman is terrified that a little kitty will “rub up against [her] leg.”
Or worse: Land next to her schnitzel in Tel Aviv. I remember it clearly. My mother standing on her chair. Arms flailing, tears gushing, mascara smearing, “Do something, Danny!” she frantically screamed at my father. “Do something!!!!!!”
Nothing objectively traumatic ever transpired between my mother and cats. It all started, she says, with the hedges in Jersey City, N.J., where she grew up. “I’d be walking home from school, and the alley cats would jump out of nowhere!” she recalls. “At night, their screeches sounded like wailing babies.”
By high school, her fear had unfurled into a full-on phobia. Her best friend had two cats. “Get this,” my mom tells me now. “One was named Pussen. And the other was Boots. You know, like Puss ‘N Boots. How gross is that?”
“Ughh. Disgusting,” agrees her mom, my 94-year-old grandmother. “I can’t even watch them on commercials” she says, wincing. I recently learned that her mother, my great-grandmother, felt the same way. Turns out, ailurophobia is the closest thing we have to a family heirloom.
My mother was a realtor. I remember listening to her make appointments to show houses. “Now, are there any cats?” she’d routinely ask, twisting the kitchen phone cord around her finger. She lost more than a few listings.
Finally, in 1992, she went to see a shrink, who tried his best, but unfortunately he wasn’t as successful as the Russian hypnotist who’d cured her addiction to cigarettes.
Which, is why I got to go to Cuba in January.
My parents were packed and ready to go—until mom Googled “Cuba and cats” and discovered that Havana has a “severe” stray cat problem. In Marbella, Spain, she’d once seen “hundreds of cats dripping from the roof” of her hotel. “I will not go through that again, Rachel,” she said, when I told her she was being ridiculous. “Now you’re not going to travel!?” I asked, totally annoyed.
“Just not to Cuba,” she said. “Or to Puerto Rico. I won’t go anywhere with narrow streets. Then there’s no escape,” she explained.
“You really should see someone,” I said. “Your phobia has officially taken over your life. No it hasn’t,” she said. “I’m fine. So what if I walk in the middle of the street instead of the sidewalk? So what if I don’t go into antique stores? So? I miss Havana …” she said. “There’s always Helenski. I Googled it. No cats.”
So Julie and I joined our dad—and the Siegels and Rosenblatts and Rosenthals—on a bus tour of seniors from the Boca JCC for a week in Havana. While mom happily stayed at home, secure in her gated golf community, where she occasionally sits on her back patio with a squirt gun. “Just in case a cat comes by.”
“I understand your mother,” says her friend Estelle Siegel, as we stand in Plaza Vieja surrounded by pigeons pecking at breadcrumbs. “I feel the same way about birds.” She pinches her face and inches closer to her husband. “It’s the flapping.”
As we wander Havana’s (indeed narrow) streets, sip mojitos by the rooftop pool, eat in al fresco paladares, we’re on the lookout for cats. Motivated not by fear, but by schadenfreude. Look, mom! No cats! We want to come home gloating.
And, lo and behold, we see not one. Instead we see a shell of a once-regal Caribbean capital, gorgeous Baroque architecture begging to be restored. A moving museum of ’54 Fords; peeling billboards advertising the perks of socialism; leathery men smoking on stoops and lipsticked ladies topped in tangles of fake flowers. And dancers and artists and musicians, so many musicians, shaking maracas, banging on drums, belting “Guantanamera.”
On our final morning in Cuba, Julie and I stroll back to Plaza Vieja for the best coffee in town. As we swat flies and sip our café caliente, a black-and-white kitten with cloudy gray eyes and a thimble-sized nose tiptoes towards us. Soon, a fat cat appears out of nowhere, as if it rose from beneath the cobblestone, and crawls over to its baby.
“Look, they’re cuddling,” Julie points out. “That’s cute,” she says, shifting her chair to the left. The cats nuzzle and purr and move closer. As we rehash the highlights of our trip, I feel soft fur gently graze my ankle. Like grass in a summer breeze. I sling my camera over my shoulder, and without saying a word, my sister and I stand in unison, leaving our glass mugs half full, and slowly walk away.