FARAH DIBA
Farah Diba is a historical figure of dubious distinction, the widow of the man deposed in 1979 as the Shah of Iran. He is said to have married her for her potential to produce off-spring, particularly male off-spring, that would allow his royal line to continue, a task at which she succeeded. Her fame was, thus, both vicariously and somewhat crudely earned. As described in Wikipedia, however, their union became one of mutual love and admiration, and she used (and continues to use) her wealth to support humanitarian issues and the arts. Photographs of the younger empress show the stunning physical beauty that captivated the twice-divorced Shah when he first encountered her, in 1959. I’d like to think the story below, which opens in 1968, would please her.

“She won’t come out,” I said.
“Not even for the cat-nip?” asked my mother.
“She just sits in the corner shaking,” I said, miserably, peering beneath the buffet in the kitchen.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t return her?” asked my mother.
“I am not taking her back,” I said, unusually resolute in the face of apparent failure.
We had resolved to buy a kitten shortly after our previous cat had frozen to death. (See maudlin account of Impy’s demise at stuartsandersblog.wordpress.com/2012/12/17) This was to be “my” pet to select since I planned to use my own money, gifted to me by my aunt, to purchase her. Though I understood she would be the “family” pet, every bit as much my mother’s as my own, my monetary investment made me feel rich with decision-making power. At eleven years of age, that was a rare sensation for me.
I was vaguely aware that a kitten could be obtained for little or no money. However, for reasons I can’t recall, I wanted a purebred Persian, the long-haired cats with the smushed-in faces. My mother, my aunt and I drove to a breeder they located in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. In a small row home, we encountered a collection of impressive specimens. Most of the available kittens were large, orange fur-balls, imperious in their gazes, destined to become twenty-pound terrorizers of mice, birds and small dogs. They lounged on every horizontal surface of the home, on couches, on steps, and on tables. The sheer splendor of these cats stunned me and I didn’t know how to choose.
My mother and aunt whispered with the woman in charge, probably concerning the cost of these fabulous, seemingly full-size felines. In view of my possession of only $35, and my determination to make the chosen cat “mine,” the breeder reached into a shoe box and withdrew a tiny handful of brown and orange fur.
“This one’s a runt,” she said, indelicately. “You really shouldn’t consider her. She won’t amount to anything.”
A trembling creature thrashed in her hand seeking to return to the cardboard box. I caught a glimpse of her copper-hued eyes, huge in relation to her head. She appeared so vulnerable, so terrified. The idea of saving her captivated me.
I remember proudly holding the box as we departed, the breeder standing on her porch. She looked at me piteously out of a flat, round face eerily similar to most of her cats’.
“I don’t usually do this,” she said, “but I’ll let you bring that little thing back if you change your mind in a few days. Runts have a lot of problems.”
As soon as we arrived home and I placed her on the floor, the nameless kitten rushed under the buffet and cowered in a dark corner. Each morning, for nearly a week, I hurried downstairs to see if she had emerged. I kept vigil for several sessions each day. But the kitten remained too terrified to overcome what must have been near-starvation.
Finally, on the sixth morning, some of the food we’d left out showed signs of having been nibbled overnight. When I looked under the furniture, the little fur-ball stirred and her eyes gleamed in the darkness. She edged closer, half-an-inch at a time, never blinking.
“sppppppppssss,” I sounded, saying the only encouraging word of cat I knew. I daubed my finger with peanut butter, a passion of our previous cat.
The kitten approached, tentatively, and licked my out-stretched finger tentatively. Her tongue was shockingly rough, like sand-paper. She kept licking, with increasing enthusiasm, until the peanut butter was gone, and then moved over to a dish of water, all the while gazing at me. I was in love.
My mother came downstairs and was delighted to see her eating.
“She’s so pretty,” she said, “a little Persian princess, like Farah Diba.”
“That’s perfect,” I said.
It took only a few days for the now-named Farah to become devoted to us. Wherever we went, she went. If we were in two different rooms, she alternated between them. She was even devoted to my father, who never had a kind word to say to her or about her.
“Eccchhh,” he would say, each morning, at the smell of her litter box. “Feh,” or a syllable to that affect, he would sometimes add.
Regarding the litter box, Farah had one unfortunate habit from her time at the breeder’s. Apparently, in order to save money, the breeder didn’t buy kitty litter, but trained her cats to go on shredded newspaper. Farah stubbornly refused to be retrained and required us to comply. I told disbelieving friends and relatives this indicated her dignity and independence. Most just declared she was stinky, since newsprint is not odor-suppressing like kitty litter. I felt this was small price to pay for an “exceptional” pet.
“Where’s the dumb animal?” some visitors demanded upon entering our house. It truly irked them that Farah would not emerge from under furniture until they departed. I thought it was one of her greatest characteristics: Farah discriminated and only members of our immediate family passed the test.
Farah grew to only six pounds though she appeared much larger due to her fur. Her fur was reddish brown, with gorgeous black and cream highlights. Her face was so flat it appeared she had no nose. A cousin of mine, who was particularly bothered that Farah would not socialize, called her “pan face.”
Eventually, though it was not supposed to be possible for a cat so small, Farah snuck out one evening and became pregnant. She managed to give birth, with my mother as midwife, to four kittens. Three were stillborn, as the veterinarian had predicted, but one was alive. It was orange, a legacy of Farah’s family. Farah appeared to have no idea what to do with the kitten, and my mother used towels to clean it and start its breathing.
Her initial cluelessness reinforced the narrative that Farah was not intelligent. I maintained that she was just traumatized and, indeed, she figured out after several days how to be a mother to a male we named Cubbie. Over time, the two evolved into inseparable companions, sitting together in whatever room they chose, beating a path beneath the nearest furniture at the approach of a visitor, going crazy at the smell of bacon or the sound of the can opener.
Cubbie grew to be twenty-pounds, but betrayed no particular intelligence. Unlike his mother, he never figured out that leaves are not alive and dove for cover with every breeze. I felt that Farah, on the other hand, conducted herself, like her namesake, regally. It was frustrating to have no specific anecdotes to refute what skeptical people said about her. For years, I silently endured their barbs about my “dumb animal,” “stupid cat,” and “brainless blob.”
One day, we accidentally confined Farah to a bathroom when we went out for the day. When we returned, hours later, we were surprised she didn’t greet us, and were alarmed when we saw the closed door. Upon entering, I saw Farah sitting contentedly on the windowsill, looking as though she had accomplished something. On the floor, a pile of unfurled toilet paper supported what looked like a miniature log house; it stank.
“Look,” I shouted, amazed. “Farah figured out how to unroll the toilet paper and poop on it!”
Indeed, she had, though people were remarkably unwilling to accord her the same level of “genius” that I claimed. They refused to surrender their well-worn conception of her stupidity. But I knew. I was right to pick her, right to keep her, and right that she was intelligent. It may be an understatement to say eleven-year-old boys are not renowned for judgment and perception, but Farah represented a proud exception to that rule for me.

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