During the 1930s the animal rights movement was in its infancy and had little impact in Providence, Rhode Island, where my parents lived. My mother, newly married and determined to trim the claws of the Depression, went on the prowl for the most openly spendthrift item she could find—a fur coat. She chose leopard.
I knew the coat only from a photograph. It reached almost to my mother’s ankles; the belt tied itself around her slender waist. The ends of her long pageboy just brushed the spotted shoulders—human hair meeting animal in a glossy caress.
I encountered the leopard in person, so to speak, ten years later, when it began a new life. The skirt of the coat was becoming noticeably threadbare; meanwhile, my aunt Rae had married Phil the Furrier. Uncle Phil was eager to endear himself to his new family. He removed the belt and cropped the coat at hip level. The resulting jacket was a swirl of spots. My mother wore it everywhere—to movies, to PTA meetings, to war bond rallies.
In the 1950s, Uncle Phil transformed the jacket again. It became a pillbox hat. During the first year of my mother’s widowhood, the pillbox looked particularly golden above her sad dresses, her dark coat.
A few years later, Uncle Phil turned the hat into a muff. I wore it to college football games. Helplessly losing sight of the pigskin, I studied instead the muff’s markings: four velvety dots, like paw prints, repeated again and again and again.
In my first apartment, the muff, filled with feathers, became a notable pillow. It acquired the aroma of beer, pot, perfume and pheromones. "Oh, that thing looks terrible, the stuffing’s coming out. Let me have it," demanded my mother on one of her imperious visits.
And that was the last I saw of it until, 20 years later, examining her effects, I noticed that a green crepe blouse had been rather unsuccessfully adorned with a single leopard-fur button. I snipped the button off.
Not much later, my then 11-year-old daughter discovered it in a box. She was already an environmentalist, a vegetarian and a socialist. "What is this?" she demanded.
"This was once part of a leopard. A jungle animal: ferocious, bloodthirsty and cunning. Its movements are quick and graceful. It catches its prey by springing down from the bough of a tree. It will eat any animal it can overcome, having a special fondness for 11-year-old vegetarian girls."
But I didn’t say that. I said nothing at all, and my daughter turned her fierce attention to other oddments that she found in the box: an enameled compact, a pin shaped like a ladybug and a book of poems.
I picked up the button and sniffed it. I held it in my palm, recalling the prickle of leopard skin at my nape as I smoked a joint, the Hail Mary pass I missed seeing because I was counting the rosettes on my muff, the pillbox at the graveside, the swing of the spotted jacket as its wearer dragged a sackful of tin cans to the curb for the war effort. I thought of the determined young bride in the long belted coat and of the handsome leopard, transformed over and over, that had faithfully accompanied us through loss, and confusion, and growing up, and growing old.