Sunday, March 29, 2009

Good Dogs and Good People

Reading Dr. John Brown again, and thinking about dogs. Our first dog, or rather the first I remember from childhood, was a spaniel mix named Nelly Belle, who tended me as she had any of her own puppies and who indulged my brother and sister and myself as a grandmother would; allowing herself to be dressed up, for comic effect, in cowboy-hats and six-guns, for instance, without complaint, happy to play even games she must not have found nearly so amusing as we did. When she died, I don't remember. I must still have been quite small. Patience, if I had to reduce her to a single virtue, would be hers.

There were always dogs around me when I was still living at home, though most were hunting dogs, beagles and hounds, who lived in their own houses rather than ours, and whose lives revolved around my father, their master and companion in the woods. But there were also strays and abandoned animals throughout my childhood, and not just dogs and cats, the cats kept mostly to catch mice in the barns, but also horses and ponies, a raccoon, chickens and pigs, the last two naturally not seen as pets but as meat. (Though my father kept pigs just the once. Having raised them from piglets, they followed him as faithfully as dogs, and when the day came that these now enormous hogs were to be slaughtered, my father, as I remember it, could not be present, returning only after the butcher had been. Like many farmboys, my father is deeply sentimental about his animals, but would not think to not use any animal for the purpose for which they were intended. I do know he never raised an animal for food after those three pigs.)

I never really had animals of my own. I did have a pony, briefly, named Tom Tinker, but I was never much of a horseman, as my father had been raised to be by his father, who was a blacksmith. My brother and sister inherited all my father's joy and skill with animals, I none. As were all the horses and ponies about the place over the years, my pony was an animal saved. My father could not see any "intelligent, useful animal" abused or neglected, and so rescued those he could, often keeping them just long enough to find them better homes. I fell off my pony more than I rode him. My father the pony would follow around the fields, as docile and sweet as a dog, but Tom had an instinct about me, and he was quite right; I did not belong on his back. Eventually, my father, sighing, passed him along to a grateful and happier rider. To me, most of my father's animals represented chores, were distractions from my books and my friends, possibly seen even as rivals for my father's time and attention. The chickens I hated outright. My mother had had a hen as a pet, but then my mother was "a town girl," and during The Depression, when she was a child, many people in towns kept chickens. I hated the noise and the dirt and the work of keeping chickens. I hated the smell of their roost, and the rats they attracted. I hated the chickens for being too damned stupid to not get out of the way of a bicycle in time, for nesting in inappropriate places, like truck tires, if not watched. I hated the roosters particularly for their arbitrary and unpredictable displays of aggression, toward each other, toward me, and most ridiculously and dangerously, toward the dogs who plotted and waited for revenge until, once in awhile, they had it.

The horses I had little or nothing to do with, other than feeding them when required. My sister loved them. Her own horse, Lady, was a sweet and gentle old thing, and the only one of whom I was never frightened. One horse in particular, an albino mare with blind milky eyes, seemed a truly terrifying specter to me when I was little. I can remember her huge white face, her pink lips and yellow teeth, extended through the fence in what was probably a friendly gesture, but to me she was a monster.

Of the many cats who came and went, only one, Snowball, claims any special memory. She started life, as they all did, as just a stray and a mouser. But she hung on for years and was specially insistent about being recognized as uniquely adept at her job, regularly visiting the house to display her kills, and claiming our porch as by right, disdaining to stay in the barn. Snowball was something of a diva. Like all the cats my father could catch and feed, Snowball had been to the vet to be "fixed." Rather tragically, she would steal kittens from other cats in the vicinity, try to feed them herself, and resented my father's interference when he had to save and feed them himself. None of her adopted kittens ever survived for long, despite my father's attempts to help her with them. When Snowball got old and began losing more fights than she won with vermin and with other cats, she allowed my father, who had always built rather immovably solid and snug dog-houses for his hunters, using scrap wood from his factory job, to build her a proper house on our porch. For some time Snowball would have nothing much to do with sleeping inside, her house or ours, but eventually she moved in and stayed, in retirement, allowing herself to be fed on more common stuff than the game she'd hunted most of her life. When she finally chose to die, she walked away from her little handmade cottage and went out into the weeds she'd always thought of as hers. When my father found her, he buried her among all the unmarked but remembered graves of all those snatched kittens who had failed to thrive under her confused but well intentioned mothering.

We were not proper farmers, my father worked in a factory and my mother cleaned houses in town, but my father, having been raised in what was then truly the country, has been a hunter and a lover of animals all his life. My father without at least one beagle is as unthinkable as a my father without fields to walk in, rabbits to hunt, clean air to breath. Likewise my brother and sister have almost never been without a dog. I'm afraid I've never felt a similar need. More like my mother, I can be quite content with nothing but people in my house. But not even my mother proved to be entirely immune to the charm of a good dog.

Buster was a mutt, a small dog with an expressive and eager face. He was the last house-pet my parents ever kept. He had terrier in him and was as bright, and as naughty, as any small dog, indulged as children left home, could be. The amusement and affection he shared with my parents, particularly after their last child, myself, left home, was prodigious. There was nothing he could not get into, no place he could not hide in when a bath was anticipated, or burst from behind barking when he thought the place needed livening up. He ran and scampered and flipped like an acrobat, was an entertainer at heart, and filled, for awhile, an emptied house with so much love and noise that he did my parents much good at a time when they very much needed distraction. He even nipped a few of the more unpleasant relatives, shocked to find a dog in my mother's house, as neither side of the family kept animals indoors. I loved him particularly for that. He was killed on the increasingly busy road in front of my parents' house, as we all worried he would be, one day when, yet again, he ignored my father's stern rule to stay in the yard and let his exuberance take him too far out into danger. He was running in ever wider circles, as he loved to do, tempting disapproval, even death, in one last effort to entertain. He is buried under a huge stone in my parents' front yard, not but a few feet from where he was killed, something of a warning I suppose, to my father, but also because neither my father nor my mother would think to keep him nearer in death than he usually was in life; within the sound of his name, well remembered, but free.

All of my father's other pets are buried in the woods, in a place known only to him, and to my brother, who has sadly had dogs of his own to put there through the years. I discovered this spot once, or think I may have, as an adult, walking out into the summer on a visit home. It is a perfectly quiet, perfectly sunny spot, just on the edge of my father's property. The path to it has known few other visitors. I don't know that he goes there himself much these days, walking, and hunting, having become increasingly difficult for the old man lately. But he keeps one beagle still. She is a dear little thing, not much of a hunter, but then he isn't much of one himself these days.

The dogs I know now are only the ones who visit the bookstore. Dear T. occasionally brings in Willow, her extraordinarily calm and attentive Aussie, with whom she visits special-needs-children and prisoners. K. was just in this week with Peaches and Keebler, her two big, beautiful and affectionate friends. But our most frequent visitor, who has come to us almost daily for a very long time, Harris, is ill, her companion Bob, quite sure she will soon die from the cancer that was supposed to kill her before her fifteenth birthday last week. (T. decorated the Used Books Desk and had a party for Harris when she made it to that unlikely milestone. There were cupcakes for the two-footed, and special cookies for the four.) Harris is a bright-eyed little dog, long-haired and smaller than she appears, a bit lame, but still very much in control of her destiny. Just the other day she left Bob where he was and went herself to visit her usual cafes. This was unusual, to say the least. Everyone in the neighborhood was concerned when they saw her out alone. Eventually she was returned to her friend. I wonder if she didn't want to say goodbye on her on terms, to make her rounds just this once without worrying about Bob. I don't doubt she worries he won't manage to keep to their schedule when she's gone. Harris is a herder, Bob her only charge these days. She's earned her rest. He's earned all the affection the neighborhood has for him, and for Harris. I wish them both the best. The bookstore will not be the same, if and when either of them go.

No comments:

Post a Comment