I wish I could tell you I have enjoyed the company of a dog or
a cat every day of my life, but it's simply not true. In fact, my
earliest appreciation of pets in any form did not occur until I was
four and, even then, was limited to my grandmothers' dogs.
My mother's mother possessed a white male toy poodle named
Marty. From the start, Marty made it abundantly clear that he had
no patience for small curious hands, except perhaps as chew toys.
Venture into his territory, that is, anywhere within an invisible
fifty-yard perimeter of my grandma's house, and he would come at
you, bouncing forward as if his legs were little pogo sticks, emitting
a bark that could crack bulletproof glass, before scurrying away to
safety behind grandma's ankle, only to repeat the process over and
over again until he finally ascended into her arms. From this lofty
position he could look down at me with an expression that said "If
you bother me, I will make you pay in blood and tears."
Marty was not even a year old and his presence had already negated
what few pleasures there were after a two-hour car drive to
visit my grandma.
"Sit you down while I put the kettle on," Gran would say as everyone rushed for a vacant seat in a game of musical chairs that
invariably left me with the sofa where Marty had settled. Curled up
on the middle cushion, Marty would emit a throaty, malicious
grumble if I so much as inched toward the ends of the couch.
There was also the smell. The entire house reeked of the only
food Marty deigned to consume - sausages! I never once saw him eat regular dog food. And I'm not talking about classic British bangers.
Marty's delicate mouth and discriminating palate preferred, no, insisted upon, a small, handcrafted breakfast sausage from a local butcher that had to be fried, allowed to cool, and then carefully
chopped into congealed mouth-size pieces. At some point during
every visit Gran would excuse herself, go to the kitchen, take up a
position next to the stove, and disappear into an oily cloud as she
seared sheathed meat that crackled and spat in her direction. I
would look over at her and she would smile the smile of old people
everywhere, content to check off another comforting chore in her
daily routine. Meanwhile Marty might squirm a little on his throne
and sigh, not out of boredom, but approval, pleased the hired help
was doing his bidding.
Neither my grandma nor my parents ever suggested Marty and
I become acquainted or that Marty become socialized around children or that he be reprimanded for his bad manners. Perhaps I couldn't be trusted not to pinch, yank, rip, or snap as I did with most of my toys. Perhaps they didn't want to take any chances. What ever the reason, I kept my distance, painfully curious to discover the feel of his hypoallergenic, steel-wool fur but convinced he would practically explode if I so much as touched him. After a while, I lost all interest in Marty. What was the point? How could I have a relationship with an animal who might as well have been behind bars in a zoo? I couldn't understand what anyone saw in a pet you couldn't,
On the other hand, my grandmother on my father's side had a
placid female Dalmatian named Cleo and to my delight (and no
doubt to the delight of my mother), they occupied a small bungalow
next door to our house. In contrast to Marty, Cleo could be
completely trusted around children. She was tolerant and forgiving
and endowed with seal-pup insulation that possessed a certain...
give, similar to a Tempur-Pedic foam mattress. Cleo never tired of
me petting her, happy to relinquish her short, fine hairs to my
sticky palms, which would soon resemble a pair of black and white
mittens. I could fall over her or fall into her and she would either lie
there and take it, indifferent to the contact, or rise quickly to her
feet and find somewhere else to lie down, as though she was sorry
for getting under foot rather than angry at being disturbed. At the
time, my little sister, Fiona, was too small to play with me, so I was
thrilled to share our backyard with a big old spotty dog who never
once regarded me as though I were a tasty hors d'oeuvre.
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