My first guardian angel was a dog. She was a mostly-brown German Shepherd, with the unimaginative but serviceable name of Brownie. I was only an infant when she cared for me, but I must have learned from her, because I grew to have an instinct for devotion and kindness toward animals that I did not learn from humans. According to my parents, even when I began to toddle on two legs, they never had to caution me not to pull ears or tails, or shriek and run headlong at any cat, dog, or other small, non-human creature. Thanks to Brownie, I always approached all four-legged beings gently, with loving intent.
The stories I heard most often about Brownie described how she guarded me from interlopers. Naturally, aunts, uncles, and family friends wanted to ‘see the baby’ when they visited for holidays and parties. Usually with a cocktail in hand, they would wander unsteadily, ice cubes tinkling, down the short hallway to my bedroom door, where they would find Brownie, stretched across the threshold, alert and suspicious. If they were unaccompanied by one of my parents, Brownie would not admit them. If they tried, unwisely, to get past her, she would deflect their intrusion with a low, sneering growl. Only if and when my mother or father came along to reassure her, would she arise and let them pass. Then, while they cooed at her small charge, she would park herself at the foot of my crib, ever watchful in case my parents had misjudged their intentions.
Before I was old enough to form conscious memories of her, Brownie died of distemper, in an era before its vaccine was routinely distributed. Upset and insecure after my protector abandoned me, I waddled around the house looking for her to no avail. I had no siblings to share my grief. My neighborhood chums were distracting, but they had to return to their own homes after our brief and boisterous playtimes. By then, fissures had begun to appear in the solidity of my parents’ unified joy, and in my mother’s peace of mind. Like a thunderstorm crashing upon our domestic peace, my mother’s unhappiness flashed like lightning, followed by rumbling arguments, tears, and slammed doors. I was too young to understand the reasons for these storms, but not too young to notice them. The cold comfort of reason would come later. For now, my world felt inexplicably unsafe.
In my distraught, lonesome state, I must have wrenched a few grownup hearts, because for my next birthday, my godmother gave me a small brown stuffed dog with a rattle inside its paw. I named him Goggie. Thereafter, I never went anywhere without clutching Goggie like a talisman. One of my first clear memories is of my poor mother prying him from my sobbing embrace so she could wash him. I still remember planting myself, indignant and horrified, by the washer and dryer in the basement, tears rolling down my cheeks until Goggie emerged.
When Goggie inevitably disintegrated from my abundant love, my godmother provided Goggie Too for Christmas. I also got a doll dressed in a cowgirl outfit. I don’t remember what happened to the doll, but I remember dressing Goggie Too in her fringed skirt, vest, and tiny boots. He didn’t mind. I pretended to be his pony.
My mother had by then begun to read to me every day. My favorite book was a story about a long-haired gray kitten with a blue ribbon around his neck. I made her read it to me so many times that I memorized the shapes of the letters on the page. One day, magically, they began to turn from mere ciphers into words I could understand. My mother rewarded me by giving me two long-haired toy kitties, one white and one black, covered in soft fake fur. I don’t remember their names, but Goggie Too readily accepted them as part of our pack, and permitted them to sleep with us at night.
By the time I started first grade, I was allowed to escape my house unaccompanied to seek new sources of solace. I struck up a friendship with a kindly, maternal, female collie-mix named Ranger, who lived with our next-door neighbors. Upon my daily greetings, Ranger gave gentle kisses, sat for treats, and permitted fervent hugs. When Ranger died of old age the following spring, I was again bereft, and hoped that perhaps my neighbors, or maybe even my parents, might get another dog. They did not, but I was astonished and delighted when my parents gave me a real kitten for my seventh birthday. He was an orange tiger, and he arrived in our house peeking out of my father’s coat pocket. He liked to chase my mother’s broom as she swept the floor, so at first I named him Sweep-ee. Unfortunately, the name was subject to misinterpretation, so my mother and I discussed it, and I compromised by calling him Sweet Pea instead.
Sweet Pea was an affectionate and biddable kitten. He slept in sunspots, like most cats, but his favorite napping spot was the green paper grass in my Easter basket, where he would curl up like an orange pillow. Even when he’d clearly outgrown the basket, he would stuff himself into it, like a muffin that expanded beyond its muffin tin. I wisely refrained from dressing him in doll clothes, but he was quite happy to be wheeled around in my doll carriage.
As Sweet Pea grew into young adulthood, he began to shrug off the bounds of domestication. He’d go off for two or three days on hunting trips, and when he returned, would reward us for enduring his absence with a gift of a small animal carcass. My mother would always congratulate him, somewhat timidly, her compliments dampened by the unpleasant task of disposing of his gifts.
Sweet Pea was one of the very few orange cats in the neighborhood, and the only orange tomcat. This he verified by means of enthusiastically romancing all the female cats in the vicinity. Of course there were other tomcats likewise occupied, but when our neighbors’ black and white and gray and tabby females produced orange kittens, it was hard to deny their parentage. Unfortunately, he also felt compelled to defend his harem against the competition, and often returned home with a new notch in his ear, but no discernable scars to his ego. After one particularly bloody altercation, my father and I had to take him to the vet, to have him patched up and finally neutered. It was a memorable trip. Despite a thorough fumigation, my father’s car never quite smelled the same afterward. Fortunately, it was the beginning of summer, and after leaving the car windows open for weeks on end, there remained only the merest whiff of eau de tom on the back of the driver’s seat. Alas, Sweet Pea’s romancing days were over, but not, as it turned out, his fighting and hunting adventures. Some instincts never die.
Eventually, these instincts overtook the relative merits of domestication, and became a fullblown existential crisis. Sweet Pea demonstrated this one evening as my parents and I were watching ‘The Wizard of Oz’ on TV. For no apparent reason, and without any provocation, Sweet Pea wandered into the livingroom, launched himself at my shoulder and raked his claws down my arm, whereupon he sauntered to his food dish to restore his equilibrium. Fortunately, my injuries were superficial and healed quickly and without complications. Sweet Pea himself, however, earned another trip to the vet, to make sure nothing was physically wrong. After getting a clean bill of health, my father carted him away for good a few days later. My mother attempted to console me by explaining that Sweet Pea was going to live with a local farmer who needed a good mouser. I was not sure I believed her, but I decided it was useless to probe the matter. On the whole, I was inclined to regard Sweet Pea’s attack as a mere aberration, and it did not diminish my fondness for cats in general. However, it did diminish the chances that my parents would adopt another pet anytime soon. So, once again, after only a few short years, I was a lonely only without a furry companion.
In the meantime, my parents’ existential crises continued unabated. There were now fights over dinner, exacerbated by the several beers my father would imbibe after work with friends at a local bar. Our dinner would barely be on the table when dishes would be hurled amidst shouted accusations. Even I, at my young age, could not help but observe the pointlessness of these eruptions, and one night, I told my parents exactly what I thought of them. All I achieved was to get hollered at to mind my own business. Infuriated and frightened, I burst into tears, ran into my room, and slammed the door. After that, I kept my opinions to myself.
Our near-neighbors no longer had pets that might serve me as surrogate companions, so I began to search farther afield. By now, I was in the fourth grade. After leaving my school friends at their doors as we walked home, I would turn into the circle of two streets that comprised our immediate neighborhood, and scan all the yards and porches for pets to greet. Of course, I already knew the friendly cats and dogs. But I was compelled, no doubt by my own inner turmoil, to notice those few pets who seemed lonely or reticent or conflicted, and, by dint of patient reassurance, to win them over. I was on a mission.
My first candidate required a two-week-long campaign. He was a lush, black, long-haired cat that lived at the top of our street, just around the corner from the main road. Every day after school, I would crouch at the end of his front path, where he would be stretched out by the steps in a patch of sun, several feet away, fixing me with an unwelcoming gaze. I murmured to him in my gentlest voice, resting an open hand on the ground, telling him over and over how handsome he was. A week into my efforts, I was caught in the act. The lady who lived there emerged from her front door one afternoon and stopped abruptly at the sight of me, on my knees in my dark green, Catholic school uniform, my book bag flung behind me on the grass, cooing and whispering at a safe distance. I felt some explanation was in order.
“Your kitty is really beautiful,” I said, in what I hoped was my most innocent, beguiling voice. “I love long-haired kitties. Is it a boy or a girl?”
She smiled. “A boy. His name is Midnight. I’m surprised he’s let you get this close. He usually runs away from strangers.”
I was encouraged to hear this. “I’ve been talking to him every day. I hope it’s okay.”
“Of course! I’m just walking to the mailbox. If he hasn’t run off so far, you must be making progress.”
As she walked away, I sat down and admired the way the sun had bleached patches of Midnight’s black fur into a deep mahogany. He didn’t let me get any closer that day, but he favored me with a slow, accepting blink.
A week later, Midnight allowed me to get within a scant two feet of him. I stretched out my hand as far as I could, and kept very still. After staring at me for what seemed like forever, he stretched his face toward me to sniff my fingertips. Very slowly, I curled my fingers under his chin and rubbed gently. He began to purr. I worked up to his ears, crawling minutely closer, when, wonderfully, he flopped on his back and let me rub his luxurious tummy. I heard the front door crack open and looked up to see the lady smiling. A few minutes later, she came out and silently rewarded me with a cookie. Thereafter, I visited Midnight every day, no cookies necessary. His purring was enough.
Flushed with success, I decided next to try my skills on what I perceived to be a truly challenging prospect. This was a dog who lived with his family across the street and a few doors down from Midnight. His name was Jack. Jack was a small, long-haired mix of perhaps terrier and something a bit larger and fluffier. He was mostly black and white, with standup ears that flopped over at the tips, and a long, furry tail that curved up like an ostrich plume. Each afternoon, he was placed outside at the end of a long lead, to await the return from school of the two small boys who lived there. He always greeted them happily, I had observed, but barked fearfully at any other child who walked by.
Jack’s barking at the neighborhood children did not earn him any compassion. Instead, most of the girls rushed by the house on the opposite side of the street. Most of the boys would taunt him with loud jeers, sometimes tossing sticks or pebbles at his feet just to watch him cower and bark more frantically. They dismissed Jack as mean, nasty and irredeemable, which I could not help but interpret as the pot calling the kettle black. The unfairness of their behavior made me more determined to disprove Jack’s reputation, and to prove concurrently that the neighborhood children were ignorant louts who’d succumbed to mob mentality.
I started one afternoon, after visiting Midnight, by crouching just beyond the reach of Jack’s lead and talking softly. Of course he barked at me at first, but I told him I understood. I kept still, with my hands on the ground. I assured him that I was not like the other kids, and apologized for their behavior. I told him I could tell that he loved his family, and that he was just doing his job by protecting his patch. I told him he was a handsome boy, with a beautiful tail. I told him I would visit him every day. I don’t know what he thought of me that first day, but he stopped barking to sit and listen. I said goodbye, stood up slowly, and walked home.
The next day, I saved half of my lunchtime sandwich. Jack barked, then stopped while I crouched and talked gently. I broke off bits of lunch meat and carefully tossed them near the end of his lead. I sat and waited. Jack sniffed the treats, but didn’t eat them. Instead, he sat and skeptically listened to my monologue. I told him I didn’t mind at all that he didn’t trust me yet, and told him I’d come back tomorrow. As I walked away, Jack stared after me for several moments, then at last nibbled cautiously at one of my treats.
Over the next few days, I took a few extra slices of lunch meat to school for Jack. I repeated my routine, but by now, Jack did not bark at me, but sat and waited. I tossed him a small treat. He sniffed, looked at me, sniffed again and gobbled it up. I told him he was a good boy and went home. On the fifth day, a Friday, I kept the lunch meat in my pocket, squatted closer to the end of his lead, and called his name. He approached slowly and sat. I told him he was a good boy and held out a large piece of meat with the tips of my fingers. Gently, timidly, he grasped it with his teeth. I let it go while he finished it. I put my hand, palm down, on the ground by his front paws. He sniffed and licked my hand. I turned my palm up and let him sniff and lick. I raised my hand a little and he touched it with his nose. We both held still and looked at each other. This might be the moment of truth.
“Would you let me pat you?” I asked him. “I would like to be your friend.” Jack considered this for a few minutes. Finally, he inched a little closer and bumped my hand with his nose. I told him he was a good boy. Then he sat, raised his paw and put it in my hand. I grasped it gently and thanked him. He cocked his head. I let go and stroked his leg. He put his paw in my hand again. I stroked his leg and moved up to his shoulder. He let me rub him for a minute. When I stopped, he wagged his tail. I raised my hand higher and crawled a little closer. He wagged and let me rub his ear. I told him he was a very good boy.
The next day was Saturday, and I decided that Jack deserved an extra visit. I walked up the hill to his house and found him, outside, on his lead, lying in the sun. He trotted up to me, wagging his tail and grinning. I sat down and rubbed his ears and neck. He licked my face. A few minutes later, three of the nasty boys walked by. When they saw us, they stopped, but kept their distance. Jack chose to keep an eye on them, but didn’t bark.
“How did you do that?” one of them demanded. “He’s a mean dog. He’ll probably bite you.”
“He’s not mean. And he doesn’t bite. You’ve all been mean to him,” I said. “He’s just shy. If you’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to you.”
“Would he let us pat him?” one of the other boys asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “You have to crouch down and be gentle. His name is jack. Tell him he’s a good boy and let him come to you. One at a time, not all at once,” I instructed, “and I’ll bite you myself if you don’t.”
Perhaps it was the shock of being contradicted and threatened by a mere girl, but one by one, the boys cautiously followed my commands. Within a few minutes, Jack was happily surrounded by three new friends. One of the boys took a ball from his pocket and rolled it across the lawn, which Jack agreeably fetched and returned.
“Wow! He’s really a nice dog!” they said.
“Of course he is!” I said.
Within days, or maybe hours, my instructions and exhortations were evidently repeated throughout the neighborhood. By Monday, when I came home from school and went to greet Jack, he was already surrounded by a small group of children, including the two small boys from his home, who were rubbing his ears and rolling balls for him to fetch. Jack was no longer the neighborhood pariah, and I was looked upon as having some kind of magical powers. We both suddenly had a lot of new friends.
Eventually, I told my parents about Midnight and Jack. By the end of the school year, they’d stopped fighting every night, and my dad went to an AA meeting. I still didn’t get my own cat or dog, but I didn’t mind as much.