I Lied. There Is One More “Stories of My Mother”

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When Heidi went into heat the next time, my parents arranged to have her spend a number of days with the breeders where we got her. They had selected a mate for her. We all drove out to drop her off. The house lay at the fringes of land that were well past the suburbs, but not quite rural. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, some in large cages set around the enormous yard, and others who roamed the house freely. I wondered if the same dogs always got to live inside, or if the breeders rotated them inside and out, following some schedule. Their immense pride in their dogs was evident. Both the man and the woman went on at length, telling me each of the dog’s names and several of their predominant character traits. I got the feeling that I was actually supposed to remember all this, because of their joy and the weight they gave to every detail they imparted.

It was a confusing mess to me, despite the good cheer. I wanted to know if Heidi would have to be outside in one of the cages, and I was told that she would, because she and her new male friend would need privacy and time to get to know one another. I could not understand the convivial good spirits everybody seemed to share. We were abandoning Heidi with strangers who were going to make her live outside all the time.

The body of a female dog makes a complete puppy from the original fertilized cell in about 63 days. The average size of a litter is 5-6 puppies, although the variation is enormous. It’s rare to have just one puppy in a litter, but it does happen. A couple of months after we fetched Heidi from her exile, my parents once again got the wooden pen ready for her in the basement. The same old blue bedspread and dingy pink blanket that her first litter had been born onto lay on the floor. Heidi occasionally scratched at the blankets, rearranged them with her nose and paws, and circled around and around as she waited.

One afternoon, Heidi squatted down in a corner of the pen and stayed in the same position, motionless, and staring straight ahead. She looked like she was trying very hard to poop. I wanted to ask my mother if this was true, but she had already told me that I needed to stay completely quiet if I was going to watch. Heidi let out a long, low moan. She inched her rear end closer to the floor, so slowly, and out came a translucent thick balloon with a puppy inside of it.

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There was only one puppy, which was an enormous surprise. My parents decided that we should keep her, and that she should be named “Elf,” the German word for eleven. She was to be the 11th dog that my family had. They counted the dog that my father’s nurse had gotten for us unannounced. We visited him where he was chained at the far end of our back yard until my mother couldn’t stand it for another minute. I’m not really sure what happened to Toby. They also counted the black puppies that had not been viable.

I don’t think my parents realized that Heidi had been a relatively compliant, trainable dog until Elf. Looking back, I think Elf was most likely just dumb as a box of rocks. Even in photographs, she has a wild, glassy look in her eye – an animal with unbridled enthusiasm, absolutely no comprehension, the brute strength of an ox, the stubbornness of a mule, and a bad bad case of ADD.

I thought having two dogs was great fun.

My grandmother (the good, good one) was visiting us, and my mother had planned a big dinner. An eight pound beef roast sat on our kitchen counter, thawing out for the upcoming feast. My grandmother heard a commotion, and walked in to find Elf with the giant slab of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. My grandmother shouted “NO NO NO,” and reached out with both hands to rescue the meat. Elf snapped at her. My grandmother called out for my mother, who came running into the kitchen and immedaitely understood the situation. My mother spoke firmly to the dog and reached for the roast. Elf snapped at her as well.

I didn’t see any of this. I came in at the part where my mother told me that my grandmother was going to be in charge for a little while, and that she would be back soon. She put Elf on a leash and left. When she returned, Elf was not with her.

The only thing that was ever said about it was this: “I will not have a dog that snaps at its owner.”

We sat around the dinner table that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, though my father seemed unusually quiet.

I understood that we were not supposed to talk about it, but I was sick with sadness and confusion. I remembered the time when Elf was brand new, her eyes still closed tight, her body squat and furrowed with newborn puppy wrinkles. I was sitting inside the pen holding Elf on my lap, and somehow she slipped off. I picked her up, horrified at my clumsiness, and saw a tiny bubble of blood at the side of her nose.

After dinner that night, after my mother had finished the dishes and turned off the kitchen light, I said, “Mommy, do you think it’s all my fault? Do you think Elf was such a bad dog because of the time when I dropped her when she was a tiny puppy?”

“Maybe,” my mother said. “Maybe.”

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Artwork: Paul Gauguin, Mary Cassatt, Mary Cassatt

Stories of My Mother: The End

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My mother loved to tell the story of when I was sick with the chicken pox. I came downstairs in my pajamas, miserable with pain and itch, wretched with a high fever. I stood in the kitchen and cried.

Our beloved family dog Heidi had recently birthed a litter or eight tiny, squiggling black puppies. My father had built her a small pen in our basement, and filled it with old blankets, so she would have a place to birth and raise her pups.

When she heard my sobs, she left her pups in their basement pen and came up to see the situation for herself. My mother never stopped delighting in telling how Heidi nuzzled into me and began giving me gentle but insistent pushes towards the basement staircase. She was trying to herd me down the stairs, so I could join the rest of the babies that needed her.

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Heidi did love me best of our family of four, but I thought it was mighty generous of my mother to say so, and to delight in it, considering that she had done the lion’s share of the hard work of housebreaking, and training, and feeding and slogging the big dog inside and outside since the day we had brought her home. I was three years old then, and therefore instantly and deeply in love. I held the sleeping puppy for hours. I examined every square inch of her as she grew, so I would know her dog body as well as I could. Til the very end of her life, whenever I would sit on the floor in front of a heating vent in order to shake off winter’s bitter chill, she would lie down next to me, resting her head in my lap. I spread her ears out across my thigh and stroked them, and reveling in their unequaled softness.

I have no memory of the chicken pox incident myself, but I heard it so many times growing up that I have formed a clear picture of it – Heidi’s expression of alertness and concern, my flannel pajamas with faded yellow flowers all over them, so small on me that my 5-year-old belly showed in the space between the tops and the bottoms. My only memory of the chicken pox is watching my mother pour nearly a full box of cornstarch into a steaming hot bath and telling me that it would help with the terrible itching. It didn’t. She told me that I had an unusually bad case. In a state of scientific wonder, she decided to count the pox on my face one day, but she stopped just past the bridge of my nose, when she had already reached 100.

I was past the worst of it. The pox were scabbing over, and though I was still sick, I felt so much better than I had that I was filled with a kind of giddy exhilartion when I woke up that morning. I bound into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to the basement to play with the puppies. She turned from the kitchen sink to face me, and told me that one of the puppies had died during the night. “Why,” I asked.

“You never know about these things,” my mother replied. “So many things can be wrong that we can’t even see.”

“Where is the puppy?” I wanted to know.

“It’s gone,” she said.

“Gone where?” I wanted to know.

She didn’t answer.

“Was it a boy, or a girl?”

“It was a boy.”

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual. My mother stood in the kitchen, wrapping a tiny, still black thing in a sheet of newspaper.

“You’re up early,” she said. “Another puppy died last night.”

“I want to see it.”

She unwrapped a corner of the newspaper, and I could see the fat, adorable-looking puppy that I had held and played with the day before. It was completely limp, like a rag doll. But otherwise – perfect. “How do you know it’s dead?”

“Because I know,” my mother said.

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Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

Every night, another puppy died. My mother said that Weimaraners were special dogs. A highly pure German breed. We had intended to breed Heidi with a carefully selected male, but she had gotten knocked up in the back yard before my parents were sure that she was in heat. My mother explained that often times, when Weimaraners bred with other breeds of dogs, the puppies were not viable. It was a new word. Viable.

One puppy remained. A male. Each morning I woke up, and he was still alive. I studied him, trying to figure out what possible magic he possessed that allowed him to live. My parents found a young man who wanted to adopt him. My mother told me that he was going to come to our house in a couple of days and take the one remaining puppy to grow up and live with him.

“Are you sure he’ll be able to stay alive,” I asked. “Are you sure he’s viable?”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Now that I know the truth, I sometimes try to picture it. I wonder how my mother made her decisions about which one she would choose. I picture her carrying a wriggling puppy in her two hands, up the basement stairs and into our darkened kitchen. I see her plugging the drain, and running a sinkful of water. Or did she run the water in advance, I wonder. Warm, or cool. What goes through your mind when you are cradling new life in your hands, feeling that life drain away, watching for those last tiny bubbles of air to rise to the surface.

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Photos: William Wegman

“Recon” (cont.) excerpt from “Pushing the River”

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Creatures that’s been in pain much of they lives can go one way or the other, and that includes humans, and that includes pain of all kinds.  They either take on an everlasting meanness, living all the time like a coiled-up snake, just waiting for the next chance to strike out, aiming to hit hard.  Or they go the other direction entirely, taking on their own sense life’s troubles and hardness, and doing they best to be in the world in such a way as to ease the path for others.  That was Recon.

            None of them animal doctors could ever figure out why Recon got gimpy in her font leg in the first place, let alone why she got worse and worse.  My Lady trotted her all over creation trying to get an answer; but not so very different than with me, the doctors tsk-tsked and clucked their tongues and wagged their heads and knitted their brows and sent Recon back home.  Recon just went on about her business, all the time walking a bit slower, going a bit less far from My Lady’s side, never once complaining about the pain all them docs said she was most definitely suffering.

            Ever so often my Lady would go over to wherever Recon was resting her bones, and she’d put her own forehead right against the big dog’s, stroking both her ears and whispering that she was sorry.   They’d stay that way for a time, head to head, then my Lady would dab at her eyes and get on up.

            Recon still greeted every new day, and every person that ever walked through the front door of our house, like they was a dang miracle that she could not even believe her own good fortune to encounter.  When the Tumbleweed came for dinner and never left, and Marie left the Boy back in New York to move in and lay in wait for the imminent storm, and the giant-bellied, wide-eyed child parked herself on the couch with her gummy bears and her movie star TV shows, Recon treated the whole shebang like it was just more folks to share the pure joy of being on the planet.  Of course when the Little One came back, and finally the Boy, Recon was like a mama whose babies had all returned to the nest, wagging her whole body all the day long.

            Strange, though, that for some infernal reason when the little tiny infant was brought in and added to the mix, Recon started doing something she ain’t never did before.  When nobody was looking, she would go over to the couch, grab the corner of one of them fancy pillows in her mouth, gentle-like, then hump the dang pillow for all it was worth!

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“Recon,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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It’s taken me near on my entire one hundred years to learn a thing or two about the creature known as a human being.  One of the things that has always been a perplexity to me is the whole notion of keeping animals inside the house and giving them the name of “pets.”  Both the Boy and the Little one went off to elementary at a school that was supposed to be special in science; and somehow that meant that every year they studied, and then brought home, some infernal thing or other to add to the general household menagerie.  First year, the science project was a teeny little guppy fish swimming around inside of a sawed-off plastic coke bottle.  Next thing you know that one teeny fish was swimming around with a whole passel of even teenier little ones, so small you had to look real close to even see them and make sure they was real.  That’s how the Boy ended up raising guppies for a time, ‘cept it turns out they ain’t nothing to do for the “raising” save wait a bit for some more teeny ones to show up in the coke bottle and then scoop them up and take them on over to the local pet store.

            Next year it was meal worms.  Two maggot-y looking things came home from the school in an old peanut butter jar that was half full of oatmeal.  They was just about the same color as the oatmeal too, and would stay buried way deep down except for once or twice a day when the Boy and the Little One would shake the jar around just a tad til they could see them bugs wiggling and waggling, and the kiddies would be all excited.  Course how long do you suppose anyone can stay excited about a couple of maggots even if they got a fancy name, and the answer is not very gosh darn long.  Soon enough, the kiddies more or less forgot about them, and my Lady tried to remember to check in on them once in a while just to see if they had died yet and she could throw them and their oatmeal home on out.  Well, one day, sure enough she did check and was surprised and amazed to find that they wasn’t any meal worms at all, nor their carcasses, but two big, dark beetles.  Course this led to all kinds of hoopla and whoop-de-doo until it dawned on somebody to consider what the heck do you do with two bugs in a jar of oatmeal.  Everyone was still pondering on this when the bugs up and died because they had come to the end of their time.

            The last year of the science project was the year everyone was most excited about, the kiddies talked about it for years, from the time they started at the school as kindy-gardeners until they finished up after the fifth grade.  Hermit crabs. 

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            Maybe I just can’t wrap my head around anything that doesn’t have warmth running through it, but somehow the hermit crab struck me as the most useless of all the so-called pets.  Scritch scratch scritch scratch all the night long.  And if you ask me he smelled funny.  Day after day the Boy would take the hermit crab out and hold him in the palm of his hand, and the Little One would hold her breath and wait for the creature to do something magical and wondrous, but the scoundrel would just sit there, and they put it on back in its home after a time, trying hard to act like they wasn’t disappointed.  One day they got the idea to put the crab down on the floor, and lo and behold, the creature skedaddled across the carpet like it had been shot from a cannon.  The kiddies whooped and hollered and had their friends come over to witness the miraculous spectacle.  Well, it seemed no more than a blink of an eye that the crab up and died, and I swear he did it out of pure spite.  I never trusted him.

            Of course there was a whole bunch of cats and dogs around here, too.  I never paid them much heed, until this last one that came into the house as a little rescued puppy named Recon.  The husband was ancient history, the kiddies was about to scatter, and all the other animals had died off by then.  I knew my Lady needed company, and she needed it bad.

            Creatures that’s been in pain much of they lives can go one way or the other, and that includes humans, and that includes pain of all kinds.  They either take on an everlasting meanness, living all the time like a coiled-up snake, just waiting for the next chance to strike out, aiming to hit hard.  Or they go the other direction entirely, taking on their own sense of life’s troubles and hardness, and doing they best to be in the world in such a way as to ease the path for others.  That was Recon.

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Any Tuesday

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Accustomed to waking up between 6:30 and 7:00 am, I was in a profoundly deep slumber when my dog Scout whimpered quietly at my bedside around 6:00, letting me know that she could not wait any longer to go out.   I was also deep into a dream, a dream of such intense aching feeling that fully awake and caffeinated as I have been for two and a half hours now, a veil of sad wistfulness remains heavily between me and a rain-drenched, beautiful morning.

Last night, a friend told me that she feels the bottom has been hacked off the hour glass of her life, and that her remaining time is hemorrhaging out, giving her an ever-increasing sense of urgency that she must do everything in her power to ensure that those she most loves in the world will be safe, and loved, after she is gone.

Ah, if only this were possible.

I watched her sob as she recognized that we can love powerfully, ferociously even, but in no way is this a guarantee of anything at all, except that we have done our very best — lived, and loved our very best.

 And that must be enough.

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A Report on the Natural World, 6/24/13

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Scout is the third dog that I have had in my adult life; thereby, I am on my 24th year of having a ready-made reason to get outside every morning.  We go to the large park at the corner of my block most days.  When it is below zero, my fellow dog owners and I bitch and moan and compare the relative warmth of our boots.  When it is well above 90, we bitch and moan and say that we really must be getting home, pretending that it is our dogs who can’t stand the heat.

Scout is a meanderer. I call her the Ferdinand of dogs, as in the children’s book where the ferocious-seeming bull wants nothing more than to sit in the field, and smell the flowers.  Scout wanders the park each morning, slowly, thoroughly, nose to the ground, not willing to miss one single thing that might be infinitesimally different from the day before.

Each spring, we experience an alarming wave of birds’ nests falling from their tree homes, or perhaps they have been helped along by squirrels, cats, raccoons, possums – any of the variety of wildlife we have.  Each year, for a time, our parks, yards, sidewalks are littered with tiny, dead baby birds.  Some are brand newly hatched from their shells, others are feathered and nearly fledged, one hair’s breath away from spreading their wings and living a life.

Considering that we have experienced an influx of fox and coyote – surprising considering that we live within spitting distance of the third largest city in the United States – I am always taken aback that the bird bodies are there at all, and so many.

A nest fell from one of the tallest trees in the corner park, and the carcass lay right against the trunk.  The first morning Scout and I came upon it, the parents mounted a riotous, all-out demonstration of their protective agony, complete with shrieking, wing-flapping, diving and swooping.  Each morning Scout nosed the baby gently.  We witnessed the body progress from its state of newly-fallen perfection, to being covered and consumed by teeming maggots, to becoming strewn bones and feather, until the morning when there was no remaining trace whatsoever.

It has been more than two weeks since we found the baby bird, more than a week since there has been any remaining sign of its life.  Still, every morning the parents shriek and wail.  Every morning they swoop down and peck the back of my very confused, 87-pound yellow lab.  They follow us part of the way home.

Do animals understand death?

Do we?

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