Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Harmony of History

As a reward for all the hard work of the last semester, my vacation reading is Stephen King’s new book, 11/22/63.  I made the mistake of starting to read it before exams began, which is the reason I didn’t finish grading my exams until five days after I gave them and my comments weren’t written until the day after that.  The job expands to fill the time in which you have to do it, and a good book makes deadlines seem irrelevant.  In the last decade or so, I’ve developed the habit, and I’m not saying whether it’s good or bad, of reading several books at the same time.  The invention of the ebook has made this practice even easier.  At the current moment, I’m reading the Stephen King novel, Edmund Morris’ amazing biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, a dog training book, a dog psychology book, an exploration of adolescent brain development, and two texts on interventions for troubled adolescents and their parents.  My greatest envy is of people who are fast readers and who also seem to have instant recall of every word they’ve ever read.  That’s the gift I want for Christmas.  Of course, maybe if I focused more, I’d retain more. 


This was not actually where I was going.  What I started out to say is that there are no animals in the world Stephen King paints.  Perhaps you’re thinking, given Cujo and Pet Cemetery, that’s a good thing.  It’s not like I expect the time traveler to take a parakeet with him or anything.  By the way, I promise that wasn’t a spoiler—if you didn’t know the novel is about time travel from all of the advance press, you learn it in the first couple pages of the book.  I won’t say anything else about the plot except that, for anyone of my generation, the date November 22, 1963, has a monster truck-load of significance.

So while I wouldn’t expect the time-traveling protagonist to schlep some unsuspecting critter through the worm hole, it seems as though somebody in the past would have a pet.  We meet teachers, families with little kids, pawn brokers, bookies.  Where are the puppies, the kittens, the budgies, or even the hamsters, for crying out loud?  One of my friends in kindergarten had a hamster.  I thought it was smelly and stupid, but she loved that thing.  Really, who am I to judge?  We had a rat that I draped over my head.  It wasn’t our only pet.  My dad loved dogs.  Even in the middle of Belgium during the Second World War, he managed to adopt a puppy, finding it food and keeping it warm during that freezing winter.  Just before the Battle of the Bulge, he realized he couldn’t keep it and gave it to a family with kids.  It broke his young heart, even though he knew it was the right thing to do. 

Shortly before I was born, my parents and sisters moved out of medical student apartments and into their own house.  For the first time, they could have a pet.  By the time I arrived, Gretchen, our miniature Schnauzer, was already well ensconced.  Except for my acting conservatory days, I haven’t been without a pet since.  Some, obviously, were more special than others. 
Fancy, the regal and loyal.
Photo by Jan Lower

In the fall of 1963, I acquired my first cat.  She was half Siamese, half who-left-the-bathroom-window-open? and I adored her.  I named her Fancy.  Lame, I know, but give me a break!  I was five years old.  We’d gotten her at our school carnival, the theme of which was Plain and Fancy.  I wasn’t going to name her Plain, for heaven’s sake.  Barely a month later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and I saw my dad cry for the first time of only two times.  Fancy wanted to be everywhere I was.  She would follow me as I walked to school until she reached the end of the safety of neighbors’ lawns, then she would dart home.  I can picture her sinking up to her elbows in snow as her pointy cat paws broke through the chilly crust.  One January, I returned to college after vacationing at home to discover that the normally fastidious Fancy had expressed her displeasure at the sight of my suitcase by climbing into it and relieving herself.  I could wash all my clothes, but that suitcase was never the same again.

It wasn’t until 1989, and several bepawed and befinned critters later, that I experienced a similar connection.  This was Dakota, a petit flame-point Siamese.  His name delighted my mother no end; it was the same name one of my cousins had chosen for her daughter.  Mom thought that was hysterical.  I found Dakota way out on the windy part of Carmel Valley Road on a cold January evening and drove home with him tucked into my coat.  He spent the whole drive with his eyes fixed on my face, mewing up at me conversationally.   That cat understood way more than he had any right to.  When Dakota was two years old or so, my late husband very suddenly lost the sight in one eye.  We were sitting at the kitchen table when Dakota jumped carefully into his lap, an unusual thing for him to do as he was far more likely to sit with me.  He looked steadily at Taft’s face, then gently, delicately reached out and touched the eyelid of the blind eye.  More than once, Dakota and I woke up with a start, having shared the same dream.  Or so I believe.

I think it’s impossible, maybe even dangerous to try, to manufacture such a connection between animals and their humans.  That connection is there or it’s not, and it is plainly a blessing.  When I started looking for a puppy, knowing I wanted a Bedlington Terrier, yet knowing it would be unlikely that I would be able to meet her before committing to her, I had some serious doubts about how it would all work out.  Every time Cleo curls up against me or leaps up laughingly to share a moment of excitement or checks in with me as she plays with a student, I think how lucky I am.  Somehow, from Texarkana, Texas to Monterey, California, the universe aligned.  I count my blessings every day.

This post is dedicated to all the beloved four-legged companions, both living and no longer with us, who share their lives with us, teach us so many lessons, and simply better our existences with the sheer beauty of their presence.  Our histories are harmonized by animals.

My sister Kathy with her
sweet, but stunningly thick
Irish Setter, Dulcinea
c. 1971

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