My father remembered that night well. In the darkness of our tent, one by one he heard sniffles from the surrounding sleeping bags. Marion Voxland was the parish worker for Hope Lutheran, my father’s church. She took care of our pets while we were in Iowa. We had a Pekinese dog, Lady, and a cat, Princess, who recently had kittens. Abner was my kitten.
These were our first pets because my parents, having grown up on Iowa farms, viewed cats and dogs as animals that belonged outside. Veterinary expenses for a pet were an unnecessary expense. Spaying and neutering wasn’t a thing yet, so canines and felines (like Princess) were constantly over-populating. My parents weren’t cruel to cats or dogs. They just didn’t consider them people.
My sisters and I felt differently, and still do. Our pets are part of the family. Science might say different, but I attribute human thoughts and feelings to them. Jealousy, joy, disdain, outrage. I see these emotions and more in my pets.
Over the years, my mother became a co-conspirator with my sisters and my efforts to welcome more animals into the house. Occasionally, she’d even drive us to the pound so we could visit them. My father couldn’t help getting attached to our pets, once he got to know them – which meant we all cried when one of them crossed the Rainbow Bridge.
After our beloved Daisy (a golden retriever mix) crossed the rainbow bridge, we adopted a terrier mix from a local rescue organization. Before long we discovered Nicky’s head was full of bad wiring (as opposed to any trace of a brain). He’s pathologically devoted to me, so much so that even after two years, he’ll attack John if my husband dares to get too close to me. Then there’s his piercing, ear-shattering bark.
It was clear why Nick’s two previous owners dumped him; if I followed suit, his next owner would do the same thing. My dog was a lemon but he loved me so much! How could I save my psychotic little terrier? My novel and brilliant solution? Adopt another small dog and hope Nick follows the new dog’s example. I am nothing if not a clear thinker when it comes to adopting more pets.
Enter http://lhasahappyhomes.org and a lhasa mix named Xyla (now Zelda). Her previous owners surrendered her because she needed eye surgery, which the rescue organization provided. They were honest about her flaws (she was a chewer but that’s over now). On the plus side, she was smart – dolphin smart, as opposed to Nick, no brighter than the average mollusk.
Zelda watches television like she’s following the plot but she’s actually watching for the appearance of a dog (or cat, pig, horse – any four-legged creature). Then she goes bonkers, barking and launching herself at the TV, frantic to vanquish the intruder in our home. If Nick tries to assist, she lunges and growls at him.
Zelda’s more into food than Nick, as you might surmise from her chunky physique. If Nick doesn’t finish his food, she drags a piece of paper on top of it with her nose (she’d be unstoppable if she had opposable thumbs) and then nudges it from Nick’s side of the room to hers. She’s adept at distracting him, stealing his treats and hiding them to enjoy later – usually in the corner cushions of my sofa. I once found a square of cheese waiting there.
They were both about a year and a half old when I adopted them which makes them roughly three now. They still act like silly puppies which is fine by me; the rest of my family is less enthusiastic. Sure, pets are work but I can’t imagine a life without animals around me. Our current crop is Fitzgerald-themed – Carroway, Gatsby, Wilson (the cats) and Nick and Zelda (the dogs). I talk to them like they’re people because to me – given their wildly different personalities – they are.
From today’s vantage point, life looks simple in ‘64 but it didn’t feel that way then. I obsessed over what other people thought of me (which they didn’t, much). Subtle shifts in friendship sent me reeling. I stewed about my performance in school. I wanted to be number one in everything but I was afraid to be best at anything.
My need to be number one began in ‘53, when my parents shattered my fragile 2-year-old psyche by bringing my sister Janet home. I got their message loud and clear. If I’d been a better baby – cuter, smarter, more entertaining – they wouldn’t have needed another baby. I ran outside and bawled my eyes out.
They flat-out refused to return her. Over time, I discovered she – and later Joyce – had some good points. Little sisters were easy to trick. Gradually both of them became fun to talk to. In fact, it was easier to talk to them than anyone else in the world.
Because we knew which buttons to push, emotions ran high. They could cut me to the bone, infuriate and inspire me, rouse my jealousy and my compassion. On balance, we shared more laughter than tears.
I trust them with my deepest secrets, my darkest self. When I fail and feel all is lost, my sisters raise me from the dead. They’ve got my back when I need them most. They love me when I don’t deserve it, believe in me when I give up. They’re the wind beneath my wings, my bridge over troubled waters. They light up my life. You get the gist.
Maybe all things considered, what my sisters give me is bigger than the narcissistic wound Janet inflicted. Maybe gains always come with pain. Maybe I should stop whining about what happened 63 years ago.
I used to have this theory that everyone has one Great Love in their lifetime. A Great Love is not necessarily who you end up with (in fact, more likely not IMHO) but it’s someone who changes you profoundly. Author Andrew Sean Greer (“The Confessions of Max Tivoli”) takes it a step further. “We are each the love of someone’s life,” he writes. I love the quote, but I question the math. What if one gorgeous man or woman is the great love of five people’s lives? Doesn’t that leave four people without an available great love?
I believe that in addition to a Great Human love, people with animals also have a Great Dog or Cat Love. Sure, I know you love all of your pets, but wasn’t one just a little more special? Didn’t one of them speak to you, make you feel like you and he/she forged an almost mystical connection?
Deeter was my Great Love in the feline world, high praise indeed as I’ve had a lot of great cats. Deeter was different, though. We could communicate. He shared my loathing of all things rodents and like the ruthless assassin he was, he racked up an impressive number of kills. His homicidal instincts were not restricted to rats. A friend of Sam’s brought a kitten into our house when she came to visit. Deeter went ballistic, stalking and terrifying the little intruder so much it chose death-defying leaps from one outside balcony to another rather than face Deeter’s wrath. Eventually, Deeter’s patience was rewarded and he trapped the little girl downstairs when no one was watching. He slashed her stomach so badly she required surgery (which I felt required to pay for. Not such a cool move, Deeter.) Don’t worry, the kitten survived and – equally important – Deeter made his point. No new cats would be moving in, not even on a temporary visa, not under his iron rule.
Deeter was a character, a personality with a strong life-force (read death force for rodents, birds and lizards.) According to my next-door neighbor – not one of Deeter’s fans for reasons which will soon become apparent – Deeter heroically held a rattlesnake at bay while my neighbor sought help.
For a merciless killing machine, Deeter had a surprisingly babyish side. He loved to toss rubber bands in the air and then pounce on them. He loved to lie beside me and knead my flesh. He loved to jam his head deep into J’s smelly tennis shoes and inhale deeply. He loved howling cat fights with our next-door neighbor’s Russian cat Micki, a psycho KBG agent (I can’t prove it, but strongly suspect.)
For weeks after Deeter died, Micki wandered by our windows like she did every day to tempt Deeter into a frenzy. Now, though, she was searching for Deeter – and she looked sad. Well, as sad as a psycho cat can look. Beneath their violent vicious hatred, I believe they were deeply in love. I guess we’ll never know.
I have another terrific tuxedo cat now – Gatsby (below). I’ll always have a tuxedo cat in my life, in memory of Deeter but there can never be another feline Great Love for me. I’ll miss Deeter till the day I die.
If you had a Great Love – Dog or Cat – please post a picture and their name. Surely I’m not the only one.