Birthdays and dogs: Missing Emma

Today, as I turn 23, I am musing on dogs. Of course.

My dog obsession has reached nearly unsustainable levels. Just ask my sweet, patient husband. I talk about dogs all the time. I dream about them. Dogs are the first and last thing on my mind every day. It’s embarrassing and bordering on psychological mania, but I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO. (My boss, a fellow dog enthusiast, and I talked about it and mutually agreed that it would be in our company’s best interests if they blocked PetFinder for both of us.) We can’t have dogs in our current apartment and we’ve committed to living here until May 2012. I may not make it that long, but I am going to undergo a Year of Patience and Character-Building while I wait for my own dog.

I think a lot about our childhood dog, Emma. I picked her out of the litter, around my birthday, and I was responsible for choosing the breed (Australian Shepherd). We loved her a lot, but we also didn’t give her everything she needed. I have regrets. I was young and I didn’t give her enough attention. I also underestimated an Aussie’s need to have a job. I was too busy being 15 and worrying about boys and stuff. Her barking and herding were natural expressions of her breed heritage, but we saw these traits as nuisances and weren’t caring enough to give her appropriate channels for her energy. When we moved to our new house, my parents gave her away to family friends who lived on a farm. Emma, however, was allowed run around unchecked and was soon killed by a truck she was chasing. I wish she were still alive so I could re-adopt her now. In many ways, she was an exceptional dog. Her intelligence was remarkable and I still subjectively believe I haven’t seen a more beautiful dog in my life. She deserved better, and today, I just want her back.

So, please excuse me while I mull over my regrets and tear up at the last remaining pictures I have of her. I know. I have a problem. But look at her face! My sweet, crazy birthday dog.

Emma as a puppy.
Kelsey and Emma at our grandparent's house.
Sam and Emma were primarily family rivals for the position of the youngest child.
Dad was responsible for undoing all of the obedience training I had done with her.
She was really terrible about riding in the car. She started drooling and foaming and we had to give her Dramamine.
She was very happy, though.
Pride Week.
She did love family camping trips.
I always felt like she was one step ahead of me.
I named her Emma after the Austen novel. They were both unbelievably pretty and arrogant.
On squirrel patrol. Miss you, Em.

OK. Done with the self-indulgence. But I do miss her often. Anyone have any tips on how to stave off dog mania? I can’t keep living like this. Just ask Guion.

On my grandfather and grapefruit

A grapefruit I ate back in 2008, I think.

In my universe, there is nothing quite like a perfect grapefruit. I had one yesterday at lunch and was rushed to a very specific–and yet seemingly random–prayer for a person: my paternal grandfather.

I have only seen him a few times in my life. Papa John now lives in Indianapolis with his third wife. He suffers from rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s. Despite only having seen him a dozen or so times, the recollection of his voice is very clear to me. Recalling the mischievous twinkle in his eyes is not difficult, because I see it so often in my own father’s eyes.

Since I was young, I have always reflected upon what a strange thing it is to be a stranger to your own grandfather. He knows my name, but I imagine he does not even know that anymore. He is the man of mystery, the significant relative cloaked in shadow. He never called, never wrote. We had to trek out to the bleak and yet beautiful landscape of Indiana countryside if we wanted to see him at all.

Most of what I know about Papa John is wrapped up in late-night fables from Dad about his mythical childhood in the Midwest. I know that he owned a small airport in a great big field. I know that he was a bodybuilder, a used car salesman with a weakness for younger women. I know that he was probably a difficult father to have, and yet I have never doubted the love my father had for him when he spoke about Papa John. And I know that he loved grapefruit.

I have loved grapefruit since I was a child and I will always remember the morning that Dad told me one simple fact: “Your Papa John loved grapefruit, too. He ate it all the time.” I was young and I clung to this one fact about my distant grandfather. It was the only connection I had with him: We both loved grapefruit.

Since then, I think of him whenever I eat it. I don’t ever put sugar on it, just like him. I eat it with an impatient eagerness. (Mrs. Whitman knew of my love for grapefruit and she gave me a beautiful set of silver grapefruit spoons when I was only 16. She told me to save them for when I got married, but I used them anyway). So, I keep eating grapefruit and thinking of him. I wonder how he is and I say a short prayer right before a jet of grapefruit juice shoots me in the eye.

The landscape of my father's childhood: Ladoga, Indiana

The dentist

Nothing to do with teeth, but it's almost Christmas, and this is almost too much to handle. An extravagant light display in town.

When we were little, Mom would reward us for being cavity-free by a rare trip to Wendy’s to get a Frosty. I understand that this is like giving a pyromaniac child a box of matches as a reward for not setting the dog on fire, but still, it worked. It made going to the dentist a far less traumatic experience–and it kept us brushing our teeth, with the keen aim of winning another Frosty.

Guion and I went to the dentist yesterday. Both of us haven’t been in years, so I was pretty nervous about it. Even though I’ve had practically everything in the world done to my mouth (e.g., braces for four years, permanent retainers, teeth pulled, screws drilled into jaw to install new teeth, phrenectomy, and the list goes on), teeth pain still scares me a lot. More than just about any other pain–except childbirth.

The hygienist was fairly aggressive with her tools, but it didn’t take long and I didn’t have any cavities, which is what I was primarily concerned about. Guion had two, but he’s rather unconcerned about it, so that’s good. I think he’s going to get them filled after the holidays.

In other news, it’s snowing now and I’m home! The office closed today at 11 a.m., so I drove home–and have never been more terrified to be in a car in my life. I was sliding all over the place. The Jeep, which one would think would be a safe car to drive in the snow, is probably the worst. The 4-wheel drive makes the car totally shut down (which Guion and I learned last winter), so I was just sliding all over the place. I drove about 8 m.p.h. the whole way back. But now I’m checking work e-mail and sitting in our cozy living room with my husband, who is wearing his red onesie. He looks like a big Christmas baby. Loves it.

Your best Christmas ever

Marley and Me. With my cousin's puppy, Marley, Christmas 2008.

It was the Christmas of the Canine. I can’t remember how old I was. I’m going to guess 9 or 10. All I wanted for Christmas was this giant, glossy, expensive book, The Encyclopedia of the Dog. It was all I thought about for months. It contained every dog breed known to man–and even some that probably weren’t known to man. I think I had seen it in a bookstore once and since that moment had not ceased begging my parents for the book. I remember my Mom kept telling me, “Well, I don’t know, Abby. It’s pretty expensive.” (*At least it was then! Amazon is now selling it used for 25 cents. Depressing. It’s only 12 or 13 years old!) It was about all I could think about for the entire fall–holding that heavy hardback book of wonders, book of all of the beautiful dogs I would one day own and train and love…

So Christmas came. Da-Dan (my grandfather) handed out the presents one at a time, like usual, calling out the name of the recipient while we all waited around anxiously for the next present to come to us. I got a set of plastic dog figurines of maybe 30 or 40 breeds. These were exciting for some time, although I was probably too old to be playing with them. I set them out on the coffee table and waited. The presents kept circulating. No Encyclopedia of the Dog yet. I noticed that the pile under the tree was growing thin.

Then Da-Dan announced, “Well, that’s it, folks. Looks like we had another bountiful Christmas.” I blinked. I did not get my book. My eyes started to well up with tears, but I was old enough to understand that it would be selfish and ungrateful to be upset about it, so I rushed into the bathroom. I think I sat in there for a while, trying to compose my little body, trying not to cry in disappointment.

I heard my Dad’s voice calling from the living room. “Oh, Aaaaabby, come here.” It was his teasing voice. I was afraid to come out, afraid that he’d seen me about to cry and would humiliate me in front of the whole family. I wiped my face with the back of my hand and cautiously walked into the living room. Dad was crouched under the tree. “Da-Dan, it looks like you missed one,” he said, pulling a large rectangular package from the back of the tree.

Could it be… I held my breath. He handed me the package and I tore it open, finding the majestic face of a Labrador staring back at me. The Encyclopedia of the Dog! I think I was so happy that I started laughing, hugged them all, but then stopped and said, “That was mean. That was really, really mean.”

Dad just laughed at me. I spent the rest of the day flopped on my stomach in front of the fireplace, carefully thumbing through every page, every breed group, and reading every page. Pure childhood Christmas bliss–although it came at the cost of slowly suspended terror.

So, what’s your story? What was that Christmas present you begged your parents for as a child?

Where babies come from

The Man Who Loved Children

The following is a selection from the diary of thirteen-year-old Louisa Pollit, one of the more central characters in Christina Stead’s beautiful and heart-breaking novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Her father, Sam, is reading her diary when he finds this observation:

ii. What a strange thing that when a minister or a clerk or a justice of the peace pronounces a few words over a man and a woman a cell begins to develop.”

This caused Sam much consternation and merriment when he finally understood it, though he had given Louie a book, and Henny had given her a talk about marriage, Louie now imagined that marriage was essential to conception and that, provided no powders were administered to the bride and groom (she had made cautious inquiries on this subject–did they eat anything special on their wedding day?), a miraculous or magical event took place during the marriage ceremony. This was confirmed by her reading of various sentimental stories in which, after a hasty wedding, the bridegroom departed leaving the bride at the altar, and yet some months later a baby appeared on the scene.

Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children

I include this because this is exactly how I understood procreation when I was a kid. I remember playing with Ken and Barbie and forcing them through a marriage ceremony before they could share a bed and then give birth to a Beanie Baby. Or a My Little Pony, or whatever was on hand. I was positively disgusted when I found out what actually had to happen…

I’ve enjoyed this novel very much, however, as sad as it is. Stead writes with what appears to be terrifying accuracy and honesty. I found out, after doing a little sleuthing, that this novel, widely considered her best, was closely based on her own childhood. All of the characters–essentially just the Pollit family–are so riveting, complex, and pitiful. I haven’t finished the book yet, so I have no idea how it ends, but it’s a long and gripping testament of how deeply parents can screw up their kids. It’s very humbling to read, and it makes me unutterably thankful to have had such sincerely good parents.

One of the moments that caught me particularly this week was a scene in which Louie (Louisa), the eldest Pollit, screams at her father and tells him that he’s a liar and a fool. True observations, but Sam’s self-image is absolutely shattered. Do you remember that moment? That terrifying, maturing moment when you realized that you had the ability to hurt your parents’ feelings? That they weren’t these godlike beings who presided over your life unemotionally? I remember that moment. I think it hits us when we’re perhaps 10 or 11, maybe even younger now. It’s a sad turning point. Stead writes about it well, this pattern we learn of wounding other people.