First Dog

I read a moving piece in yesterday’s New York Times, in which a woman recounts visiting her grandmother, who, unbeknownst to her, lived not far away. It’s a fine stretch of writing (which you can read here), but the descriptions of the visit, the home, the atmosphere, brought back not some long-lost relative (though, if you’re out there, Frederick Lane Patterson III, I do wonder whatever it was you disappeared into), but, rather, the acquisition of my first dog.
Which became somewhat legendary in my household, told and retold for some reason, and, now that my folks have passed on, I’m free to relate it however it returns from the past. Maybe the article’s description of the grandmother’s home or the reserve between, more or less strangers, prompted the memory. Probably the latter, since I seem to recall not a visit to a small house, but a visit to an apartment building.
In fact, if you’ve ever seen “Blue Velvet,” I recall a visit to that apartment building. At least from the outside…one of those 40s or 50s brick, four-story blocks of mystery, with long hallways and numbered doors reminiscent of an old hotel. Again, this is all memory, coming from someone without particularly potent recall, who can barely remember things that happened last week, much less decades ago.
But it was, to a kid–a creepy joint, all right? Visiting at night, the street and public areas dark, and the apartment itself in deep, brown colors, with many small, framed pictures, and a black-and-white TV running: the stuff of Super 8 home movies. I was kind of a sickly kid, in a sickly family, and though we had parakeets and aquarium fish, my folks held off on a dog due to my possible allergies to fur. I don’t recall what prompted the change. I remember being a little scared of dogs at the time–a few years earlier, two barking, snarling dogs had chased me and my best friend up a tree–and not being all that thrilled with the idea. Maybe my folks wanted me to get over that fear before it set too deeply. Somehow, one of parents latched on to Shetland Sheepdogs (my mother, I suspect), and we followed a newspaper ad to a family that had puppies to sell.

Which is where we veer into family legend because, per my parent’s memory–I have only vague recall of this part–we set forth to find a puppy, but, when I sat down (in a padded brown rocker–I do remember that for some reason), the puppies’ mother, Tessie, leapt into my lap. And wouldn’t get down. Details become scrambled here, but the story ends with our taking Tessie, not the puppies, home with us. And a wonderful, gentle, perfect first dog she was, who trailed me around the house, and lay beside me on the floor as I drew or read comics or, perhaps, even as I began to add text to my notebooks full of drawings…which led to this writing thing I do.

Along the way, my family took on other shelties, achieving a four-dog peak during the 80s. Tessie, memorably, died on the day Richard Nixon resigned. My parents were relieved that Nixon exited, but a sense of personal sadness still colors references to that day. I remembered it rained, but that’s not much of a reference point in the Pacific Northwest. It rained hard.

Still, looking back on the sellers (who seemed a little creepy to this kid), it makes me wonder what kind of people would sell the the mother of their pups. I mean, who sells a good dog? Was it some graceful acknowledgement that the dog found me and shifted loyalties? Did they need the money? Was that all it was about? Someone who set off to become breeder and found it didn’t suit them? Were they terrible people, whom Tessie escaped from? Or were they moving and couldn’t take the dogs? And what happened to the pups, who suddenly no longer had a mother? Of course, I don’t remember names, and, as I recall them as being older, the sellers probably are long gone. Perhaps they’d just become too old to care for a dog. I don’t remember much emotion on their part, but people often cloak these things.

Haunting. It all seems haunting. All I can really be sure of is, in one evening, I became a dog person. A very fortunate one. Maybe the dog sensed I needed her more than her puppies did.