Ironically, my parents were tremendous animal lovers. And it was a mutual love affair. It was logical since my mother grew up on a farm where she learned to care for all kinds of animals. My father also grew up in South Dakota and worked on farms for many years.
Still . . . when we were growing up, my parents would not allow us to have pets. The reasons offered were varied and included their philosophy that animals belonged on farms or ranches, not in town. They expressed a belief that a dog, in particular, would not have enough room to run freely in our modest-sized backyard. Cats belonged in barns chasing mice.
My mother had been traumatized when, shortly after my parents were married, their little dog, Pal, was struck by a car and killed. She spoke of him whenever the subject of adopting a pet came up and cited her heartbreak — and desire to shield her children from experiencing the same feelings — as an excuse not to allow us to take on the responsibility of a pet.
She also knew that if the animal lived to old age, her children would have to say good-bye. She refused the opportunity to use the experience to teach us about the cycle of life even as she described the German Shepherd, Shep, that lived on the farm with her family while she was growing up. She wistfully recalled the day he died peacefully in his sleep on the front porch of my grandparents’ farmhouse.
Most importantly, however, my mother voiced her unequivocal refusal to shoulder the responsibility of caring for a pet. She was convinced that after the novelty wore off, neither my sister nor I would care for the animal and she would be left doing all the work.
I was reminded of my pet-less childhood and my parents’ rationales for forcing me to grow up sans faithful animal companions when I read a post written by another blogger complaining about the fact that her children wanted to get a pet. Declaring that she had no desire “as in absolute zero, to have them in my home or to be forced to take care of one,” her husband was equivocating and appeasing them by suggesting that perhaps they will acquire a dog after their upcoming summer vacation. In fact, she wrote about a family argument which resulted in a vote of “[t]hree against one and I feel like a big meanie for not wanting this.” She is “sick and tired of being the bad guy all the time.”
Reading that blogger’s words caused memories of my mother’s justifications to overtake me. As did my father’s words, spoken in response to my sister’s request that my parents care for her dog for a few days while she was on vacation. Exasperated, my father turned to me and said disgustedly, “The first thing both of you girls did as soon as you moved out of our house was get yourself tied down with animals.”
That was a defining moment for me. I remember standing in the kitchen of this very house, my mouth hanging open, as I watched him turn and walk away from me. For the first time, I realized that he was absolutely right.
In my case, I did not set out to have a pet. But my life changed forever, after I was adopted by the most “curious little cat,” as BigBob referred to her the first time he met her. She was determined to live with me and no amount of discouragement managed to dissuade her. She waited for me in the tree at the foot of the driveway and jumped down to escort me to my front door when I came home. She rubbed against my legs and stationed herself on the doorstep, still there when, hours later, I would look to see if she had gone. She meowed and purred, and looked up at me with the most beautiful green eyes. She managed to sneak into the house when I opened the door and hid so that she could remain indoors, only coming out after I fell asleep, stationing herself on the foot of my bed. Finally, when she left a dead bluebird on my doorstep as a tangible testament to her affection, I relented and she became what she had longed to be: A house cat.
Top Cat, aka T.C. or TC’er, remained with me for the next 18 years until I instructed the veterinarian to spare her any more suffering and I, in turn, remained with her as she breathed her final breath. Then I walked out to the parking lot, got into my car, and, completely hysterical, called my friend Nadine to tell her that I had done exactly what our mutual friend, Clint Ritchie, had sternly told me I must. “Honey,” he said the previous day as I held T.C.’er on my lap and the phone up to my ear, “you have to do what is right for the animal. Now you make an appointment with the vet and do what you know is the right thing for her. Then you come home, go out behind the barn, have yourself a good cry, and get on with your life.” Clint knew what he was talking about. He spoke to me that day from his beloved Happy Horse Ranch where, at any given time, he had 35 or so beautiful horses grazing in the pastures, several dogs shadowing him twenty-four hours a day, and more cats roaming the property than even he could keep track of.
I remembered with some amusement what happened to my parents. Once my sister and I brought our pets home to meet them, they could not resist falling in love with them. Despite their complaints, they lovingly cared for our pets in our absence. And when they came to our homes to visit, my parents spent more time interacting with the animals than with their daughters! In fact, we used to joke about the fact that my mother could not sit down in my home or my sister’s without instantly having a dog or cat on her lap. Later, when we had children, the dogs and cats happily positioned themselves at my mother’s feet while she rocked our babies.
Since T.C.’er adopted me in 1981, there has never been a time when I have not had at least two — and sometimes as many as four — pets. T.C.’er slept on the foot of my bed, nipping my toes through the blankets, until the day she left us. These days, Buddy sleeps in his own little bed on floor at the foot of ours, but Sophie sleeps right next to me.
That other blogger’s words saddened me they revealed that she had never experienced a meaningful bond with a beloved pet. It sometimes requires some work to find the pet that is precisely right and, indeed, meant for a family so that children can experience the joy, fulfillment, and contentment that comes from sharing unconditional love with a pet. Childhood pets provide companionship, but also teach children fundamental lessons about caring and being responsible for another living being, and yes, that sometimes we have to say good-bye to those we love. Because of my own experiences, I determined that my children would grow up in a household that included pets. Fortunately, BigBob wholeheartedly agreed.
T.C.’er, along with the other pets who have been part of our family in the ensuing years, belatedly taught me life lessons that prepared me for parenthood. I continue learning about love and loyalty from Buddy and Sophie as they greet me when I return home each day and communicate with me every night.
We have a running joke in our family about our “abused” and “stressed out” pets. As Sophie lounges on her back smack in the middle of our bed, BigBob sometimes stops in the middle of the floor and laughs, saying, “Well, you sure can tell we raised her.” MattieBoo, especially, likes to remind me, as he snuggles with one or both of the dogs, that they were destined to be part of our family — just like him and his brother.
So when someone asks me how many children I have, I always say, “Four. Two human and two canine,” as I pull out my iPhone to show off the many photos stored there. I can’t imagine living my life any other way.