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Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Dina Years – Puppyhood

Puppy Dina

Puppy Dina

When I was sixteen years old, my parents, my brother and I went to a Long Island animal shelter to find a new puppy. We’d lost our previous dog over the summer to diabetes, and the house was feeling empty. We had to wait in line on a cold January morning because that was when my brother was home from college.

There was a litter of Labrador/mix puppies set up in cages around the room, and I chose the girl puppy because she had a drippy nose and rubbed it against my hand through the bars of her cage. Within hours of bringing her home, we found out that she was sick. She wasn’t just sniffling; she was also vomiting and woozy. This animal shelter, we later learned, had a reputation for adopting out sickly animals and our puppy had to go back and stay for a week of anti-biotics before she could come home.

We had named her Dina, because my father wanted a biblical name, and my brother was indifferent, and I thought of Dina, the sister of the twelve tribes of Israel, who we’d been learning about at my orthodox Jewish school. My brother shrugged and my father gave me a funny look, maybe because Dina was famous for being raped, and then avenged by her brothers. But he didn’t argue, for once.

When Dina came back home, we put newspaper down on the floor, but expected her to know how to pee outdoors. My father yelled at her for eating from the table, and then gave her his leftovers from the table. She had full run of the house with no boundaries, but she was expected to know that furniture was off limits for chewing. I asked if we could take Dina to an obedience class but my father refused. He saw nothing wrong with the way things were. Dina would continue to misbehave and he would continue to yell at her, and blame my mother, as it should be.

            She liked to spend time up in the attic, because it was the warmest room in the house, and it was a convenient place to poop without being noticed or yelled at. While she was up there, she found a big black garbage bag filled with my childhood stuffed animals. I had just recently put my toys into storage, in an attempt to force myself to grow up. And I didn’t mind sharing my toys with her, except she didn’t just teethe on the stuffed animals and cover their soft fur with slobber. She ripped them open and stuck her nose into their bellies, leaving wet cotton lumps on the carpet. Then she dragged the lifeless bodies of each of my old playmates to my bedroom door.

            My brother’s paraphernalia remained untouched. She didn’t even bother with his smelly socks or worn old sneakers. His room – a shrine to clutter and odd, unidentifiable smells – remained pristine and unchewed.

My mother suggested that Dina was “playing” with my toys because she missed me when I was in school during the day, and she was looking for smells that reminded her of me. It all sounded farfetched to me, especially the idea that I had a recognizable odor. That just sounded wrong.

But after a while, Dina had devoured all of my small stuffed animals, and moved on to Panda. He was life-sized, or the size my life took when I was four years old and my grandfather thought I needed a companion my own height. My grandfather died when I was eight years old, and Panda was watching over me as his stand in.

My Grandpa

My Grandpa

Somehow, Dina knew that Panda was hidden in the back of my bedroom closet. She nosed open the closet door, pushed my clothes out of the way, and climbed up Panda’s overstuffed legs. She balanced her paws on his belly and gnawed with focus and determination on his pompom belly button and googly eyes.

I found Panda, humiliated and shamed, on the floor of my room, when I came home from school that day. Mom did her best to sew things back into place, and then she sent Panda for the water cure, in the washing machine, which seemed to help. But I was angry, and I refused to let Dina back into my room for days.

Panda, after plastic surgery, ready for physical therapy.

Panda, after plastic surgery, ready for physical therapy.

Dina was bereft. She scratched at my bedroom door with her nails, leaving deep grooves in the wood, even cutting through the corner of the hollow door with her teeth. I had to relent, for the sake of her mental health, and the health of my door.

As soon as I let her back into my room, she climbed up on my bed. She made a half hearted attempt to chew on my math textbook, but then she stretched out to watch TV with me. She leaned her head on my legs and I could feel her breath and her warmth, and I thought, this is better than a stuffed animal. This is real. Maybe Grandpa sent her to be my new watcher.

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Gardening Puppy

Cricket has her paws on the red handled trowel

Cricket has her paws on the red handled trowel

 

            Cricket loves to dig. She has adopted a small red handled trowel as her own and whenever her grandma is using it, Cricket goes over to bark at it and try to steal it. She hasn’t figured out how to make it dig, but then maybe that’s not her intention. She’s angry at it for taking her job.

"You can't have it, Grandma!"

“You can’t have it, Grandma!”

            When she’s out with Grandma, doing the gardening, her job is to pull out roots and weeds. She’ll dig first with her paws and then grab with her teeth and pull. Then she runs back into the house, with four black feet and a black chin with a little bit of her original white hair showing through, and then she spreads the dirt around, leaving her water bowl muddy and her face smiley.

            She was getting impatient with the long winter this year and decided to dig random holes in the lawn. I had to watch her carefully to catch the crazy digging before she was a foot down into the earth. And then we had to replace the divots and stomp them down, like we were at a polo match.

            Ideally, Cricket would have her own garden, or a sandbox, to play in. But the endless baths that would result wouldn’t make mommy or puppy very happy. And she doesn’t just want to dig aimlessly, she wants to accomplish something.

Cricket's after-bath twist

Cricket’s after-bath twist

            Cricket and Grandma have different ideas on gardening. Their aesthetics are in opposition. Cricket likes holes. She likes digging through the top layer of grass to explore the rich, meaty underbelly of dirt. She likes to remove things from the ground, rather than add them. We have to keep her at a distance from anything freshly planted, because she will unplant it with relish.

            When we moved recently, we lost a full lawn of gardening space where Mom had planted berry bushes, and pawpaw trees, a full vegetable box, and sunflowers, and lilies, and hydrangeas, and strawberries, and on and on.

            In our new place there isn’t as much space and it has to be shared, which means, most of all, that gardening puppy does not get to participate. I’d love to be able to put her on the long lead out in the yard, but I’m afraid that would bother my new neighbors and I’m not ready to alienate anyone, yet.

For Mother’s day we went to the gardening store and bought four different kinds of tomato plants, and a purple pepper plant, to plant along with the things we brought from our last home. But Cricket keeps trying to climb into the new vegetable plot to “help.”

Butterfly likes to sniff the flowers, but she’s delicate about it. The only time she likes to dig is when she’s standing next to her food bowls, scratching at the wood floor as if she thinks more food is hidden underneath.

Butterfly, considering the mysteries of the universe

Butterfly, considering the mysteries of the universe

Hopefully, Cricket will be able to find an outlet for her gardening passions, one that doesn’t include unplanting the tomatoes, or rolling in the patches of poison oak the way the local cats like to do. But I think, for now, she’s happy that her Grandma is gardening again, getting excited about new vegetables and flowers, as long as Cricket gets to sniff each and every one and give her bark of approval.

Katie the Cat

 

When I was a teenager, my aunt had a friend who could not say no to a cat. She took in old ones and young ones, exotic ones and feral ones. The cats clearly owned the house, sitting on the dining room table and the kitchen counters, preventing the humans from preparing meals in their own house; which explained all of the take-out menus. These were well fed cats, some over twenty pounds. But then there was Katie; she was the anomaly. Katie was a small, ill behaved, underfed specimen with no social skills, who lived under the bed in the guest room and was terrified of humans and animals alike.

Katie looked something like this, but I never had a chance to take her picture. (This is not my picture, thank you Google)

Katie looked something like this, but I never had a chance to take her picture. (This is not my picture, thank you Google)

            My aunt’s friend was going away for a few days and, while she could leave out food and litter boxes for the sociable cats, and have a neighbor come in to check on them, Katie needed special care. So       I was called into service.

Mom and I brought Katie home in a cat carrier and brought her to my bedroom and closed the door so that our dog, Dina, couldn’t come in. Dina was a forty-five pound black Lab mix and I’m pretty sure Katie was more of a danger to her than the other way around. Dina didn’t like the arrangement at all, because my room was her room. But I felt a responsibility to Katie, not to traumatize her any further. Who knew what her early life had been like to make her so frightened and angry?

I had a platform bed pushed into the corner of my room and immediately Katie found the L shaped tunnel it made against the wall, and scurried inside. I placed her litter box at one end and her food and water bowls at the other end. If I dared to reach my hand in, she’d hiss at me from the darkness. She came out to pee and eat and drink when I was sleeping or out of the room, and the rest of the time I just heard her, licking her paws, scratching the carpet, and mumbling to herself.

I made a point of taking Dina out for long walks to compensate for not letting her into my room. And on our walks, I tried to brainstorm ways to reach Katie. I pictured myself as a cat whisperer, solving all of her problems in the four days she would stay with me, and going on to become a Vet, or a therapist, or Mother Theresa. Dina just hoped the long walks would continue after the interloper left.

My Dina, and me

My Dina, and me

Katie was very hard to like. First of all, she was a cat, and I am allergic to cats. I don’t think I knew that before I agreed to cat sit, but maybe I did and I just felt too guilty to say no. My eyes water and I feel itchy all over, on my arms and lips and in my throat. I get nauseous and itchy just seeing cats on TV.

Maybe, given more time, Katie would have learned to trust me, but four days was not enough to make a dent. I was relieved when she left, and I felt guilty for that too.

A few years later, my aunt and I volunteered at the local animal shelter, and we were sent to the cat apartments to help socialize them. I saw it as a chance to make up for my failure with Katie. There were three or four cats in each apartment and they had beds and hammocks and scratching posts and climbing towers. But they weren’t sure about humans and my job was to go from group to group and sit with them for a while and let them get used to me.

I had learned more about neurotic animals by then, and I didn’t take it personally when the cats stayed back or stared at me for five minutes straight, waiting for me to impress them.

Then came kitten season and suddenly there were three or four litters in crates in the front room of the shelter, where visitors could see and adopt them right away. I was overwhelmed by all of them, and by the fact that, if not for some kind stranger, they would all have been left on the streets, to die, or to become like Katie.

I sat there, feeding the smallest kitten with a medicine dropper and I felt like I could barely breathe from grief, from responsibility, from anxiety that the problem was too big to ever be solved, especially by me, or by anything I could do.

I couldn't find a kitten small enough using Google. The kitten was about half this size.

I couldn’t find a kitten small enough using Google. The kitten was about half this size.

The little kitten climbed up my sweater and the head of the volunteers told me she probably wouldn’t survive twenty four hours, despite my ministrations. I felt sick and itchy and ready to climb out of my skin and I wanted to believe it was just my allergies, as the kitten scratched my face, asking for my full attention.

All I could do was give her food and kisses, and hope.

Happy Mother’s day to all of the dog and cat (and piggy) mommies and all of the mommies of little humans, and especially to my own Mommy!

We love you!

We love you!

Leaving Limbo

Butterfly's new room

Butterfly’s new room

            We are moving. We’ve lived in limbo, intentionally, for fifteen years, avoiding people and places that would remind me of where I grew up and what I had to contend with. This neighborhood has been my witness protection program. It’s not that I live in the country or out in the boonies, but it takes a while to get to the expressway and that’s an important point on Long Island. It takes a while to get anywhere from here. I will miss the privacy of living off a small road. We’re moving to a major road, near a high school and a train station. I’m afraid of being so visible.

I’ve been gradually moving back into the world, going to synagogue again, going to school, and finally moving into an area where I will run into people I knew before. I think I’m ready but there will be no way to be sure until I get there, and take the next step.

            When we first moved here fifteen years ago, it was the beginning of April, and the trees smelled like honey. I grew up in a flat neighborhood, with wide green lawns and evergreen trees and tall, old maples and oaks and it was majestic, but monotone. Here it was pink and white and red and yellow. Someone told me that this neighborhood was where the gardeners for the gold coast mansions lived. So they would come home and experiment with color and shape and size and arrangement. It’s a nice story, if it’s true.

Autumn in the neighborhood

Autumn in the neighborhood

            I will miss how familiar everything is. I know how long each route is; I know where the hills are, and where the road dips, and where a dog will bark.

I can’t imagine all the smells Cricket will miss from her five and a half years worth of walks in this neighborhood.

Cricket sniffing her neighborhood

Cricket sniffing her neighborhood

I’ve worked so hard at overcoming my social anxieties, and I do a lot better now, but I still panic, I still feel overwhelmed. And then someone walks by with a dog and I’m a chatter box, asking the dog’s name, giving pets and scratches, talking about my dogs, forgetting to ask the name of the human, or offer my own name, or shake hands.

            I feel such relief when I see a dog, of any kind. My autonomic nervous system calms down at the sight of a dog.

Nose kisses with Poochie

Nose kisses with Poochie

            I’m better at collecting dog friends than people friends. I feel much more confident that I am likeable with dogs. People make me anxious and make me question my value. Dogs just boost my neurotransmitters and make me feel loved.

Cricket and Ursula, the boxing puppies

Cricket and Ursula, the boxing puppies

            We made cards for our nearest neighbors and homemade dog blankets for three of the dogs Cricket and Butterfly love and will miss very much. But I felt awkward giving gifts and presuming we would be missed when we leave. And I was worried they would be mad at us for leaving and upsetting the equilibrium of the block. But it turned out that our neighbors loved us in return, and though they will miss us, they wish us well.

This was the picture on the card to say goodbye

This was the picture on the card to say goodbye

            A few years back, when I was walking Cricket around the neighborhood, we came across a tree that looked a lot like a chicken. I was still pining for my ex-boyfriend, a chicken enthusiast, and I wanted to believe that the chicken tree was a sign from the universe, that some part of him was still with me. The chicken tree gave me hope. This whole neighborhood has sustained me for fifteen years and offered me small gifts that have allowed me to hope that the future will be brighter and that moving forward will be a good thing.

The Chicken Tree

The Chicken Tree