Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Childhood Pets

This afternoon, after school, my husband and I took our kindergartener to New World Aquarium on East 38th Street so that he could pick out his first-ever pet: a three-dollar betta fish. The fish he selected (and he didn't take much time deliberating; he bonded immediately) is a lovely one. It's a red veil-tail betta, with iridescent purple and blue patches. It is a relatively lively fish, unlike some others in the store that looked like they were sulking at the bottom of their tiny display jars. My son picked him out, the aquarium employee bagged him, and we got him home where we started the acclimation process of easing it into new, treated tap water. His name is Mr. Macintosh. This milestone has me thinking back to my own childhood pets—quite a menagerie over the years, but none of the animals staying with us as long as they should have. How should I say this? New homes were usually found for them by my mother. She was never an "animal person," at least not in my lifetime. I, on the other hand, loved cats, dogs, all things furry or finned, plus animals that were clearly out of the question as pets. As all children will, I started asking for a pet fairly young. I don't remember building alliances against my mom on purpose, but that was the effect: I'd talk to my dad first, and eventually he and I were too much of a match for Mom; we'd end up looking for an animal to adopt or purchase. It started in Chicago, where there was a series of doomed pets to take me from kindergarten through maybe the third grade. Unlike my son, I did not have a fish first. I had cats. Two long-haired Persians, one male and one female, from the same litter. The male was plump, white, with blue eyes; I named him Biscuit. The female was sleeker, black, with amber eyes; her name was Flower. I adored them, but in retrospect I sympathize with my mother, because of course despite my promises, I didn't brush them as regularly as I should have and they shed horribly. I remember these navy blue velour chairs with chrome frames, covered in long white hairs. When we moved from one apartment to another, the cats "had" to leave the family. I will say that a nice home was found for them, with neighbors I think. To this day, though, I don't know if there was initially a "no pet" rule in the new building, or if moving was just a convenient excuse to foist on a six- or seven-year-old. There would be other animals in the next apartment, so if there was a rule it was either subsequently revised or we broke it. After Flower and Biscuit, there was a guinea pig, which smelled, kicked shavings out of its cage onto the floor of my room, and was too nervous to hold. I don't remember what I named it, and I don't know where it went. At some point, there was a dog. This was probably the biggest pet mistake: we answered a classified ad for a white standard poodle; the dog turned out to be damaged goods, and we suspect that the former family might have abused it. We were very kind, tried hard to make the dog feel at home, tried to train it, too, but the dog was completely neurotic. Poodles may be high-strung anyway, but this one was in a league of its own. Of course, as usual, my father and I had worn my mom down; she'd have been much happier to remain animal-free. The dog, as though sensing that she was the one who needed convincing—somehow intuiting that she held the ultimate power (pets might arrive thanks to me and my dad, but no animal would remain that didn't please my mom in the end)—glommed onto her. The strange thing about this is that although the dog basically refused to be walked by anyone other than my mom, it also routinely undermined its position in the family by getting into various battles of wills with her. Because the dog could not be trusted alone in the apartment at first, my mom tried at first to put the dog in the (spacious) master bathroom when we went out for a couple of errands. The dog clawed the door, naturally enough, and when my mom let it out, it jumped up on the bed—specifically on my mom's side—looked pointedly at her, and crapped. It ran out, jumped on a sofa in the living room, looked at her again (with defiance, I kid you not), and pooped there, too. This went on a couple times before my mom was able to get the collar on and take the dog outside. This seems a paranoid projection, but we both swear that the dog was having its revenge deliberately, rubbing it in with a look of "so there!" It didn't want to go out at all. I don't think it was long after this that the dog was taken away . . . somewhere. I suppose it went to a shelter, but was I told it went to a farm? I don't remember. Anyway, it was gone. Next up, an orange tabby cat named Tiger, adopted at a shelter and then, at the time we moved to a third Chicago apartment . . . well "farm" or no, we said good-bye to Tiger. Then we were petless for a while. Was there a goldfish or two somewhere along the way? In Los Angeles, there were some hamsters in a Habitrail. They were happy enough in there, but like the guinea pig, they got nervous when I took them out and tried to pet them; while their beady black eyes bulged, they dropped pellets on the carpet. They (I think there were two?) may have lived with us a while, and maybe until they died. Oddly, I don't remember any pet deaths. The best, most loving, wonderful, good-tempered pet in the world was Casey Cuchulain, the Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier we had when we lived in a spacious house in the L.A. canyons. Casey we got from a breeder, and I even showed him a little bit, until a vet said he needed to be neutered for health reasons and that disqualified him. We weren't at all upset about that, actually; it didn't matter to us if he was a show dog, or even if he had any "papers" at all. He was just sweet. He rarely barked (so if he did, we knew something was truly afoot), and he was gentle and friendly, even with kids. He'd jump up a lot, and we had to learn to lift our knees to block him. But that was the extent of his misbehavior. (Well, and there was the gingerbread house, but that's another memory.) Casey was fiercely protective of me and of my mom—if my dad pretended to menace either of us, Casey would go after him; likewise, if my mom and I pretended to harass my dad, Casey would still go after my father. He was fairly easy to train, but he was not easy to groom. Alas, a point against him. After an attempt too many at a kitchen-sink bath (again, my mom's effort), he started going to a grooming shop. They took great care of him; his groomer, in fact, is the one who adopted him from us when we moved (yet again!) from a house into a small condominium, where in all fairness to my mom and to Casey, we all had to admit that he wouldn't be happy. After that, there were a couple goldfish in boarding school, and once a lizard I named Sidney. There would only ever be one other significant pet in my life, and that was Sergeant Tibbs, an American Tabby named after the cat in 101 Dalmatians. Tibbs was the tiny kitten we adopted from a shelter on Long Island when I was sixteen and laid up at home for nine months recovering from major surgery on my leg. That kitten and I were inseparable, and at often, as though she knew what ailed me and wanted nothing more than to help me heal, she would climb up on my fiberglass cast when I had my leg stretched out, and she'd even go to sleep on it, purring contentedly. The mistake with Tibbs was that I eventually went back to boarding school to finish out the spring of my senior year in high school, and the cat never seemed to be the same again. She would hide from everyone, and then she ate herself into feline obesity. She was so changed finally that it was really hard to believe she was the same animal that was once that scrawny, affectionate kitten. She became a tiny pinlike head on a rippling, bulging body. She could still run (usually away from all of us), but her stomach nearly dragged on the ground and it wobbled side to side in a most pathetic way. This was the animal that most broke my heart—in turn, I guess, since maybe I broke hers by leaving for school. As was always the case, it ultimately fell to my mom to figure out what to do, and her solution was the same it had been over the years. A home was found for her, somewhere. So, now that I worry I've made my mom sound cruel—that I've described a history that would have PETA knocking down her door, demanding animal restitution—I have to say that, now, finally, I do understand things from her perspective. She never wanted to take in animals, and she was always the one stuck caring for them in the end; the one left with the distasteful job no one else wanted (or had the guts) to do: giving up, giving them away . . . I will say this in her defense, she was never, ever cruel to any animal. No matter how little she wanted them in her home, she never mistreated them while they lived there; on the contrary, as I say, she was the one who cared for them, better than anyone else, despite our intentions. These days, I myself prefer to live in city apartments. I maintain that it's not a preferred environment for animals. Except, I hope, for fish. I wish, now that we have Mr. Macintosh, my son's first pet, to earn a different reputation—a reputation for being a mom who loves and encourages the family having a living creature to take care of each day. But I also wish to state: it's fine by me if the creature in question is never anything other than a fish!

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