When I write personal narrative, memoir, and even realistic fiction across elementary grade levels, I usually give students choices of topic for the writing I’ll model. Many times they’ve chosen for me to write about my dad not wanting any pets when I was growing up, despite my desperate begging for them.
Students rejoice when I overcome my dad to get a dog or a cat.
One of the things I haven’t fully explored with the children is why my dad didn’t want pets. Truth is, it took years for me to fully understand . . .
That’s where I’m going today.
To set the stage, here’s a modeled excerpt, the scene when my mom, my sister and I have brought not one but TWO puppies home from our neighbors’ house across the street. It’s getting time for my father to arrive from work, and he has no idea we have these puppies:
“Will he make us take them back?” my sister whimpers. She has her puppy, Bagel, wrapped in a pink doll blanket. She cradles him in her arms like a baby.
“I don’t know,” says Mom. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
She sort of sticks her chin out when she says that.
The three of us sit in the living room, waiting, and when I hear the car door slam, I jump. I hold my puppy, Onyx, so close I can smell his puppy breath.
He’s home! What will he say? Will he yell?
I can hear his work shoes coming up the steps. I watch the doorknob turning . . .
Here he is, in his blue uniform with the white hard hat on his head, his big, gray lunchbox in his hand. He looks at us.
He sees the puppies.
He wrinkles up his face: “What in the . . . ”
“Surprise, Daddy!” yells my sister, holding Bagel up high in the air. “We got you some puppies!”
Suffice it to say the man knew when he was outnumbered. And defeated.
Bagel, the collie-colored, long-haired dachshund mix, was still with us when I got married.
As was Moriah, my black cat:
The sign stood on a chair beside a disheveled guy leaning against the wall at the college bookstore entrance. This guy—another student, I guess—held a cardboard box in his arms. Kittens! I hurried over to look inside.
Only one dark, little shape huddled in the box.
“Is that the last kitten you have?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”
“What’s wrong with her tail?”
The guy scooped the kitten up and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail, just a stump.
“What happened to her?” I wanted to know.
“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”
The tiny black kitten looked up at me with her big yellow eyes.
She rode on my shoulder as I drove home wondering exactly how to approach Daddy.
“Please,” I said, clasping her close to my heart, where she purred against me. “No one else wanted her. I’ll keep her in my room.”
“You’re allergic to cats!” he thundered. “Find somewhere for her to go!”
I didn’t, and once again, my poor father was defeated.
Moriah developed an endearing habit of running up the leg of my jeans and my shirt to my shoulder, where she liked to ride while I walked around.
One day, my father roared from the bathroom: “FRRAAAANNCESSSS!”
My whole first name.
Had to be something really bad.
I flew down the hall to find him hunched over the bathroom sink. He’d been shaving. White cream all over his face.
When he shaved, he never wore a shirt.
Moriah, watching him, had decided his shoulder looked inviting.
She ran up his leg and his bare back to his shoulder, where she was now hanging precariously by her nails. Embedded in Daddy’s pink skin.
“GET-THIS-CAT-OFF-OF-ME!” shouted Daddy. His blue eyes, reflected in the mirror, blazed at me. (Note: He actually said a few more words than this. I’ve chosen to censor.)
I extracted my cat and we hid for days, until Daddy’s scratches healed.
Two years later, when I was about to be married, the apartment where I’d be living had a no-pet policy. I couldn’t take Moriah.
The night before the wedding, I handed her collar to my dad. “She’s yours now, Daddy.”
Here’s the crazy part: He looked pleased. He kind of half-smiled.
Weeks afterward, my mother told me on the phone: “Your dad buys turkey at the deli for Moriah. He tears it up in tiny pieces and puts it in a dish for her.”
He did it for Moriah until she was gone. Then he said, “That’s it. The last of the pets.”
Until my mother brought home a little Shih Tzu. She named her Bridget.
Daddy grumbled for months, but was soon buying deli tidbits for Bridget, too.
When I was expecting my first baby, I came home for a visit, and Daddy told me this story: “When you were born, your mom and I had a cat. A big, orange tabby named Tiger. He kept getting in the crib with you and we worried you’d suffocate. I ended up having to take him to the pound. It was terrible. I swore I’d never do that again.”
I looked at his face, this face that had frowned about pets all these years, saw the pain-shadow cross over it.
All this time, I thought he was just being hardhearted.
One night, Mom called. “Bridget died today,” she said.
“Oh no. Are you okay?'”
“I’m all right. Your dad buried her underneath his camellia bush.”
A pause. Then:
“He cried like a baby. I’ve never seen him sob like that before.”
My throat wrenches. Tears burn like fire.
Oh, Daddy. Daddy. I’m sorry for everything.
And there was one more dog to come, yet another that my mother brought home without warning. A Corgi.
Daddy sighed, complained, vented for weeks on end.
He named her Foxy.
He taught her tricks, played with her every day after work. Foxy knew when to expect him; she sat on the back of the sofa, watching through the picture window, waiting for him to come home.
Maybe it’s a case of saving the best for last, for, out of them all, Daddy loved Foxy best.
He never had to give her up, suffer her loss.
She suffered his.
For weeks on end, she sat at the picture window, watching for him. Sighing, whining. Day after day after day, waiting, forever waiting, for him to come home . . .