Not long ago, my sister Mel began working on a collection of essays about her childhood. When I read them, laughing so hard I cried, my kids raced in to see what was wrong. Part of my enjoyment surely came from remembering the events she describes so vividly (and accurately!), but a lot of it is simply that Mel's a great writer.
Long-time readers here may recall that as a sixth grader (totally grown up, from where I stood in second grade), Mel began scribbling stories in notebooks. That's when the writing bug bit me, because emulating your big sister is really the coolest thing ever, right?
After Mel sent me a few of her pieces, I decided that the world needed to see one of these trips down memory lane, so with her permission, below is one of several that had me rolling on the floor.
It's longer than your average blog post, but it's well worth every word. Enjoy!
Lions and Tigers and Bears—But First, a Poodle
by Mel Henderson
I spent pretty much the entire fifth grade mad at my dad. Irritated by his lack of initiative, at least. I couldn’t understand how a well-schooled, world-wise university professor, a PhD—and a grown-up, for crying out loud—couldn’t be bothered to follow up on an issue so acutely important to his family: The matter of a pet.
Dad always described me as bright, delightful, a joy, and energetic. That said, I’ve also been told I could sometimes be an intense, demanding kid. Whatever.
We had cats, but everyone had cats. As a fourth grader, I’d even somehow persuaded my parents to let me have 2 white mice, and named them Cookies and Cream. My resourceful big brother fashioned tunnel mazes for them out of empty toilet paper tubes and masking tape. I had trained the mice, or so I believed, to stay safely on top of my dresser when I let them out of their cage to play. But my delusions of being the Mouse Whisperer would tragically end because, well, we had cats.
What I truly wanted was a wild, magnificent creature, bigger than me, grander than any house cat. And I knew it could be done.
My mother raised us to do our research: We are living in the in the Information Age, there is no excuse for ignorance, young lady, and she was not raising incompetent females.
Check. I did my research. I read every book I could find on the subject in the school library. I twisted my mother’s arm enough to buy a few more from those book order fliers from school. My bedroom was wallpapered with animal posters, wild and domestic. I watched Gentle Ben, Grizzly Adams and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom every week.
I groomed and educated my animal sensibilities, and yet my parents kept bringing up little concerns, like is it illegal to own a carnivore the size of a Volkswagen when you live so close to an elementary school?
Being a born teacher and not wanting to completely burst my bubble, Dad’s strategy was to offer thought-provoking questions so that I could conclude on my own that finding and taming my own baby lion or tiger was a bad idea.
After striking out on obvious concerns like violent death in the jaws of a hunter (I had hard data supporting that it is possible to make giant cats safe if raised correctly from infancy), he’d offer questions like, “But how would a huge tiger ever get the exercise he needs?” to be met with my carefully thought-out response, “Dad, I’m riding him to school every day, then he will walk straight back home because that’s what I will have trained him to do.” Previous misadventures as the Mouse Whisperer not withstanding.
Dad’s Socratic approach, while admirably gentle, put him alone in my angry cross hairs because it left me with a scrap of hope. I saw his questions as simply objections I was challenged to overcome, not actual considerations in making a wise decision. And I was proudly knocking every objection out of the ballpark. Score another run for Bright-Demanding-Joy.
Conversely, as a born truth-teller and anti-sugar-coater, Mom’s strategy was to strangle hope before the seed ever germinated. Her exact, unminced words were, “Of course not. That’s ridiculous.” She would often say things like, “When you’re the mom, young lady, you can have all the lions and tigers and monkeys you want in your house.”
To which I would silently respond, Hellooo . . . as if you could put predatorial carnivores under the same roof with monkeys!
Constant appeals to my father to please, please just look into it went completely unheeded. “Call the zoo today. Call ALL the zoos.” Right in the door from work and I’d hit the man with, “Dad! I found this book and the author lives in San Diego and an adult male lion lives with her and her husband. Write them a letter. I already got the envelope ready. And this book here has pictures of a bear on an actual picnic with his human family in Thailand or someplace. It’s a smaller breed of bear that is better for cohabiting with humans, but that kind would be fine!”
I could never figure out why he kept chuckling. It’s not like I was some clueless second grader who thought I was going to die if I didn’t get a pony with ribbons in its mane. But he never made even one call. I would have done it myself if I thought they’d take a kid seriously, but I needed his adult clout here. Show a little initiative.
Likely traumatized by my relentless verbal flailing, my parents’ collective “no new animals” foothold at last crumbled around my 11th birthday. They caved, allowing me to take in a 3-year old male miniature poodle, fully pedigreed AKC stock. He belonged to a friend’s grandmother who, we later learned, regularly cooked for him. He couldn’t be expected to thrive on the wretched offerings formulated in laboratories by veterinary scientists; much better to nurture a 10-pound show dog with a hot country breakfast three times a day. I think what sealed the deal for my dad was that she was willing to let us have the dog for free. Even crumbling footholds have their standards.
We were told that the poodle’s keeper/personal chef was retiring to a condo in Las Vegas and unfortunately couldn’t bring the dog with her. I suspect that once widowed, she simply found it too depressing to cook only for the dog, who never appreciated her gravy the way Earl did anyway.
Regardless, I was thrilled beyond words. My dream was beginning to come true: A poodle today, maybe a sun bear tomorrow. I was as excited and proud as a new mother and Nobel Prize winner on the same day, and I wanted to tell the world. Home video taken on my 11th birthday documents me cuddling a dirty, moppish-looking creature unsanitarily close to a birthday cake, forcing one paw into a tortured doggy-wave for the camera.
His name was Taco.
Taco came to us overfed and overdue for a grooming, but with neatly manicured nails, a properly cropped poodle tail, and the unmitigated libido of fifty randy Irish sailors. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s call it thirty randy Irish sailors.
No one escaped his affections entirely, but the dog had a particular affinity for one individual, a shy and excruciatingly proper man who visited our home faithfully once a month as a Home Teacher from the church for years. Perhaps knowing that he’d see his crush only rarely, Taco always gave this gentleman his most earnest attention.
I can still hear the strained embarrassment in my father’s voice as he called for me to extricate Taco’s trembling, iron grip from a woolen pant leg and then isolate the dog behind a closed door. This could happen multiple times in one visit, as some wandering child would invariably and unwittingly release the hound, who would run full-boar once again for the object of his affections.
I have to wonder if my dad ever looked at that poodle and wished he was a lazy female tiger, stretched out in front of the fireplace, blithely ignoring everyone in the room. So much less conspicuous.
The home teacher never stayed longer than necessary. We’d apologize for the dog, again, say our good-byes at the door, and apologize for the dog, again. Later the family relaxed in the kitchen with some brownies or lemon bars. The dog relaxed on the patio with a cigarette.
It was really only a matter of time before Dad had had enough. At last demonstrating some true animal-kingdom initiative, he made a few calls to the university’s animal sciences program and offered up the pedigreed poodle-stud to be neutered in student practice. We all knew the day had come for Taco the Wonder Stud to become Taco the Poodle Eunuch.
Once he got past his initial anatomical confusion, Taco seemed to pass through a brief depression. He did eventually pull himself together and go on to lead a very full life, enriched by his new hobby of intimidating small children. Oddly, the testosterone was gone, yet the aggression remained. He continued to serve as my loyal and adoring bodyguard, sleeping at my side and fiercely chasing off anyone he didn’t trust. He also chased off my harmless little sisters, simply because he could, perhaps as a pathetic attempt to restore some dignity, some poodle manhood denied.
I never did get a lion or a tiger or a bear. But seven years later, I voluntarily left a good-paying, soul-sucking, part time job as the records clerk for an office of remarkable neurosurgeons and one prickly office manager (who I am still convinced has no reflection in a mirror) to take a position at a veterinary hospital.
By comparison, this was heaven. Inside the first week, I knew that between the resident cranky parrot, the arthritic Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, the suicidal dachshund hell-bent on poisoning himself with chocolate, and the spoiled Persian cat with the oral hygiene of a pirate, it would be a long time before my own animal kingdom would want for excitement.
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