DOG, SOME TOADS, A FEW BIRDS
Our family's first excursion into
the world of pets was a black, miniature French poodle. My parents
named him Emile, after Emile Zola, the French novelist, who had "helped
the Jews" during the Dreyfuss affair.
My father, a furniture dealer then,
had gotten the dog in trade for a sewing machine. It sounds like a
family legend, but I'm close enough to the source to be pretty certain
Emile had very good papers, but that
didn't help his personality. My parents had gotten, for their children's
first pet, a pedigree poodle who loved to snarl and bare his pearl-white
teeth! He never bit me, but, till he died during my eighteenth year,
I was never sure he wasn't going to.
I still remember Emle's induction into
our family, so to speak. We brought him home from the "poodle
farm" on a Sunday afternoon. As soon as he got inside our house,
he went crazy, churning his legs as hard as he could to run away.
However, the only passageway on the first floor was a circular route
through the livingroom, kitchen, diningroom, and back into the livingroom.
Poor Emile couldn't get anywhere, though he didn't quite seem to realize
Furthermore, the kitchen and diningroom
had linoleum and tile floors, and we hadn't yet covered the livingroom
floor with the plush, gold carpet that would become one of my childhood's
landmarks. The puppy would lose his footing and slip every time he
tried to scamper around a curve!
It fell to my dad to deal with the panicked
animal in our new house. He had never had a dog as a child, but you
know dads. They try to make it look like they know what they're doing.
Mom had grown up with a dog named Queenie,
but I guess since this situation had turned physical, the "man
of the house" was in charge. Dad finally opened a can of dog
food, used two fingers to pry out a gooey hunk of the stuff, and tried
to lure Emile with that nutritional prospect. Eventually, he caught
our dog, and the wild melee that had included my brother and me and
our dad chasing it 'round and 'round, while Mother watched, ended.
Even a dog's muscles tire.
Somehow, Emile settled in after that.
So did my grandmother. The two of them quickly became "resident
senior citizens", because Emile, though less than a year old,
acted like a cranky old man from the start. We all somehow shared
that house until I was eighteen, when I went away to college and Emile
died of old age.
Body, Reptile Mind
brother and I had many other pets. Among my most vivid memories of
them was the menagerie we kept for awhile in the bathtub in the basement.
I must have been around ten, and Fred seven. Dad would take us hiking
on weekends at Rockwood Reservation, an idyllic forest preserve, parts
of which today are within sight of a subdivision. We found an ancient
railroad track that led into the middle of a dense forest, and every
week we'd follow it. It led to a huge, limestone cave that we explored
top to bottom.
We always brought a pillowcase along
on these hikes. Toads, snakes, and turtles that hopped, slid, or crawled
across our path would wind up in it. After the ride home, most would
become guests in the bathtub adjoining the rundown "maid's room"
in our basement. To these we added more toads and frogs that we would
find hiking in the ravine that ran through a little stand of woods
in front of Grandpa's house.
We named all the box turtles "Sam"--Sam
I, Sam II, and Sam III--and let them go in the basement to forage
on bugs. "Sam I" would turn up now and again for awhile,
but then disappeared. Years later I found an empty shell in a corner.
Subsequent "Sams" would crawl away and were never seen again.
We frequently visited our reptile friends
in the bathtub. With rocks and water, it looked to us like a "natural
habitat". Frequent visitors to the reptile house at the wonderful
St. Louis Zoo, my brother and I felt we knew just how to do it. Seeing
the toads and some little frogs hop around thrilled us.
"Sam I" was in the bathtub
too, at one point. Dad, Fred, and I were watching our little zoo one
day when Sam, who seemed the friendliest turtle in the world, suddenly
started crawling toward a tiny toad, opened his large, toothless mouth,
and savagely chomped down on the little brown body.
We were horrified! Where were Sam's
manners, we wondered as we watched him holding the dead little creature
in his mouth. "Sam," I wanted to say. You're behaving like--an
had a guinea pig and a white rabbit named Geronimo, and for a year
or so, two homing pigeons that we kept in the back yard by the ash
pit (remember ash pits?). We tritely named them Porgy and Bess. They
wouldn't fly far when we let them out. Usually, they perched in nearby
trees and then returned to their cage when they were hungry or thirsty.
We felt good when the birds came home. Even though we kept them outside,
it was like they were saying, "This is not such a bad place to
We bought Porgy and Bess from a Mr.
Waldrip, a pigeon-keeper dad learned about who lived near the furniture
store he and Grandpa ran in the city. Mr. Waldrip lived on a quiet,
residential street just off Easton Avenue (now Martin Luther King
Drive). He led us through his back yard to a nondescript garage made
of old, grey wood.
Mr. opened the door. At that point,
all resemblance to life as we'd known it ended. Pigeons roosted on
every beam inside, dozens of pigeons. Dozens more pigeons cooed in
cages on shelves. We had entered a world of pigeons.
"Now you got your fantail pigeons,"
Mr. Waldrip said, picking up a beautiful, white bird that indeed had
an elegant, fanned tail, and spreading out the tail with his hand.
"Then you got your tumblers. You
can puff them up." He picked up another white bird, blew into
its mouth till it puffed up, then threw it up into the air. With a
rustle of wings, the pigeon tumbled in a great arc, twenty feet up.
"And of course, you got your standard
homing pigeons," Mr. Waldrip said, gesturing with his hand to
the birds in the cages, that looked a lot like the ones I'd see on
A little while later, we walked back
out to dad's car, he carried our green cage, inhabited now by Porgy
I was fourteen, or maybe it was elevenone sometimes loses track
of just when something took place "back then"we got our first
and only parakeet. My cousin Jerry had had a parakeet for years. It
seemed every family should have one, but my parents had adamantly
Then, one night at Chanuka time, Fred
and I were told to look in the dining room. My brother and I could
scarcely believe it! A bird cage was hanging just out from our fancy,
gold Frank Lloyd Wright drapes. In it, a grey-and-blue parakeet was
The room became the crossroads of the
house. Each of us would go out of our way several times a day to see
how our new guest was doing.
In truth, he wasn't doing very well.
He reminded me a little of Emile, the night we had brought him home.
He flapped and squawked wildly, never acknowleding our presence. Sometimes
he got out of the cage and flew madly around the room. We had a hell
of a time getting him back in.
Our bird's unhappiness frustrated us
deeply. We dearly desired his friendship, but didn't know how to connect.
Then, around my birthday in early February, it happened all at once.
It must have been a Saturday, because we were all at home. Overnight,
our bird had became completely tame. He was calm and quiet. He looked
straight at me in what seemed a friendly way.
I decided to open the cage door. As
soon as I did, he flew right onto my shoulder. Suddenly, he seemed
born to perch there. He was just as docile and chummy with everyone
Mother, dad, Fred and I all felt proud.
We'd made a friend. We'd tamed a wild thing. Our love had finally
melted its resistance. It felt like the whole wild Universe had been
tamed, had become something that recognized us.
We walked around with smiles on our
faces, and in our hearts, all that day, all that weekend. The story
has a bit of a sad ending, because our bird suddenly died, just a
day or two after that. But what I remember is the little miracle.
One day, the thing that's been causing chaos suddenly comes and sits
in your hand. The momentum was building all along. But it seems to
happen out of the blue.
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