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 it's true.
     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 it.
     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.
                                    Reptile Body, Reptile Mind

     My 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 animal!

                                           Porgy and Bess

     We 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 live!"
     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 the street.
      A little while later, we walked back out to dad's car, he carried our green cage, inhabited now by Porgy and Bess.

                                      An Anonymous Parakeet

     When I was fourteen, or maybe it was eleven—one 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 refused.
     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 chirping away.
      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 else.
     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.


Return to "Prose"       

What Remains is the Essence, the home pages of Max Reif     

Please introduce yourself !
If you enjoy anything on this site
or want to comment on any of it,
why not send an e-mail my way

Sign my Guestbook?