My kids have a great talent for embarrassing me. They’ve been known to point at bellies and ask whether there’s a baby in there. I’ve turned around after a pleasant conversation with a neighbor to find one of my sons peeing in the bushes. Lately, my 4-year-old daughter has found a new way to make me uncomfortable: She wants a dog.
It doesn’t have to be a puppy, and the breed doesn’t matter. It could be an older dog or even a spectacularly unattractive one. She’s not particular as long as it has fur. While playing in our front yard, she keeps her eyes out for anyone with a leash. As they pass our house, she approaches them. “I like dogs,” she says, both a statement and a plaintive cry. As she snuggles the pup and I thank the owners for indulging her, I get some variation of, “When are you going to get her one of her own?”
When I tell people I don’t want a dog, they inevitably look at me like I’m a psychopath. Usually, the person is standing there with some amazing canine, maybe an impeccably groomed goldendoodle or an earnest corgi, with enough talent and friendliness to make most humans look like a waste of space. I get it. Anti-dog people are nuts. They’re curmudgeons who probably also hate baby smiles, freshly baked cookies, and Betty White. I tell these folks it’s because I’m just too lazy to have a dog, but that’s a lie. It’s because I had the perfect dog once, and she was the one.
Her name was Bell. She entered my life when I was a terribly shy and small 5-year old. My father drove home one evening in his battered Ford truck with a small blond dog cowering in his arms. I kept my distance as she made her first tentative steps around the yard. Loud noises made her start, a vestige of a former life of chains and cruel hands.
She really came alive after my mother set out a dish of food. Bell licked the bowl clean in under a minute, and Mom filled it over and over until the scrawny dog finally lay down, content, on our new brick patio. I approached her cautiously and knelt beside the new dog bed. Her head perked up, and her large brown eyes considered me. Then she licked my face and rolled over to let me scratch her belly. In a phrase, I fell in love.
Bell became my companion. She followed me as a I roamed the woods behind our house, and she waited at the end of our driveway every afternoon for the school bus that would bring me home. More than that, she understood how to relate to every member of our family. She played rough with my older brother, leaping to put her paws on his stomach and running with him in the mountains as he rode his dirt bike. As my mother watered flowers, Bell gently followed, never touching but always watching. She needed little, basically only a can of dog food twice a day. The woods were her powder room and the creek her watering hole.
Around the end of my high school years, she began to decline. A slowing of the gait, a knottiness under the skin. Soon after my 19th birthday, we drove her to the vet’s office for the last time. I held her as she exited this world to a new one, which I hope has been filled with sunshine and dropped hot dogs.
That was almost 20 years ago, and I still don’t need or desire another pet. Stubborn, maybe, but it’s symptomatic of a philosophy I’ve applied to other areas of my life. A hanging onto the past, stretching the end of a season or an era so far into the next one that it slackens and droops like a string of chewing gum. As a young adult, I neglected college classmates in favor of traveling home for weekends with high school friends. As a thirtysomething, I have anxiously planned parties and dinners designed to keep our old pre-kid group of friends together, despite the fact we are scattered across the city and RSVPs have turned to a trickle. Mine may be the last household to regularly use a DVD player. I tell myself nostalgia is healthy, but I wonder how much it has held me back.
I came by it honestly, though — my love of what used to be. My mom was a devotee of the singular, the iconic. She had one marriage, though she was widowed before age 50. She wouldn’t buy something new until what she had was irretrievably broken. In 2018, the last year of her life, she watched television from a sofa she purchased in the first year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and she still used scissors she got at her wedding shower in 1973, a pair from Sears, with blood red handles, the business end still horror movie-sharp. What makes us cling to the old? is it anticipation that new things will be inferior? Is it that our attachment is so strong we don’t want to push the loved item into the past?
These things matter, but I think the root is fear. Fear of getting close to another makes us apt to pull our beloved through the gates and close the door to others. Only this many and no more. Perhaps the biggest fear is that we don’t know who we will be, how we will change, if we step out into the new — whether it’s a different social circle or bringing home a new pet.
Of course, children, by their very nature, belie this fear. My firstborn was perfect to me, and though my second and third children were equally perfect, they were wonderful in vastly different ways. My mothering of them was also different, an instrument tuned specially for each individual child. I changed with each of them, and there was a great deal of fear. But on the other side of that fear was growth and the sublimity that comes with forming unique and rich relationships with these new beings.
Perhaps one day we will get a dog after all. Maybe it will be “the one” for my daughter. It’s easy to forget that she is already busy building her own memories, developing her own attachments to tradition. I am a part of those memories, but they will grow to encompass much more than me. Maybe they will include warm, soft fur and the contentment of a good friend trotting alongside. Hopefully more than just one.
Copyright © 2021 by Heather Iverson. All rights reserved. Heather Iverson is an attorney and lives with her husband and three children in Nashville. Originally from southeast Tennessee, she received a degree in English from Lee University and attended law school at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.