with Karli Larson
The transition from stay-at-home mom to divorced-and-working-full-time mom can be challenging, and sometimes very lonely. Throw in a few cats, an ancient dog and one very brave boyfriend, and life gets downright crazy. Join me as I talk through my thoughts and struggles, my miscalculations and my triumphs. We're in this together, you and I.
When I'm not writing here you can find me over at work on the TisBest Philanthropy blog.
Fanny, my highly anxious, absurdly neurotic border collie mix, shoves her muzzle into my mother’s armpit. Fanny is a Velcro dog. Once a stray in Brooklyn, she barely escaped a fire with her life. She’s had it rough, and she likes to keep her human pack as close as possible, at all times.
“Fanny. Fanny. Enough,” says my mother. “How was she today? Did she go in the house?”
“Of course she did. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You can’t live like this, Jennifer.”
“I made a commitment to her. Look at that face. What can I do? She’s the gentlest dog alive.”
“She needs a farm. Where she can be outside all day.”
“Because that’s so easy to find.”
Fanny wedges her nose deeper into my mother’s armpit and snuffles contentedly. My mother shakes her head with disapproval and rolls her eyes. This is not Her Cup of Tea, has never been.
My mother took in stray birds, turtles and rabbits when I was a child and nursed them back to health. My brother and I were allowed to have all manner of rodent pets: gerbils, hamsters, rats, guinea pigs (including the 13 who came to us infested with guinea pig lice). Dogs, however, were out of the question. And, of course, a dog was all I wanted.
“I don’t want something clicking around the house while I’m trying to sleep,” said my mother when I was in my teen years, and felt entitled to revisit the dog issue again. “No. Click, click, click, nails on the floor. No animals that you can’t put back in a cage at night.”
When I was entering my senior year of college and planning on living in a farmhouse with a friend and her new canine companion, I decided I, too, was ready for my first dog.
But I was at home that summer, and my mother was having none of it.
Somehow, my father, my brother and I managed to talk her into a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig instead. Somehow I managed to talk myself into a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig instead. We pulled up to a dark garage. A man waved us inside, where there was a playpen full of black, wriggling baby pigs.
“I’ve got this,” said my father. “I worked on a farm.” This was news to my brother and me. We swapped looks as my father tossed his cigarette butt and scooped up one shiny piglet.
The piglet shrieked like demon spawn. Pig of Satan.
My mother, more horrified than I’ve ever seen her, blurted out, “MAYBE IT’S TIME JENNIFER DID GET A DOG.”
My father plopped the piglet back in the playpen and hurried back to the car. He backed out of the pig man’s driveway and drove us to the nearest animal shelter, where my brother spied a collie-shepherd-husky puppy with dark ears and insouciant eyes. “That’s the one,” my brother said. “That’s your dog.”
In front of the shelter staff, my mother insisted this was a terrible mistake—a dog, during my senior year of college in Iowa! Idiotic! She retracted her statement about this being my time for a dog, pleading pig duress.
Understandably, the shelter staff was less than thrilled with our family, and wisely urged us to think it over for a few days.
My father stopped speaking to my mother. My mother stopped speaking to my father and to me: dog detente.
The shelter manager called on Monday, saying, “If you want that puppy, you need to come get him today, because someone else is looking at him.”
My mother threw up her hands in disgust at this news. My brother told me to go for it. My father said, “Jennifer, GET THE G@$DAMN DOG ALREADY.”
“I’m going to need your car,” I said.
My father and I went together to fetch Mr. F, who crawled up into the rear window of the car and watched the insane I-95 traffic with preternatural doggie calm. “Is he okay, you think?” I remember asking my father, who was chain-smoking at the wheel, as was his wont.
“Jennifer. LOOK at him. Does he look worried?”
Mr. F was with me for 16 years. When he died in 2007, as my marriage and my life as I knew it was beginning to unravel, I cried for three months, daily. He was my soul dog, the beginning of my weakness for stray shepherds and shepherd mixes. His combination of smarts, sensitivity and tractability did me in, in the best way. By no means was he an easy pup — on the contrary, he was a wily coyote, savvy and slippery and alpha — but we matured together, and the relationship remains one of the finest of my life.
Two more rescue dogs, both slated for euthanasia, followed: beloved Nina, “our marriage dog,” a shepherd-chow-basenji mix my ex-husband had spotted thumping her red fox-brush tail in the back of a cage at the Manhattan shelter; and Eli, a wonky, heavy-boned, puppy-mill German shepherd who’d been starved to 40 pounds.
Nina passed away last year, but steady, lovable Eli (who I found online in 2007 two months after Mr. F had died) is still with me, plodding on. It felt odd after Nina was gone, being a one-dog home again. God knows, we don’t have much, but the thought of another good dog being put down when I knew we could handle another gnawed at me.
“Why would you want to complicate your life again?” my mother asked, exasperated.
“Eli LIKES company. And there are so many good dogs being put down every day.”
“Jennifer,” she said, “you can’t save all of them. You have to save you first.”
“Maybe they go together,” I said.
My dog-rescue friend, Nanette, sent me Fanny’s picture. “I know you have a thing for collie-shepherds. Just take a look. That’s all I’m asking.”
One look: A hunched, soot-caked creature, with enormous frightened eyes, whites showing. A forced-cheer “Please Adopt Me!” shelter sign in cinder-block background. She was missing all the pads of her feet — burned off in the fire. Her fur had been completely singed, and she was riddled with wounds from broken glass. The vets guessed that she’d had to crawl out of a confined space. One jagged glass shard had lacerated her back nearly down to her spinal cord.
The shelter report: “Dog is completely gentle, licks caretakers as they tend to her wounds and handle her feet.”
“When can I get her?” I wrote to Nanette.
It was everyone’s best guess that she was a shepherd-collie mix. When she finally bounced into our arms out of the transport vehicle that we met at a Friendly’s in Bennington, I had a hunch that that guess was off the mark. Spaniel? Barely 40 pounds. Bright red, like Nina. But no black shepherd guard hairs. No long collie muzzle. Fine-boned. Feathered hocks. Ears that hung like a retriever’s, sometimes, and pricked up into high, wide, shaggy triangles at other times. A white, speckled chest. Sweet, earnest eyes, full of expression.
When she began herding the cats and crouch-stalking on walks (and she made clear her predilection for sleeping on my chest, and never letting me out of her sight), I did a little homework. One image search for “red border collie” and I realized that was what I’d wound up with. Something of that world, the intense “hold me, love me, never leave me” terrain of the border collie.
She is crazy smart, and more than a little crazy. Four years on the streets of Brooklyn and a fire will do that to anyone, I figure. Separation anxiety and housebreaking issues up the wazoo. Will not eat when even mildly stressed.
I have spoken with trainers and rescue professionals. I have talked to the vet. I have stood outside in sub-zero blizzard conditions, shivering and offering her cheese bits and praise, if she will only just please for the love of Christ, make a poo and a whiz for Mommy.
My mother thinks I am crazier than the dog, for putting up with her.
Fanny is not what I expected to have, not what I went looking for. Like my life as it is now, she wasn’t what I was planning on, not by a long shot. In fact, I’d done enough reading to know a border collie was absolutely not the right dog for me, not ever. Their emotional and intellectual needs are intense, and it’s true that I have my hands full, on my own right now with the girls.
But Fanny is gentle and sweet and grateful and loving. She dotes on the girls and tends to the cats like she is their mother. She is devoted to the point of wacky, sometimes refusing to go outside with anyone else, if I am not in sight.
I laugh. I yell as I clean up yet another accident, and then, I say I am sorry to her sad, worried red face. She relaxes, and then I pet her. And I have to laugh again. I am beginning to believe that life makes sure you get the same lesson over and over, in as many forms as it takes for you to learn it. Clearly, I haven’t learned to accept the present, the what-is instead of the what-should-be. She is not at all what I expect, but here she what-is — simply being herself, asking me to accept her, offering so much love in return.
“I will try to do better,” I tell her. “Work with me, please.”
Fanny thumps her tail, and jams her nose in my crotch.
“That’s my girl,” I say.
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