One of the pleasures of the ninth decade of my life is Sasha, a nearly five-year old British Blue shorthair cat. She’s been with us since she was five months old. Although the breeder was thinking of keeping her — she was a nearly perfect kitten by breeding standards — she let us have her because the sibling kitten we had driven fifty miles to see had already been sold. So Sasha was a happy accident. As many happy things are.
She was even more of an accident because I have always favored dogs. Fruitlessly, I yearned for a dog in childhood. At last I took matters into my own hands by accepting a puppy from a lady down the street whose cocker spaniel had been erotically careless. I was eleven. Jimmy was brown and white and warm and cuddly. And he didn’t cost a cent! My parents let me keep him.
Jimmy waited by the front door every afternoon when it was time for me to come home from school, barking joyously at my arrival. He was also noticeably fond of my mother, the food source. And especially fond of her hamburgers and peanut butter cookies. But no one denied he was “my” dog. Wasn’t I the one who had found him? Then we moved east from Los Angeles, and Jimmy couldn’t come. My best friend took him. I used to think about him sometimes and hope he was having a nice life. There were no more dogs in mine.
Until I had children of my own. (Second husband, if you’re counting.) How could we deny them a dog? Despite living in a somewhat cramped fourth-floor apartment on West 86th Street in New York City, I even envisaged giving them a first-hand experience of the magic of birth. Our dog, when we got her, could have puppies in the second bathroom!
Second husband, who had not been permitted a dog in his own Brooklyn childhood, was willing.
We began with two false starts that cost nothing and produced nothing. First there was Mick Humble (a name somewhat inspired by Mick Jagger but more suitable to a trembly little dog). Okay, no magic of birth in the bathroom, but free is free. Poor Mick lay in misery behind the toilet for several days before we realized he wasn’t just frightened but really sick, and needed to be taken back to the ASPCA to be put to sleep.
Next came Bonaparte, a frisky cutie if ever there was one. He was given to us by a grateful neighbor with an unspayed black Lab who — like Jimmy’s mother many years before — had yielded to an unplanned amorous impulse. Little Bonaparte had to be returned because he grew too large too fast; when at fourteen weeks he took to jumping on the children in friendly play, he nearly knocked them down. His father must have been a mastiff.
It finally dawned on us that you get what you pay for. So one sunny Sunday, we all climbed into our aging Volkswagen and headed a couple of hours north of the city, where according to the classifieds — remember them, anyone? — breeders were less grasping in their pricing practices. The trip was productive: we came back with the golden retriever puppy who would grow up with us; see our children through their childhood and my second husband and I through our marriage; and imprint for good on all of us the conviction that a dog is indeed a best friend.
“What shall we call her?” I asked during the car ride home. The two children sat in the back (no car seats, no booster seats in that faraway time ), a puppy the color of golden sand between them. With one voice, they cried out, “Sandy!”
Not being Little Orphan Annie, I aimed higher. “How about a more interesting name?” I inquired seductively. “Think of all the deserts in the world full of sand! Gobi! Mohave! Sahara!”
And now I could tell you about training Sahara to hold it for the street despite the temptations of the elevator floor, and about generously dispensing dollar bills to the elevator man for “accident” cleanup. About my West 86th Street walks with Sahara early and late, and the people I met at the end of her leash. About mopping up behind Sahara on hands and knees during her first period, an experience definitively ending plans for puppies in the second bathroom. About how Sahara covered clothes, children, rugs, furniture and car with her golden hairs, and how we learned not to mind. About the time my older son (aged twelve) saved Sahara’s virginity from another golden retriever, a large and horny male. About how Sahara comforted my younger son when his brother went away to school. About how walking with Sahara by the ocean kept a fraying marriage together after we left New York for a beach town in Massachusetts because living in New York had became too expensive and too difficult.
However, all that about Sahara is another story. Or several other stories. (Perhaps I should begin an auxiliary blog called “Other Stories?”)
I could even tell you the sad part, although it would be much harder to write, about when the children grew up and left us. Soon afterwards I too went away, leaving Sahara to grow old in a cold and empty house alone with the children’s father. I still feel guilty about her. We both wanted out. But she wanted only to be with our family. And then there was no more family to be with….
A good place to stop. Wasn’t I supposed to be writing about getting old and Sasha?