My Mother and Our Animals

Last night, my son-in-law, brother-in-law, and I were telling stories about our past. Though my son-in-law is less than half our age, he knows more about our culture than we do. He’s the type of person who loves to search for oddities—who enjoys researching strange phenomena, discovering esoteric facts, and uncovering bygone trends and fads.

Truly, it’s hard to stump him on any subject, especially history.

But at some point in the discussion, we got to our favorite childhood toys, especially the cartoon and animal toys. My son-in-law had a Cabbage-Patch kid, and he says his brother had a Teletubby. “LaaLaa,” he thinks it was. We bought my younger daughter “Tinky-Winky,” and I know we did so because that purple creature was the controversial one. We also bought a Tigger and an Eeyore and a Roo for our girls. Giant size.

“I think I’m the way I am about my animals because of all the stuffed animals I owned as a kid,” I said. “I especially loved my stuffed ‘Lassie.’”

My Lassie was maybe a foot long, lying with her front legs extended in what looks like Sphinx pose. When my first Lassie became too ragged, my parents bought me another. Lassie was my favorite TV dog, and I watched her every week, and every week I cried at the end of the show when Lassie held up her paw in goodbye.

My parents tried to console me and told me everything would be okay. For some reason, though, I wouldn’t believe it, and would be ready to watch and to cry again the next Sunday night.

My parents did their best with me, though left to his own devices, I don’t think my father would have ever agreed to buy as many stuffed animals for me, and certainly he would have never agreed to buy me the real thing: my series of cats and dogs. No, that was my mother’s doing. She had cats all her life—her favorite being “Deveraux.” She might have had a dog, but I don’t recall her ever mentioning one.

Our dogs lived for varying years, the longest, Sandy, making it to ten, and the shortest, Pat, living only two weeks. If you think I cried saying goodbye to Lassie, imagine when they told me that Pat had to be put to sleep. I was only six years old.

My mother took great care of our pets, and as I got older, I did, too. My mother was a sensible woman, and didn’t put up with a lot of “nonsense,” as she called it. She was often kind, but when her patience wore thin, we all knew it.

So maybe this is surprising, or maybe it’s not, but my mother was the first person I knew who spoke for our animals, in babyish voices, but ones that were also intelligent. She fed our dog Donald off her own fork, and loved to take them all for car rides. Sometimes, my brother and I would let stray dogs come into our house, and my mother would talk to and for them, too.

I know that we have to beware of anthropomorphizing our animals, or at least I have to beware of it. I often wonder if my dog today will be lonely when I leave him; I worry that when we take trips, he’ll wonder if we’re ever coming back. He has to have a minor operation soon to repair his patella tendon, and I have to check myself from obsessing over how he’s going to handle the pain, the rehabilitation, and the moment when we drop him off at the Vet and leave him there overnight.

I’m not saying that my fears, my empathy, and my obsession are my mother’s fault. Imagine if she hadn’t instilled in me this deep love of animals. Even her talking for them helped me understand how intelligent they are, and how much they love us. So I have to accept the pain with the love, or as my therapist once said, the pain you feel regarding them tells you exactly how much you do love them.

I have no idea how much emotional investment our animals cost my parents. They were the ones, after all, to oversee the Vet visits—the end of Pat and Sandy, and later, their own cats. I could hear the sorrow in their voices, but I was too wrapped up in my own experience to wonder or worry about theirs.

And then the Vet bills, the cost of our pet’s food. My parents weren’t rich; economically speaking, they were on the lower side of middle class. We never wanted for anything and had so much more than many. I remember how angry my father would get at receiving doctor bills for us. When he saw the Vet’s bill…well, mainly he kept his words inside then, or at least that’s how I choose to remember it.

But as I was relating these stories last night, I remembered another stuffed animal my mother bought my brother and me. Actually, they were hand puppets: a horse whom I named “Ed” for “Mr. Ed, the Talking Horse,” and a donkey, which my brother named “Francis,” because our father had told us once about the “Francis the Talking Mule” movies. My Ed puppet was brown with a white face, and Francis was silver-gray with a green hat.

My brother-in-law really perked up about the puppets.

He perked up more when I described how my mother purchased this puppet set:

“She used her Green Stamps.”

“Ohhh Green Stamps,” my brother-in-law said. “Yes, and Blue stamps, too.”

“And Plaid Stamps, and Top Value Stamps!”

My son-in-law looked lost:

“Rarely does anything escape my watch, but I know nothing about these stamps.”

So I described how after each grocery purchase, my mother would receive her trading stamps, go home, lick and paste them into the redemption books, and one day, when she accumulated enough, redeem them at the select centers in town. I think she got an iron once, and maybe a hair dryer.

And then, there was the Christmas morning when we opened a gift, and there were those two animal puppets.

She had used an entire book of stamps for them. For us.

And when those puppets, too, wore out, she redeemed more books. Twice. Three times.

Our mother wanted and needed so many things, and yet, she decided to indulge her boys with manufactured animals—puppets that we made talk for hours; that we slept with at night; that we saved until a day came when we had to say goodbye.

This sounds sadder than I mean it to. Believe me, I’m not sad, except for I wish my mother were still alive so I could thank her for this thing she did for me—this deep adoration for our beloved TV, stuffed, and living, breathing pets.

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