Although I consider myself primarily an author of paranormal fiction, this Thanksgiving weekend, I was drawn to think of the many animals with whom I have had the privilege to share my home and my life with. From ducks, terrapins, cats, dogs, ponies, hamsters and rabbits, all of whom have given so generously of themselves..leaving trails of vet bills, dog hair, puppy pee and endless paw prints across my wood floor and onto my heart. For the blessings, the smiles and the borrowed time spent among my non-human angels, i thank you all.
I was thirteen when I acquired my first English Mastiff. His name was Chuckles and he lived quite happily for a number of years inside my head along with an assortment of other animals I was permitted to own; including three horses, several goats, a duck named Cactus Jack, and a couple of cows. Cheap to keep, they required no feeding, no grande mansion and no offshore bank account.
My parents were happy.
Eventually though, I managed to convince my elders that a constantly escaping rabbit whose sickness of choice was heart disease, and a cat whose fur froze solid in winter, thus requiring several hours defrosting by the fire, was not enough. Apparently we needed more theatrics and it arrived one Christmas morning in the shape of an adorable boxer named Holly and a hairy little pony, named Charlie Brown.
No more living in my head. I was far too busy working after school to help pay for it all. Then there was the mucking out, the picking up dog poop, feeding warm whiskey and water to Blackberry the rabbit per instruction from the vet, not to mention the-Annual Defrosting of Cuddles- which might take place anytime between November and January ,depending on the British weather.
Dad discovered he actually enjoyed spending time with the kicking little pony, and during hours spent hurling bales of straw with my father, I learned that a great, great uncle of his obtained the patent for those horse blinkers you see on both draught, and race horses. Hungry, he sold the idea for food. Just wish it had been McDonald’s...I’m only sayin’.
My mother, on learning the pony wasn’t overly keen on her red hair, somehow managed to avoid its endless charges in her general direction whenever she visited.
I also learned understanding.
Understanding that ponies possess a built in Off Switch after they have been over the same wretched horse jump for two hours. I also learned to land safely on my back when switching off meant he stopped mid air, throwing me over his head and tossing me over said horse jump.
Apparently, my fun was not his.
I sold Avon, door to door to help with vet bills and the like, and during my introduction to real world math, learned the value of a dollar, or pound, and the value of responsibility, hard work and commitment.
Over the years, Holly the boxer learned to accompany me as money collector, ever the protector, with Cuddles the All Weather Cat in tow.
Holly was our sounding board in French and German and who knew commands in three languages besides her own native, ‘Dog Speak’.
It was Holly, who protected me from the advances of all my boyfriends. My parents, realizing this, made certain she was dispatched into the sitting room with me during my dating years.
The amazing Holly who hid her face during horror movies, would look the other way, should she discover you in your underwear, and would pee behind a bush, for modesty.
Holly who, during home bible study, lay on the floor with her head pressed between both front paws during ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.
Holly who wasn’t overly keen on Quinn, our second pony, possibly because he liked to chase traffic, (another story).
And Holly, who, while we sat heartbroken, waited for my dad to return home from work when we already knew, the night before had been his last.
I wrote my first play with my beloved Holly’s head on my lap. I might even have pressed her into service as my first writing table.
All things change.
I became an actress and writer.
I cried like hell when she died.
I moved to America.
The ponies, the rabbit crises and cat drama, all perfect gems of a memory. Were I to lose everything tomorrow, I would still have those times.
I could live in my head. Again.
Mouse was my ‘Chuckles’. At last, the mastiff!!
Time had marched on. A divorce, nieces and nephews, an impending move to a house in the country, an amazing new husband. If ever there was a right time, it was now.
Except, after two hours to collect what emerged as a parasite riddled puppy, the mastiff had morphed into a scraggly dirty blonde Anatolian Shepherd sporting a thin, flea bitten tail.
On bringing him home, he deployed his puppy teeth in tearing the bark from a large palm tree, and pooped in the hallway. Gratitude.
I believe that while we may not always get what we want, we typically get what we need. To that end, over the last four years I have come to learn that, ‘yes‘, it is possible to love the aggression and distrust out of a dog. It is also possible to appear nonchalant while walking down the street with a sixty pound puppy literally hanging from my arm.
Lessons, I didn’t realize I needed.
Marrying my husband, we became a blended family of my Anatolian Shepherd and his two older boxer dogs, Dottie and Duke.
Bouncing boxers again.
Still, no Chuckles.
Dottie and Duke, before their passing taught me that I do possess the ability to persuade three dogs to ‘share’, understand the concept of ‘nap-time,’ as well as using their ‘inside voices’. This while we collectively coped with my husband’s galavanting around Afghanistan via a twelve month deployment.
Dottie, who killed a fox, taught me the importance of proving to Animal Control, that I did have a dog license and rabies tag.
Then along came Bailey.
It started innocent enough. Searching for a family horse, one suitable for my husband whose own equines, growing up, never seemed to understand the concept of a trail ride and always ran back home.
The insistent little voice in my head; to look for a mastiff.
And then I saw him. The big bear of a face, the grizzly paws, the perfect floopy floppiness of the breed.
One week later, both he and Mouse were in on our little SUV barreling through West Virginia and home to Fredericksburg, ahead of Hurricane Sandy.
Four weeks later and Bailey has put on around twenty pounds and tag teams the tree eating Mouse in the dog paddock.
Looking at him now as he snuggles into his new bed with several ‘bed time bikkies’ and tries to lick my face as I type, I cannot help but think of the family who threw this dog and his gifts away.
Tied to a tree, taunted and left to fend for himself. A bag of bones, he was restored to amazing health by the wonderful team at Marshall County Animal Shelter in West Virginia. I believe how we treat those less powerful, notably children and animals, reveals a great deal about how we treat ourselves. On the way to becoming a writer, I did a brief stint as a Probation Service Officer. During animal cruelty cases, I always asked, ‘why?’.
Owning any animal involves work. But for all the work, if you can call it that, the rewards are lasting memories, relationships and a gift that remains with your heart, long after your friend has departed.
While writing this tonight, one of my old theater school friends contacted me to say her Yorkshire Terrier passed away. Embedded in the email was a picture of ‘Poppy’, wispy hair salty from the sand and sea in which she stood.
Eyes bright with happiness, the little dog, remains forever captured. A bundle of windswept energy.
If I know dogs, and I like to think I do, she appears to be smiling.
And I am certain that my friend behind the camera, is smiling too.
I chuckle. At last.
Jennifer Anne Gregory lives in Virginia with her husband and their two dogs Mouse and Bailey. Her paranormal/fantasy novel, ‘Among Other Edens’ (Richardson Publishing, 2010) is written under the pseudonym, Guinevere Edern. Somewhere within the flatlands of her head, the goats, cows and horses still graze......