A Personal History of Dogs by Beverly Donofrio

toy cocker spaniel fluffy ears

When I was two I’d dress our black puppy in my doll’s yellow dress, tuck him into the doll carriage, and sing “Rock-a-bye Baby” as I pushed him up and down our long covered porch. At the end of our driveway, trucks rumbled and whooshed by on Route 5, but I’d never met a real truck driver until one appeared, all blurry on our steps, holding something in his arms. He knocked on the door and scolded my mother, “So close to a highway; you have to tie a dog up.”

I must have been six years old when I awoke one morning and found a stuffed animal Cocker Spaniel at the foot of my bed. I grabbed the dog quickly before my sister Patty woke up and there was an argument about whom my father meant to give the dog to. The dog was soft as a pillow with light brown fur and long dark silky ears that I stroked as I hugged it. I looked into its chocolate-brown eyes and named the dog Brownie, who was not a he or a she or an it. Brownie was a pooch, which had been my father’s nickname for me before my sister was born and I became just plain Bev. I talked to Brownie, slept with Brownie, fashioned Brownie’s ears in many styles. I instructed my mother that when I died I wanted to be buried with my dog, but I didn’t die, and after many years and without my noticing, Brownie retired to the attic, in a big cardboard box along with other discarded toys. I forgot all about Brownie until the day I was practicing bopping with the refrigerator handle, and Patty walked in with the resurrected pooch. “It’s mine,” I commanded at Patty and my mother, who looked confused for a second before she responded, “For pity’s sake. Stop being so selfish.”

Our second flesh-and-blood dog, a German Shepherd-collie mix, is the one whose name I enter on the security question: What’s the name of your first pet? (I forgot the name of the real first pet, perhaps the moment it was run over.) King shepherded my brother and me across Route 5 when we walked to Lala’s, my father’s cousin’s store, to buy penny candy with the nickel squeezed in each of our palms. King loped up the hill to Moses Y. Beach Elementary School and waited till it let out so he could accompany us home. “Wait for King,” my mother told us. When I cried because my brother won a nun doll on a local clown TV show and gave it to Patty instead of to me—or when Joanie Fontaine pushed me on the ground, called me crazy as a coconut, and kicked me out of her yard—King let me cry into his neck in my bedroom, with the door shut. If I cried for a long time, he yelped with my sobs, which calmed me down, because misery loves company and because I didn’t want to make King that upset.

When he contracted distemper, the local vet, who wore a Nazi helmet and drove a black hearse with a fake red light on top, took King in his hearse-ambulance to his house. The vet kept him for three months and nursed him miraculously back to health. King came back home, and my father said he wasn’t the same, but I couldn’t see a difference. At the dinner table I chewed my meat and pretended to swallow but handed the pieces to King under the table at my feet. After King disappeared in a thunderstorm, I wrote his name in the condensation on the kitchen window for years. Nobody noticed, King never came home, and I never loved another dog.

Bev Donofrio Beverly Donofrio is the author of Looking for Mary, Astonished, and the New York Times bestseller, Riding in Cars with Boys, as well as several children’s books, including the award-winning Where’s Mommy? Her essays have appeared in many national venues, including The New York Times; The Washington Post; The Los Angeles Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Slate, and on NPR. She has taught memoir writing around the country and is currently on the faculty of the Maslow Family Graduate Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University.

 

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