Friday, September 9, 2011

All in the Family

I waved as my daughter and her family backed out of my driveway on their way back home to Marysville, Washington. The whole family, Dee Dee and her husband Chris, their daughters, Jess and Toni, dogs Cutie and Daisy, spent the last several days at my home. Well, almost the whole family—everybody but Burli. Burli, the one hundred fifty-five pound English mastiff with the self-esteem of a lap dog. Burli, who could pin me into my chair and make me laugh. Burli, with her massive face, beautiful with all its folds and wrinkles. Burli, with her drool.

Burli had been put down. She had been in continuous pain. In her last month she had lost twenty pounds. The vet figured that on top of her long list of ailments, she probably had a cancer. It had been a sad day. Everybody cried. Burli was family. Many times during their visit, our conversations turned to memories of Burli.

As a farm girl, I had ample opportunity to become fond of an animal only to discover it had disappeared from the barnyard and through a circuitous route, ended on the table. Because of this, I never had a chicken as a pet. I had much too active a role in the process of their transition from fluffy yellow chick to pullet to Sunday dinner.

However, my first experience with losing a pet was my own pig, Jasper. I killed him. I was eight years old. It was a rainy day in early spring. We lived on a small farm in southern Indiana with several acres of woods. Mayapples, with leaves the size and shape of small umbrellas, grew there in profusion. I asked my dad if I could gather mayapple leaves to feed my pet pig. The mayapple is also called the hogapple. Their little fruit ripens in early fall and the hogs seem to find them a delicacy. My dad said yes. I made trip after trip into the woods, gathering armloads of mayapple leaves and tossing them over the fence into the pigpen where Jasper lived with seven other handsome Yorkshire weaner pigs.

I loved Jasper. I would hang over the fence for hours scratching Jasper’s pink back and talking to him, unloading my eight-year-old troubles. Jasper wriggled in appreciation, grunted, sighed, and burped. Once I had heaved a small mountain of leaves into the pigpen, I headed to the house to peel potatoes for supper, leaving Jasper and the other seven porkers noisily rooting through the tender green delicacy.

The following morning my dad woke me early and motioned me to get dressed. I followed him to the barnyard. There lay my own Jasper, bloated, belly up, legs in the air. Around the other side of the leaf pile, the other seven pigs sprawled in the same position. All dead. I had killed them.

I cried and cried. My Dad stood with his hand on my shoulder. He never said a punishing word to me. After all, I had asked and he had given me permission to feed the mayapple leaves to the pigs. He had not known the leaf of the mayapple was poisonous.

I have had pets much of my life. Pinky, my first cat. Flopsie, my first dog. Pete and Repete, my daughter’s Chinese hooded rats. Houdini, my son’s gerbil,which I nearly killed one night when he escaped his cage and snuggled under my chin to sleep in my warmth. Horses, more cats, more dogs, and even more rats. Some died. Some disappeared. Twice I held dogs in my arms while the vet put them down. Whether we intend it or not, our pets become family.

My own two cats, Penguina and Fat Louie, did not welcome our visitors, especially five-year old Toni and the dogs, with the same enthusiasm I did. Penguina holed up beneath my garden cabin and only emerged in the dead of night to come to the house for a bite to eat. Fat Louie eventually tolerated the children and the dogs. Now my kids, grandkids and their pets are gone. The house is awfully quiet. Penguina is peacefully asleep beneath the cutting table in my shop. Fat Louie is curled in my garden basket, under the bench out my back door.

Sondra Ashton
HDN: Looking out my back door
September 1, 2011

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