This Side Up

How do our pets know we love them?

By JOHN HOWELL
Posted 12/10/19

Carol was apologetic. "e;I hope my laughing didn't wake you up last night."e; It hadn't, but of course I was intrigued. We both have woken ourselves up laughing to funny dreams that melt from memory as quickly as they happen. Was it a dream that had her

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This Side Up

How do our pets know we love them?

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Carol was apologetic.

“I hope my laughing didn’t wake you up last night.” It hadn’t, but of course I was intrigued.

We both have woken ourselves up laughing to funny dreams that melt from memory as quickly as they happen.

Was it a dream that had her laughing at 1 a.m.? No, rather, it was a book about dogs sent to her as a gift by a friend. I spotted the neatly wrapped package on the entryway table some days ago and thought Carol was waiting to give it to a friend. As it turned out, she was waiting for the right occasion to open it – and 1 a.m., when the house was silent, was that time.

She handed the book over as we sat at the breakfast table. Of course, Ollie followed the move. He watches us carefully whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. His attention has been all the more rapt following Thanksgiving now that Carol is making soup from the remains of the bird and scraps of turkey go his way.

“Beloved Dog” by Maira Kalman is a whimsical tome that through her paintings and brief stories imparts insights to why dogs are so much a part of our lives. On one page accompanied by a painting of a large red sweater, Kalman writes: “At college I fell in love with a Hungarian man named Tibor. He was curious about my purple polka-dotted mini skirt. I was curious about his leather jacket and pack of cigarettes. He wanted to shut down the university and overthrow the government. Which he did not. I wanted to write tortured poetry in Bohemian cafés and knit him a red sweater. Which I did. One day he took me to meet his parents. His parents had a dog.”

I put down my toast to turn the page. Ollie was beside me in a second, eyes glued to the morsel of crust on my plate.

A fearsome canine face greeted me on the following page. Its eyes stared out with vicious intent, saliva drooling from pointy white teeth.

I looked down at Ollie. Fortunately, he’s never looked like Kalman’s painting. He acknowledged my attention with a twitch of his tail, and when I didn’t reach for the toast without so much as a word, he lay down. Just the possibility of food is a marvelous motivator.

I read on.

“A big black slobbering hairy Hungarian beast named Boganch. I kept a polite distance (from the dog and the parents). A tense pat on the head (of the dog) is all I could muster. It took a lot of alertness not to turn my back on that dog. He was hungry looking and certainly resented the fact I spoke no Hungarian. In my defense Hungarian is a very difficult language to learn.”

I held up the book so Carol could see what I was reading. We both laughed.

Ollie didn’t know what to make of it. On Sunday mornings, I’m usually buried in the Sunday paper and Carol is flipping through the inserts, occasionally grousing about the high cost of bananas or grabbing a pen to circle a deal on broccoli. Ollie moved to Carol’s side of the table, surely imagining this break in the routine was a sign that she would at least put her plate on the floor.

Kalman goes on to tell the story of her marriage, their love, their children and her husband’s death. And then Pete, an Irish Wheaten, enters her life.

“When Tibor died the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.”

We were no longer laughing. This book and its revelations about dogs and people can do that.

Two pages on with its painting of Kalman embracing a dog is all the more powerful.

“And it is very true, that the most tender, uncomplicated, most generous part of our being blossoms, without any effort, when it comes to the love of a dog,” she writes.

We both looked at Ollie.

We like to think our pets know of our love, but how are they meant to know?

I put down the book and reached for the crust of toast. Ollie spotted it and was at my side. Carol put her breakfast plate on the floor. Acts of love.

Ollie’s no dummy. He snatched the toast and raced for the plate, even though there was no chance we might change our minds.

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