November 22, 2011

Animal Magnetism

Anyone who knows me - even just a little - knows that I love animals and animals love me. The shyest cat, the most timid dog, guinea pigs, even wildlife - they are all attracted to me. My mother likes to tell a story about me and a squirrel when I was about 3 years old. But first, a little background information on my family. I grew up with one brother, three cousins, and my mother's best friend's kids, whom we also called cousins. I was the youngest of my blood relatives. My "aunt" had a lot of kids, and my brother and I were in the same age range as two of hers, a boy and a girl, and - you guessed it - I was the youngest. It was like being part of one extended family and having three different places that felt like home.

I've heard in the past few years that "getting old isn't for sissies." Let me tell you, growing up the youngest of the 7 kids I was around the most wasn't for sissies, either. I was painfully shy and only talked to these particular people. I was quiet (OK, stop laughing!) and had a gentle and trusting nature, of which my "siblings" took full advantage for their amusement. They teased me, told me all kinds of things which I believed, and even taught me to say silly things that I would repeat, much to their amusement. It took me years to learn to stand up to them, and even now I have to be careful not to let anyone take advantage of my generous nature.

My mother and my "aunt" lived one street away from each other when I was small, and a shortcut through a neighbor's back yard made the distance very short indeed. That is to say, we were frequently at one house or another. I can still picture the neighborhood and both houses quite well, even though we moved to a different neighborhood when I was only five. This one particular afternoon we were at my house. My mother and my "aunt" were visiting with each other in the kitchen, and the four of us - me, my brother, and two of my aunt's kids were outside. My boy cousin, just about a year older than I am, was a boisterous and mischievous child, so adults tended to take his announcements with a grain of salt. The story goes that he came barreling in the back door booming that "Robin has a squirrel on her lap." The women were, of course, dubious. He had to repeat it a couple of times and say, "No, really - look!" So, they got up and looked out the back door. There I sat in the middle of the yard, with a squirrel sitting quietly on my knee. To this day my mother tells this story with a sense of wonder, and I mark it as the beginning of my affinity with animals.

I think I inherited this affinity for animals from my father. He, too, had a quiet and gentle soul that animals instinctively trusted. His job included home visits of the boys he supervised on probation, and the family pets, especially cats, inevitably wound up around him or settle comfortably in his lap. The families were always amazed when "Shadow," the cat who never showed itself when the family had company, would wind up purring in my dad's lap. Thus it was with the me and the squirrel. To this day animals that trust no one will trust me, maybe not instantly, but eventually. And that, dear friends, was only the beginning of my lifelong love of animals.

We always had pets when I was a child. I remember mostly having cats and how I always asked if we could please, please, PLEASE have a dog. We had had a dog that bit the newspaper boy, and my parents were forced to find another home for him because of the fuss the boy's mother raised. They were, understandably, reluctant to get another dog because of that experience. I, however, longed for the companionship of a dog. If reincarnation is real, I swear I must have been a dog in a previous life because I share so many of dogs' personality traits - wanting to please people, affectionate, loyal - you get the picture. Eventually we did get another dog when I was around 11 years old. My "aunt" had to move into an apartment, and my mother took in her Collie-German Shepherd mix named Sheba. Sheba and I were inseparable and I loved her dearly. I always knew it was temporary, but that turned out to be a couple of years. One day my aunt came to collect her dog because they had moved into a house with a large yard and could now care for her. I was heartbroken but put on a brave face and the "stiff upper lip" my New England raised mother had instilled in me.

Because Sheba was 3/4ths German Shepherd, my uncle decided that they should breed her to a full-blooded German Shepherd. Lo and behold, Sheba produced a litter of 12 puppies, and I was promised my choice of these squirming balls of fur. I remember looking in amazement at all those puppies - talk about an overload of cute! I made my choice, a smallish female with an uncanny resemblance to Sheba, and then went home to wait for her to "come of age" to come live with us.

Next comes another family story which I remember quite clearly. I was in Junior High School by then (Middle School to you younger folks) and fancied myself more grown than I actually was. The owner of the German Shepherd who fathered Sheba's puppies was entitle to his "pick of the litter" as part of the stud fee for his dog's "services." Much as I had done, he observed and interacted with the puppies for a while, and then he began to make his choice. To my aunt and uncle's dismay, he seemed to favor the same puppy I had chosen. My uncle then did something for which, to this day, I still love him dearly. He spoke up and said, "Isn't that the same puppy that little Robin wanted?" The man then decided he preferred a different puppy. I was so ecstatic that my puppy was "saved" that I even forgave my uncle for calling me "little" even though I was such a mature 13-year-old! He said just the right thing to pluck the man's parental and human strings to not want to disappoint a little girl by taking "her" puppy!

I started writing this post intending to talk about animals who have owned me in my adult life. These animals, mostly dogs, have played a prominent part in  my life. They have been companions, sources of both joy and anguish, amusing, my teachers, and my surrogate children. I found myself, instead, backtracking to tell you a little something about myself that I hope will help you understand the stories to come and the profound impact they have had on my life. So please, come back soon to read the stories I have to tell about the animals who have owned me!

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