By Jane-Ann Heitmueller
Now that I look back, I wish I had kept a running list of all the pets I have known and loved during my past life. It’s actually difficult for me to imagine how one lives without the joy and friendship of an animal. James Herriott would have nothing on me if I were to record my numerous relationships with God’s special creatures. My dad loved to tell the story that when my soon to be fiancée asked for my hand in marriage Daddy said, “If you take her you know you’ll also have to take her animals.” With all sincerity, I have warned my sons that when the day arrives for them to place me in a nursing home, I will refuse to go if the staff will not allow the residents to have animals. In my opinion, there is nothing more comforting or peaceful than stroking a loving pet snuggled warmly and placidly in your lap. Good medicine for any ailment or age!
My maternal grandparents would not allow their children to own a pet, so Mom grew up totally unaware of the unparalleled pleasures one can derive from the bond of human and animal. Of course, they owned the necessary stock to run their small Alabama farm and provide food. They had a cow, a couple of mules, a few pigs, an occasional goat and free range chickens, but these we never personal pets of the children or their parents and they certainly were not given names. It was just the mule, the pig, the goat, etc. Any affection for animals in Mom’s siblings came after they married and their spouse introduced such a trait, which was the case in Mom’s introduction to this way of life, since Dad grew up with the companionship of a house full of animals. Over time, Mom loved us all enough to endure our pets, but she was never entirely comfortable in their presence and seemed to have bad luck in connecting with or raising them.
This proved true in 1950 with the little Cocker mix she chose from the Thompson’s litter of ten frolicking babies. Beau was a beautiful little golden haired fellow and appeared hail and hearty, but turned out to be a frail puppy and soon passed with a kidney disease.
Next came Scooterfoot. The feisty, tan Beagle mix was named well, for in a short time he “scooted off on foot” looking for a girlfriend and made his way to the busy highway three blocks from our home… where he promptly met his demise. Our neighbor, on his way to work one rainy morning, spied the little guy lying on the side of the road and delivered the sad news three days after Scooterfoot’s disappearance.
“I’ll never get another dog,” she declared with sorrow. “It’s just too hard to lose one.”
However, in a few months, while reading the local paper, Mom spied an ad and photo that caught her eye and heart. Who could resist those deep brown puppy eyes looking so eagerly for love? She immediately called the number listed, got directions and we took off into the countryside to claim Jack, an intelligent, affectionate Border Collie. Our sad experience with Scotterfoot had been a lesson that male dogs do like to roam and Mom didn’t want to repeat such a dreadful occurrence, so the next morning she promptly delivered Jack to our local vet to have him neutered.
“You can come back and pick him up this afternoon,” Dr. Carter said. “He should be fine by then.”
Late that day Dr. Carter called and told us that Jack wasn’t doing well and he wanted to keep him overnight for observation. The next morning he called again. “I’m really very sorry, but Jack didn’t make it. I did everything I could.”
Jack’s loss hit Mom hard and we didn’t push her to get another dog. Then, several months after Jack’s death we were surprised when Mom excitedly announced that while buying groceries she had spoken with Mrs. Davis, a neighbor down the street, who was moving to a new home and was in desperate need of a loving family for her beautiful adult Collie, Rocky. “I’ve always wanted a Collie. They are such beautiful dogs.”
The following day, when I returned from school, I was startled to find the elegant, well groomed Collie happily gnawing on a ham bone in the middle of the living room on Mom’s spotless beige carpet! I couldn’t believe that she would allow an animal in the house, much less let it eat off her clean floor. That incident spoke volumes to me and was the first indication that Mom was finally catching my “love of animals” bug.
But once again Mom was disappointed. Apparently, as an older dog, Rocky had a strong attachment to his former family and repeatedly found his way back to the Davis home. We all felt so sorry for Mom when she’d head out to retrieve Rocky time and time again, only to have him leave the next day. With much disappointment and frustration, Mom finally let the dog have his way and stay where his heart desired.
In time, Poochie, a little stray black and white terrier showed up on our doorstep. Imagine how surprised we were a few weeks later when Mom took Poochie her breakfast one morning and discovered two newborn puppies snuggled in the doghouse with their mama. Poochie’s gift of Skippy and Sambo was quite unexpected and overnight we became the proud owners of three dogs.
My brother claimed Skippy, the brown pup and I chose the black pup we named Sambo, after the little boy in the child’s book Little Black Sambo. My memories of the days of fun and frolic with Sambo are vivid and happy ones. The two of us roamed the nearby woods, climbed stacks of logs in the sawmill lot next door and imagined ourselves cowboys and Indians playing on the huge dirt mound created from building the basement of our new house. Oh, the hours that sweet dog and I shared in play and merriment. We were the best of pals.
“Mom, why are you sitting on that pillow?” I inquired. She had picked me up from school that stormy winter day and I thought it strange she was perched on a thick pillow.
“Well, you know how frightened Sambo is of storms,” she answered. “He was crouched on the top basement step shaking in fear of the rumbling thunder and since he is so black I didn’t see him when I started down the steps to get the laundry. I stepped right on top of the terrified little fellow and found myself tumbling all the way down stairway. The doctor says I broke my tailbone and need to use this pillow for a few weeks till it heals.”
My instant reply was a household joke forever after. “Oh no, did you hurt Sambo?”
After all, I could easily see that Mom was basically alright, but had no idea how my precious Sambo had fared the accident. Good sport that she was, and knowing my great love for Sambo, I’m sure Mom didn’t expect any other response from me. In spite of her pain she burst out laughing at my spontaneous, heartfelt inquiry.
Mom insisted on living on her own those last few years of her life, but frequently remarked how lonesome and long the days could be. I often thought about getting her a pet for company, but knew she would say no if I asked. Instead, I made a decision and tucked it away in a deep corner of my mind. If a homeless little critter simply showed up one day it would be a sure sign that I should take it to Mom. If not, I would leave well enough alone.
One warm spring afternoon, when I was at home working in my yard, a pickup truck drove into the driveway. An elderly fellow rolled down the window and extended his hand containing a tiny bundle of orange fluff with huge blue eyes.
“Mam, is this your kitten? I just found it standing in the middle of the road and was afraid it would get run over.” The kitten was less than six weeks old and absolutely adorable. I instantly fell in love!
“No sir, it’s not ours. I sure do wish we could take her, but we have two cats already and don’t really need another.”
“Alright then, I’ll see if I can find a good home for it,” he answered, backing out the driveway.
“Wait, wait,” I suddenly heard myself holler. “That kitten would be perfect for my mama. I’ll take it. Thank you so much.” This little unexpected stranger was exactly the sign I had been praying for all these months!
Bright and early the next morning I eagerly knocked at Mom’s back door carrying the tiny purring kitten, a new litter box, soft bed, cat food and bowls. Surely she would be delighted with this wonderful gift and the two of them would share hours and hours of happiness. After all…I had gotten my sign from Heaven to do this.
Beaming with elation I said, “Look Mom, I brought you something. Isn’t she adorable!”
But my joyful optimism was immediately shattered by her blunt response.
“I don’t need a kitten,” she firmly announced. “It’ll just be something else for me to look after and besides, it’ll be running around under my feet and make me trip and fall.”
“No it won’t,” I responded patiently, wondering how in the world anyone could resist this cute little babe. “It’ll be company for you, something to enjoy and get up for every morning. Would you be willing to try it for a few weeks and see how things work out?”
“O.K, but you better start looking for a permanent home for it because I’m not going to keep it.”
Of course, I promised I would do just that, but went home praying that the two would soon become good buddies and there would be no need to look further. I was determined to not let Mom’s attitude dampen my hopefulness that I had done the right thing. However, every time we talked for the next few days Mom continued to ask if I had found a home for the kitten and I kept putting her off, hoping she’d eventually change her mind and learn to love the irresistible kitten we now called Maude.
Ten days later we were scheduled to go to an out of town wedding and since, in the past couple of days, she hadn’t been quite as persistent in my finding a home for the kitten, I had my fingers crossed that when we returned the two of them would be settled into a daily routine of happy companionship.
The afternoon we returned from our trip I hurriedly called Mom to check in on how she was doing. “Hi Mom, we’re back. Hope you and the kitten are doing well.”
Her response took me completely of guard. “I’m fine, but I don’t know about the kitten,” she curtly stated.
“Oh, did you find a new home for her?”
“Nope, I called the police department and told them to come get her and they did. I don’t know what they did with her.”
I couldn’t believe what she was saying and immediately felt guilty and responsible for having sent that poor little critter to an unknown future. Apparently, that sign from Heaven didn’t mean a thing. I was certainly wrong in ever thinking that Mom had been bitten by the “love of animals” bug and made a silent vow that day to never again attempt to connect her with a pet. All I could bring myself to say was, “Well, maybe they found her a good home.”
Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.