Saturday, December 25, 2004

A Christmas Story

It’s not a new story, of course. Alone at Christmas is way too common in many places. In this “land of plenty,” companionship is often the hardest currency to find. Common, though, does not equal chosen, and Miriam ached for company.

She recalled former Seasons when so many people crowded her small house that they set up card tables in the living room for the children. Her children, their friends, some children whose names she wasn’t even sure of. Though her house had not been the largest, family and friends without family in town had chosen her holiday table for the Christmas dinner, bearing gifts and accepting her small, usually homemade offerings, with gratitude. How many years she had cooked, decorated, welcomed, taken pleasure in those celebrations.

Then Ben, her husband of 30+ years, had died unexpectedly; heart disease ran in his family. One son fought bravely across the ocean. The other lived with his family as far away as he could live and still be in the same country. Lovingly, Miriam had mailed the packages to her sons in their faraway places, to the granddaughter she seldom saw, to the daughter-in-law who always invited her to visit. But travel cost dearly. And though Ben had left her his retirement and social security, because she had stayed home to raise children all those years, and it cost so much to live in her town now, she counted pennies carefully. Besides, flying now frightened her.

Maybe, though, she should have gone….here she was, alone at Christmas.

Carefully, Miriam cleaned up the breakfast dishes then walked to the living room where her small tree rested on the covered card table in the corner. She turned to Christmas music on the radio and slowly opened the presents sent from her sons, dropped off by her friends, now at their own family Christmas celebrations. Books she would enjoy, a beautiful bracelet from overseas, a lovely blue sweater (daughter-in-law influence there, no doubt), sweet- scented lotion--signs of love. Yes, Miriam smiled, she was loved, so much more than many people had.

Alone at Christmas.

“I will not,” she stated aloud, “feel sorry for myself.”

And so she gathered up the meager supply of used wrapping paper, saving the bows, and walked carefully out the back door to the trash can at the side of the house.

And saw the dog.

Well, she thought it was a dog.

Matted coat, burrs embedded in what looked to be a plumed tail if freed from its knots. Beneath the distressing coat, the dog’s ribs stood out in relief. A pink tongue hung out of the dog’s mouth, panting gently. Miriam figured the dog must be nervous; it was too cold outside for him--her?--to be hot.

Then she saw the dog’s eyes.

Dark brown, clear, sad. Why seemed to be the question the dog asked. Why what, Miriam wanted to ask. She didn’t, of course. She stood still, holding her used Christmas paper, and studied the dog.

The dog’s dignified demeanor affected her heart in some strange way. Surprisingly, she wasn’t afraid. It had been years since her family had owned a dog, and common sense dictated caution. But, dirt and neglect aside, this one looked harmless, no curled lips, no tenseness in the dog’s stance. Mainly, just that question in those deep eyes.

“Hi, pup,” Miriam whispered.

And the dog--bedraggled, obviously hungry, obviously neglected, probably with good reason to mistrust people--wagged that sad tail. Miriam could almost swear a small smile split the dog’s face.

Carefully, she threw away her paper. Then, ignoring her the voices of her children she heard in her head (“Don’t touch it! Call Animal Control--or the police!”), she slowly walked towards the dog and held out her hand. A black and tan muzzle moved towards her then sniffed her hand and then moved forward until that dirty head was under her hand, eyes rolled upwards, blatantly asking for a rub.

Which Miriam gently gave.

Why, she wondered, am I crying?

After a few minutes of petting the dog, Miriam turned back to her house. The dog (a female, Miriam had determined) followed.

“Oh, pup,” Miriam gently whispered to her, “I don’t know. It’s probably not a good idea to let you in. What if you have some disease? What if you have fleas? Well, it’s a little cold for fleas. You really are REALLY dirty! Where did you come from? Is someone looking for you? Probably not. Are you a problem to someone, then? Well, not anymore, I guess. What happened to you, huh?”

The dog cocked her head and listened, her face wearing an intelligent expression. If I could talk, she seemed to be saying, oh the stories I could tell you!

They continued this in this manner all the way up the steps and into Miriam’s small, neat kitchen.

“Stay here, Pup,” Miriam told the dog. Surprisingly, the dog waited for her as she walked to her linen closet and got towels and wash cloths. She wasn’t sure exactly what she intended to do with them, but it seemed like a good idea. She also picked up a spare brush and comb she kept for unexpected company (doesn’t everyone?) and found her “everyday” scissors--the ones not used for sewing--and made her way back to the kitchen. The dog stood where she had been left, obviously watching the door for Miriam’s return. What now? she seemed to ask.

“Hungry?” Miriam asked?

She placed her supplies on the table and opened the refrigerator. Leftover chicken might work. She got down a bowl from the cabinet (the everyday dishes, of course) and carefully took the meat off the bones. (She had heard chicken bones were not good for dogs). Probably shouldn’t give the dog too much at first. No telling what kind of inner critters the poor thing had. When she placed the bowl on the floor, the dog gently ate every bite, then licked the bowl and looked up at Miriam. “No more now,” Miriam told her. “Thirsty?”

So, of course, Miriam returned to the cabinet for a bowl, then stopped. “It’s Christmas,” she remembered. And she turned toward the china cabinet in the corner where the “good” china lived, unused for months, if not years, and got down the beautiful serving bowl with roses on the bottom. She filled it with water from the tap and placed it where the food had been. The dog drank…..and drank…..and drank. She then looked up at Miriam and waved that deplorable tail. Thanks.

Miriam got another bowl, one of the mixing bowls that came with her Kitchen Aid mixer years ago, filled it with water, and placed it on the floor along with the supplies she had earlier gathered. The dog sniffed it, but didn’t drink any more. “Good,” said Miriam.

Though they creaked, Miriam’s joints still worked, and she slowly sat beside the dog, who fell beside her, placing her head in Miriam’s lap. For a moment, Miriam just rubbed that stately head, looking into those unfathomable eyes. How long since this dog had eaten and had fresh water? She took a wash cloth and dipped it in the large bowl, then gently began washing the dog’s head. Slowly, slowly the layers of dirt began to come off. The tan color, she found, was meant to be white--a blaze that split the dog’s black face. She checked the coat and removed the burrs she could, cutting out the ones she couldn’t. Then she took her human brush and began to gently brush out the dog’s coat. The dog’s body would have to wait for a wash. Right now, Miriam just wanted to get out the worst of the mats.

It took a long time. The dog’s eyes grew heavy, then closed, opening briefly when Miriam inadvertently pulled too hard at a knot, closing again.

“Probably been awhile since you slept well, huh?” Miriam whispered. Though the dog’s eyes remained closed, the pitiful tail whop-whopped on the floor.

And Miriam’s heart was gone. “I don’t know much about dogs,” she confessed softly. Whop-whop. Smiling, Miriam answered the tail, “I guess I can learn.”

By the time she stopped the grooming, Miriam wondered if she could call a crane to get her up off the floor. She managed, though, and the dog woke, lifted her head, and watched.

Now what?

“Now outside with you again,” Miriam said. “Potty break!” Miriam hesitated, hearing the tone in her voice she had used with her sons when they were small. Heaven help her, was she talking to the dog in that silly way people seemed to in the park? The people she had laughed at?

Outside the dog carefully walked down the stairs, made her way to a bush, squatted, and never took her eyes off Miriam. Then she walked slowly back towards the stairs. Can I come back up? those eyes appeared to ask. Is this too good to be true?

Miriam opened the door, and the dog bounded--really, there is no other word for it--up those stairs and into the warm kitchen again.

Glancing at the clock, Miriam realized it had been over two hours since she had first seen this dog. How long had it been since she had lost herself in time that way?

Looking again at the dog, she smiled. “So,” she said, “what is your name to be?”

The dog seemed to know something. Oh, she didn’t know Christmas, of course. But, she seemed to sense that this woman was now her person---her job, so to speak. She sat in front of Miriam, gazing adoringly up, those bottomless eyes now shining with happiness. After a moment, she turned and began to explore, leaving the kitchen for the first time, almost as if to say, what’s the rest of my new home like?, then stopped as she saw the tree. Lifting a paw, she stretched her neck out towards the tree, then carefully walked towards the table where the tree stood.

Miriam tried to see the tree through the dog’s eyes. This year, though determined to have a tree, she had wanted simple. The small tree wore white lights, small red and gold bows, and “holographic” (whatever that meant) tinsel. It was pretty, she thought, and simple. At the top of the tree rested the white-light star she had used for years on her trees--large ones, small ones, medium ones. It wasn’t one of those inexpensive stars from the drugstore. This one had come from a special Christmas store in town, now long out of business. The lights made a star that looked like the star above the manger in Christmas paintings and on expensive Christmas cards. The simple decorations let the star truly shine and be the most impressive part of the tree.

The dog slowly made her way to the tree, then methodically sniffed each branch she could reach, pausing at the bows, studying each one.

“Never seen a tree before?” asked Miriam.

The dog looked around and wagged her tail, which was still not perfect, but, after Miriam’s careful grooming, showing the promise of luxurious feathers that would, no doubt, brush objects off of tables in the days to come.

The dog then lowered her head and went under the tree table, circled twice, and collapsed into a heap, asleep as soon as she hit the carpet. Miriam went to “her” chair, a wingback with a convenient footrest at hand, and watched the dog sleep. Her eyes wandered up the tree, then back to the dog sleeping under it.

Under the tree.

Where Christmas presents belong.

“Welcome home, Star,” she whispered.


This story hit me (thank-you to the person who wanted to remain unnamed who sent it to me the other day!) - there was one line in particular that hit me - the line "she seemed to sense that this woman was now her person---her job, so to speak." That line hit me like a ton of bricks. Because it's so true. That's why the dogs are here - it's their job to give me love, and it's my job to let them give it to me. And it's also my job to do all the other stuff that goes along with having a dog but that's not the point of this post.

The idea of this post is the concept of that we don't actually own our dogs - we are our dogs employment/job - their reason for living. We are the centre of their universe. When you put it that way how could you ever give them up because you had to move or had a baby or suddenly developed an allergy?

Just imagine the great adventures Miriam and Star are going to have together. The impossible to articulate feeling that you get when you look into your dogs eyes and you've scratched their favourite spot in the way they like so that they've fallen asleep in deep contentment - with the knowledge that they've endured years of a hellish life before they came to your house. What a great gift Miriam's been given, and Star lucked out too that she found someone willing to employ her. It could almost make you believe in Santa Claus...

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