Family pets are important characters in your Life Stories!

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

Anatole France

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Pets are not people, but most families if they have a pet become attached to the animal and some are almost treated like another child. Students in creative writing classes often include animals in their stories , but sometimes when people write family history or memoir, they forget the interesting stories pets generate, or they miss the opportunity to show why particular pets were important.

These stories don’t always have to be sad, or end with the death of the pet. Most people have lots of interesting anecdotes, and vignettes written from the pet’s point of view can be unusual and entertaining!

With an endless assortment of children and animals living under one roof, there was always some absurd crisis that gave comic relief to my problems.

Sally Jessy Raphael

One of my students who grew up on a farm in the country realised her only daughter, a city child, had missed building relationships with a variety of animals. ‘D’ came to my classes and by the end of a semester had produced a wonderful collection of animal tales. She included pictures of the pets from her childhood and after a trip to Officeworks,  various family members received a copy of the book as a gift. D’s daughter now has a priceless record of her mother’s memories of a childhood in the Australian Bush.

Writers can use a variety of techniques to convey the pet’s intentions and ‘thoughts’, particularly if writing about dogs and cats, the most common domesticated pets. Describe their body language: how they move, their paws, their ears, the sounds they make; how they react to the weather, interact with others outside the family, and so on. A pet becomes another character in your memoir.

A pet’s life span is usually short enough that humans can see a life journey unfolding from beginning to end. Often, our first lessons about birth and death come from observing pets. I can still remember a family cat, Smoky giving birth – she chose my brother’s bed and his school jumper for comfort!

We learn about love, devotion, belonging, life and death. In many cases, we learn about compassion, tolerance, responsibility and consequences of behaviour. Stories about pets  slotted into your memoir or collection of life stories will reveal a lot about yourself and family dynamics.

 Marley & Me by John Grogan was a runaway success as a book before being made into a very popular film. The pleasure, pain, embarrassment and pride of owning and trying to train Marley, a gorgeous golden labrador, is entertaining and memorable reading. The book and film’s success reaffirms there’s a market for animal stories!

All my life I’ve lived in homes with pets – growing up in Scotland we had a collie dog, Cuillin, and a black rabbit called Sooty. My brother , Iain also had  a hamster, but I can’t remember its name, or even if it had one. We spent most of the time retrieving it from a  variety of hiding places because it was a great escape artist.

When we came to Australia, to live in semi-rural Croydon, we inherited Tibby, a part Persian, part feral cat. We soon added other pets: Ossian ( a black labrador) and Lassie (a labrador cross), a blue tongue lizard and a hare we thought was a rabbit! When we moved from the rental property to our own home the menagerie grew: goldfish, more dogs and cats (strays and otherwise), plus chooks.  Notably a black hen and brown one that we named Gough and Billy after the Prime Minister of the day and the leader of the Opposition.

Ossian was bitten by a snake and died, but not before he and Tibby tussled for household supremacy, their tempestuous relationship always uneasy. The old cat would sit on the edge of the laundry roof (it was a separate outhouse) close enough for Ossien to see. He’d bark and jump up hoping to grab her. Each bark resulted in a flinch from Tibby, but she didn’t move away. I’m sure she enjoyed teasing Ossien and he never tired of reacting.

Along with a chum Ian McDonald, who was staying with us, I discovered Lassie. One Saturday morning, Ian and I met an old lady leading a young dog with a couple of men’s ties knotted into a halter. She explained that someone had dumped the dog from a car. Although she liked animals, her finances, age and health made keeping the dog impractical.

‘No worries,’ I said.  The McInnes household always made room for one more, whether people or pets! Luckily, Mum fell in love with Lassie, the dog’s quiet, sedate behaviour the exact opposite to excitable Ossien.  My  little sister, Rita put Lassie in a doll’s pram and wheeled her around like a baby.

Lassie lived to a good age before being hit by a car. The family bereft, and so my older sister and brother searched newspaper advertisements. One evening, they came home with two labrador pups – one dark-haired, the other a honey colour. ‘ ‘We couldn’t choose between them!’

Tommy Roe’s 1969  hit popular on the radio. The puppies named Heather and Honey were boisterous and mischievous. My brother, George who was always first up at 5.30am to catch the train to Burnley where he was serving his apprenticeship with Russell Manufacturing would wake me around 6.00am so I could study for my HSC. It was the only time the house was really quiet. However, Heather and Honey thought it was playtime.  I can still see George struggling to pull on his overalls, while Heather grabbed one trouser leg and Honey grabbed the other.

We found another dog wandering near the railway line with a severely broken paw, which had mended into a hook. We called this little terrier Faulty after Basil Fawlty.  A play on words, because of his disability, but also his strange personality. Faulty used his paw to lever the lid off the plastic bin where Mum stored the dried cat food, he’d also hook any food on bench tops or tables onto the floor. The cats and Heather and Honey loved the unscheduled feasts! One day, visitors commented on Faulty’s ingenuity and my brother Iain, known for his caustic wit, said, ‘Oh, he’s not that clever – I can still beat him at chess.’

When John and I bought our house at Mordialloc 30 years ago, of course we’d have a dog – I couldn’t imagine life without one! Luckily for us, friends were returning to Northern Ireland and we adopted their Irish Setter, Orla, who was beautiful to look at and also lovely natured.  We were besotted, as were many of our new neighbours. We discovered a dog-loving community in Mordialloc and Orla helped us make new friends. When Anne came along her first word was not ‘da da or ‘mum mum’, but “Orla”!

Orla and John 1985 Orla and Mairi 1985

Anne and Orla

Unfortunately, Orla took a stroke and died after an operation to remove a growth on her side. She was relatively young at nine years old and we were  devastated. Anne never forgot Orla and although we had Chirstie, a tri-colour Collie for a brief time, Orla’s name crept into conversations daily until we rescued Goldie, an abandoned labrador puppy, who lived until almost 15.

Anne & ChirstieGoldie as a pup

The story below features Goldie, but also DJ, another dog rescued after being mistreated. He was 18 months old when we got him, but lived to be a grumpy old man and holds an indelible place in my heart.

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A Bald Request
by Mairi Neil

John glanced over the top of his newspaper and smiled his thanks as I gave him a mug of tea. Gentle rain pattered on the tin roof of the veranda. Goldie luxuriated in the warmth of the summer evening, her breathing synchronised with the soft rhythm of the rain as she sprawled at her master’s feet.

Every now and then, the air punctuated with a snore and twitch of the dog’s long hairy legs. Did she dream of chasing sparrows and rock pigeons from her water bowl? Or maybe she relived running from side gate to side gate, guarding her territory from passers-by who walked along Albert Street to the railway station, school or shops.

I tapped John’s shoulder, ‘The old girl spends a lot of time sleeping and snoring now, she could do with some company to perk her up.’ John, looked up from his cryptic crossword, lips pursed, eyes wary. He knew me too well and his response abrupt, ‘we don’t need another dog while we have Goldie.’

At the mention of her name, the old dog’s snoring ceased; one ear stood erect like a sentry on duty. I paused in front of John’s Jason recliner, ‘Anne and you have Goldie. MaryJane and I don’t exist when either of you are around.’

John removed his reading glasses and placed them on the coffee table with his pen. I was going to get his full attention. His tone relaxed, he said, ‘well we bought Goldie for Anne to ease the pain of Orla’s premature death. MaryJane was a baby so Anne naturally assumed ownership.’ He massaged Goldie with a slippered foot, ‘and I feed the old girl. Of course she’s going to stick close to me, like Orla before her!’

Whack! Whack! Goldie’s tail a metronome, the wooden deck vibrating and my sigh just audible.

‘I understand all that and a pet is a wonderful way of coping with grief.’

‘Agreed,’ said John, ‘… and when Goldie dies we’ll obviously get another dog.’

Goldie quivered as if understanding every word. Her tail flopped silent. Quick to reassure the old girl, John said, ‘a long time off, I hope.‘ He sipped his tea and picked up the spectacles to resume his evening ritual of solving The Age crossword, but I was determined.

‘Grief isn’t just about death John. MaryJane’s best friend is moving to Gippsland next week.’

Only half-listening, John mumbled, ‘so?’

I felt my cheeks flame. Exasperation crept into my voice, ‘Emma’s been part of MaryJane’s life since they were babies. Don’t you remember how important your first best friend was? MaryJane’s devastated.’

For a moment, John closed his eyes. I imagined an image of Emma and MaryJane holding hands and giggling, merging with a recollection from his own childhood as it was with mine. I remembered John describing the pain of saying goodbye to his school friend Danny; being dragged by his stepfather while told not ‘to blubber like a baby’. I watched embarrassment stain his face. Defensive about underestimating MaryJane’s impending loss, he said, ‘and she’ll still be sad even with the distraction of a puppy.’

‘Not a puppy exactly… ’

John stared at me over the top of his glasses, probably trying to fathom what was coming next. The spectacles were placed into their case with deliberate care and the case snapped shut. He folded the crossword page into a manageable rectangle and let the rest of the paper crinkle to the floor. A startled, Goldie jumped up, assuming her ready-for-anything pose.

John patted her head, murmured reassuringly, ‘good girl,’ before his lips twisted into a wry smile, ‘you’re right Goldie, we both need to be alert,’ then grinning at me he added, ‘but not alarmed, I hope?’

I grinned back acknowledging the reference to our erstwhile prime minister and the wasted taxpayer dollars on fridge magnets delivered to every household after 9/11, advising citizens to be ‘alert and not alarmed in the war against terror.’

Heavier rain drummed on the roof. Resident possums foraging in the fig tree elicited a low growl from Goldie. A train rattled past in the distance; car tyres swished on wet streets. John’s sea blue eyes glistened. ‘You always have marvellous timing, my love. Plying me with a drink before introducing some controversial issue and hovering like a cat watching cornered prey.’ I shuffled uncomfortably as he added, ‘And I don’t like the sound of exactly – in fact I don’t like the way this conversation is heading.’

I picked up the abandoned newspaper and began to smooth and fold it methodically. ‘It’s just that I saw in the local paper that the young girl who assists the vet is…’

John’s interruption swift, ‘She’s always appealing for a home for unwanted pets. I don’t want some traumatised animal here.’

I waved the rolled newspaper in the direction of the chair, ‘John!’ He flinched. ‘Goldie was from the pound.’

Goldie placed a protective paw on John’s knee. John rubbed her chest. She snuggled a wet snout between his leg and the arm of the chair, waited for her fur to be ruffled in favourite spots. Contrite, John said, ‘ but she was a puppy, love…’ and I finished the sentence, ‘… who had been mistreated.’

Touché, I thought!

’Oh, all right what’s this dog’s story.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Well he’s…’

With memories stirred, John interjected while vigorously rubbing Goldie behind her ears, ‘I remember this one when we first spotted her at the RSPCA pound. Like a cross between a Labrador and a giraffe. Never seen such long legs on a pup.’

I laughed. ‘And once the markings developed we realised she had Rhodesian Ridgeback…’

‘As well as Lab, Whippet, or Greyhound,’ added John, ‘a real Heinz 57 variety.’

I steered back to my purpose, ‘this little fellow is pure-bred.’

John almost spilled his tea, immediately suspicious. ‘A pedigreed dog abandoned?’ He glanced at the scar on his wrist. Shuddered at the memory of his six-year-old self bitten by the German Shepherd trained to be a guard dog. His stepfather mistreated the dog and it became aggressive like its master. John was adamant, ‘he’ll be pugnacious. I’m not having an angry dog here.’

I kissed his forehead, lightly stroked the scarred wrist. ‘Darling, when you hear little DJ’s story you’ll weep. I know you worry about Goldie’s arthritis and I’ve seen your eyes tear up when you look at her and realise she’s over twelve – in human years that’s 61…’ I smiled and added, ‘almost ready for the pension.’

The rain had stopped, but the air hummed as the insects of the night made their presence known. Goldie fidgeted. John squirmed and blustered, ‘that’s because Goldie’s farts are getting worse as she gets older. If she flopped down near you and let one go your eyes would water too!’ He brushed dog hair from his trousers, ‘little dogs are generally house-dogs. We’d need to buy more plug-in air fresheners –– extra expense on top of dog food!’

The love accumulated in our twenty years together palpable as his lips twitched, and he tried to hold back a smile. I sensed victory. Muscles loosened as tension eased from my neck and shoulders. I kept my voice matter-of-fact , ‘yes, he will live inside most of the time because he doesn’t have any hair.’

The Jason recliner whipped upright with a loud metallic click. ‘You want to adopt a bald dog? For goodness sake, no wonder he’s abandoned.’ John shook his head in disbelief. ‘Who’d want a deformed dog? Or, was he burnt? Darling, please don’t tell me you want to take responsibility for an injured dog that’s going to cost a fortune in vet fees!’

At her master’s raised voice, Goldie shook her rear. Her tail wagged erratically, she pranced around, paws tapping and scraping on the decking. We both reached out to calm her, but I moved out of the way of the lethal weapon her tail had become, my voice soothing as I repeated, ‘calm down old girl.’ Through gritted teeth, I hissed, ‘panic over, John? May I please continue with some facts?’

‘Well, you nodded your head when I asked if the dog had been burnt.’

‘I know, but that isn’t why he’s bald. His breed has almost no hair – another reason why I think this dog is meant for MaryJane because she sometimes gets asthma.’ I lowered my voice, ‘the little fellow was deliberately burnt with cigarettes. He’s been starved and left out in the cold. ’

‘What?’ John exploded. ‘The cruelty of some people sickens me!’ He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘Why pay a lot of money for a pure bred dog and then ill-treat it?’

Muted singing from cicadas and soft crackling from the overhead light the only intrusion as we pondered humanity’s capacity for brutality. John shivered and I assumed he relived again his stepfather’s treatment of the German Shepherd. The stories of his stepfather’s abuse of the dog, but also the treatment meted out to John and his mother, saddened and angered me too.

One day, John unwittingly poked his finger near the German Shepherd’s nostril. Chained and angry the dog snapped and his sharp teeth tore at John’s wrist. What followed still haunted John. His mother’s panic, her attempts to stop the bleeding, her worry about infection. His stepfather’s fury. ‘The dog’s tasted blood, he’ll have to go.’

John’s sobbing ended in a scream when the bullet from his stepfather’s rifle shattered the tethered dog’s skull. The silence that followed like a signal to his mother. She sobbed for a long time too. John often wondered if that was the moment she realised she had made a mistake remarrying.

I recalled the early days of Goldie’s settling in. ‘Do you remember John, how we had to lift Goldie over the threshold because previous owners had punished her if she tried to enter the house? Goldie never made a sound for days and we thought it unusual, until we found out she’d been debarked.’

John nodded. ‘Another act of brutality. Somewhere there’s a vet that should be struck off!’ Goldie inveigled her furry body between us as if reminiscing too.

John’s curiosity aroused, ‘This dog is naturally bald, you say?’

‘He’s a Hairless Chinese Crested Temple Dog. They look like those gremlins in the Disney movie: hair on the head, and around the ankles. Miniature Shetland ponies… that’s how they’re described because they trot and hold their head high like show ponies. They were rat-catchers for the Dowager Empress in China and also used aboard ships as ratters.’

‘Sounds a bit weird… and… they sound ugly.’

‘To some people perhaps. In fact, one of them was voted the ugliest dog in the world.’

I smiled and shrugged, ‘but they’re loyal, sensitive, territorial, and highly intelligent and like nothing better than to curl on your lap like a cat.’

At the mention of cat, Goldie bristled. We laughed. Our stroking hands and comforting noises provided immediate reassurance to the old dog. John’s blue eyes twinkled as the pulsating warmth of Goldie reinforced the joy she brought to our lives.

A light drizzle massaged the roof; the scent of wet grass filled the evening air. Still fussing over Goldie, John whispered, ‘and when do we pick up the four-legged Yul Brynner?’

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Animals are reliable, many full of love, true in their affections, predictable in their actions, grateful and loyal. Difficult standards for people to live up to.

Alfred A. Montapert

Indeed! Aurora was accepted by DJ once Goldie died just as Goldie accepted DJ. Our pets great examples of love and tolerance.

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