Missy and Me

categories: Cocktail Hour

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Who me?

The strange thing was that by the time I finally got around to watching Marley and Me, we had already committed to getting the yellow lab from the kennel.  My daughter loves dogs and so we let her watch the film along with us (though not the sad end) and we laughed as a family, taking what we were seeing as light comedy, not understanding that for us it was in fact the equivalent of the witches’ prophecies in Macbeth.  I, for one, saw the minor atrocities committed by Marley as a fiction born of the imagination of a sports writer with a gift for comedy and then doubly exaggerated by a Hollywood machine that insists on always over-doing it.

            Understanding dawned much too late.  When exactly did it come?  Perhaps it was the day I looked into the back seat of our car and saw that Missy, our new yellow lab, had chewed right through the backseat seat belts, the belts themselves severed and the now-beheaded buckles lying useless on the seats.  Perhaps it was the time when she took my black leather journal, the one in which I kept all the notes for my book about the Gulf oil spill, and tore around the back yard, excited about the prospect of an hour’s worth of keep-away.  Or perhaps it was earlier when, as a cute little puppy, she ate the siding off our house.

            The omens were not good.  At the kennel my daughter Hadley, then six, sat on a couch with all the new pups from Link and Ali’s litter, and she naturally chose the little affectionate one who crawled right up into her lap and licked her face. Later several people–more crones from Macbeth–would warn us too late that you “never pick the friendliest one”.  Then there was the matter of her name.  When Hadley was little I helped her get to sleep with a series of stories that we called “Dad’s Used-to-Be Dogs.”  The premise was that all the dogs that I had had through childhood would get together, via time machine of course, and head out on adventures. Hadley loved all my childhood dogs, from the Lassie-like collie, Macker, to the scrappy mutt Hound, but she was particularly fascinated by our wild black lab Missy.  This earlier Missy could jump over the eight foot fence in our backyard, and belonged, if not on a farm then on a racetrack.  One day my mother mistakenly slammed her tail in the sunroom screen door, and Missy flew around the house, spraying blood everywhere.  The tail never healed right and hardened to bone, becoming a cudgel-like weapon that she constantly waved, smashing lamps and vases. Missy the First was never tamed, let alone trained, and Hadley loved to hear the stories of her smashing things.  

            The new Missy would live up to the old name.  She is a sweet dog, and continues to seek and give affection just as she did that first day Hadley met her. But she is also as remorseless as a sociopath. If she has jumped up on the counter to eat some food that you had foolishly imagined was your own, you can yell “NO!” right in her ear and she will just look over at you, curious. We are not a tough love family, and, except for a few enraged outbursts on my part, we perhaps under-scolded Missy as a puppy.  But I doubt the dog whisperer himself would have had much luck. From the start Missy was on a mission to eat every shoe in the house, wound and de-stuff every stuffed animal, tear up every blanket, quilt, and comforter, and destroy every supposedly indestructible Frisbee or chew toy we bought for her.

Final choice.

I have come to love Missy, it’s true, but I still suspect that her dog S.A.T. scores would not be particularly high. Calling her name to come has never had much impact on her behavior.  She might look up.  When we hike together we sometimes see deer and snakes, or at least I see deer and snakes.  Her eyesight is weak and on more than one occasion she has stood almost toe-to-toe with a deer without noticing and has also obliviously loped over a copperhead that crossed our trail.  More crucially, for her, she has never been able to understand the difference between fetch and keep-away.  She loves fetch and could play it all day.  Could, except for the fact that as she starts to bring back the stick she can never quite give it up, and runs off to try to keep it from you. And so the game ends with Missy denying herself her greatest pleasure: retrieving. 

My wife and daughter don’t like it when I attack Missy’s intelligence. But when their beloved dog turns her wrath, and teeth, on them—or rather on their belongings—their fury can make mine seem mild.  Recently Missy destroyed Nina’s best shoes and she left me a note saying that I had to keep the dog away from her lest she murder it. And when Missy gets hold of one of Hadley’s favorite stuffed animals, the banshee howls of outrage and accusation are deafening.       

            And yet. 

            Well, you know what the “and yet” is, or at least if you’re a dog owner you do…. Like a certain sappy movie, this little essay must now makes its turn.  Missy and I go for long walks at least a few times a week, either along the Cape Fear River in Carolina Beach State Park or in the woods behind the college where I teach.  She is great on the trail, never wandering off and looking back to see where I will turn before I even know I will, the same kinesthetic sense that makes her such a pain in the ass during keep-away put to good use in the woods.  She swims like a canine dolphin, joyously and in all weather, most recently in Cape Cod Bay in January.  She keeps close at all times, especially at night in bed when she spoons us, and is so sweet with Hadley that she could, and often does, put her head in the dog’s mouth without being bitten.  And despite occasional recidivist bouts of chewing and a consistent belief that all food is hers, she is getting better, mellower, and the episodes come less often. Also, as we learned on the trip toMassachusetts, she is a great traveler, happy to be in the car as long as we are.     

            She will never fulfill my early fantasies and become a great Frisbee dog, since it’s tough to be a champion retriever when you won’t bring the Frisbee back.  But if she won’t win any trophies or ace her dog S.A.T.s, she has become our dog, a pretty good dog I think, and we are her people. We love her and in a far less-qualified manner, she loves us back.  One thing that Marley and Me got right was the way that dogs, no matter how poorly they behave, eventually weave their way into the fabric of a family.    

            Which is a pretty funny metaphor come to think of it, considering just how much fabric Missy has ripped apart.




  1. George de Gramont writes:

    What a charming essay w/a great use of photos.