When you never go anywhere and you’re dirt poor and there’s no television, the idea of owning a pet doesn’t enter your mind.
Twice a year we’d visit relatives. No one on my mother’s side had a pet. My dad’s stepfather owned a farm. He had a mule that brayed quite loudly, even from across the pasture. There were a ton of chickens, but they stayed in the barn. I was too young to question whether they were for eating or for egg-laying.
One of my dad’s stepsisters had a horse. To me, at age five or six, the horse seemed gargantuan. My aunt did offer to ride with me, but my mother refused.
What I remember most about that horse was that it loved to roll in the mud! One time when we were visiting, my aunt walked her horse out where we were. One half was its normal dark brown. The other side was caked in mud! I thought that was the funniest thing I’d even seen!
Before my grandparents bought the farm, they’d lived in Dayton. I don’t remember much about the house except that you entered through a screened-in porch.
My uncle was in the navy. While he was overseas, he’d bought a beautifully colored parrot.
When we arrived, the bird was in a huge cage, swinging from a beam in the porch. I was amazed, not just at the colors, but at the noises it made. I’d never heard a bird so loud and so screechy.
And then it began swearing! I knew most of the words as both my parents threw swear words around like others threw baseballs. Apparently, however, the unfamiliar words were not for me to hear, so I was quickly ushered inside the house. The door was slammed shut shortly after I was inside.
None of those animals inspired me to want a pet.
That changed when the local five and dime sold turtles. This was long before anyone knew they carried diseases or that they shouldn’t have been in the country.
But, my parents let me get one. And a cute little plastic bowl, complete with a ramp so it could get out of the water.
I was thrilled. My very own pet! It didn’t bother me that my brother had one as well and that they shared that little bowl.
I fed it diligently. I kept it’s bowl clean of poop. Sometimes I’d let it walk on the table. I never grew tired of watching and caring for it.
Until one afternoon, when I returned from school, both turtles were gone.
Two people had been in the house: my mother and my younger sister. I never suspected my mother for she had approved of pet ownership.
My sister, however, was my prime suspect because we never got along. I was jealous of her freedoms that, despite being seven years older, I didn’t have. I’m not sure why she’d be jealous of me, for she had the good looks, the thin body, the nicer clothes. But she must have harbored enough venom to free my turtle.
I looked all over the front room for it. I checked in the sofa’s cushions, under tables, and finally got down on my stomach to search under the sofa.
The turtle was there, but dead. It looked more like a desiccated starfish than anything that had once been alive.
I was devastated. Sort of. The truth was that I’d grown tired of a pet that was incapable of showing love.
For the longest time, no animals lived in our house.
My mother was terrified of cats, declaring that they sucked the air out of babies’ mouths. At the time, I believed her, but much later, when I did some research, I discovered that there was no way that a cat could seal off the air.
We had frequent thunderstorms and tornado warnings. When we had advance warning, we’d gather in the crawlspace. It smelled like damp dirt and had cobwebs hanging from the rafters. It was dark, but because my dad had strung one cord down through the floor, we could listen to the radio.
We’d hunker down there until the broadcaster said it was safe to come out.
After one such storm, when my brother and I finally got approval from my mom to go outside, we decided to wash down our bikes. They’d been out in that storm, and were now covered with dirt and leaves.
I had just begun cleaning my bike when I heard an unfamiliar chirping. It was coming from the large bushes that grew along the side of the house.
I decided to find the bird.
I pushed aside a branch here, a branch there until a small green bird was revealed. I’d never seen a green bird before, so I didn’t know if it was wild or someone’s pet.
I got my brother, who didn’t believe me until he saw it for himself. He told me to stand guard, then went inside to tell our mom.
She never appeared, but handed my brother a shoebox.
It was surprisingly easy to capture the bird and put it in the box.
Later on I learned that it was a parakeet.
Mom let us keep it. It lived in the box for a couple of days while she made call after call. Eventually she found a relative who’s bird had died and was no longer interested in having any more.
When the weekend arrived, we drove well over an hour to their house. They did, indeed, have a cage, but demanded that we stay for a while and visit.
They had a daughter my age. For some reason, my mom let me go upstairs to the girl’s room. This was the first, and then the last, time that I wasn’t confined to a sofa or chair.
I was amazed at her room! She had bunkbeds, something I’d never heard of, so that a friend could sleep over. She had tons of dolls and all kinds of toys and games. We played with everything. It was the most fun I had ever had!
When we got home, the bird was put inside. In time, we got toys, a type of paper for the perches, and different kinds of seed.
The bird was friendly, could say a few words, and was easily trained to do a few things. My mom named it Petey, even though we had no clue at to its gender.
Petey moved with us to a bigger house closer to downtown Dayton.
All was well until Christmas. My brother got an erector set, which was great fun. We both enjoyed building every design that was in the pamphlet.
There was a motor that made things move. My favorite was the elevator that could climb high into the tower. My brother liked the Ferris wheel, however.
That, too was fun. We’d put small things in the little seats and watch them go around and around.
Meanwhile Petey had demonstrated how very intelligent she was, by learning how to open her cage door! She’d let herself out, fly around the kitchen, then return to the top of her cage, where she’d stay until night. Petey would put herself to bed, with a little help from someone who’d shut her door.
My brother and father decided it would be great fun to put Petey in the Ferris wheel.
She’d sit there as her chair went around and around. Petey could have flown off, but she stayed put, seeming to enjoy the ride.
Until my brother got the idea to speed it up! Petey stayed put at first, but when the wheel was spinning quite fast, Petey got spooked and flew into the kitchen, where she settled on top of the cabinets.
From then on, Petey never sat on a finger, never talked, never allowed any person to get too close.
I was furious.
My dad loved tropical fish. When we moved to Beavercreek, Ohio, he set up one tank after another. I loved watching them, but it wasn’t until we moved to California that I got my first tank.
I filled it with goldfish because they were cheap, plus I loved their pretty color.
I added more and more tanks, until I had about six. I studied different types of fish, what they ate and what types would live in harmony. By the time I moved into my first apartment, I had close to ten tanks!
I loved the burble of the filtration system and found that watching the fish swim about calmed me down. I needed calming, for my parents were still attempting to control my life.
It wasn’t too long before I bought a pair of parakeets. Their pretty chirping blended nicely with the bubbling tanks.
My “pets” brought great joy to my life.
The last family pet we had was a beagle name Lady Coco. My mom hadn’t wanted a dog, so she was furious when my dad brought it home. He intended it to be a hunting dog, so he built a doghouse which he placed at the end of our yard.
The puppy was scared and lonely, so she cried and howled until someone rescued her. My mom couldn’t stand the plaintive sounds, so she brought the dog inside, ruining her for hunting.
I loved Lady Coco. She cuddled with me, let me pet her, slept on my bed and let me walk her every day when I got home from school. When we moved to California, she rod in the family car.
By then I was well into my teen years and filled with a great deal of anger and angst. Lady Coco let me cry into her fur. She was my sounding board, for she never judged me, no matter what I told her.
I was devastated when she died.
It wasn’t until after I married that another dog entered my life. Over the next fifteen or so years, our family adopted a variety of dogs, none of them purebred, all of them strays. Some were better behaved then others, but we loved them all and mourned their passing.
When our son was about five, he fell in love with a stray cat at church. Just like with the dogs, we were never without a cat until the past year.
I’d also brought parakeets into our marriage and four tanks of fish.
As the fish died, I didn’t replace them. Money was tight, and tropical fish had gotten more and more expensive. Plus when I returned to work, there was no time to maintain the tanks properly.
Same with the birds.
It’s funny how pets enrich your lives. They give you a reason for being. They fill your house with love and loving sounds. Some are capable of loving back, while others are simply company.
My life had been filled with a variety of pets. They were there when I needed comforting. Now, since my life is one of love and support, I no longer need the calming a pet provides or the confidant that listens to my deepest, most painful thoughts.
I can love them, care for them and simply enjoy them.
Except for when my cat jumps on my puzzle table and pushes a nearly complete puzzle onto the floor!