It takes about sixty-three days to make a litter of puppies, but sixty-three years later the people who loved those puppies remember the dogs they became.
I know I remember Lady, the fawn-colored Boxer who came to live at the Boulton bungalow on Sprucedale Circle when I was just three years old. People say, “How can you possibly remember something that far back?” But I can, and it is not something that comes from looking at old pictures. I remember my pink crib and my spring-loaded rocking horse and the texture of the gray rug on which I took my first step. So I could never forget a free spirit like Lady. Those were the days before I learned to think and plot, so there was nothing to interfere with me talking to Lady, which I did on a regular basis.
The gray-brick house on Sprucedale backed onto a ravine that fell sharply at the edge of the backyard picket fence. Lady was forever running off into the mystical forest, and returning to tell me of her adventures. She met other dogs and she chased rabbits and smelled all sorts of stinky stuff.
Her muzzle was soft as velvet and her button eyes sparkled. A hellion on paws, Lady loved nothing more than crashing through the screen door and escaping to the hills and gullies of the ravine while my beleaguered mother stood screaming in her apron.
My mother had served as an Air Force secretary to a Brigadier General during World War Two, but she was taxed to tend me, let alone a renegade Boxer. I was adopted when I was two weeks old, after as much planning as the invasion of Normandy - none of it terribly practical. No one remembered to get a baby carriage.
It was the 1950s, and a physicist named Murray Gell-Mann demonstrated that certain subatomic particles have a property he called “strangeness.” Strangeness, a fundamental component of human life - I think I knew that instinctively while watching my mother standing on the back stoop hollering after Lady.
In those days it seemed anything could happen. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible about the witch hunts in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 played off U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s probing for Communists embedded in Hollywood and government. Nineteen assorted town folk and two dogs were executed in the town square of Salem. Thousands of lives were ruined before investigative reporter Edward R. Murrow publicly eviscerated the drunk and sweaty McCarthy.
Strangeness led to big things, like James Watson and Francis Crick showing that the DNA molecule was a double helix – a genetic “code” unique to each person – and each dog. Things like the DNA double helix made big brains tremble with excitement, while others proclaimed the beginning of the end for baseball when an umpire, Bill Klem was voted into the Hall of Fame. J.D. Salinger captured adolescent angst in The Catcher in the Rye, while a “noise” called rock and roll first made the pop charts with Crazy Man, Crazy by Bill Haley and the Comets. Malcolm Little became Malcolm “X.” The war that followed the war-to- end-all-wars was over and possibilities were endless.
In the 1950s, adoptive parents could choose the baby they were going to get – color of hair and eyes, that sort of thing. There was no question that white people would get a white baby. That was just the way things were.
As soon as I was old enough to understand, I knew I was a “chosen one.” My father, a dentist, told me that one day he and his wife went to the Baby Store. They rolled a shopping cart up and down the aisles full of babies. He saw a handsome boy and was just getting ready to put him in the cart but his wife insisted on looking at the girls. Harrumph. He went along with her. They found a lovely baby girl with red hair and cheeks as pink as peaches. Then they found a sweetheart with long black hair and red lips. They could not make up their minds which to choose and were just about to play eennie, meenie, minie, moe when they heard a dreadful shriek from the end of the aisle. They went to see what it was and found the homeliest baby girl anyone had ever seen. She had no hair, beady blue eyes and when she opened her mouth she sounded like a sick parrot.
“Your mother said, ‘if we don’t take her, nobody will,’” my father trumpeted with a flourish.
My mother, the only one I have ever known, was the youngest of six, rock-scrabble, Irish-French children. As “the baby” she had scant experience with babies herself, but women of that era were expected to know how to raise a family intuitively, just as they were expected to know that their hat should be as wide as the widest part of their face. Family and friends gave advice, but the truth of my mother’s terror rests in the diaries she kept during my first six months as a Boulton, which often featured entries such as “Fed her.”
I knew that I really came from Aunt Jean Gray’s home for unwed mothers. We visited “Aunt Jean” a couple of times when I was little. She was a big-bosomed woman who kept her long gray hair carefully scrolled on top of her head. We had tea and cucumber sandwiches in her lavender-scented living room. Then a “nurse” wheeled in a baby carriage and we took home a new sister or brother for me.
I never knew where Lady came from. She just bounded through the door with my father one day, and we had a dog. Dogs could talk in my storybooks. It did not surprise me that Lady had stories to tell, just like her namesake, the honey-colored Spaniel in the Disney film Lady and the Tramp. My Lady did not have dulcet tones, she was a more streetwise jokester. Through her eyes, smell and touch, I charged along the edge of muddy riverbanks, feeling the dappled sun filtering through the trees while crisp autumn leaves crackled in the breeze. When we played fetch-a-stick in the backyard, it did not matter that my casts were only a few feet. To Lady and to me, they were massive tosses, flung from mountaintops and retrieved by a winged canine that galloped across a kingdom to return it to her mighty mistress.
I do not know that Lady understood the stories I made up as adventures for us, but I know that she was my friend and I thought we talked all the time.
“Will you please stop that barking,” my mother used to say – to both of us.
One day Lady reached the end of the ravine and discovered traffic. I never saw her again, but to this day I remember that rambunctious, frisky dog with the waggely stump of a tail. She has a place in my heart forever.
Other dogs followed Lady. The family grew. We moved to a bigger suburban house, which mirrored the house across the street, up the street and down. There was no ravine behind the house on Penworth Avenue. Instead, the yard opened onto a park-like, green space with one majestic elm tree in the middle. Just beyond was the school where I would be variously delighted, bored, humiliated and entertained for the next eight years.
My first puppy came to live with us on Penworth. He was a squirmy little mutt that I picked out of a box full of brown puppies at a local gas station. By this time I had learned how to think and plot, and spent a considerable amount of time manipulating my parents and ensuring that my siblings knew I was the first of the chosen. When I was registering for kindergarten, my father took me to the school. I was definitely “Daddy’s Girl” and preyed mercilessly on his emotions to get whatever I wanted.
“Is this your father?” the school registrar asked, tongue-in-cheek.
“This is Dr. Boulton,” I informed her.
“So you must be Marsha,” she said.
“Well, my name is Marsha Boulton but my daddy calls me Frou-Frou Pants,” I replied, referring to the nickname I had earned by wearing a particularly grotesque pair of shorts covered with frills.
After registration, father and I went for ice cream, something that was forbidden in our tooth-conscious house. It was just one of the secrets we kept between us.
I was one of “those” kids - the precocious kind who likes to sing and dance on tables. My mother’s diaries are filled with entries like: “In the bank with Dad - so quiet - so M. starts to sing at top of voice and everyone turns.” Such behavior delighted my shy, conservative father, and I pandered to him, sparking entries such as: “Carries all sorts of things. Carries Daddy’s beer to him one-handed now.” And I was game for a joke: “While mom went out for butter at lunch, daddy taught Marsha: “What’s Mommy? Nuts?” My best trick was memorizing books and pretending to “read” them for guests: “When I say, ‘Marsha your book is upside down’ she turns it around right away.’”
I called my puppy Bingo, and he came with his own incessant clapping song, a little ditty that came from who knows where, much like the dog.
There was a farmer had a dog,
And Bingo was his name-Oh.
And Bingo was his name-Oh!