By Marcy O'Brien
Malcolm is four this Christmas and Santa Claus has become quite a serious subject.
Malcolm and his big sister, Keira, the Princess of Boston, are in full-bore Christmas spirit. Every morning they go to their Advent house and open a window. A tiny trinket awaits, sometimes with an Advent symbolism to talk to their parents about, sometimes just for fun. I'm sure school days contain drawings and music of bells and candy canes, Santa hats and reindeer. Some things never change.
A few days ago Malcolm crawled into his mother's lap after lunch to talk. He was pensive and unusually quiet. His mom, my daughter Alix, sensed his mood and tried to lighten things up. Holding him close she asked him, "What do you really want for Christmas?" She was not prepared for his answer.
"I want a dog," he said quietly. And with his blue eyes looking exceptionally soft and large, he looked up at her and said, "A real one. I want a real dog."
In one way it broke Alix's heart. Her youngest shared his greatest wish in earnest and she was going to have to let him down gently. In another way it was one of her worst nightmares, coming back to haunt her, and she had to face it again.
She really understands his desire. Like Keira, she too had grown up with a little brother who desperately wanted a dog. But she did not want one then and she doesn't want one now.
When the subject was a puppy, we were a bipartisan family. Alix and her dad were naysayers on the dog subject while her little brother, Bart, and I both wanted one. We were oil and water, Obama and Romney, kind and loving vs. cruel and heartless. There was no talking to Tom about a dog, no matter how rationally. So we had cats.
Tom didn't like cats either, but they stayed out of his way and remained quiet. He tolerated them for the kids' sake. And mine.
There are actually two reasons that our family was dog-less. The first goes back to Tom's mother and her upbringing on the family dairy farm. Her family of German farmers near Buffalo were no-nonsense people. And when it came to animals, they truly believed that all animals should be domiciled in the barn. Yes, they had dogs and cats and "they lived in the barn, where they belonged." Nothing about this was negotiable. Tom had heard it so often growing up that it was family law. I imagine that he also might have asked for a real dog at age four, was given the bad news and knew enough not to ask again. Not so with Bart.
When my little boy was four, he asked for a dog. A real dog. I love dogs and ached for him, but I knew it was futile and had to let him down gently probably much like Alix did with Malcolm. Her experience with dogs was the second reason we were hound-less.
When Alix was about 18 months old we lived in Connecticut in a very small farm town. Our Cape Cod house was on a country lane with only six houses, each on about an acre. Our neighbors across the street were a lovely young Scandinavian couple who had a Newfoundland dog. Now a Newfie is a big, black dog. A verrrry big, verrrrry black, menacing looking dog of over 200 pounds. In reality, Newfoundlands are gentle, smart, playful creatures. This big boy was as playful as he was big, and it was the playfulness that got him into trouble. He was a wonderful dog and I really liked him. His name was Thor.
One afternoon I was gardening in the back yard while Alix played on the grassy side yard. I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and spotted Thor running like thunder across the street towards Alix. He'd spotted someone to play with! I'd never seen him loose and realizing that he would overwhelm her, I called her name as I started running toward her. She stood up just in time for him to leap onto her and they went rolling together, end over end, across the grass. The screaming began as soon as the somersaults ended. She was hysterical. I had to control Thor who was definitely up for more of that fun, and I don't remember how I got him home. My greatest memory is of my shrieking, shaking, terrified toddler, a little girl who had been fearless until that moment. It took the rest of the afternoon and evening to calm her sufficiently for bedtime without nightmares. "Sweetheart, Thor loves you and he only wanted to play. He doesn't understand that he's so big and you're so small." That conversation went on day after day. Tom was adamant that if they'd kept Thor in the barn, where he belonged, this wouldn't have happened. It took all week to calm her down.
By Sunday, we were happy to accept an invitation for brunch around the pool at another neighbor's house . . . actually the parents of Thor's owners. Alix, clad in a hot pink bathing suit was standing near the pool drinking lemonade from a sippy cup. Thor walked into the pool area and she spotted him first. She froze, and as he began to walk the length of the pool, she backed up. Kerplunk - into the deep end. I was next, in my sundress, followed quickly by Thor's owners. In the few seconds it took to pull Alix off the bottom of the pool, Thor's "grandfather" was running him home.
After that, there was no going back on the subject. No amount of talking, cuddling, explaining, could bring resolution to the dog issue. All through her childhood she backed away. My bright, sensible daughter has never managed to take to any canine. It saddens me, yet I do understand. I pleaded with Tom for a puppy a tiny one that would steal her heart and put an end to it. His only comment was, "When we buy a house with a barn, we'll talk about a dog."
And then we had a little boy. At four he asked for a dog, at five it was number 1 on his Christmas wish list. It remained at the top spot well into his teens. Even when reality set in he couldn't let go. Some years it was a yellow lab. Once it was an English sheepdog. Mostly the list just read: Puppy.
When Bart was first commissioned in the Marine Corps, I asked him for a Christmas list because I was clueless about his changing needs or wants. He gave me a list and at the bottom it read, "Bulldog (just for old times sake)." He still hadn't given up. Today, if his traveling lifestyle indicated a dog was a possibility, I'd give him one for Christmas. Really.
I've long thought of getting a dog myself, but I think Ollie, the Wondercat, might be too old for the trauma. Even if it's a very small, black dog, a dog named Thor would definitely strike fear in Ollie's heart. On second thought, if I had a dog, Malcolm might visit more often. Now that would be a great Christmas present.