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A Father Softens to a Child's Pleas for a Pet

Long before it had struck my nine-year-old son, Alyosha, to ask for one, I had preemptively planned to deny his request for a dog. In my family, affection for canines is strong, exceeded only by the disinclination to actually own one. Therefore, for generations I suspect, there has never been a great deal of soul-searching in my family when a child asked for a dog. The ''no'' response seems to be automatically programmed in.

But, in the manner of most parent-child issues, compromise is always afoot.

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When I was a boy, it seemed that I could have any of my heart's desires, provided I was persistent enough, and my family could work it into a very limited budget. It took me a year to wheedle a bike with a banana seat out of my parents and two for a basketball backboard over our garage door. But, although we probably could have afforded a dog, my father was absolutely resolute on this issue. I worked on him for years, even threatening to run away at the age of 12. But I think he would rather have packed

my bag than give in.

His message was sometimes verbalized: ''If we get a dog,'' he said, ''I'll be the one walking it at 5 in the morning.''

At some level, I suspected he was right, and by the age of 15 - my fifth year of lobbying for canine companionship - I threw in the towel.

My father must have experienced a sense of relief, which put him in the mood for reparation. At about the time our canine truce was reached, a street tabby wandered into our lives and my father did little more than sigh. Within a week, Peanuts, as I named him, had become part of the family landscape.

My father, to save face, stipulated that Peanuts must be kept outside. ''I don't want him in the house,'' he told me, adding that Peanuts had obviously survived well outdoors and there was no reason to break him of a good habit.

Peanuts then became our porch cat, going and coming as he pleased, lapping a bit of milk now and then, and grooming himself in the shade of our front-yard spruce. In the manner of most cats, he didn't demand much and dispensed his token affections in the form of a leg rub or a tentative cheek nuzzle.

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This delicate accommodation lasted for several months. When November arrived, and winter began to whisper on the wings of colder winds, I felt sorry for Peanuts. I'd see him curled up in a corner of the porch for warmth's sake and watch him squint against the squalls that accompanied the change of seasons.

One unusually bitter Saturday I returned home from play, but didn't see my pet either on the porch or under the spruce. I looked around the property for him, but the cold soon drove me indoors. I stopped short on the living-room threshold: There, on the couch, lay my sleeping father. And there, lying curled up on his stomach, was a snoozing Peanuts, blissfully unaware that his bed was someone who was never more than a thought away from a pet-free house.

I gently lifted Peanuts from my father's abdomen and placed him in the kitchen with a saucer of milk. Once my father was awake, he walked past him four or five times before noting, ''There's a cat in the house.'' Peanuts's integration into our lives had been so subtle that my father must have found it difficult to rail against an animal that demanded the bare minimum of care, and who was obviously not disrupting us in any way.

Things like this are incredibly hard to undo. When summer returned, and Peanuts had been with us for about a year, we found it necessary to find a cat sitter while we were away on vacation. The local hairdresser, Audrey, proclaiming herself a cat person deluxe, volunteered. During our week away from home I thought often of Peanuts and how he was adjusting to our absence. My anticipation of seeing my pet again heightened as we flew up the Jersey Turnpike.

Then came the great shock.

Audrey, with tears in her eyes, told us that Peanuts had run away the day before. She had searched and searched without success.

I was heartbroken. But it was my father, of all people, who suggested we go out together and sweep our neighborhood - and others - for Peanuts. We drove around in his car for three hours, amazed at the number of apparent strays in the city, yet disappointed by the absence of the one we were looking for. The image that remains with me is of my father, near the end of our dragnet, stepping out of the car in a strange neighborhood and crawling under a station wagon on his belly to get a closer look at a li ght-colored cat reclining there.

Recognizing that my father had harbored some genuine affection for Peanuts simply because he was important to me took some of the sting out of the loss. This has remained with me through the years. So much so that my own son, although he made his own valiant pitch for a dog, wound up with, well, not a cat, but a fairly fine guinea pig named Grover.

As a caged animal, there is little danger of losing Grover. But I feel obligated to pay some tribute to the labors exerted on Peanuts's behalf by my father. Occasionally, when my son is particularly occupied with being nine years old and when the slightest intrusion of responsibility would tarnish the shine of his happiness, I carry out his usual sinecure by getting on my knees and surreptitiously cleaning Grover's cage and changing his water and food.

This rodential equivalent of crawling under a station wagon for a lost cat will, perhaps, be remembered by Alyosha as my approval of the love he showed himself capable of extending to a small living creature.

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