When I was a child, my parents held out to me the example of an excellent and dedicated writer, my great-grandfather, Arthur Gray Staples. My mother, a Pulitzer-Prize winning poet herself, told me many stories of his life in Maine, in the early 1900’s, as the editor-in-chief of the Lewiston Evening Journal, which was considered one of the most prestigious on the East Coast.
In addition to running the paper, he also wrote essays for it, which he called Just Talks On Common Themes. Just Talks spoke of simple, everyday subjects that he felt his readers would enjoy and find illuminating as well: looking for a picnic spot along the road while traveling to a distant location; how a motorcar, instead of a horse-drawn carriage, would definitely ruin the fun of taking your girl for a ride; and, one of my favorites, “Give the Boy a Dog if He Needs One.”
These written “talks” were extremely popular and hundreds were collected in volumes that now grace my library shelves, their bindings broken down by frequent reading and their pages yellowed by age. I take pleasure in perusing them from time to time–knowing that writing runs in my blood as surely as my middle name comes from Arthur Gray Staples himself. Mary Gray Harvey, his daughter and my grandmother, also took pride in her writing, even though such was simply private correspondence to friends and acquaintances and family–yet over which she labored for many hours as she honed the prose of her communications. Four generations of writers have passed through the Staples, Harvey, and Sexton clans: my great-grandfather, my grandmother, my mother and, finally, me. I eagerly anticipate what the next generation may do.
Since I started writing these e-mail newsletters, I have discovered that I am really creating Just Talks, essays like those my great-grandfather wrote nearly a century ago. Calling them “newsletters” is really not using the proper word to describe them. In these essays, for that is what they are, I love exploring, just as did my great-grandfather, little topics that occur to me as I go about my daily life.
Last week, I found a Just Talks essay titled “Give the Boy a Dog if He Needs One.” This was the true story of a boy who misbehaved miserably during his childhood, and wanted a dog so much that he actually stole him. The judge who took on the local case ruled that he should pay for the dog over time, by working for him. Little by little, he came up with the necessary $2.98 for “the uncertain breed: many breeds; airedale; spaniel; setter; common bulldog and cur.” What a bargain! However, this mischievous boy quickly learned how much work a dog can be. This one was as troublesome to his master as the boy himself had been to his parents, and in this way he learned a valuable lesson about responsibility. My great-grandfather notes, at the beginning of this piece:
“If a boy needs a dog, he ought to have one. Some boys do need dogs! Some boys and some dogs get along together with such a complete understanding that it is difficult to tell which is boy and which is dog. When you see a common fool-dog tagging at the heels of a boy, and every now and then cocking a battered ear to see what the boy is going to do next and wagging along in his wake, you may know that this is no mere co-partnership: It is a union of love and mutual understanding. When you see a dog lie down with his tongue out watching with eternal love and gratitude the most shock-haired, most disreputable looking boy that you can imagine, you may know that dog is a Professor of Faith.”
I love the line, “a Professor of Faith,” and I love the description of how bonded a dog and the boy can become: “a union of love and mutual understanding.” This union he speaks of is the essence of my relationship with Breeze, Cody and Mac, and I know that for many of you it is also the essence of your relationship with your own companions.
Both my boys grew up in a home graced by several Dalmatians, though they did have to convince their father that a dog was imperative for them as they turned seven and nine–largely because in childhood he himself had never experienced the delights a dog provides, and having reached adulthood without one, did not see why anyone would want to deal with the work and commitment that went along with a puppy. He had had only had one brief encounter with a dog, when his mother impulsively brought home to their apartment a young Kerry blue terrier with an impressive pedigree.
Only a few days passed before she realized that her hardwood floors now had stains from frequent puddles and that her upholstery was covered in dog hair that clung. Thus was the puppy escorted back to the breeder, leaving both my ex and his sister heart-broken enough that neither wanted to commit to loving a canine companion who might prove to be too inconvenient, or who would eventually disappear. Nevertheless, in his fifties, he at last succumbed–though not until his second wife insisted, because she could no longer go without a dog in her life.
And so one fine California afternoon, banded together in a trio that was rather comical in nature, (a former wife and her ex-husband and his next wife), we went to meet a Golden Retriever breeder. With a little bit of help from me, my ex and she had the right answers to the questions that probed their suitability as owners, and were at last slated to take home the next available puppy. The warm and gentle Golden joined their household a few months later, and my ex-husband did learn to help with the round-the-clock potty training and the feeding, though perhaps was not always great at the art of doggie discipline, for which they hired a trainer. But, most importantly, as his affection for his pup grew, he learned a new kind of loving. In this way, the boy in his heart finally received the dog he had always needed.
My sons learned early on that the affection that went into raising a puppy was the foundation for a love that was unconditional. Their father’s experience coming too late to teach them a lesson in the mechanics of raising a puppy, they rarely wiped up the puddles of housebreaking, and only occasionally fed Rhiannon, Tia and Gulliver. Discipline and training also fell to me, as it had to my parents, but I didn’t mind any of it, as I had expected it all. In retrospect, I–perhaps unwisely–did not take on the task of convincing two active young boys a lesson in responsibility. But exercising the puppy was no problem, for even a child will happily throw a ball or fly a Frisbee for his new companion, hours without end.
Still, their real job was to drive down the important “two-way street” provided by a dog’s true nature, and to accept without condition the affection that does not end, but which returns and abides. It took no instruction for them to understand the concept of devotion: to cuddle with three Dalmatians, or to go to sleep with a dog in their arms–or even to demand bed-time stories wherein either Rhiannon, or Tia or Gulliver, as well our two Abyssinian cats, were heroes finding their way successfully through scores of challenging situations. Of course, I was delighted to oblige, as in this way I was able to bring my love of creating something imaginative home to my children.
And so I remind myself of the words with which my great grandfather closed his essay: “If a boy has to have a dog–the dog will do him good. If a boy needs a dog he ought to have it.” As I sit at my computer today, contemplating both “Newsletters” and “Just Talks on Common Themes,” and great-grandfathers and children and ex-husbands and their reciprocal relationships with our canine companions, I realize how broadly felt is this desire for the “union of love and understanding” about which my great-grandfather wrote so wisely. Without any doubt in my mind, I agree with what he says and add my own twist to the equation: everyone who needs a dog–regardless of age–ought to have one.