The Youth In Asia by David Sedaris In the early 1960s, during what my mother referred to as “the tail end of the Lassie years,” my parents were given two collies, which they named Rastus and Duchess. We were living then in New York State, out in the country, and the dogs were free to race through the forest. They napped in meadows and stood knee- deep in frigid streams, costars in their own private dog food commercial.
Late one January evening, while lying on a blanket in the garage, Duchess gave birth to a litter of slick, potato-sized puppies. When it looked as though one of them had died, our mother placed the creature in a casserole dish and popped it into the oven, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
“Oh, keep your shirts on,” she said. “It’s only set on 150. I’m not baking anyone. This is just to keep it warm.”
The heat revived the sick puppy and left us believing that our mother was capable of resurrecting the dead. Faced with the responsibilities of fatherhood, Rastus took off. The puppies were given away, and we moved south, where the heat and humidity worked against the best interests of a collie. Duchess’s once beautiful coat now hung in ragged patches. When finally, full of worms, she collapsed in the ravine beside our house, we reevaluated our mother’s healing powers. The entire animal kingdom was beyond her scope. She could only resurrect the cute dead.
The oven trick was performed on half a dozen dazed and chubby hamsters, but failed to work on my first guinea pig, who died after eating four cigarettes and an entire pack of matches. “Don’t take it too hard,” my mother said, removing her oven mitts. “The world is full of guinea pigs. You can get another one tomorrow.”
Eulogies tended to be brief, our motto being, there’s always more where this one came from. A short time after Duchess died, our father came home with a German Shepherd puppy. For reasons that were never fully explained, the privilege of naming the dog went to a friend of my older sister’s, a 14-year-old girl named Cindy. She was studying German at the time, and after carefully examining the puppy and weighing it with their hands, she announced that it would be called Maedchen, which apparently meant “girl” in what she referred to as “Deutsch.”
When she was six months old, Maedchen was hit and killed by a car. Her food was still in the bowl when our father brought home an identical German Shepherd, the same Cindy christened as Maedchen Two. This tag-team
progression was disconcerting, especially for the new dog, who was expected to possess both the knowledge and the personality of her predecessor. “Maedchen One would never have wet on the floor like that,” my father would scold. And the dog would sigh, knowing she was the canine equivalent of a rebound.
Maedchen Two never accompanied us to the beach and rarely posed in any of the family photographs. Once her puppyhood was spent, we more or less lost interest. “We ought to get a dog,” we’d sometimes say, completely forgetting that we already had one.
During the era of the Maedchens, we had a succession of drowsy, secretive cats who seemed to share a unique bond with our mother. “It’s because I open their cans,” she said, though we all knew it ran deeper than that. What they had in common were their claws. That and a deep-seated need to destroy my father’s golf bags. The first cat passed into a disagreeable old age and died hissing at the kitten who had prematurely arrived to replace her. When, at the age of nine, the second cat was diagnosed with feline leukemia, my mother was devastated.
“I’m going to have Sadie put to sleep,” she said. “It’s for her own good, and I don’t want to hear a word about it from any of you. This is hard enough as it is.”
The cat was put down, and then came the anonymous postcards and phone calls orchestrated by my sisters and I. The cards announced a miraculous new cure for feline leukemia, while the callers identified themselves as representatives of Cat Fancy magazine. “We’d like to use Sadie as our cover story and we’re hoping to schedule a photo shoot. Is tomorrow possible?”
After spending a petless year with only one child still living at home, my parents visited a breeder and returned with a Great Dane they named Melina. They loved this dog in proportion to its size, and soon their hearts had no room for anyone else. In terms of family, their six children had been nothing more than a failed experiment. Melina was the real thing. The dog was their first true common interest. And they loved it equally, each in their own way.
Our mother’s love tended towards the horizontal, a pet being little more than a napping companion, something she could look at and say, “That looks like a good idea. Scoot over, why don’t you.” A stranger peeking through the window might think that the two of them had entered a suicide pact. She and the dog sprawled like corpses, their limbs arranged into an eternal embrace.
My father loved the Great Dane for its size, and frequently took her on long, aimless drives, during which she’d stick her heavy, anvil-sized head out the window and leak great quantities of foamy saliva. Other drivers pointed and stared, rolling down their windows to shout, “Hey, you got a saddle for that
thing?” When out for a walk there was the inevitable, “Are you walking her, or is it the other way ’round?”
Our father always laughed, is if this were the first time he’d heard it. The attention was addictive, and he enjoyed a pride of accomplishment he’d never felt with any of us. It was as if he were somehow responsible for her size and stature, as if he’d personally designed her spots and trained her to grow to the size of a pony. When out with the dog, he carried a leash in one hand and a shovel in the other. “Just in case,” he said.
“Just in case, what, she dies, and you need to bury her?” I didn’t get it.
“No,” he’d say. “It’s for, you know, it’s for her business.”
My father was retired, but the dog had business.
I was living in Chicago when they first got Melina, and every time I came home, the animal was bigger. Every time, there were more Marmaduke cartoons displayed upon the refrigerator, and every time, my voice grew louder as I asked myself, “Who are these people?”
“Down, girl,” my parents would chuckle as the puppy jumped up, panting for my attention. Her great padded paws reached my waist, then my chest and shoulders, until eventually, her arms wrapped around my neck and her head towering above my own, she came to resemble a dance partner scouting the room for a better offer.
“That’s just her way of saying hello,” my mother would say, handing me the towel used to wipe up the dog’s bubbling seepage. “Here, you missed a spot on the back of your head.”
The dog’s growth was monitored on a daily basis, and every small accomplishment was documented for later generations. One can find few pictures of my sister Tiffany, while Melina has entire volumes devoted to her terrible twos.
“Hit me,” my mother said on one of my returns home from Chicago. “No, wait, let me go get my camera.” She left the room and returned a few moments later. “OK,” she said. “Now hit me. Better yet, why don’t you just pretend to hit me.”
I raised my hand, and my mother cried out in pain. “Ow!” She yelled. “Somebody help me. This stranger is trying to hurt me, and I don’t know why.”
I caught an advancing blur moving in from the left, and the next thing I knew I was down on the ground, the Great Dane tearing holes in the neck of my sweater.
The camera flashed, and my mother squealed with delight. “God, I love that trick.” I rolled over to protect my face. “This isn’t a trick.”
My mother snapped another picture. “Oh, don’t be so critical. It’s close enough.”
With us grown and out of the house, my sisters and I foolishly expected our parents’ lives to stand still. They were supposed to stagnate and live in the past, but instead, they constructed a new “we,” consisting of Melina and the founding members of her fan club. Someone who obviously didn’t know her too well had given my mother a cheerful stuffed bear with a calico heart stitched onto its chest. According to the manufacturer, the bear’s name was Mumbles, and all it needed in order to thrive were two AA batteries and a regular diet of hugs. “Where’s Mumbles?” my mother would ask, and the dog would jump up and snatch the bear from its hiding place on top of the refrigerator, yanking it this way and that in hopes of breaking its neck.
“That’s my girl,” my mother would say. “We don’t like Mumbles, do we?” I learned that we liked Morley Safer, but not Mike Wallace, that we didn’t like Mumbles or thunder, but were crazy about Stan Getz records and the Iranian couple who’d moved in up the street. It was difficult to keep straight, but having known these people all my life, I didn’t want to be left out of the “we.”
During the final years of Maedchen Two and the first half of the Melina epic, I lived with a female cat named Neil. My mother looked after the cat when I moved from Raleigh, and flew her to Chicago once I’d found a place and settled in.
Neil was old when she moved to Chicago, and then she got older. She started leaving teeth in her bowl and developed the sort of breath that could remove paint. When she stopped cleaning herself, I took to bathing her in the sink, and she’d stand still, too weak to resist the humiliation of shampoo. Soaking wet, I could see just how thin and brittle she really was. Almost comic, like one of those cartoon cats checking her fur coat at the cloak room of the seafood restaurant. Her kidneys shrank to the size of raisins, and though I loved her very much, I assumed the vet was joking when he suggested dialysis.
I took her for a second opinion. Vet number two tested her blood and phoned me at home, saying, “Perhaps you should think about euthanasia.”