Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Alta Dog
by Michelle Peterson

I have not been a very good pet mommy. I have a friend who has a pet prospering in every room of her house. Thereís an aquarium in the living room, a Beta fish in her daughterís room and a hamster in her sonís. Thereís a dog who fills all above ground spaces and turtles who fill them below. Thereís a Hermit Crab, Milo. I would not be surprised to find that sheís been nursing a small Sugar Glider in a mini-sling under her t-shirt all of these years. After our first visit there, years ago, little Sam said to me, ďYou suck, mom. Why canít we have pets. Are you too lazy?Ē At least thatís how I remember it.

Since then, we have had four pet attempts in this house. As I look back on it, the first three were all desperate cries for affirmation that ended abominably and required triage.

The first one was a Beta fish named Moí Beta. Sam was an all-consuming three-year old, but a fish only needs a little food and a clean bowl. Piece oí cake. Sam loved Moí, I was The Good Mother and all of this bliss lasted for a whole two days. Then Sam forgot about Moí and he turned into a weekly cleaning I just didnít have time for. Hairpin regression. While doing dishes in the evenings, I would peer across the dining room and see the red and blue form navigating the scum. It left me feeling waspish and regretful. After weeks of this and a baby on the way, I couldnít take it any longer. The Crappy Mother. We gave Moí to a neighbor and there he became his namesake.

I didnít have to explain the end of Moí to Sam. He was too young and he never asked. I loved my immediate emancipation. Much like the end of an unfortunate relationship.

The next attempt came ten months later, just on the heals of Isabelís entrance into our lives. This one was a runt of a guinea pig. It was furry and affectionate and I felt reinvigorated. Sam would hold the tiny creature swathed in a dishtowel in his lap and sit adoring him. We named him Frodo knowing that he and Master Samwise would grow together and have many adventures in Middle Earth, the pet leading the master to spiritual truths. We had Frodo for about five months and in that time he blossomed into a big, furry pet the size of a large Elmo slipper.

With two young children in the house my only time for solitude was in the wee hours of the morning with coffee and the paper. I tried to slink around and not wake any creature, but our rodent had big ears. He would hear me and start to squeal. You have no idea. My milk would let down and the baby would wake up. After that I closed all of the doors and hid him in the bathroom, but I felt so damn negligent. Someone needed me and I couldnít oblige. This escalated for about a month and then I gave Frodo away too.

The end of Frodo was much more complex than the end of Moí, as you can imagine. Sam still asks me why I gave him away. It really was awful, but this was the quagmire: happy mom or happy child. There was no in between. I decided for me and I still hate myself for it.

(As I write this I canít for the life of me figure out why this didnít deter me from pets altogether).

Jump forward a few years and Iím a single mom, husband-free, but still petless. I am consistently reminded that we donít have a pet (no one really mentions much about the husband part except once Isabel asked if Chris, my fiancť who is allergic to cats, could move out so we could get a kitten). Iím teaching high school and one day, fortuitously just before Samís sixth birthday, a student brings a Giant African Millipede into our classroom. Immediately, god knows why, I recognize it as the perfect pet for us. It doesnít need to be walked, it doesnít need affection, it makes no noises and has no smell. Basically, it can be ignored. Itís not cute (itís actually quite creepy), but itís interesting and maybe this is just what Sam pleads for. It could be like one of those potato bugs he collects. Only a hundred times larger.

Sam never touched it. He recoiled at first sight, both pet and boy rolling into a ball of protection, never intended for one another. I tried to keep Curly. I actually learned to pick it up (pet rule #1: never get one that has confusing pronouns). It would leave this stinging acid on your arm after it crawled on you, but it was a small price to pay to show my kids how to handle such a creature. Iím sure Jeff Corwin would agree.

It was with us a month, and before I took it back to the exotic pet store, it made it to two show and tells, grossed out one repair man and ate a cucumber. Not a bad stop over.

Youíll be relieved to know that I renounced the pet parade for many years after that. It took time, but I realized that it wasnít just the responsibility that deterred me from a pet, it was the cage. I wish I had figured this out three heartaches ago: I canít cage an animal. I concluded that what I had wanted all along was a dog and I knew Iíd have to wait until we were all ready to get one. Iím slow like that.

Our rescued girl found us a few years later. We named her Alta after our favorite ski area because it is rejuvenating. Itís also unfussy and fun. Itís exhilaration and play and enchantment.

She has come to my children not as an avalanche, but as a gentle nighttime snowfall of gladness and solace. She is creature comfort.

One day Sam was crying over the heaviness of 3rd grade. Damn tough year. He sobbed behind the three feet of impervious air that floats around eight year old boys. I tried to melt the wall with my words, but he kept crying. Then Alta walked in to scout out the commotion and Sam dropped to his knees, burying his small head into her deep mane and let it go. Alta didnít move. I didnít move. I now canít imagine the bonding and unraveling, the reaching and vanquishing of childhood without a dog.

For me itís been somewhat different. I am, after all, the main caretaker and dogs are a lot of work. But she is such a sweet, gorgeous girl I sometimes wonder if thereís been a turnover in the heavens and the new gods werenít informed of my past regressions. I do not deserve such an animal.

The other night I was up late as I, um, well, I have head lice. Yes- ďMy name is Michelle and I have head liceĒ. I see you squirm. Just wait, if you have kids youíll get lice. But thatís another pet story altogether. So, I couldnít sleep through all that itching. I sat on the couch and tried to watch some TV. Nothing on. Alta was on her dog bed. I turned the TV off, scratched my head and looked over at her. She scratched behind her ear and looked up at me. I smiled. Then I acquiesced and she came up on the couch. I petted her soft head and she nuzzled her nose down into her perfect paws and thunk, thunk, thunked her tail on the cushion. I buried my face in her deep mane and let it go. Alta didnít move. I didnít move. Maybe, just maybe, I canít imagine the bonding and unraveling, the reaching and vanquishing of parenthood without a dog.

Good girl.
Michelle Peterson is mom to Sam and Isabel and fiance to Chris (who can't imagine life without the smell of a wet dog), a high school French teacher and owner of Groovy Moon Clothing. She lives and writes in Austin, but she longs to take Alta to Alta and frolick in the snow.