I have an old family photo album that’s been plundered mercilessly over the years—mostly for funeral memorial boards as one after another of our clan has died off. Today, there’s not much left of the album but yellowed construction paper, my mother’s perfect calligraphy, and a scattered collection of fading Polaroids held in by photo corners that have lost much of their stick. One of these photos is of Halloween 1965. My siblings and I are posed in front of the fireplace in the living room of our track home in Carson, California. All four of us are dressed in store-bought synthetic costumes that look like they would go up in flames at the merest contact with a spark. Our faces are covered by cheap plastic masks—a pirate, Batman, a princess (me) and a Gypsy. Lying regally in front of us—donning a cape and small eye mask–is the family dog, Taffy.
My very first dog, Taffy was a collie who looked like a smaller version of Lassie. Her entrance onto the chaotic stage of our family life predates my earliest memory. And I’m not sure who named her, but it turned out to be appropriate. From puppyhood onward, this docile and patient animal was pulled and prodded unmercifully by my siblings and me. We’d lie on her, blow into her sensitive nose, drag her around by the collar, ride her like a pony, yank her fluffy tail, and dress her in humiliating get-ups.
Taffy tolerated this abuse and never lost her sweetness. She herded and protected us like we were her own pups. And she did have pups. Twenty-one in two separate litters. One by one, they were taken away from her never to be seen again. We always hated to see the puppies go. (They were so cute!) And Mom felt guilty giving Taffy’s babies away—knowing that a human mom would be shattered with grief over such a cruel loss. But dogs live in the moment. They forgive. Besides, nothing, not even her own offspring, meant as much to Taffy as her two-legged children.
Until I was grown up, I never stopped to consider the vital role this loving animal played in my formative years. Like television, grandmothers, and meals around the table, I took my good dog for granted. She’d always been a part of the world I knew. She was a source of amusement. And she was something of a doormat. Or more appropriately, a rug. Taffy was always lying close to a pair of small feet near the couch, under the dining room table, by a bed. I’d often run my toes through her soft, long fur. Feeling her heartbeat and the warmth of her body gave me comfort—and comfort was a priceless commodity back then.
My parents were six years into a marriage that might have never been had my mother not wound up pregnant. To deal with their discontent, Dad drank and Mom slept—the only way she could escape the despair that was suffocating her. Alcoholism and depression do not make the best parents. For me, an undercurrent of fear marked those early years. Fear of my father. For the anger simmering inside him would occasionally flare up and explode, leaving all of us scarred.
Back then, Dad would travel often for his work as an electronics salesman for the aerospace industry. I liked when he was gone. Our house seemed lighter, friendlier, and Mom was more relaxed. Then he would return. When he was home tension hung over us like a storm cloud. My parents continued to fight and we were privy to every ugly detail—name calling, yelling and throwing of objects. Sometimes, Dad hit Mom. As he said, it was her own damn fault. And she almost never hit back. But one day was different.
Mom had taken all four of us kids to the grocery store. As she cruised the aisles with her cart, we bombarded her with requests for one sweet treat after another. Too weak to resist us, she returned home with more items than the grocery list had called for. Upon seeing the receipt, my father blew up. His face got red and veins throbbed in his temples. He slammed one fist down on the dining room table.
“I’ll be a rat’s ass if I’m gonna let you spend all our money on goddamn crap,” he shouted. “Get your ass back in that car and take some of this shit back.”
I cowered in the background with Teri, Bob and Ross, afraid to move lest his sights hone in on me. His anger was tangible and scarier than any monster I’d ever seen at the movies. This time my mother stood up to him.
“I’m NOT going back to that store. I’ve had it with your temper. And don’t you talk to me like that in front of the kids or I swear to God I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” Dad countered as he raised a menacing hand.
Mom ran to the front door, clutching her purse. Dad lunged after her. Mom made it through the front door as he slammed a fist through a floor to ceiling window made of thick bottle-bottom yellow glass that reminded me of Shakey’s pizza parlour. Then he was through the door and onto the porch. His bloodied hand grabbed at Mom’s bleached blonde, teased-into-a-beehive, hair. With a loud, “No”, she spun around and slammed her purse into his face with all her might. There was a pop. The world slowed down briefly as Dad released her and brought both hands to his face. More blood spurted between his fingers and pooled on the gray concrete of the porch. Confusion resumed with the sound of a neighbor’s door closing followed by sirens. Minutes later the police were at the house.
During the fight, Taffy stood guard in front of us kids, stamping her front paws, vocalizing her concern in yelps and growls. I held her tightly as the police hauled Dad and his broken nose away. Relief flooded my entire body. The danger had passed. I closed my eyes and prayed he’d never come back. But he did. The very next day.
During the dark and turbulent years that my parent’s marriage was slowly coming undone, Taffy was more important than I could possibly understand. No matter how crazy things got, she was constant, loyal, dependable and unchanging. Her love was uncomplicated. She’d herd us children and nip gently at our heels. She’d curl up with us and follow our every move. Later, when we were uprooted and changing schools like lightbulbs; when others rejected us for being new or shy or poor or oddly dressed, Taffy loved us unconditionally. We were the sun, moon and stars. We were beautiful and interesting. We were everything in her eyes. To see this reflected back on a daily basis was a healing tonic.
Being my first experience, Taffy created a certain expectation of what it meant to have a canine family member. Then came Chico. And everything I thought I knew about dogs went topsy-turvy. In the divine sphere of Dogdom, Taffy was an angel—and Chico her devilish opposite. Chico stampeded and careened through the years. But Taffy’s soft white paws treaded softly as I grew from a child to a teenager. Until the day, when I was about fourteen, that she went to the vet with Mom and never came home. My whole life I’d taken her for granted. As children will do. Only in her absence did I realize the enormity of her gentle presence.
Of course, I can’t accurately measure the difference Taffy made in my young life, any more than I could measure the impact of my grandmother’s humor, books that filled my head with fantasies, or my mother’s reassurance that everything would be okay. All I know is that these things together—doggy comfort, laughter, imagination, mother’s love—provided an invisible shield that could ward off all evils, or at least soften their blow.