Every farm had a dog. Nikki, our German Shepherd was the only purebred dog I remember. Except for Duchess, Nikki’s mother. I was barely more than a baby when we had Duchess, just old enough to have a whisper of a memory. Mom and Dad had Duchess when they raised German Shepherds: police dogs. Nikki belonged to Bonita more than anyone else in the family. Our life with Nikki had a sad ending; perhaps that was why Mom never really wanted another dog. I think she loved Nikki as much as Bonita did. I know she loved Duchess that much, ’cause once she told me Duchess was the best dog she ever knew, and that was after we had lots of other dogs.
“You should see the litter of pups I saw today,” Dad would say.
Mom always said, “No, Dean. No more dogs.” Every time, she said the same thing. “I’m serious. No more dogs,” and she’d give him that I-mean-it-no-fooling-around-look.
“I know, Reet.” he said, with his face serious as all get out, and those blue eyes telling on him. “Maybe you can just take a look,” he didn’t take her serious at all. I could tell, even though I was just a little girl. I knew inside, we were getting a puppy, and my heart just started to think up names before I even saw the pup. Dad said picking out names was super important and first you have to sit with the animal for a while, and get to know them. He was the best name-picker-outer in the whole wide world. I already knew that on account of Lady Bird, that was the best name possible for a cow.
“No, Dean, I mean it this time. No more dogs,” she said to him, and she meant it, ’cause her bottom eyelid covered the bottom half of her eye, and her lips pressed together so tight they were just one line. For certain, if I turned around and did something after she gave me that look, I would get skinned alive. Dad could charm anyone, even Mom, with those blue eyes dancing, and a grin that spread up over his face from one side to another ’til his whole face was lit up. No matter how mad Mom was, the next thing you know, she was smiling, too.
Sometimes Dad sneaked a pup home late at night, put it in the barn, and pretended he found it there in the morning. Sometimes he set it down, right beside the sandbox, so one of us kids would see it as soon as we set foot outside the door. Sometimes he told me to get the whisk broom and sweep out the car, and there the puppy was, right in the way-back of the station wagon. “Look at the puppy I found,” somebody was sure to shout. Once I found a black and white puppy in the bottom of an almost empty ground-corn barrel. That pup looked so sad and lost, just a-whimpering away, I had to love it. That was Bernie. I’m pretty sure he was part collie, but only part. I’ll tell you about Bernie another time. Promise.
Bonita was Nikki’s Master; she loved Nikki more than anything, and Nikki knew it, that’s why she’d growled at anyone who raised a voice to Bonita. Nikki would never hurt a soul, she was gentle and obedient, but sorry to say, Nikki was not so obedient when it came to other dogs, and she bit my neighbor’s Chihuahua. That neighbor, who was Bonita’s best friend Tommy’s dad, was also the Justice of the Peace. Tommy’s dad said we had to keep Nikki on our property all the time or he’d make us send Nikki to the dog pound. That should have been easy, ’cause except for that one time, Nikki never left our property, and she was never far from Bonita. Tommy didn’t even like that yippy little Chihuahua, it was his mother’s dog, and that Chihuahua was in our yard, where he didn’t belong when Nikki bit him. She just chased that dog back home where he belonged.
“It’s not fair,” I said out loud. Bonita’s big brown cow eyes looked sadder than they ever looked; her just sitting on Dad’s lap, with her fingers laced around his neck, and her long legs dangling down. I could never look so sad; even if my life depended on it. That’s why I had to use my head, ’cause I was no good at sad looks. Mom took a picture of me once when I cried, and I just looked all blotchy-faced and squinched up and ugly as sin. Bonita kept her face all straight and pretty when she felt bad, tears just running straight out of those sad brown eyes.
Dad said I was right, but sometimes things aren’t fair and I might as well learn that now, “You can’t fight City Hall,” he said, and Tommy’s dad was City Hall in this case. I had no good argument for that; still, I just wanted to tell Tommy he shoulda kept his dog in his own yard, and none of this would have happened. I hardly ever saw Tommy’s dad, and I was a tinsy bit afraid of Tommy’s mom: For one thing, she yelled a lot; and for another thing, she told Tommy and Cathy and Robbie to go play at my house while she laid out on her picnic table in a tiny bathing suit with the straps undone, all oily and brown as one of those nuts we cracked at Christmastime; plus, she had super long, dark eyelashes and eyebrows that always arched way up high so that she always looked surprised, which looked kinda funny and scary at the same time, especially when she yelled, ’cause now she looked mad and surprised at the same time.
Tommy’s dad said we had to keep Nikki on our property, but his Chihuahua limped over to our house, with his back leg in a big bandage, stood there between Bonita and Tommy, and just dared Nikki to do something about it. Like I said, Nikki had police dog blood in her, she had to get that little dog off her property and away from her Master, Bonita. Of course she chased Tommy’s Chihuahua.
“Nikki! No!” Bonita shouted, and Nikki came slinking back to our yard. That’s how I learned what hang-dog really looks like, ’cause I could see Nikki was ashamed of herself, even though she could never stop herself from doing what she knew was against the rules. I knew just how Nikki felt. After that, we had to keep Nikki chained up all the time. That just wasn’t right, Nikki was meant to roam all over the farm, right beside her Master, not be on a chain and only have somebody come and pet her when she needed food or water. Nikki got so happy to see Bonita or me or Vickie or Deanna, she just pulled her chain tight and barked and barked. Once she got so excited, she ran circles around Bonita and made her fall down in the dirt. Bonita said it was her own fault, ’cause she loved Nikki, and wanted her to stay, no matter what.
Eventually Dad found Nikki a new home, ’cause she was just miserable chained up all day to a dog house and everybody else was getting all hang-dog, too. That kind of sad is just as catchy as the flu. Bonita bawled for days. I wondered if she would ever get over losing Nikki. We got other dogs, we loved them all, but no other German Shepherds and none quite like Nikki.
Childhood losses seem small compared to all the losses we suffer as we go through life. Yet a loved pet, is more than an animal, she is a companion, a confidant, someone who loves you no matter what. That’s the kind of loss that always hurts. Maybe it’s a good thing we never stop wanting that kind of love.