When my mom was very young, my grandfather got her a British bulldog with a pedigree and the papers to prove it. His name was Mippy, and he was definitely not a bulldog. I don’t think my grandfather had much experience in bulldogs. I bet he thought their previous dog had been a ‘British bulldog’ too. I never met him, but clearly he had a keen interest in knowing dog breeds. They probably guessed that he was a pit bull type dog when the police officer who came to their door jumped backwards off their porch and halfway across their lawn upon being met at the door by a small child restraining a loudly barking Mippy by the collar.
In the rural south, at that time, you let your dog out in the morning and he roamed the fence-less neighbourhood in a pack of dogs until sometime around supper. He had firm ideas of who he did and did not like, and he was very protective of the family. Years and years later, my uncle found out that his friend, who Mippy wouldn’t allow into the house at all, had been in and out of prison for various assault charges since shortly after they’d lost touch in their teens. Mippy seemed a bit fierce, but he loved his family just as fiercely, and, typical of a ‘nanny dog’ (an old term for pitties), kept the kids from playing too close to the street and kept watch over them. He also trapped a would-be burglar by the hand in the door of their home for over two hours before the family returned home one time. Looking at old pictures of my mom and Mippy, it is very clear that he was a lot more pit than brit… and that he was a wonderful family pet.
In a somewhat incomprehensible Easter tradition, my mother and aunt got goslings one year. I don’t know if it’s still like that, but you could, at the time, give your kids chicks that had been dyed pink or blue as well, though thankfully theirs were not coloured. Unlike most of the chicks given to children for Easter, theirs grew happily and healthily into adulthood, and eventually lived out their lives in the pond at a nearby park. The family also raised and bred siamese cats, who, being southern, were adressed by the children as Miss May and Miss Lily, and Miss-whatever. Because you don’t just address an adult by their first name, that would be impolite.
Growing up, my mother and her siblings always had cats, along with a variety of caught-lizards, frogs, chipmunks, and, very briefly, a snapping turtle that barely fit into the old bathtub they’d found for him. That particular adoption of the wildlife ended when my grandmother demonstrated how easily the turtle could snap up an entire frozen sausage (aka finger).
My uncle got his scout badge for snake bite treatment when he had to actually treat my mother’s rattler bite. She’s still got a scar on her knee from the teeth. They all paid far too little attention to the seriousness of poisonous snakes in their barefoot romps through the bamboo swamp out back of their house, the one whose owner waded through the murky waters in hip-waders and used a shotgun to kill the Copperheads that lived there. My mother is now terrified of all snakes. We once found a tiny snake under one of our tents. She became convinced (despite the tent’s being in Northern Ontario) that it was a copperhead. A baby copperhead. On the plus side, she let us catch it to bring to the nature center, and she never usually let us catch snakes. We found out that Southern Ringneck Snakes are harmless and quite unusual to spot.
Moving to Canada, my mother’s family continued to breed Siamese cats. When they went on a monthlong trip to Europe, they filled a massive trough in the basement with cat food and left the cat doors open. They came home to a mostly empty trough and the remains of a variety of small birds and rodents the cats had been supplementing their diet with. Different times.
My grandmother’s family has a farm in northern Manitoba, cattle. Once they were up in Canada, my mother spent a number of her summers at the farm. The family farm, as you’d expect, had a dog. Hector. As you might also imagine, there have been many farm dogs since the first dog to be acquired by the first farmer. But still, Hector.
One of my favourite stories growing up was about my mother and aunt showing up at the farm for a funeral, the first time they’d been there in quite a few years. No-one was home, so they found the hidden key, went in, and hung around until someone came home. They didn’t think anything of this until a few days later when the present Hector wouldn’t let a person out of the car until a family member came out to greet them. They still didn’t think anything of this until they found out that this wasn’t the Hector that had been around last time they were at the farm. Hectors recognize family.
When I hear stories of my mother’s childhood, I kind of imagine a cross between Indiana Jones, the early years, and Dr. Dolittle.
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