Jennifer Meyer
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Terrible Love

I was a terrible dog owner. At least the first time around. I had just turned 19, starting my sophomore year at FSU in Florida. My parents had moved to Michigan that summer, and I was in my first apartment with a friend from high school: a two-bedroom triplex with no yard on the outskirts of town. It was my birthday. Instead of presents, my parents sent me a $100 bill. That was a lot of money in 1973, but not enough to lift me out of the all-by-myself-on-my-birthday blues.

Puppy JessicaI was reading the local newspaper and saw an ad for Irish setter puppies. I'd been crazy about Irish setters ever since reading "Big Red" as a kid. My parents had only owned boxers – sweet natured, but stiff-legged and drooly. Definitely not elegant or cuddly. The puppies were $100, and when I called on a whim, the owner offered to bring one over that night. Because I didn’t own a car. Of course. Just a bicycle to ride into campus.

Within the hour, I was the proud owner of the most adorable glowing-red eight-week-old puppy. I couldn’t believe my luck. The breeder had even brought along some puppy food until I could get to the store. And official AKC papers. What a windfall!

I thought my roommate would be delightedly surprised when she got home later. I mean, one look at this puppy and who could not fall in love? I named her Jessica, after a Seals and Crofts song I loved.

Rene was surprised, but not delighted. And never did fall in love with Jessie. I kept the puppy closed in my room when I was at school, with newspapers on the linoleum floor. But she barked and whined, apparently. And still managed to chew up Rene’s favorite platform shoes. By the end of the month, I was given the boot.

Teenage Jessica

I managed to find a room in a two-bedroom house on a corner lot with a fenced-in backyard. It was closer to campus, but I had to take on a job at Dunkin’ Doughnuts to cover the extra rent and dog food. Jessie spent a lot of time in that fenced yard.

My junior year, I moved to Michigan and lived with my family while I went to U of M. That was a good year for Jessie, with all the attention from my family of six. But now and then, the family’s boxer would get her nose out of joint and attack her. It never seemed to faze her though. That dog was perpetually high on life.

My senior year I was on my own again. My parents had divorced over the summer, and my mom and younger siblings moved to St. Louis. I moved into the top floor of a run-down house with two other roommates. I took on a job as a cab driver. There was no fenced-in yard this time, but there was a vacant lot across the street, and across a busier street was a golf course that I’d sneak her into after hours for a run.

It must have been on one of those off-leash runs that Jessie ran off and didn’t come back. I don’t remember how she got away, but she was gone for two weeks. I was a lackadaisical pet owner, but I did love that dog with all my heart. I was bereft. I put an ad in the paper, but had no calls. One day I answered a knock on the door and Jessie nearly knocked me down when I opened it. A man and his teenage son had found her in the country, 10 miles away, and brought her back to the address on her tag. I didn’t really believe in god much then, but I made a promise to someone or something up there in the sky that I would do better.

I can’t say that I did. Do better. But Jessie didn’t seem to notice. She took any little thing I offered her with joy and gratitude.

Puppies in a windowThat spring, I met a grad student who had a papered male Irish setter and convinced me that breeding Jessie would be good for her temperament and help pay my final tuition bill. She told me how to recognize Jessie’s cycle, and we got our setters together when the time was right. Two months later, Jessie had 11 puppies. Fortunately by then, one of my roommates had graduated and moved out, so I turned her room into the puppy room. Made a whelping bed out of a plastic kiddie pool, and covered the wooden floor in newspapers that I changed every day. It was a crazy amount of work, and the cacophony of yipping puppies woke me early every morning, but there’s nothing more joyful that a roomful of fluffy red puppies. The money-making part did not make me rich, but it did pay off my final tuition bill so the school would release my diploma.

Getaway vanLike any Irish setter, Jessie was energetic and excitable. But good thing for both of us, she was also extremely adaptable and good natured. She woke up every morning thrilled about life. When opportunities in acting were not presenting themselves to me after graduation, I decided to get myself to L.A. I bought a used Dodge van with $2,000 I inherited from a great aunt, outfitted it with a bed and curtains and hit the road. Jessie and I lived in that van for a couple of months in Topanga Canyon until cash ran out. Shrugging off my anemic aspirations for acting, I finagled a job as a live-in nanny/housekeeper in Beverly Hills, Irish setter in tow. When that grew tiresome, we got ourselves up to Santa Cruz and stayed with a friend on UCSC campus, sneaking into her dorm room over Christmas break.

My attitude about dogs was audacious, really. Jessie went wherever I went, and I simply assumed she would be welcomed. No questions asked. Irish setters have a big presence. Not easy to hide in a dorm room or tuck away in a corner while you scrub a mansion. Jessie wasn’t exactly well-trained, but I don’t remember anybody ever taking issue with the fact that wherever I was, she was, too. I think her good looks and goofy smile gave her a lot of latitude.

Cozy cabinAt the end of Christmas break, I had just enough cash to rent a room in a cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains for $50/month. The cabin was Jessie’s Camelot. Nestled in redwoods, it perched atop a hill, requiring a steep hike from the driveway. It was small. My “room” was actually a tiny curtained off sun porch. A series of congenial roommates occupied the actual bedroom, most with a dog of their own. We lived in that house for eight years. For the rest of Jessie’s life and the beginning of my family.

If I had a key to that place, I don’t think I ever used it. Most of the time, I left the side door ajar so Jessie could come and go as she wished. She might scramble down to the stream on the backside of the hill, or wander over to say hi to a neighbor, but she was always there when I came home. Most of the time, though, I took her with me. She tagged along to my job at a women’s newspaper, and waited patiently with my coworker’s dog (also named Jessie) while we worked. If there were too many people in the office to accommodate dogs underfoot, we booted them to the deck of the old house our office was in. Mostly they stayed there. Sometimes they disappeared on scavenger hunts, but they’d always slink back when we called, reeking of garbage.

After beach treatI’m sure I owned a leash, but I don’t remember ever using one. When I went into Boulder Creek for groceries or hardware, she’d tag along next to me while I walked up and down the tiny town’s main street. Whenever I went into a store, I'd just say, “Stay!” and she’d sit primly, alertly awaiting my return. When I took her to the beach –  the one that “kind of” allowed dogs – I’d just open the car door in the parking lot and let her go. Say the word, “Bird!” and she’d be half a mile down the beach, wildly chasing seagulls. She might not come right away if I called, but if I turned and headed back to the lot, she’d catch on and beat me to the car.

After a couple of years in the cabin, I bought a horse and boarded her a few miles away, at a place that backed onto an abandoned quarry. We’d go riding several times a week, mostly with her leading the way. She never seemed to tire.

It was an idyllic life, really, for a dog. Better, at least, once we settled in the cabin. But when I look back on those days, I’m flabbergasted by how blithely I glided through dog ownership. It was a very different culture for pet owners back then. The thought of actually picking up a dog’s poop was ludicrous. There might have been leash laws, but no real expectation to follow them. It was common for dogs to ride in the back of pickup trucks, or to hang out in a parked car for hours with the windows down. Not unusual to bring dogs along to a party or dinner invite.

How did we avoid dog fights? Were dogs less aggressive back then, without leashes? Fewer pitbulls? Did our own lase fare queer/hippy attitude radiate into the pets around us, making everything generally “all good”? Or were we simply oblivious to scowls and disapproval as our dogs pooped wherever and trotted free?

Family of fourI cringe when I look back at all the mistakes I made with that first dog, who was more a part of me than any dog since. Vaccinations overlooked. Hours left in the car. Cheap, crappy kibble. Once on a long roadtrip when she was going bonkers in the backseat of my VW bug, thwapping my head with her tongue as she volleyed between windows, I found a deserted road and let her run behind the car for a few minutes. That dog lived to run. She needed to run every day. But did it never occur to me that she might think I was deserting her? And when I stopped to let her in, I found her paws raw from the hot pavement. I nursed her feet for days with bandages and socks, but that was a mistake I never forgave myself for.

Jessie lived a long, full life, running on beaches till she just couldn’t anymore. She welcomed my now-wife into our cabin and then our firstborn child. And when the pain of arthritis was just too much for her, our mountain vet came to the cabin and eased her into the forever sleep in her own bed. We buried her inside the circle of redwoods in front of the cabin.

We named our second-born son Jesse. Josiah, really, but we’ve always called him Jesse. We insist that we didn’t name him after a dog; we just really just liked the name. But in truth, I think I did want the legacy of Jessie to live on. And looking back, the two were actually quite alike. As a kid, Jesse was wild and gleeful. More energy than anyone could match. With bright eyes and a mischievous smile that could melt an iceberg. He loved life, and still does. Always up for the next adventure. Which right now is getting a puppy with his girlfriend.

I can think of so many reasons they shouldn’t. Puppies require a tremendous amount of energy and patience and training. Jesse and Julia live in a second-floor apartment. They can’t afford the big expense right now. They’re moving from Oregon to California in a few months and will be looking for another place to live. It’s such a big commitment. They won’t be able to take off for a weekend or travel easily. Who wouldn’t want a cute, fluffy puppy, but now? Really?

Then I think about myself getting a puppy at 19, and I shut my mouth. Jesse and his girlfriend are in their mid-30s. They are already caring and responsible cat owners. They will pick up the poop and get the vaccinations. They will not leave their dog in a car all day while they work, or let it roam freely in the neighborhood. They’ll play by rules of the 21st century, which include leashes and poop bags and dog carriers and more gadgets and toys than I ever knew a dog could need. They will be good dog owners in a way I might not have been. But they will never love their dog more than I loved mine.

© Jennifer Meyer. To reprint, please ask for permission.

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