Amity, at a distance

During the first few months of our courtship, I had to grit my teeth and smile sweetly every time my husband-to-be mentioned Ginger. I didn't want to hear about any of his old girlfriends and I soon learned how to turn the conversation to other topics whenever her name came up. If I hadn't been quite so jealous, it probably wouldn't have taken me as long as it did to figure out that Ginger was the tan-colored mongrel love of his boyhood.

My husband is a committed dog person, and I'm something of a cat fanatic. But early in our marriage, rather than choose between an Irish setter and an alley tiger, we decided to forgo pets and devote ourselves instead to zinnias, which we both liked.

It was a solution that worked surprisingly well until three years ago, when my mother came to live with us, bringing along her two cats. Although mother, Punkin, and Poppy live in their own second-floor apartment, we see a good deal of all three. Punkin especially likes to escape down the stairs at mealtime.

During the past three years my husband has made a noble effort to get to know both cats. He goes out of his way to speak to them in the kitchen, and he's only chased one under the bed with a broom so far. As it turned out, it probably was a well-deserved chastening. On one of her downstairs outings, Poppy had devoured most of his prized schefflera and was starting on the spathiphyllum in the living room when he came upon her.

The mostly admirable example he's set has made me feel guilty from time to time. I ask myself if I should try to strike up a civil conversation with the German shepherd who jogs through our petunia beds. Or could I be more understanding of the neighborhood pack that descends on our trash cans when we set them out for the weekly pickup?

It's not that I dislike dogs. I just don't know how to respond to large, yelping creatures that froth at the mouth at the sight of a Frisbee. I guess I like dogs best when they're most like cats. I like them curled up on braided rugs, humming quietly to themselves while they dream about chasing 1950 Studebakers.

Take the large, shag rug of a black dog who lives near our church. Because I only see him once or twice a week, I can't be sure that he's entirely inert. But from the looks of the nest he's hollowed out over the years in the dirt by the side of the road, my guess is that he rouses himself only once or twice a day to chew on a favorite bone. That's my idea of contentment.

There's another shag dog we pass on the way to work. Although he and his person live in a rather run-down rooming house on the outskirts of the city, both of them are at their watch posts, neatly brushed and dressed to the nines, when we drive by at 7:30 a.m. While person sits alert on a folding chair beside the front door, monitoring the flow of traffic, shag sits just as tall on another folding chair to his left. Not a Volkswagen sputters by that doesn't get his full attention and occasional disdain.

One of my all-time favorite dogs runs the bookstore near our office. A gentlemanly Scot of obvious good breeding and reading, he stations himself in the doorway to greet customers rain or shine, spring or fall. During the winter months, however, he shuts up shop and takes a well-deserved vacation, probably in the Florida Keys. In the peak of August's dog days, too, there's often a delicately lettered sign hanging in the front window, indicating that he's off to Bar Harbor for refreshment of body and soul.

Come to think of it, there are a number of memorable dogs who've trotted across my path over the years. Although we've rarely spoken in passing, I think perhaps we've admired one another from our own vantage points. Perhaps that's what counts most - the appreciating, even if from a distance.

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