The Oddest Entry in the Pet Parade

As kids growing up in the disciplined 1950s, my sister and I were well-trained not to beg. As we strolled the grocery-store aisles with our mom, it never occurred to us to whine for cookies. We did try to woo her into purchasing some sweet-filled packet by gazing at it longingly, however, sometimes picking it up and studying it as if it were a beloved pet hamster. We never lost hope that such performances would evoke enough sympathy to prompt Mom to pop a packet into the cart. Occasionally, our hopes were fulfilled.

While I could muster a measure of restraint in the face of cookies, when it came to pets I broke the no-begging rule more than once. What I wanted most was a horse. But even at age 6, I was wise enough to realize this was an overly ambitious first request. So I tried for a dog, then a cat, and finally a bird - with no success beyond short-term caretaking of strays and the class parakeet and guinea pig.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, we had an annual Fourth of July gathering, where everyone met down at the lake for some neighborly bonding over games and a picnic. When I was 8, the organizing team decided to hold a pet contest. Here was my chance.

In order to participate, I needed a pet. My parents would appreciate this logic. I went to my mom and asked for a horse, the kind of impressive animal it would take to win a highly competitive event. I was thinking big. Mom, on the other hand, was thinking small. Very small.

Instead of a horse, she suggested, why didn't I take that six-inch rubber worm that we happened to have in the house? I remember thinking she was crazy. But Mom could be very convincing once she got enthusiastic about something. And the more she thought about this idea, the better she thought it was. Before I knew it, she'd picked up an apple, bored a hole into it with a pencil, and sent me to find the worm. Against my better judgment, I went into the bathroom and pulled out the drawer where I'd seen the worm that morning between the toothpaste and assorted stuff.

I must admit that when Mom inserted the worm halfway into the apple, leaving one end of the fake fellow dangling out, it looked remarkably real. She was beginning to win me over.

''I'm sure you'll be the only child with a pet worm,'' she said, cheering on her idea. ''The judges will love your originality.''

So, innocently, I ventured down to the lakeside gathering, apple and worm in hand. There were the judges: moms and dads from the neighborhood, sitting on camp stools between the tetherball pole and the boathouse. And there were other kids with their shampooed and fluffed-up dogs, beribboned cats, gorgeous birds, guinea pigs in stunningly clean cages, and snakes in glass boxes. I noticed that there were no horses.

The contest coordinator signaled that it was time for the competition to begin, and we children lined up in front of the boathouse. Then we aimed our motley parade toward the judges. Doubts descended upon me as I trailed past the jury, my fidgeting finger positioned just under the worm at the point of its exit hole - to make the guy wriggle. The judges looked more puzzled than charmed. One of them asked, ''Is that a real worm?''

I was doomed.

Just beyond the row of reviewers stood my mother, beaming with delight despite the judges' obvious lack of appreciation for my pulseless pet. ''At least you can eat the apple!'' she said playfully, giving me a hug.

Need I say I didn't win the prize for best pet? But, looking back, I realize I did win something: a peek at invincible and joyous enthusiasm - a prize that I received again and again from both my parents.

And, not long afterward, I received something furrier than enthusiasm: a striped kitten on whom I bestowed horse-sized love.

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