Gommy was ambivalent about animals. She'd never owned a pet. Her three children had never had pets. And if she'd had her way, when my mother and I moved in with her, I wouldn't have had a pet, either.
Pets are trouble. You have to feed them, water them, and walk them. Gommy (like "mommy" with a G) had cared for so many humans, I guess she didn't want to worry about the animal kingdom. Her house was filled with grandmother-type knickknacks and wall-to-wall carpeting. Pets didn't figure into her idea of a calm, clean home and an ordered life.
What Gommy didn't realize was that her first grandchild, me, was one of the biggest animal lovers on earth. I would not take "no" for an answer, but it took a while to work her up to a creature I could hug.
A neighbor gave me my first pets: two goldfish. Gommy was not amused. But she allowed them to live out their short lives in their fishbowl by the oven in the kitchen. Not a particularly soothing location for fish, if you ask me.
Next came a small turtle with orange spots on his neck. I named him Elmer. Elmer lived in the kitchen, too, but he was occasionally allowed to take supervised walks in the living room. He used to head straight for the magazine rack and do the Twist, scratching his shell under its metal edge. He had real personality, for a turtle.
Still, every birthday, every Christmas, I dreamed of opening a big box to find a puppy inside. I wanted something large and furry that I could hug. I was an only child, and fish and turtles don't score high in hugability.
I ranked my neighbors and friends by their pet ownership. One had a sheltie with a two-room doghouse. (The sheltie was so shy, I had to crawl inside the doghouse to visit him.) My favorite friend had a small brown mutt named Sandy. She knew how to share. She told me he was half mine.
Next door were the Kriegers, with an orange fluff of a cat. When Topaz moved out, Susie the cockapoo moved in. Directly behind us were three small, yappy dogs. Across the street: dachshunds, show dogs, not allowed to touch. Two houses down: German shepherds, enormous, frightening to parents of small children, but actually quite harmless.
I began my photography career by snapping every dog in the neighborhood; then I went after the cats. They wouldn't hold still quite as well.
I was in junior high school when my best friend, Lynn (Bedlington terrier), said she wanted to give me a hamster for my birthday. Wow - a hamster! With fur and everything! Gommy reluctantly agreed. Aloysius Clyde Fitzgerald Herald Stetson soon had one of those elaborate multi-level cages with tunnels and secret doorways.
I noticed Gommy insisted on pampering him as much as I did. If only I could find a stray dog or cat, I thought, she could learn to love it, too.
But I couldn't find a stray dog or cat anywhere. Believe me, I looked.
Years later, when I was a graduate student in Missouri, it finally happened.
One day, as I was shopping for stylish clothing at Goodwill, a stray black cat came over to and rubbed my ankles. She looked up at me with big green eyes. She was starving. I named her The Queen of Sheba.
Then came Fat Boy Johnson, a yellow tabby kitten I found in a parking lot covered with grease. Yoda, a tiny tortoise-shell with huge ears, was crying, abandoned in a remote field.
FOR five months after I graduated, my feline family was allowed to live in Gommy's house while I was job searching. She made them stay in the basement most of the time. In the evenings, they were allowed to come upstairs.
Fat Boy once made the mistake of falling asleep in Gommy's favorite TV-watching chair. She briskly pushed him off. He didn't wake up until he hit the floor.
Gommy never became a full-fledged animal lover, but my three stooges did find a place in her heart. She never learned how to pet a cat, but she would try. She would tentatively pat them on the head as if they were dogs, making their heads bounce up and down. Fat Boy even sat in her lap - once. Although Gommy wore a disgusted look on her face, she didn't push him off this time. He sat there quite a while with his head being bounced up and down like one of those silly plaster animals that sit in a car's rear window.
I'm glad I brought a bit of furry chaos into Gommy's green-carpeted world.