At the moment, my sister, Katharine, has 18 yellow Lab puppies in her dog nursery. The dog nursery is next to the kitchen, and now - just weeks away from their departure to new homes - the kitchen doubles as puppy playroom. Her breeding Labs - all four of them - have the run of the house, but an effort is made to contain the puppies to these two rooms. Still, one had better watch one's feet when walking around, no matter where.
There's a wonderful home movie of Katharine at about age 12 playing with her first litter of puppies - Springer Spaniels, I think they are. She looks harassed but happy; tense, but in control; a dog breeder in the making.
Katharine and Phil, her husband, live outside of New York City. Phil has grown accustomed to sharing his life with all these dogs, but he does speak of Katharine's vocation as "revenge." "After all, I'm in here all day," he says, gesturing toward his study and referring to his various writing projects. But of course it's not "revenge" so much as opportunity. Their six children are grown up with children and yellow Labs of their own, so Katharine can go back to her earliest passion: dogs.
My sister started out life wanting to be a vet. For the past 20 years she has been a breeder. For the past 10 she has driven all over the Northeast going to field trials and dog shows. The walls of the dog nursery are plastered with ribbons. Her dogs provide her with two litters a year, and every few years she keeps one of the puppies to take the place of a retired breeder. If anything, she looks happier and more satisfied now than she did in the home movie when she was 12.
"Do you give names to all of them?" my wife, Elaine, asks her one day on the phone.
"No," says Katharine. "I just clip a spot on their fur."
Dog names, however, are a big thing in the family. Not only are dogs given family names, but children are sometimes named after dogs.
"There's Abby," Katharine says of a grandchild now 15 years old. "Abby was a wonderful dog." Lady Gabriel, son Peter's dog, gave her name to brother Michael's second boy, Gabe. Dog Sophie, named for Phil's childhood cook, provided Mary, a niece, with the name for her firstborn.
What's more, Mary and her husband almost named their second daughter "Lily," after a dog named for Phil's childhood nurse - and Katharine almost took the name they did give her - Caroline - for their own puppy.
Katharine and Phil spend summers in Maine near us, and we see a lot of them, but I try very hard to avoid riding in their car. It never has fewer than four dogs in it, and often it has more. They have a large house, and their children are back and forth - along with their dogs.
"How many have you got there now?" I ask Katharine one day.
"Ten," she says and laughs. "But then everyone's here."
Whenever they leave their house, either the dogs come with them or they leave all the doors open so the dogs can go in and out.
"So what's new?" I say one day as the four of us are having lunch.
"I'm looking for a field," Katharine says. "Something surrounded by woods, where I can run the dogs."
"You have a field," I say. "There's a field in front of your house, and there're woods all around."
"I know," says Katharine, "But I want a big field, where they can really run."
KATHARINE and Phil almost moved here year-round some years ago because of the carriage trails on Mt. Desert Island, which are wonderful places to run dogs.
"But there's a good place for you to run dogs right near your house in New York," I said.
"I know," said Katharine, "But there are too many people."
"Where's Katharine?" I said to Phil last summer, on the phone.
"She's off for the day at some field trial with Lily."
"And you?" I said. "Want to go sailing?"
He let out a groan. "Dog sitting," he said. "Anyway, no car."
"That's all right," I said. "Think of all the work you're getting done. All the money you're making from all these dogs." Another groan. "By the way, have you decided what to call your new puppy?"
"Clintina," said Phil. "How does that sound?"
"Great!" I said. I put down the phone. Should I call him back? No, he was just kidding. They would never do that to me.