On a sunny August Saturday Julia heard the key turn in the lock on her Princeton townhouse. The scene that greeted her when she opened the door made her flush with pleasure. Her three grown children stood smiling on the doorstep with expressions suggesting they were bursting with excitement.
Husky 22-year-old Daniel, clad in jeans and a Princeton tee shirt, would be leaving in a week for a new job in Washington DC. Twenty-year-old Kenny, blonde with rock-star-length hair, wearing denim shorts, a Boston Red Sox cap and an American University tee shirt, was looking forward to his junior year at college there. Petite Debra, a recent high school graduate at 17, wore a flowered sundress over a white tee shirt. She was headed to Haverford. As a divorcee who had married right out of college, Julia would be alone for the first time ever.
The reason for their excitement became apparent when Julia lowered her gaze from their faces. A small puppy nestled in Kenny’s arms. He was a beagle — or a beagle mixture, Julia wasn’t sure about these things — with a pointed snout and floppy ears. His face and body were white with brown patches.
“Now that we’re all leaving,” Daniel said, “we thought you’d want someone to take care of.” Kenny held out the little dog. “We named him Calvin.”
Julia struggled for words. “Oh my God,” she gasped. “That’s so thoughtful of you.” Kenny carried Calvin into the house, and while the three siblings spent a few hours playing with the frisky puppy, she was silent. They snapped a photo of him with their mother. In return she gave each of them a farewell gift: a little photo album of the family on their summer trips.
After the children left and she was alone with Calvin, Julia had to face the truth. She’d never owned a dog, never wanted to own a dog, and had no idea how to care for a dog. The courtyard behind her house was too small for an active puppy. Besides, she was gone from the house all day during the week, working at her public relations job in Manhattan. How could she leave him alone all that time?
She reflected further. Shouldn’t the kids have known she wouldn’t welcome a dog? After all, throughout their childhood they’d wanted a dog, and she’d refrained from granting their wish. Not only was she averse to the extra responsibility, she actually didn’t enjoy dogs.
She drove to PetSmart and purchased dog food, dishes for food and water, a small dog bed, and a canvas bone. The kids had left her with a leash and a rubber toy. After spreading newspaper on the kitchen floor, she attached the leash to Calvin’s collar and proceeded to walk him around the neighborhood, carrying a plastic bag to pick up after him. He barked with excitement, and small as he was, yanked on the leash, bounded ahead, and pulled her along.
Back in the house, after jumping and running for a couple of hours, Calvin grew tired and went to sleep in his bed. Julia poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down in the kitchen to think. Her children were certain their mother would be lonely. After all, they knew nothing made her happier than family togetherness. She had said so frequently. Were they feeling guilty about leaving her? On the other hand, were they now, perhaps without thinking, finally satisfying their own desires for a pet? She hated to disappoint them.
Monday morning before she left for the train, Julia locked Calvin in one of the bedrooms. That evening when she opened the door, he sped around the room, jumped and barked with excitement. Julia wanted to calm him but didn’t know how. She sat on the floor, hoping he would come sit in her lap. As she watched his frenzy, something on the window caught her eye. Calvin had chewed up the venetian blinds. And in the corner, she saw, he had pooped on the carpet. After she left him in the bathroom the next day he chewed on the bath mat and pulled down the shower curtain. Rather than keep me company, she thought, he’s destroying the house. Day after day the damage increased. Julia was frantic.
The next evening as she walked Calvin down the street, a neighbor with her own dog stopped to admire the puppy. When Julia shared the story of his household pranks, the neighbor said, “You should get a crate.”
So Julia searched the Internet for puppy training advice. Every web site had different suggestions. One site offered general guidelines: Be patient. Reward with treats. Ignore naughty behavior. Another site advised: “Find a training class for your dog.” Training class, she discovered, would require lots of her time: two to three months of classes after work — unless she could afford $1,000 to send Calvin away to a trainer.
And what about crates? The list of crate training rules, she saw, was long. Don’t leave the dog in the crate more than 4 or 5 hours. Don’t leave him in the crate if he has separation anxiety. (Did Calvin have separation anxiety?) The crate should be sized so the dog can lie down, stand up, and turn around in it. Then there was a crate training schedule — an activity for each day of the week — to accustom the puppy to his new abode. The advice seemed endless.
But Julia had had enough. The damage was done. Her patience had worn thin. She didn’t feel equipped to own a dog.
So she placed an ad in Town Topics. It read, “Wanted, a good home for a darling two-month old beagle puppy.” Two weeks later she laid Calvin in the welcoming arms of a seven-year-old girl and nine-year-old boy who lived on a farm in Hopewell. Their new pet would have acres of grass for romping.
During this time Daniel, Kenny, and Debra had been calling and texting to find out how Calvin was. Julia reported his antics in detail, thinking they would get the hint that the dog was too much for her. She hoped they would get the message, because she didn’t have the heart to tell them what she’d done. She loved her children, but she loved her independence too.
Late in September the siblings came home for a visit, eager to play with Calvin. Always glad to see her offspring, this time Julia held her breath as she opened the door to greet them. She never forgot the disappointment in their eyes when they understood the puppy was gone. Calvin had been a gift for them too, and a special reason to come home.
But Julia was disappointed as well. The next day, as she was straightening up the living room, she discovered the family vacation photo albums she had given the children. Two lay behind the row of picture frames on top of the china cabinet. One other was stuck between the sofa cushions. They had left their gifts behind — abandoned them, Julia thought.
Babette Levin, a Plainsboro resident, participates in the Room at the Table writing group.