At our family reunion last summer, I asked my brother if I could borrow a pair of photo albums he had put together. Over the past couple of years, I have committed quite a few of our family’s old yellowing snapshots to newly cropped and digitalized lives, and I wanted to do the same with some of the pictures John has collected for himself.
As I thumbed through the albums just a few days later, I caught myself stopping at times to remember the voices and the laughter of my parents and grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and even a cousin or two who have left us over the years. We miss them, and so, besides our memories, those photos are nearly all we have left to connect with our pasts.
Near the back of one of the collections was a picture of my big brother and me; he is holding a little dog on his lap, and all three of us are looking straight into a camera that was undoubtedly held by my mom. We are shirtless and sitting on our back step; the picture had to have been taken nearly 50 summers ago.
That photo reminded me of something my cousin, Renee, told me at that same reunion. She and her brothers, Rick and Roger, grew up in a house just across the County Line Road from us, and because my grandparents lived a few hundred yards up a shared driveway to the west, our family never really stayed in just one house, but rather shared three. She told me that in virtually every childhood picture she had ever seen of my brother and sister, Lora and me, there was always a dog or a cat in our arms or at our feet. “You always had something to feed,” she said with a smile.
I suppose that’s true. My mom was not one to turn away an empty stomach from the door, whether it be human or feline or canine. So, as we grew up, then moved on to houses of our own to make livings and raise families, we took that love of the furred and fanged and pawed with us. My brother and sister and I are all still feeding something, and so are my two kids.
In the young years we spent on that sandy, hilly bit of earth, my family fed quite a menagerie of animals. We had a stocky Welsh pony named Dusty and a dusty old mule name Rosie, and we often kept a few cattle (one named T-Bone that I still don’t like to speak about) and sheep to graze the two or three fenced acres we had just behind the house. We, of course, always had dogs, and although the name of the pup in that old photo with John has long escaped the two of us, I can’t help but remember our collie. She was a stray who came to stay, and in a moment of no apparent imagination, we named her Lassie, of course. Lassie was a fidgety neurotic that hated storms. In fact, she’d claw the back door off the house at the first rumble of thunder, and since my mom was no fan of wind and lightning herself, I remember a number of nights when we coaxed the dog down our steep basement steps so she could join us until a tempest had blow through.
Not long after Lassie came to us, I had the misfortune of finding out just how hungry she always was, even after enjoying a few months at our table with a steady diet of table scraps and dog food. I remember walking out of the back door of our house — it was my birthday — and in short pants and untucked shirt, I carefully balanced a fat piece of cake on a plate and held a slopping cup of milk. I was headed across the driveway to our swing set, but Lassie wanted the cake, too, and as she jumped up to take a look, I jerked away from her, but not before she got ahold of a bit of the rather chubby stomach that I had failed to tuck in, too. I forgave her, despite the fact that, after a dramatic trip into Rosedale with Dad, Doc Fell liberally employed the use of Methiolade, and his hypodermic needle, which seemed as fat as a pencil.
Over the years, I became buddies with two old tomcats named Smokey Joe and Kitty Tom, another mutt named Cina, a crow, two skunks and literally hundreds of fish (including a piranha) and birds (parakeets and parrots and even a cockatiel) that John managed to keep in cages, tanks and roosts on our back porch, and, much to my mom’s dismay, in our utility room.
We had a pet raccoon, too. His name was Sammy (named, for some reason, after Sammy Terry, the late-night TV ghoul), and we raised him on a bottle. My grandfather, a well-known raccoon killer, had dispatched Sammy’s mother on one of his forays into the woods behind us, but unable to leave a baby — no heavier than a spoon — behind, he brought him to my mom, who soon had him riding her dust mop and eating breakfast at a cat dish in the kitchen. Sammy eventually insisted on living outdoors. I still remember how bitterly Mom cried when he died on the busy road in front our house, undoubtedly returning home from a feast on the fat, brown crawdads that lived on the other side.
My Grandfather Roy always had hunting dogs, and one in particular, named Matt (yes, as in “Gunsmoke’s” he-man marshal), became his favorite. I spent a lot of time riding in my grandpa’s truck, Matt in the middle of us, very much looking like a homely old man with a dirty face. In the meantime, my cousins had Flip, a three-legged dog, reduced to a tripodal life by a run-in with a woven-wire fence. He came over to our house every day, carefully looking both ways before he headed across the road.
This night, a warm breeze is blowing in my open window, although it is probably going to be one of the last times I can say that for a while. I have been thumbing through those photo albums again, for I promised weeks ago that I’d give them back to my brother the next time I saw him. But I have mostly been thinking about the countless cats and pooches that we have fed over the years, found homes for over the years, kept and loved over the years.
Sure, they’ve all been “something to feed,” but we know they were more than that. I’m glad we took pictures.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. He’ll be signing his books at Sue’s Hallmark on Nov. 10, and at Kadel’s Hallmark at Plaza North on Nov. 24. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com for times.