Animalia Domestica

Will Balk Weekly Hubris Banner 2017.

I would often be left under the watchful care of the young dog, by now an adult but still unbred, while my parents and grandparents busied themselves with their responsibilities. Still unable to stand on my own, I would pull myself upright by grabbing hanks of Buppy’s lustrous coat, and she would stand firm and still until my wobbly stance yielded and I sank to the floor.”—William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

Irish Setter on point.

Irish Setter on point.

William A. Balk, Jr.ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—April 2017—Maternal instinct—and perhaps an inkling of eternal fame—brought a she-wolf to save the abandoned infant twins, Romulus and Remus, from death; suckling the pair, protecting the young brothers in her den on the Palatine Hill, the she-wolf set the stage for the founding of Rome.

Buppy, it must be said, was no she-wolf, although the Canis lupus nurturing gene had descended intact to her. An Irish Setter, bred to be a gun-dog like her father, Buppy arrived in the family just before I was born; and, like her father, Buppy excelled in the field, quick to set and hold a point as my grandfather and his friends stalked a dinner of quail to precede their evening of storytelling and old bourbon.

The breed is exceptionally beautiful, with a long silky coat of rich mahogany red, a shapely body, and aristocratic mien. In those days, before the 20th Century had reached its midpoint, dogs were presumed to have a working role as well as to serve as companions. They were often bred to a larger size than is customary for today’s pets. Buppy was a big dog and a gifted hunter, but it was as a family member that she shone.

By the time I was born into Buppy’s larger family, she had already claimed her place at the center of family life. My mother and her younger sister, Ann, had grown up with Buppy’s father, Rusty, whose death had left Ann, especially, distraught; my grandparents chose a puppy from a litter Rusty had sired, and Ann promptly named her “Buppy.”

I would often be left under the watchful care of the young dog, by now an adult but still unbred, while my parents and grandparents busied themselves with their responsibilities. Still unable to stand on my own, I would pull myself upright by grabbing hanks of Buppy’s lustrous coat, and she would stand firm and still until my wobbly stance yielded and I sank to the floor.

I retain disjointed memories—images, really—of moments from my toddler years. My grandparents’ back yard was fenced in, and its grassy lawn was always open to me, even as a crawling infant, so long as Buppy was in attendance. I remember my grandfather’s meticulous construction of a fishing bateau on the back lawn, an activity too enticing for this inquisitive toddler to miss. Every attempt to get close to the work, however, would bring Buppy alongside gently to move me away from trouble.

I would rejoice in throwing open the lower kitchen cabinets, pulling out all the pots and pans, and banging forth a loud symphony with spoons, pans, and lids. Invariably, even before my grandmother ran out of patience, Buppy would get tired of the cacophony and stride into the kitchen, seize me by the back of my diaper with her teeth, and pull me away from my instruments.

I’ve not yet founded a city, and my upbringing by Buppy entailed neither sleeping in a cave nor suckling at her teat. There is no question, though, that the nurturing care and affectionate protectiveness offered in this first canine relationship introduced me to a world safer than it would have been without her, and molded me in a way that still resonates.

Airedale Terrier.

Airedale Terrier.

I was, I think, 15, when I arrived at home after school, my mother greeting me at the door, very hesitantly saying she had some sad news to tell me. I was in deep teen ennui in those days, and still trying to find a way through utter rejection of all things parental while maintaining the loving, supportive, parental relationship that had guided me to that point in my life. I remember grunting some monosyllabic reply.

“Tat was run over by a car today. The driver stopped and brought him to us. Your father has buried him in the back near the garden.”

I remember saying nothing, shutting off all response, all feeling, and walking off to the bedroom I shared with my brothers. I think I sat there on my bed for hours, my mother coming in at one point to comfort me. She had broken the news to me gently and kindly, but all I heard was that Tat was dead.

“Tat” was Tatters, actually. In those long ago days, dogs seemed to be named Fido or Spot or, often, Rags; my parents had chosen a dog for the family, an Airedale Terrier, and “Rags” would not do for him. “Tatters” it was.

Airedales are not very widely chosen these days as pets but, in the late 1940s, they were the most popular breed in America. Airedales are the largest of the terrier breeds, and Tat came from a line of particularly large Airedales. He was intelligent and adventurous, and he was a perfect companion for a growing three- or four-year-old child with a hunger for escapades and the freedom to wander. He was my best friend until his death.

We lived in the country, although this “country” was an academic environment with scientists and researchers living in reasonably close proximity to each other and to the laboratories and field work they were conducting. My younger siblings and I, and the young children of the other staff at the agricultural experiment station, ran pretty much wherever we wanted. Tatters was always eager to run with us, and he often took the role of protector or guard when we encountered something new.

Early on, Tat became fixated on moving cars. It was as if a moving car embodied every threat that could be visited upon him or us, whose welfare he had been entrusted with. There was a paved road that ran along the fronts of the staff houses, serving those houses and the nearby labs and offices. Traffic was always minimal and always slow . . . thus perfect for Tat, who chased every single one of the cars passing our yard.

He wouldn’t bark at first. He would be concentrating on a game of ball with us or contemplating the appropriate disposition of a just-landed mockingbird, when, suddenly, he would notice the approaching vehicle. Leaping into action, he would run at top speed to intercept the car, intending, apparently, to seize in his jaws one of the tires and perhaps throw the giant intruder to the ground to be dispatched.

Although he often caught up to the car and ran alongside, barking furiously, he never succeeded in biting one of the tires, but he was almost always successful in chasing the vehicle away from the yard. That success was sufficient to reinforce his commitment to chasing all future automotive interlopers, a commitment he never shirked. Up to the time of his death, more than a dozen years later, Tat was still protecting all of us from wheel-footed behemoths.

Tat had been with me as a three-year-old. On every journey, he accompanied me; going off with me to grade school, watching two younger brothers and two younger sisters arrive and grow into adolescence, up through my own passage into puberty and toward adulthood. By my mid-teens, however, I was beginning to reach beyond the bounds of even the expansive world I had grown up in, and Tat was beginning to slow just a bit, his short brown coat beginning to be a bit grizzled. By the time I was 15, Tat was not always ready for the chase when a car approached. But his faithful affection never faltered, and his willingness to embark on any adventure I offered never ebbed. When he died, the world was suddenly different: I would from then on be making my journeys without my childhood companion, without Tatters.

Sad Turkish Moggie.

Sad Turkish Moggie.

We had been friends for five or six years, Lois and I, when the cats began to appropriate parts of her life. She had been to Ohio for a family visit, had found an abandoned litter of emaciated kittens, and had somehow decided to bring two of them, a brother and sister, back to Beaufort.

They were both small and with peculiarities which would have made them undesirable for most adoptions. It was the female that won Lois’s irritated affection, a six-toed, splay-footed black-and- white runt with potential as a mouser. That potential was only guessed at, since it was usually dazed green lizards and dead toads brought in as trophies for her mistress. Mice seemed to evade capture. The occasional mockingbird carcass did not endear her to Lois at all. Lois named her Lupe.

Lois had not been, at least while I had known her, a cat lady, one of those hermitic women surrounded by felines of all descriptions as well as tins of cat food and ample newsprint. She did have a rather intense devotion to adopting strays of other types; in particular, children facing severe disadvantages because of neglect, abandonment, or poverty. She would see in each some great buried potential, some unique gift to which she alone was privy. Lois would meet a child at the market or in the neighborhood, perceive a need and offer to tutor or to mentor the child with trips to the theater or cultural events. These relationships might last for years, sometimes making a real difference in the child’s life, but almost always ending eventually in Lois’s deep disappointment or in a sense of betrayal.

Thus it was with some relief that I more or less encouraged Lois in her shift of attention from human strays to the more predictable cats. It seemed to me that less harm to all the parties would likely result from a change of species.

I have said that Lois was not a stereotypical cat lady. However, I cannot know whether there is some innate ability in cats gradually to dominate the minds and emotions of their chosen people; or whether some of us just naturally relinquish the control of our lives to our cat companions. Whichever is the case, over several years, I realized that Lois had begun slowly to withdraw from interaction with the world around her and to retreat to a life behind closed doors . . . with her cats.

The cats and she seemed to be in communion with one another when I visited. Lupe’s welfare seemed to take precedence over Lois’s own. In the years that passed with Lupe in attendance, the cat rarely left Lois’s side and, as Lupe aged and often fell ill, I began to be concerned for Lois’s welfare if Lupe should die before her.

It seemed odd that as Lupe clearly approached the end of life, a great orange mongrel of a cat, a mobile mound of matted fur and insouciance, began making frequent stops on Lois’s front stoop. Ostensibly a neighbor’s cat, a tom with a new set of scars at every visit, he just seemed to claim the spot as his new observation deck. Lois cursed him and went through the motions of shooing him away, but very quickly began to feed him and let him into the house.

Lois explained to her neighbor that the cat had—against all efforts to thwart him—taken up residence, and she hoped she would not take offence. The neighbor’s reaction was, “Good riddance!” Thus it was that Moggie became Lois’s newest welfare case, although the cat never really altered any of his behavior. The neighborhood was his, he went when and where he wanted, he willingly consumed the food provided him, but he would usually ignore any attempts at petting or intimacy. Moggie lived up to his new name, the British slang term for a mongrel cat.

Lupe of course died, and Lois was left bereft. At the end, Lois had begun to refer to her six-toed companion as her “familiar,” unaware that six-toed cats were traditionally killed in England, since it was believed that they were witches’ familiars. It became obvious that with Lupe’s absence and with Lois’s mourning, Moggie’s role was shifting in the house. Moggie became the constant companion, now, the silent observer overseeing the room from his perch on the sofa’s back. And Lois began to include Moggie in her conversations. Lois was the only human the huge tomcat would cuddle and purr with, the only one he would sit beside or even acknowledge.

Whatever the nature of their relationship, it was clear that Lupe’s role in Lois’s universe had been transferred to Moggie. Now it was Moggie’s welfare and Moggie’s health and Moggie’s wanderings which were of prime importance to Lois, and vast sums were spent to keep him healthy, as had been the case with Lupe before him.

Lois never considered herself a witch; never identified with such a supernatural concept. She would have been comfortable, though, with being called a “cunning woman,” one of those people acknowledged by a culture to have native wisdom or a gift for healing. Spirit animals, “familiars,” were the companions and assistants of cunning people, and Lois’s references to Lupe as her familiar were not simply an echo of a cultural artifact. Rather, I suspect Lois’s familiars revealed themselves to her as guides as she came to the end of her life. She welcomed them, obviously, despite her complaints about them, and they, in turn, both Lupe and Moggie, gave her solace and comfort and challenged her terminal misanthropy.

Lois’s impulse to nurture and guide lost waifs had led her to adopt and care for two abandoned kittens. Her wards became her companions, and her companions became her guardians as she faced the end.

Most of Lois’s ashes are dispersed in the oceans between her beloved Atlantic and her native Australia. Some, however, reside in a bronze heart, mounted over bowls of water and cat food for a new familiar who plots and schemes and directs the life of a new cunning companion.

Notes: Image 1, by Henktenklooster via Wikimedia Commons; Image 2,  by Pleple2000 via Wikimedia Commons; and Image 3, by Atasoy.emrah via Wikimedia Commons.

About William Balk

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, Will Balk was educated at the state's namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation's capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called "The Garden," Balk's aim has long been "to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by "ataraxia"—peace and freedom from fear—and "aponia"—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends."
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