Pets made no sense to Sharon Stephen­son’s im­mi­grant mother, so her daugh­ter’s plead­ings and wheedlings for a puppy went ig­nored. But where there’s a will….

North & South - - Contents - BY SHARON STEPHEN­SON

Sharon Stephen­son’s child­hood plead­ings for a puppy went ig­nored. But where there’s a will, there’s a way...

We were eight, go­ing on nine, the year of the tow­elling shorts – those clas­sic, rounded shorts edged with white pip­ing that slicked high up the out­side of our thighs, mak­ing us look (we thought) like Olivia New­ton-john’s 80s roller-skat­ing babe in Xanadu.

I pleaded, I bribed, I cried, but my mother re­fused to buy me a pair (“We can’t af­ford it and your brother’s handme- downs are just as good,” she’d say ev­ery time I asked). For­tu­nately, my neigh­bour Amanda had two – one lime green, the other a burnt- or­ange pair she lent me. We must have looked like hu­man traf­fic lights as we moved through our sub­ur­ban neigh­bour­hood, noses streaked with sun­block, Amanda’s dog, Skippy, sidling be­hind us.

That small dog – and the or­ange shorts – were the only rea­sons I gave away my sum­mer to Amanda; she was the original mean girl who stacked in­sult on top of rude­ness on top of cru­elty. (She once told me my skin was brown be­cause I didn’t clean it well enough. Like a fool, I be­lieved her, scrub­bing at my legs with Mum’s hard-bris­tled laun­dry brush in the be­lief proper hy­giene could change the colour.)

Amanda was short and blonde and swore a lot be­cause, she said, she liked the way the words felt in her mouth. She was an only child, which meant she got things she wanted, like two (two!)

pairs of tow­elling shorts and a dog that I adored.

Skippy was a ter­rier mixed with some­thing yappy, his dirty blonde coat in­ter­rupted by a per­fectly round whorl of tan fur half­way down his back. His lin­eage was a ques­tion mark: he ex­isted only be­cause one par­ent had bro­ken through a poorly erected wire fence and found the other, a wan­der­ing stray.

Amanda’s aunt, who lived in an even more unlovely sub­urb than ours, turned up one day wear­ing a flo­ral dress and bruises, with five-month- old Skippy tucked un­der her arm. She was leav­ing her hus­band and couldn’t take the dog. So Skippy, who’d had three homes and three own­ers in his short life, came to live next door to me.

I was elec­tric with joy: I’d spent years want­ing a dog, dream­ing about hav­ing a puppy that would snug­gle into the foot of my bed each night, play fetch with lurid green ten­nis balls and sit in my lap as I watched Diff ’rent Strokes on tele­vi­sion. True hap­pi­ness, I be­lieved, would be mine as soon as I owned a dog. Ev­ery vi­sion I had for my life, up to that point and into the fu­ture, fea­tured a dog at the cen­tre of it.

Un­for­tu­nately, I was born to a woman who nei­ther liked, nor saw the point of, dogs. An im­port from a hot­ter, more ex­otic coun­try, she be­lieved dogs had their place, and it wasn’t in our home. “Dogs are dirty, they shed hair and they ruin the house,” she would yell, as I cried that not own­ing a dog marked me out as dif­fer­ent from my Kiwi friends.

It made no dif­fer­ence: where she came from, dogs were some­thing to be avoided, or kicked when they got in the way. Mum was damned if that was go­ing to change in her new life, half­way across the planet. “Im­mi­grants and com­pan­ion an­i­mals don’t go to­gether,” she’d say. “We have enough trou­ble putting a roof over your head and food in your belly with­out an­other mouth to worry about.”

Her re­fusal to have a dog si­lenced even my fa­ther, who’d grown up with dachshunds and liked to tell the story of Jock, the last short-haired sausage dog in a string of them, who’d been poi­soned by a rat. “Jock waited un­til I got home from work, looked me in the eye and then died,” he’d say, his throat thick­en­ing.

That was my fa­ther’s de­fence for a ca­nine-free house: it’s too hard to get over a dog when they die.

They must have been per­plexed by their younger daugh­ter’s ob­ses­sion: I wall­pa­pered my room with spent SPCA cal­en­dars and was in thrall to ev­ery dog- own­ing friend who let me es­cape into a fan­tasy life that was better than my own. And while I may have bro­ken up with Amanda, who had moved onto a dif­fer­ent school and dif­fer­ent friends, her dog and I were still very much an item.

Skippy would squeeze his low belly through a gap in the fence and sit at our back door, wait­ing for me to come out and bounce a ball against the breeze­block shed. When he’d had enough, he’d bur­row his black nose into my leg as I lay read­ing on the grass, be­fore fall­ing into a deep doggy sleep, in­ter­rupted oc­ca­sion­ally by tiny barks.

When I was 12, my par­ents bought their first house, across town from Skippy, and I had to say good­bye. The sheer sav­agery of the loss was such that, for a time, I gave up on dogs. I cer­tainly gave up on ask­ing my mother for one; per­haps I fi­nally ac­cepted it was a goal so un­ob­tain­able, there was no point in try­ing.

It wasn’t un­til my last year of uni­ver­sity that I re­alised I was fi­nally of an age where I could make my own de­ci­sions about pet own­er­ship. My kind of doggy ded­i­ca­tion re­quired me to give a home to a res­cue mutt, one that re­ally needed me. So, un­be­knownst to my par­ents, I rang shel­ters and the pound, try­ing to find a pet to fit my life and mea­gre bud­get.

A few weeks later, a dog con­trol of­fi­cer showed up at my par­ents’ house with a medium-sized col­lie- cross, his long cop­pery fur braided into dread­locks. He’d been found wan­der­ing in the hills be­hind Wainuiomata and was scared and shiv­er­ing. “I know you wanted a small dog, but we’re go­ing to have to put this one down today if you don’t like him,” the of­fi­cer said, her voice ser­rated by a 20-a- day cig­a­rette habit.

I’m sure I wasn’t the first per­son she’d used those words on, and I don’t even know if it was true, but they cracked some­thing open inside of me. Even if the dog was ag­gres­sive, skit­tish or a bad egg, I would have to take him; the thought of a liv­ing crea­ture be­ing put to death be­cause I didn’t like the cut of his jib was un­fath­omable to me.

I named him Cujo ( blame a teenage fas­ci­na­tion with bad Stephen King nov­els) and he was, as it turns out, adorable, sweet and gen­tle. Grumpi­ness and ag­gres­sion were not in his skill set and peo­ple smiled widely when­ever they saw him.

That in­cluded my fam­ily (“Move out of the way, Cujo needs the heater,” Dad would chide us). Even my mother’s ra­dius of com­pas­sion grew: she re­alised the only way to adapt to the change was to give her­self over to it. She learned how to share the same space as Cujo, even to scratch the spot be­hind his ears he liked so much. Slowly, even­tu­ally, my for­mer dog-hat­ing mother turned a blind eye to the 10kg ball of brown fur at the foot of my bed.

A year later, I got into jour­nal­ism school and moved to Auck­land. I couldn’t have taken Cujo with me even if I’d wanted: he had filled a hole in my fam­ily and be­come its fo­cus. I once heard my mother boast­ing to a friend at church that hers was “the best be­haved dog in the world”. Cujo lived un­til he was 16 and my par­ents cried as bit­terly as I did when he came back from the vet in a body bag.

My el­derly mother isn’t the kind to give away af­fec­tion eas­ily but these days, you can al­most trip over her love for my dogs ( I usu­ally have at least one). She has a vaguely manic in­ter­est in them, ad­dress­ing Christ­mas cards to the “grand­dog­gies” and ask­ing about them ev­ery time we speak.

Once, when she was feed­ing pieces of chicken to my dog un­der the ta­ble, I asked her why she changed her mind about dogs. She said it was be­cause she saw how happy they made her chil­dren. “It went against every­thing I be­lieved, but I knew it was right.” +

Res­cue dog Cujo. His name may not have matched his gen­tle na­ture, but Cujo caused a seis­mic shift in a fam­ily pre­vi­ously on dif­fer­ent sides of the dog-own­ing fence.

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