A GOLDEN MEMORY

The grooming shop our family has owned and operated for almost fifty years was once a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm; all dogs were equal, but some were more equal than others. All canine customers were loved, but the undeniable fact was that Golden retrievers were loved the best. My late husband David came to be known far and wide as the Golden Retriever Man, although with his flowing salt-and-pepper locks and flamboyant facial hair, he looked more like a Bearded Collie to me. But a lovestruck smile lit up his face whenever he spotted a Golden, whether it was a velvet-nosed pup tripping over its feet or a stately senior, white-faced, dignified and dear. The shade of gold didn’t much matter either. Whether a deep cinnamon red or a platinum blonde a la Marilyn Monroe, the man was Silly Putty.

The roots of David’s obsession could be traced directly back to Goldie, the first in our family’s long procession of Goldens. Call it fate, coincidence, good karma or dumb luck, her entrance into our lives marked a true family milestone, but oddly enough, for my husband that initial meeting was decidedly not love at first sight.

Hanging on to our flower children ideals back in the Seventies while raising our own brood, David and I had yet to accumulate the down payment for a house of our own. It was 1972 and we lived in one of suburb’s largest apartment complexes.

Like her father, seven-year-old Missi was a social activist. She was always bringing home strays, the reasons for their ostracism making them all the more attractive.

“Mom, I’d like you to meet Froggy,” she said one day as she walked in with a schoolmate. What an unfortunate nickname, I thought as I turned to shake hands with her chubby chum with the protruding eyes and the less than perfect complexion. “Pleased to meet you,” he replied in a voice that sounded strangely like a croak.

The unusual-looking youth’s visit shouldn’t have surprised me. Our youngest had previously brought home turtles, lizards, injured birds and one confused old man who got lost on his way to the Senior Citizens’ Drop-In Center. But Goldie was unquestionably her best find. I was folding laundry the afternoon my daughter carried her into the hallway, a reddish-gold bundle of fur I mistook for a mongrel.

“I’d say it’s a purebred, probably some kind of hunting dog,” ventured twelve-year-old David, Jr., like many firstborns an authority on most subjects.

“I found her at the dumpster,” said Missi, moist-eyed and out-of-breath. She clutched the unfortunate foundling much too tightly as it stared at me with plaintive eyes.

“No license, Mom. That means it’s homeless,” Peter advised, a ten-year-old detective as smug and unkempt as Colombo himself.

“Let it out,” I told them. “It will find its way home.” That’s all I needed, a stray dog. We already had a cage full of hamsters and a turtle upstairs in Missi’s bedroom.

All three went silent, their eyes meeting in a rare moment of sibling unison. Grimly, they trooped outside as I returned to my laundry. When my husband came home from the grooming shop, they reappeared, the shaggy orphan in tow.

“Dad,” began the eldest gravely, “Can we please keep this little red dog?”

“Can we keep her? Can we keep her? Can we, can we, can we?” chanted the other two in a breathless backup chorus.

“Absolutely not!” David replied. And that’s how we acquired Goldie.

Warned repeatedly that someone might show up to claim her, the kids pored over the Lost and Found column in the weekly newspaper. They held their collective breath when I called the dog officer to see if anyone had reported her missing. When strange cars pulled into the parking lot, they sprung into action, taking turns hiding the dog behind the trash barrels, in the storage shed, in the back seat of my car. Aided and abetted by their cohorts, they formed a circle like a herd of Musk Oxen, their defiant stares enough to discourage any inquiring stranger.

With precious little imagination, they named her Goldie and she became the toast of the apartment complex, playing ball, hide-and-seek, serving as a willing hostage in countless war games. When Peter was caught by the beleaguered superintendent smuggling her into the swimming pool after hours, my son was embarrassingly unrepentant. “She swims like a fish, Mom,” he exclaimed. “Did you ever notice she has webbed feet?”

In years to follow, she climbed mountains in Canada, chased seagulls on Cape Cod and dutifully slept with any family member who was feeling poorly. She retrieved countless foul balls, served as a handy floor pillow for TV watching and was unfailingly discreet as an under-the-table disposal for unwanted vegetables.

Missi never needed dolls; she had Goldie. I still recall the dog’s look of stoic resignation as she was wheeled around the apartment complex in my old wicker stroller or draped in an organdy curtain for her stint as a bride. But she liked it best when the kids played doctor. Supine on the sofa, wrapped in towels as bandages, her tragic face bespoke the universal plight of disaster victims everywhere.

In those days before Dr. Ruth or Dr. Phil, she was cheaper than a marriage counselor, though she always seemed to listen with more sympathy to my husband’s side of the story. It peeved me mightily the morning I heard him whisper softly, “Goodbye, Sweetheart,” as he left for work — and realized he was talking to the dog.

When Missi took her through a basic obedience course, Goldie garnered top honors. “You’re looking at the smartest girl in the class,” my husband boasted as they returned home on graduation night.

“She did pretty well on her report card, too,” I agreed, beaming proudly at my daughter.

“I meant the dog,” he said.

Goldie was not without her faults. She was a repeat offender with the dog officer, our town’s most zealous public servant. Three times in one year she was apprehended for soliciting on school property, in hot pursuit of lunchbox leftovers or friendly pats. With each subsequent offense, the fine got stiffer. “Maybe she likes riding in his truck with all those blinking lights,” my daughter mused.

And she never got over her weakness for the dumpster. From across the asphalt it beckoned her, an outdoor smorgasbord of infinite variety, and she always heeded its siren song. When he caught her ecstatically rummaging, my husband angrily chastised her, but David, Jr., sprang to the dog’s defense.

“Aren’t you forgetting something, Dad? When she was living on the streets, she would have starved to death without that dumpster!”

“Thank you, Clarence Darrow,” he sighed, retreating to his recliner and his headphones.

As age brushed her face with the clown paint look so endearing to Golden lovers, she gracefully made the transition to the role of hostess at the grooming shop. No matter how many canine clients crossed that threshold daily, she would rise to greet them, her back end swaying happily if a bit unsteadily.

She was around eleven when David noticed a swelling of the left eye. “It just doesn’t look right,” he worried, hustling her off to our veterinarian friend. Tests revealed it was a tumor, perilously close to the optic nerve. “These things are usually malignant,” our friend told us gravely. “I could make more tests if you wish, but if it is cancer, it will spread very quickly to the brain.”

We had him operate immediately, removing the eye and stitching it neatly closed. Goldie was back on the job in no time, her one good eye cocked at attention and the other forever fixed in a sly wink.

Our Golden mania eventually included an annual week of “Golden Daze” at the grooming shop each February, when all Golden Retrievers were groomed at discount rates. In the short, dark days of New England winter, the event boosted our business as well as our spirits. Eventually, the owners of other breeds balked at this blatant discrimination. We still called it Golden Daze but ultimately, all canine customers received price breaks and prizes of treats and toys during the annual celebration.

Falling in love with our animals guarantees a built-in heartbreak, waiting in the wings. We know at the outset that their life spans are much shorter than ours, yet we are shocked and devastated by their loss. When we lost Goldie at approximately age seventeen, we wrote up a eulogy for the local paper.

“This year’s Golden Daze at The Village Groomer will be dedicated to our beloved Goldie, Queen of the Golden Retrievers. For many years, she would meet and greet her friends and their owners at the shop each day. She will now be performing these duties s at her new post in Doggie Heaven.”

For weeks, the shop’s atmosphere was heavy with emotion. Friends and customers called and stopped by to express their condolences. Some made donations in Goldie’s name to animal shelters and humane societies. Flowers, fruit baskets and sympathy cards kept arriving by the armload.

“Maybe we should have held a wake,” I remarked to my husband, my Irish heritage coming to the fore. Wrapping me in one of his big bear hugs, David patiently explained the obvious. “Don’t you see, honey? That’s exactly what we did.”

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