A career grooming dogs and cats was not exactly what my mother had in mind as a suitable vocation for me. “All that education,” she had sighed, “gone to the dogs.” My mother was a world-class sigher. I guess she wanted me to be the U. S. Ambassador to the United Nations, the Poet Laureate, a brain surgeon, or at least Judge Judy. Instead, I chose to concern myself with whether Daisy, the Golden Retriever, was packing on the poundage around her hips and needed to switch to a low-calorie dog food or how short Mrs. O’Reilly wanted me to clip Ginger, her Cocker Spaniel. Mom could never understand. She hoped I’d get a real job someday.

She never was an animal person. She couldn’t relate to the pleasure of having pets, the age-old bonding to these endearing companions who depend upon us completely, like children who never grow up. In my case, they also paid the bills. Befriending the animals was a no-brainer for me. Sometimes I even bonded with their owners too, becoming their lifelong friends.

But I was a groomer working in the real world, not Alice in Wonderland, so sooner or later I was destined to meet my first annoying client, a person who could make me want to tear out my hair or explode in raging tears, all within maybe five minutes. Her name was Edwina Stone.

Wearing a lumpy green parka, baggy brown corduroys tucked inside knee-high red wool socks and mud-caked work boots, she appeared in my shop in the dead of winter as I sat sipping coffee and perusing the pet supply catalogs. A sturdy woman somewhere in her forties, her cheeks were crimson from the cold, not makeup. This rawboned female was resolutely unadorned.

Snowflakes dusted her eyelashes and dark curls escaped from her stocking cap, a faded relic of Nordic design featuring reindeer and pine trees. She clapped together huge woolen mittens, scattering snow all over my floor, and brusquely announced herself. “My name is Edwina Stone and I have a rather large dog out in my truck. I don’t know as you’d be able to groom her,” she said, looking me up and down with barely concealed disappointment, “but do you think you could possibly cut her nails? I could do it myself,” she added with a mirthless chuckle, dismissing the task to the proficiency level of any old ninny, no matter how feeble of mind or body, “but I seem to have misplaced my nail cutters.”

As usual on a snowy day, I’d had more cancellations than customers, so I was happy to oblige. She returned with a shaggy white beast resembling the Abominable Snowman. Despite its intimidating size, the dog had the gentlest face I had ever seen. “This is Margo,” Edwina announced. “In case you’re unfamiliar with the breed, she is a Great Pyrenees.”

“Of course,” I said. Not for one moment would I make Miss Know-It-All aware that I had never laid eyes on one before. I led the furry giantess through the door to my back room and with the help of Trudy, my bather-brusher, and my overactive adrenals, I hoisted her onto the largest table. She weighed well over 100 pounds, I guessed, trying not to grimace under Edwina’s piercing gaze. The elephantine animal was unfazed and cooperative, lifting each paw as I wielded my jumbo-sized nail clippers.

“Don’t forget her double dew claws,” chided her owner in that monotone voice which seemed to emerge from wired jaws. “You do realize the Great Pyrenees is one of the few dogs requiring the rear double dew claw as an official breed standard.”

“Of course,” I smiled as Trudy suppressed a giggle. She loved to see me grin and act polite to annoying people while seething inside.

As Margo stepped gingerly down from my table, I tried to make pleasant conversation with her owner. “What a lovely breed!” I enthused. “I wish they were more popular.”

“Actually,” pontificated Ms. Stone, “they are a very ancient breed. As a matter of fact, fossils of the breed type which predate the Bronze Age have been unearthed.”

“Well, that was before my time,” I joked lamely. Trudy’s eyes danced with delight as she watched the exchange go further downhill. “I’m glad to hear it, though,” I continued. “If they’ve been around that long, I guess they’re here to stay.”

“Au contraire! If it were not for the timely intervention of the French aristocrat, Monsieur Bernard Senac Legrand, the breed would have been doomed to extinction long ago,” she declaimed. “He began a selective breeding program in the early part of this century.”

“Thank goodness,” I sighed, my appetite for the breed history more than sated. As they left, Edwina allowed me to give Margo a dog biscuit. The hefty canine inhaled it, her soft eyes begging for more.

In the months to follow, my education on the Great Pyrenees continued unabated. Edwina would drop in, always expecting instant service and never parting with more than a few dollars. Not one to spend lightly, she’d scrutinize each purchase intently, opening her wallet as if it caused pain to her rough, reddened fingers. I half expected moths to fly out.

“Exactly what are the ingredients in these cookies?” she would demand, her eyes squinting to read the labels. “All natural, indeed!”

“Most people identify the Great Pyrenees with Spain,” she began one day, launching once again into her favorite subject. “In point of fact, it originated in the mountain range which separates Spain and France. Hence the name.” She absent-mindedly twirled Margo’s flowing tail as she paused to take a breath.

“Once the favorites of French nobility, they were officially known as the Royal Dogs of France.” I stared at the parentheses framing the corners of her mouth, now turned downward in a satisfied smirk.

“I thought they were used for herding sheep,” I commented dumbly.

“Close!” she chirped, reminding me of a third grade teacher I once hated. “Actually, they were employed as flock guards rather than herding dogs.”

“You know,” chimed in the wide-eyed Trudy, “they do kind of look like big sheep, don’t they?”

“Very good,” Edwina enthused, wagging her finger at my assistant as if encouraging a below-average pupil. “Their sheep like appearance makes them non-threatening to the flock. In fact, pups were separated very early from their mothers and raised right in with the sheep.”

“Ooh, that’s sad,” mumbled Trudy, now on the verge of tears.

“Not at all,” Edwina asserted, squatting to throw her arms around Margo’s neck. “They actually bond with the sheep when they are a few months old — just as this delightful creature has bonded to me!” Their eyes locked in pure devotion.

If they could bond to you, Sweetheart, they could bond to anyone, I thought as I smiled and nodded.

I’m the first to admit that Edwina’s condescending attitude irked me, but I did learn a lot from her. And I was smitten with Margo. The two had begun attending obedience classes and Edwina sought to impress us by putting the big girl through her paces.

“Heel!” she’d command sharply, as the full-figured Margo padded demurely at her side.

“Come!” she demanded, her steely blue eyes honing in on Margo like laser beams. Like a shy chubby girl finally asked to dance, the big dog swayed voluptuously across the room, eyes downcast, finishing with a sit as dainty as a curtsy before her mistress.

“Edwina should have been in the army,” remarked the admiring Trudy softly, “or maybe the Marines.”

“One of these days, I’m going to pull that stocking cap down over her eyes,” I whispered through my smiling teeth.

But I felt truly honored when Edwina finally allowed us to groom Margo. At first, she coached from the sidelines.

“Gently thin those fuzzies on the tops of her ears!”

“Brush the neck hair forward, towards her head! It should frame the face!”

“Whatever you do, depack the coat on that rump!”

“I’m going to kick her rump out of here, right now,” I mumbled to Trudy as I turned to address The Iron Maiden… “Edwina, if you want us to groom Margo, you’ll have to come back when she’s finished.” I took her arm and guided her to the door.

When the job was done, Margo’s massive white coat glowed, airbrushed with the silver-tipped frosting of her ears. I rubbed cornstarch powder into her feet and legs to whiten her up even more. As she traipsed out the door, as majestic in her splendor as a princess on her way to the ball, I felt proud. And pooped. Edwina circled and scrutinized her dog; she could have been judging the Best in Show at the Westminster. She must have been pleased, surprising me with not one word of criticism.

On one of her subsequent visits, I asked Edwina if she had family in the area. “Oh no,” she replied. “My parents and brother Clifford — he’s the attorney -live in Grosse Pointe. Another brother, Gerald, lives in Los Angeles.”

“Is he in the movies?” Trudy asked.

“No, no!” Edwina snorted. “Although he’s certainly handsome enough to be a film star, he’s in Investments.”

When I sympathized because they were so far away, she impatiently dismissed my concern. “I see them every Christmas,” she said. “In fact, they always send me a round-trip ticket.”

I’ve always been nosey. My neighbors have told me that if I ever give up dog grooming, I’d make a great private eye, although that line of work would probably not have pleased my mother either. Through my sleuthing, I found out that Edwina’s wealthy family paid her a handsome monthly stipend — to stay away. She lived on a small farm a few miles from my shop, bought and paid for by her father. Although the only work she did besides tending to her livestock was to volunteer on behalf of animal rights’ groups, she drove a brand-new pickup truck.

“It’s so sad,” I said to Trudy. “Can you imagine paying someone in your own family to live far away?”

“Edwina?” she asked, her eyebrows arching like question marks. After a long pause, we nodded in unison.

Yet Edwina worshipped her distant clan, one day bringing in a well-worn photo album to show us the gallery of the cold-blooded characters. Her father sat at an ornately carved desk, looking florid and expansive in a pin-striped suit. Beside him stood Mother, her small hands perched as lightly as birds on his well-upholstered shoulders, her smile as tightly wrapped as her thin, permed hair. A snapshot of the beloved brothers showed them as teenagers, their faces resembling Edwina’s but far more handsome.

“I brought this very album with me when I went shopping for a pup,” she informed me, patting the book with reverence.

“You brought your photo album to the breeder’s?”

“Of course! I sat right down on the floor with the litter of pups and, do you know, the only one to come over and look at these pictures with me was Margo!”

“That was that,” she beamed, satisfied that she had devised a foolproof method of puppy selection. “I reasoned that if she liked my family, she would like me too.”

As she selected toys and treats for Margo’s upcoming kennel stay over Christmas, I asked Edwina if she’d be remaining with her family over New Year’s.

“No, no,” she sniffed with her usual disdain. “Margo and I have our New Year’s ritual all planned. Each year, we book the same room at our favorite hotel up country. We order our filet mignons from room service and turn the telly to Times Square. We’ll be wearing our party hats and I just may have a bit of Champagne,” she confided with a devilish grin.

“When that lighted globe drops down the pole, believe you me, we make quite a ruckus.” She patted the dog’s ample rear with a conspirational smile. “The sky’s the limit with Margo. You might even call her a party animal!”

Several holidays had come and gone since Edwina told me of this seasonal tradition. Margo’s age was starting to show. She sashayed across the room more slowly and those sad, caressing eyes were becoming clouded.

Giant dogs, like their oversized human counterparts, are not blessed with a long life expectancy. Heart trouble, skeletal problems and intestinal ailments are to be expected.

Edwina single-mindedly monitored Margo’s decline, fiercely devouring veterinary journals. I listened to her discourses and sympathized — with her, and even more with her beleaguered vet. She still upbraided me for saying the wrong thing but I no longer had the urge to pull her stocking cap down over her eyes.

Each year, in the midst of a New Year’s Eve party growing boisterous, I paused for a moment to think of that strange pair and drink a silent toast to the two raucous revelers and the extraordinary love they shared, silently wishing them both a Happy New Year. And many happy returns.

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