My Fondest Memory
My fondest, or perhaps first, memory is of my German Shepherd Duchess; it was 1961, and we had moved into the country from the state capital that summer when I was three years old. We could now have a dog, since our new ranch house sat on a full acre, and so my sisters scoured ads, and we found a puppy for sale, all we had to do was give them twelve books of Green Stamps! Does anyone even remember collecting stamps from stores anymore?
Duchess wasn't a typical Shepherd--at least not the police-dog type--she was mostly brown, with black muzzle and hairs scattered through her entire coat, but she was an excellent guard dog! The family was sacred to her, and anyone who messed with her people was asking for it, even if it was in jest--the growl was the first warning, then a clamp of the jaws on an offending leg--not enough to break the skin, but a sure sign that anything else was entirely on your shoulders. She was a friendly dog, but would only take so much from a person before she would act: one incident was legendary--a group of boys riding bikes would throw rocks at her when she was a puppy, and when she got older, they tried it again, but with vastly different result--this particular day, she chased them and pulled one off his bicycle! That was the last time that group rode by our house.
As the years passed, she and I were constant companions, walking through the fields and along the narrow lanes of our neighborhood, chasing after me when I rode my bike, or chasing us as we would sled down the big hill in winter. During the summer we would play in the creek at the foot of that same hill, or doze in the shade of the ancient oak tree there where our tree-house was. I remember so many times when Duchess would be standing up to her knees in the creek, pawing at the water and barking at the small fish who swam there...So many days and evenings were spent just sitting next to each other with my arm around her, or her head resting on my lap--I would tell her all my secrets, good and bad, and receive the same soft brown stare back every time, without judgment or censure.
Finally, high school came, and while friendships had been formed, enjoyed and drifted apart, the one constant was Duchess--waiting for me to get off the bus after the forty minute ride down tarred country roads--ready for our time together now that classes were over. She was a big dog, over one hundred pounds, but as fast as ever when it came to playing--but the years had begun to show with her graying muzzle, a slight stiffness when she got up, and having to call a bit louder for her on occasion. I still get a laugh when I think of tenth grade photography class--the instructor saw one of my prints in the rinsing sink, and asked "Why is there a wolf in your driveway?"
Since I was the youngest of four, I considered Duchess to be my dog, especially since my three sisters were between six and ten years older...so it was my burden to see the daily changes, albeit gradual, which came to my beloved friend; by senior year, she had lost her hearing, and walking was very hard for her--but she would still play the loyal watch dog by laying in the yard where she could see anyone approach, and her bark would ring out, though it would often break by its end. The time was coming when I would be going off to college, even though it was a local one--but I couldn't envision my life without Duchess--she was my first real memory and I had never been separated from her in all those sixteen years!
June, 1977: Graduation Day! My best friend, a German exchange student and I were dressed in cap and gown having pictures taken in the yard...Duchess in the background watching with her dark brown eyes. A happy day for us, and one of the last great memories I have of my `puppy'. A month later, after suggestions from my sisters and parents, it finally got through to me that no life can last forever, and that constant pain which so severely limits your actions is no life at all. My father was the only one who would take Duchess to the vet for her final visit--my sisters, and myself in particular--were too distraught to do it. Before they left, I had sat with her for some time, hugging her, petting her, and talking softly into her fuzzy ear...all the time with tears on my cheeks.
We buried her in the back yard by the edge of the corn field behind us...next to a few birds, a duck and a couple cats who had come and gone during the years...but Duchess was my first love--if you can say that of a pet--and from that day to this, I have never again, despite the anguish, spent those final moments away from my pet's side. The last sight my pets have had on this earth, is me holding them and looking into their eyes as the spark dims from the vet's injection after all other options have failed.
A bittersweet memory perhaps, but I wouldn't have given up any of the pleasures of owning Duchess--those make the experience a priceless gift, whether that life be short, or long as it was in her case.
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