It must have been 1998. I didn’t have much working in my favor. I was a full time college student, and a part time waitress. My first apartment was void of most furniture, and my transportation was usually out of commission. At the time, I was driving a 1984 Ford Mustang, to type that or say it out loud is somewhat misleading. The name draws images of something cool and fast. That was not the case. It was not a great model, it was beige, not dissimilar to the color of a hearing aid. The driver’s side door was black and so was the hood (I’d had an accident the year before and the original door and hood had been replaced). Aside from its outward appearance, there were much bigger problems: the emergency brake didn’t work, and there was often a problem with the starter or solenoid. The starter would go out at random, sometimes the car might start as expected, but most times it didn’t. More often than not, I’d have to put the automatic transmission into neutral, pop the hood, get out of the car and bypass the solenoid with a screwdriver I kept in the car at all times. Fairly simple if the car wasn’t parked on any kind of slope. Since the emergency brake didn’t work, the car would sometimes roll away. I got pretty good at parking in the low places of any parking lot in town.
One sunny afternoon, my son and I pulled into the parking lot of Wal-Mart. Keeping the starting of the car dilemma in mind, I parked far away from the entrance where there were few cars. We started the long walk to the entrance. His little hand in mine, his golden curls glistening in the sun. We approached a vehicle with a person and a big box sitting outside. On the box was written, “Free puppies”. Of course we stopped, mostly because I loved watching every new experience of my little boy. I was immediately gripped with a strange sense of obligation: every little boy needs a puppy. I had visions of companionship and love between a child and a dog. I was painfully aware that I couldn’t give him everything that I wished I could, but I was fairly confident that I could do this. We chose a little black ball of fluff. She had little brown spots above her eyes that looked like eyebrows, brown feet, and a brown cross on her chest that looked like a bird in flight. We named her Princess Buttercup (I was a long time fan of The Princess Bride).
The decision I’d made to take on a dog was both a blessing and a nuisance. On the down side, she barked a lot, at everything. She was not particularly friendly to newcomers (she was downright aggressive, mostly), she would get excited and pee on the floor, I never could teach her how to walk on a leash. Over the course of her lifetime, these things never improved. However, regardless of how illogical it was for us to have a dog, she was a constant. She loved her boy, and he loved her. No matter where we lived or what we did: I was his mom and she was his dog. I like to think that these facts were a constant comfort to him. When we moved out from a broken down trailer, he was anxious and sad. Not all change is bad, but how do you express that to a child? Home isn’t a place, I told him. It’s a feeling. A feeling of safety and comfort with the people you love. I think that people recognized that feeling within us. My next landlord had expressed some reservations about a dog in our apartment, but she allowed it. A young woman, her boy and his dog. That was our sense of home. Buttercup had a long life. Her bad habits simply a part of the unity that we held. She was 18 years old, and she waited for her boy to come back from college before she took her last breath.