February 26, 2009 § 1 Comment
I saw Michelle Obama on TV complaining about the names her daughters are considering for the new First Dog, a Portuguese Water Spaniel : Frank and Moose. I’m always in favor of kids having free rein with pets’ names, unless they name it something obscene or after their grandmother.
But the thing is, Frank. My mother had a dog named Frank. Her rule of thumb, learned from her father, is that a dog’s name must be one syllable so you can call it easily. My grandfather had hunting dogs, so this rule made sense for him. If you were ever part of a big family and experienced a parent try to call a bunch of kids inside, away from the cliff, out of the water, and mangling all the syllables in a frustrated snarl, you’ll get the point.
Frank loved my mother. When he was a young adult animal, she was a single woman in her midfifties, her kids out of the house. She wanted that devoted love, and a Doberman is a nothing if not a devoted, one-point-focus kind of animal. But she also wanted to be free to travel with her boyfriends. Particularly she wanted to accompany a rather unpleasant Australian man who took her all over France and Italy: the kind of leisurely car trip we all dream of, although not with him.
While she was gone, a young man named Greg looked after her house and Frank. Greg was a gay friend of my brother’s who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, and my mother had extra room, so he lived with her. She always liked having a young person in the house, and was happiest when her children were of an age to provide her with needy cast-offs.
Frank missed my mother intensely. He mourned, as only a dog can, silent, stoic, not knowing if the beloved will return but holding hope alive steadfastly. I’ve always been inordinately sympathetic to the loneliness of dogs. It seemed a crime to me to inspire that degree of love and then depart with no way to explain or reassure, no possibility of postcards. On the other hand, in my mother’s place, I would have gone to Europe.
Greg told me that one night he came home from work—it was summer and still light out—and found Frank on the lawn, staring at a line-up of my mother’s shoes. My mother had 15 or 20 pairs of shoes, some quite old. Frank had taken one shoe from each pair out of her closet, down the stairs, across the hall, through the kitchen and outside. He had arranged them on the grass and then lain down in front of them, nose between his paws.
I was living in Berkeley then, reading Proust, Flaubert, Colette—all the masters of unrequited love—far too afraid of that kind of surrender, although I thought of myself as daring in matters of passion. And there was Frank, who could never take my mother to Italy, who didn’t own a car, couldn’t compete with a man who was far beneath him except for the small matter of species—Frank, who could only carry the shoes that held her scent out into the sunlight and look at them.
Maybe you don’t want this model for your daughters, Michelle. But I have to say, Frank was a good dog.
“The woman whose face we have before our eyes more constantly than light itself…this unique woman—we know quite well that it would have been another woman that would now be unique to us if we had been in another town than that in which we made her acquaintance, if we had explored other quarters of the town, if we had frequented the house of a different hostess. Unique, we suppose; she is innumerable. And yet she is compact, indestructible in our loving eyes, irreplaceable for a long time to come by any other.”