Accidentally Family

Both my parents were only children. My brother and sister and I grew up with no aunts, no uncles and no cousins. At Christmas this was a boon. I listened in horror to my friends who only got one present and had to share their rooms with cousins from all over. My sister and I shared a room in an amicable truce that lasted through our adolescence. I often wished the room was mine and I’m sure she did the same. The last laugh is mine as I now have that same room all to myself. Growing up with a well pruned family tree I wasn’t even sure what cousins or second cousins were. I understood dog pedigrees but never put the two together.

Rediscovering my roots holds little interest for me since I am happy with all I know about my family, but a couple weeks ago a long forgotten picture made me curious. Not about the people in the photo. People from my mom’s side of the family. A rather stiff family portrait common for the day. As my gaze travelled around the photo something previously unseen caught my eye. The supine form of a little, collared dog resting his rear feet on the patriarch’s shoes. It was clear he had wandered into the shot and layed down. Perhaps bored by the activity and the length of time it must have taken to set up the portrait. It is not clear even whose dog it is. It might just as well have been the photographer’s animal. Somebody thought enough of him to put a collar around his neck. He is of uncertain lineage but seems totally relaxed in the staid atmosphere of the Victorian photo. The little dog has been preserved in our family history, name unknown, as a family member.

There is an old trunk in our basement containing my paternal grandmother’s mementos including a large number of photographs. She was a doting mother and many of the photos contain images of my father’s childhood and the various homes they lived in. When we travel to shows south of here along Interstate 25 we pass a place called Watrous, New Mexico. If you look to your left, from the southbound lanes, you will see a sprawling house with a new, green metal roof. It is an adobe house and my father and his parents lived there for several years. My father was born in 1913. The pictures I discovered were from that time forward to the 1930s. Many of the photos contained dogs. My father as a teenager, crouching with his prized Great Dane, a mail-order Pointer and some farm dogs hung in my grandmother’s house for years. In the picture the larger dogs were there on purpose, but I’m not so sure of the smaller ones. Maybe they are the Dane’s mongrel puppies or maybe they just liked hanging out with the big guys and the young boy.

Dogs were part of more than a few photos in the old trunk. Sometimes the dogs were clearly pets or appeared to be props for people having their portraits made. But there were others where the dogs appeared to have insinuated themselves into the scene. Choosing just the moment the shutter was released to jump up on the person in the shot. Shyly peeking from behind the legs of some long forgotten family member or standing like the second brother as one was photographed on his way to military school. These dogs were the accidental family members of the people recorded on film. Just as their wild ancestors did, these dogs crept into the lives of the humans around them and made themselves at home.

I was struck by how casually the dogs slipped into the scenes. They never seemed to be intentionally part of the photos, but since they were there, why not? A photo of a woman dressed in period clothing baiting two dogs with hunks of some tasty treats was taken outside some post office in an unknown New Mexican town. The writing on the bottom of the photo declared “…after the blizzard 1917”. Another showed a mixed breed dog being held by a man, sitting by a woman and pickup truck, and still another was obviously taken to show a precious young girl outside the Watrous House, watching a litter of puppies. None of these dogs seems to have been the focus of the photographer’s efforts. They were merely there, like the rocks, dirt and yard debris. Like the houses and buildings themselves. Sharing the lives of the people, but not as prominent as our dogs are today. The dogs don’t seem to mind this objectification and in fact seem to be content in their roles. Like Kilroy, they were there, waiting to see if somebody noticed and if they didn’t they were still there. Wandering in and out of the lives of their people.

Some of the dogs appear in more than one photo. None were on leashes, but they didn’t seem to need them. Where would they go? Where had they come from? I wonder how many of these dogs died before their time from diseases we now routinely vaccinate for. How many litters had these bitches whelped. Part of my father’s family lore was how the Great Dane gave birth to her puppies under their porch. His father would never allow an animal inside the home.

We never heard the fate of this Dane or the Pointer he sent away for through the mail. The dogs in the photos lived in a simpler time. No designer dog food, no catalogs devoted solely to their needs and lives much shorter than their descendents who live with us. Dogs weren’t expected to live terribly long lives and trips to the vet were a rarity. In the western United States of the early 20th century, life was hard, money was precious and there was none of it to spend on yard dogs. But these old photos revealed how people enjoyed the company of dogs and while maybe not making an effort to include them in their day-to-day lives, didn’t mind if they tagged along.

The last photo in the trunk was an 8 X 10 of a Scottie bitch. Edith was her name and she had been purchased by my father, after his return from the war in 1945. The bitch had been sent to him through the famous, Bob Bartos, who handled Scotties for the Carnation Farms in Washington, State. This was his first show dog and first terrier. He had her when he met my mom. He had been draw to the breed for its large and strong teeth. My father had bred Pekingese prior to Edith’s arrival, but was disturbed by their poor dentition. I have no idea why this was so important to him, but it was. It is unclear what happened to Edith, but she was a gateway terrier for my parents. When they looked for their first family dog in 1956, they considered Scotties, but opted for a dog they felt would be better with kids. They answered an ad in the local paper and brought home Bran, our first Kerry Blue Terrier.

I spent several hours exploring the bygone years in the photos. Most were not dated and few of the people were identified. I was free to imagine who they were and wonder if they loved their four-legged companions. Who could not love a little collared dog sleeping with its feet on your shoes.

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