A Christmas Story

When my sister and I were little girls my father brought us a Christmas present that has become the stuff of family lore. It was an Olde English Sheep Dog named Greta, purchased from the pet department at Harrods and transported back to us in Florida in the cockpit of a Pan Am 747 where my father was serving as the engineer. What is remarkable about this gift is neither the dog nor how it was dispatched to us, but just how uncharacteristically spontaneous and joyful a portrait it paints of the man both capable of conjuring up this plan and pulling it off (obviously in days of laxer airport security): a man purportedly my father. Greta was a good pet, but we keep the story alive in my family mostly because we want to know this man.

As long as I can remember, my father’s main hobby has been watching the stock ticker tape roll by on CNN. Occasionally as children we were introduced to other pilots, many of them ex-Navy like my father. These men had a penchant for Corvettes, speed boats, and second wives. They seemed like another species. Despite having chosen a job that allowed him to travel the world, my father’s interest in the cities he was visiting – Karachi, Delhi, Paris, Beirut! – never seemed to extend much beyond a (admittedly self-reported) glass of milk in the hotel bar. During the period when he was hitting a lot of Middle Eastern routes my mother got a few rugs and my sister and I got some bootleg tapes of U2 and Huey Lewis and the News, but I suspect this was more the result of a sympathetic stewardess than my father’s own initiative.

Greta was never really a dog made for south Florida. She got fleas, her hair fell out, and when it thundered, as it often does on a summer afternoon in Florida, she hid under a side table next to the couch. When I was about twelve or thirteen the time came for Greta, long crippled by arthritis, to be put to sleep. My mother had taken my sister and me to our grandparents’ house in California for a few weeks of summer vacation, leaving my father alone in Florida to do the deed. He was distraught when he called us after having put her down. I took the phone at the desk nook built into my grandparents’ kitchen and, after listening briefly to his teary retelling of the afternoon’s events — intended to assure me the dog went peacefully and was in a better place — I began to sing the Meow Mix song, a popular advertisement for cat food in the 1980’s. I had moved on. I wanted a cat and would torment my parents with the Meow Mix song from then until the time Cleopatra, a bitchy one and a half year old Siamese cat I found through an ad in the Fort Myers News Press, was purchased for me for $20 from a couple who mysteriously didn’t want her anymore. It was, upon reflection, not a good lesson for an adolescent to learn about what you do when someone old and sick dies (replace it) or you don’t like someone anymore (sell it).

I like to think I made it up to my father when I gave him my dog a few years ago when we moved from Los Angeles to England. I say gave when I really mean insisted he take her. It shouldn’t have been a hard sell. After all, my father had loved having a dog and it was ridiculous that it had taken him twenty years to get another one. He had taken up no new hobbies since retiring unless you count the Internet, which he uses daily to log on to his Charles Schwab discount brokerage account. (The hint provided by the fact that his house abuts an eighteen hole golf course has not been taken.) Now he spends all his time cooking the dog bacon then taking her out for urgent walks because she can’t really digest human food. These days when I call it’s all about the dog: the lizard she chased through the patio screen, what she ate, defecated, bit. There’s still no sign of a globe-trotting bon vivant who buys his children live Christmas presents from Harrods and sneaks them back across the Atlantic in the cockpit of a plane. It’s just a man and his dog.

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