There was this dog we loved and lost on Christmas morning, 1951.
It changed everything.
We lived in a clapboard farmhouse then, built a hundred years earlier and insulated with Civil War era newspapers layered between the rafters and floorboards. It was a rickety-rackety place that sweltered in the summer and shivered in the winter when no amount of coal heaved into the basement furnace could sufficiently heat the cast iron radiators, or warm the boiler of bath water. The windows rasped with the wind, the floors creaked with the rain and the back door flew open unexpectedly.
“It’s just a spirit visiting,” mom would say, having given up on getting my father to replace the antiquated latch.
We were born in that house; three brothers, two sisters and I. Our childhood was spent clamoring up and down its winding stairs, playing board games on its covered porch, wishing on the first seen stars in the night sky from its roof, and never suspecting life would be any different than it was each day we were living it.
Advertised as a White Elephant for three thousand dollars with nothing down, my folks bought the house because it was the only place they could afford. Ours was a life of necessities: three meals a day, twice removed hand-me-downs, a block ice icebox, a single extension phone, broomstick horses, pillowcase capes, corrugated carton sleds and summer vacations camping in a W.W.II army surplus tent at state parks where mom boiled coffee and cooked meals over an open flame while we faux-fished with safety pins tied to kite string, scouted butterflies and floated on boats made from inner tubes wrapped in clotheslines to resemble canoes.
They were wondrous years made better by the presence of a ninth member of our family adopted on the morning of my birth. Her name was Clancy. She was our family dog.
“It’s written,” said my mother, “that the original Irish setter wasn’t the pure mahogany color we see now, but a burnished red with a snow white bib and matching diamond set in the center of its head.” Clancy was born with both and – even though we boasted about the markings of her ancient pedigree – we secretly believed she possessed the heart of an angel.
Clancy was our comrade and confidante. She accompanied us on errands and watched over us when chores needed doing. She got us to school on time and waited there to greet us at the end of each day. When we ate she sat near the table. When we bathed she stood near the tub.
When we read she rested her head at our feet. When we played she kept watch over our safety. Games were intensified by her barking approval, birthdays were celebrated with her howling accompaniment, sorrows were soothed by the gentle touch of her cold nose on salt-streaked cheeks and many a bitter winter night was made warm by her body filling the cold void at the bottom of one of our beds.
But my best memory of Clancy is of the Christmas morning in 1951 when we awoke to find her gone.
• • •
A fortnight before my father made his instructions clear. “Each of you is to make a list of everything you want for Christmas.”
“Everything?” I asked, eyes wide with surprise.
“What did I just say?”
I winced. My father was a disciplinarian who expected to be obeyed without question. That wasn’t hard, since he worked eighty miles away and often forgot to check for compliance whenever he came home on alternate weekends.
“Everything,” he reiterated, “no matter how ridiculous. Is that clear?” He stood glaring at our frozen forms before taking a Chesterfield from it’s crumple-pack, lighting it, removing a stray tobacco bit from the tip of his tongue and continuing on. “In one week you’ll each give me your list in an envelope with your name on it and I’ll mail them. Dismissed.”
My mom was as affectionate as my father was aloof. It was she who encouraged us to always make amends after arguments and share our few possessions.
“You six are the only people on earth you’ll ever know your entire lifetime,” she’d remind us. “Cherish that.”
What began with cooperative glee quickly turned into the drudgery of pencil shavings, eraser residue, wadded-up paper and the sweet smell of spent crayons. Each night before bedtime we’d meet to exchange ideas, promising no duplicates would be recorded and agreeing that the first person to list an item would own it and regulate borrowing times.
“It’s the perfect plan for maximizing returns,” the eldest of us assured.
“Who’s Max?” I asked.
“Just do as you’re told!” he demanded, knowing I rarely did.
During our final review of lists I noticed my brother Kit had added a P.S. to his. “Dear Santa Claus,” he wrote, “I’m tired of sharing Clancy. Please bring me a puppy.”
Certain I was the only sibling who felt the same, I promptly drew a puppy on my list.
The next morning our signed letters in sealed envelopes were handed over. As we stood at attention accepting praise from my father for this mission accomplished, none of us knew that each of us copied the request for a puppy originated by Kit.
• • •
Every Christmas Eve Clancy accompanied us on our journey to find the sweet smelling blue spruce my father had tagged in a tree camp, chop it down with a Boy Scout axe, tie it to the roof of our maroon Ford station wagon and cart it home for trimming to the sound of carols playing on the Victrola and the comfort of Big Top peanut butter on toast dunked in mugs of Ovaltine. The trips were always cold and cramped and ripe for disagreement, but especially so that year when the predicted ‘light flurries’ became a heavier downfall. Even Clancy was agitated. She wailed with the whipping wind all the way home.
Tree trimming included hanging aluminum-hinged Shiny Brite glass ornaments, thumb thick multicolored Royalites, peppermint canes, silver tinsel and a garland of popcorn and cranberries draped under a white plastic angel with spun glass hair and a die-cut skirt of stars that glowed from a small yellow bulb tucked inside.
That angel was near and dear to my mom. Each year she watched my father teeter on a chair to place it on the treetop, signaling our time for bed. On the way upstairs we’d stop at our red brick cardboard fireplace to thumbtack our stockings to its flimsy black mantle where mom had balanced a glass of milk, molasses cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer.
Even though Clancy scratched at each of our bedroom doors, no love would jump onto our beds to guard our hearts that fateful night. We all ignored her pleas by forgetting her faithfulness, preferring the promise of a puppy.
• • •
A blizzard engulfed the house while we slept. The weight of its drifts barricaded the downstairs windows and forced open the back door.
Most mornings, the first boy up would check the fire in the furnace and shovel in more coal as needed. By the time he finished, the gas stove would be warming the kitchen and momma would have oatmeal ready to quell our chant, “Food for the inner-man!”
But that Christmas morning was different.
We six awoke and sprang from our beds as one, fueled by anticipation and oblivious to the unusual cold as we felt our way down the darkened stairs, huddling close until Kit flipped the switch turning on the overhead globe and illuminating a living room piled high with gifts.
There were bikes and baseball mitts, sleds and skates, trumpets and teddy bears, dolls and drums, trains and planes, chemistry sets and butterfly nets, kites and cowboy hats, battery operated cars and trucks, books and balls, and clothes and caps arranged around our very first television set!
It was as if all my wishes on first seen stars had been granted in one felt swoop and – by possession of them – I’d never again enjoy the luxury of wishful thinking.
My siblings sensed it, too. Somehow we knew we’d committed the crime of excess; having everything we’d ever imagined as glorious within our reach. And yet – instead of joy – we felt a collective emptiness.
“Where’s Clancy?” I wondered aloud, not noticing the absence of puppies. Twelve eyes darted in six directions.
“Here Clancy, here girl,” Kit called out, whistling for her to come. We joined him in calling her. “Come, Clancy. Come!”
“She’s gone,” my father declared, already dressed to leave the house through a second floor window, hoping to spot a sign of her from the porch rooftop. “She got out the kitchen door last night and was caught in the blizzard. She couldn’t get back.”
“It’s my fault,” I blurted, my lips curled and quivering with regret. “I asked Santa for a puppy. That’s why Clancy ran away. Oh momma,” I blubbered, burying my face in her lap, “I didn’t mean to do it.”
Kit immediately confessed to asking for a puppy, too. And then, one by one, the others exposed what proved to be our family folly.
Momma comforted us as best she could while watching the day die in our eyes. It was more hurt than she could bear.
“Kit,” she urged, “check the bin to see if we have enough coal to last. It could be days before we get dug out of here and no telling of what’s going on with the neighbors until your father returns. Take your sister along. Let her help you.”
The steps to the cellar were thick-pitted pine, worn smooth on the edges from a century of use. I slid butt-to-step down them into the pitch black, whimpering, until seized by the sound of a soft, steady thumping.
“Is that the monster you said lives down here?” I whispered to Kit as he fumbled for the lights.
“I was just teasing about that,” he hushed back.
He grabbed my hand as the lone light from a hanging, 40 watt bulb flickered on, shedding a soft glow directly below it. And there, in its corrugated remains of the television box was our tail-wagging best friend, Clancy, proudly nursing her six newborn puppies.
• • •
By the time the puppies were weaned, we’d assured my folks we were happy to share our one red setter. But it wasn’t until the last of the litter was adopted that we realized we’d been promised and given everything we’d wanted for Christmas – yet none of us could recall what we’d gotten, except for those puppies that we gave away.
Nine years later Clancy died. We buried her in the back yard, her grave shaded by a pear tree my father planted when she, the tree, and I were all the same size.
Thirty years would pass before the pang of joy replaced the pain of loss and I adopted another Irish setter. She looked a lot like Clancy. She had the same white diamond on her head and white vest on her chest. She was as loyal and as loving and as totally trusting of me as Clancy was. I adored her in every way.
But somehow, come December there’d be those bittersweet moments when she’d remind me of a Christmas tree with only old ornaments and popcorn streamers, a cardboard fireplace with Orlon socks dangling, a hard plastic angel, six little kids and the joy of a solitary present to pine over.
The holidays are – and will always be – a beautiful time of year.
A time I remember that giving is its own reward, sharing is the truest joy, and love is the greatest gift.
A time and a spirit likened to, but never quite the same as it was – as we were – that one incomparable Christmas.
# # #
This freshly edited essay was first published in 1976 in The Antiquarian Magazine. Copyright by Marguerite Quantaine © 1976 & 2013.
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