I’m sure you’ve all been moved by watching a film or reading a book where a loyal dog somehow rescues the family. Maybe she barks during a fire, rousing the household. Maybe she frightens off an intruder. Or she drags an aging grandma out of a collapsing house.
I’ve read this stuff too. And I’ve seen plenty of old Lassie movies as well. What a heroine Lassie was, throughout her unbelievably long life (actually her many long lives)! I’m sure you also know that not all dogs are Lassie-like, heroic in deed. Some are more uninspiring, less idealistic. Some are in the mode of total selfishness, or as Pop, my grandfather, would have said in Yiddish, for zir alein, for herself alone.
Our dog Gringo was a shameful cowardly mutt, an abandoned puppy whose own mother couldn’t even be enticed to love her. Gringo cared most about Number 1, and that was Gringo. She became ours, but she was no Phoebe. Phoebe was the dog you would trust with your life. Not so Gringo.
Let me backtrack. When my husband and I got married, at Steiners in Newark in 1960, I had never lived without a dog. He had never lived with a dog. I haunted him with the many enticements of dog ownership. Living in a city, for example, the dog would ensure we got lots of excuses to get outdoor exercise in the frigid winters and torch-like summers. In heavy rain or blinding blizzards we would still be out there, breathing the fresh air, while our dog looked for perfect spots. Everyone who’s ever had a dog knows that snow-covered sidewalks make finding the right spot much more difficult. The scent may be covered, but the dog never loses patience and is never bothered by the inclement weather. Luckily, that means we get healthier with every single freezing minute.
Furthermore, the dog would protect our bare apartment from any burglar intent on wasting his time, walking out empty-handed. There was truly nothing to steal.
And most of all, the dog would learn many tricks and be adorable. Say Shabbat shalom, for instance, and she would give you her paw in greeting. A win/win situation all the way! But Gringo never learned that trick, although she did have some tricks of her own.
So we found a foundling and named her Gringo. I don’t recall the details but I hope we didn’t pay for her.
Gringo fell madly in love with us. And why not? She was treated like a princess, indulged, with good food and loving care, never dreaming that the arrival of a living room couch was not for her use alone. I suppose she wondered why her parents looked like humans. She clearly thought of us as Ima and Abba.
It was Mrs. Goldstein, across the hall, who told us about her deceits. Every weekday morning, when I would set out to my job as a third grade teacher at Newark’s Miller Street School, I was accompanied down the single flight of stairs by Gringo’s resounding and torturous fierce sobbing, emanating pathetically from our apartment. She couldn’t seem to tolerate that we’d be separated for a few hours. She clearly missed us so much that she cried all day, loud, poignant, terrible shrieks of pure misery. I wondered why the neighbors didn’t complain until Mrs. Goldstein told me that as soon as the building’s front door slammed shut, Gringo would instantly turn off the drama and not be heard again until one of us returned home. Then she would resume her act while we climbed the stairs, feeling guilty that she had sobbed through the day. We foolishly believed that she hadn’t moved from that front door grandstand. Did we never wonder, though, whose hair was all over the couch and who had made the nice taut bedding into a tossed tempest of sheets and pillows and comforter?
But the real problems began when we walked over to Newark Beth Israel Hospital to deliver our first baby, Amy. Gringo, who was never that brilliant, figured out that this would be trouble for her. When we first arrived back at our apartment, proudly carrying our new baby, Gringo was totally uninterested. She refused to go near the new little girl, a challenge in a small apartment, a challenge that she was very much up to. She would hide. She would never again enter our bedroom where the crib was set up. Her disdain was clear to all. She had no use for this creature, a person who had charmed us from the first moment we laid eyes on her.
Our baby had a calm persona from birth on and would have enjoyed gazing at her very own puppy, if only that miserable hound would let her, try to bond with her, gaze back at her. Nope. She wouldn’t.
It was hate all the way. And I tell you now, until Gringo left us about 14 years later, that situation never ever improved.
We were not inclined to bring Gringo to a doggy psychiatrist. But her reaction was pretty clear. She felt displaced. It was acute jealousy, and while she forgave us, apparently she never forgave Amy or the three additional babies who followed her. She simply had no use for the children.
I can produce the perfect proof. It’s on an old 8mm home movie film that we took in the summer of 1966. Amy was nearing 3, playing in the backyard of our nice new single family house in Clark. An above-ground swimming pool was filled with fresh water for her to “swim” in. It was a hot day, and we suggested to Amy that she carry a pail of water from the pool and give it to Gringo, who was thirsty. So our adorable toddler filled the pail and started walking over to that nasty hound. The water splished and splashed as she carried it to the dog. When she got close, Gringo pulled herself up and went up the four steps that led to the mudroom, to escape the gift of the water. Undeterred, Amy climbed up the steps, spilling half the contents of the pail as she laboriously tried to give Gringo the water. So Gringo went down the stairs to escape again. This scene was repeated several times — one went up and the other went down. Finally Amy gave up. Looking dejected, she sadly popped her thumb into her mouth. Gringo won the battle but lost the war. She remained thirsty until we all finally went into the house.
Gringo never attacked or bit any of the children, but it’s a miracle our kids grew up loving dogs. Whenever any of them ever neared their own family pet, she would growl at them. If that didn’t serve as enough of a deterrent she would lift her lips and bare her teeth, mean looking enough to keep the kids at bay. Gringo was, in other words, rotten to her core.
Nonetheless what were we to do? Her threats were not nice but they incurred no damage, and after living with us for years any attempt to give her away would be a one-way trip to the executioner. Who might be looking for a mongrel who hated children? We kept her, year after year after year.
And then we did the truly unthinkable. We brought Gringo to Israel, on a giant El Al 747. I will tell you about that adventure soon. There’s lots to say!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!