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Lady and the Scamp - Cilla Walford

Travels with Sarah  -  Part One

I am walking a well-trodden path down to a sandy beach by the Mississippi River. The day is lovely, but Sarah, the black dog who should have been running in front of me, off-leash, as she generally was, stopping occasionally to look back and make sure I was still following her, was gone. She should have been scurrying from smell to smell, reading the wonders of the trail with her nose, and trotting off again, her feathery tail describing joyful spirals in the gentle autumn sunshine. She should have been there to enjoy this walk with me, as we had enjoyed countless walks over the past fifteen-and-a-half years, but she was newly dead, and my grief was a raw wound.
When I acquired a dog, I never imagined that I would grow to love her so much. For years I disliked dogs. When I was growing up my mother always had dogs, often several at a time. Sometimes one of them bit me, "You must have been teasing him, darling!" They were always undisciplined, accustomed to having the best seats, to begging at the table, barking for food, licking the dinner plates, jumping over passengers in order to get out as soon as the car door opened, scrabbling with sharp claws and emitting fetid breath. Dogs were a nuisance. My mother would often say “I much prefer dogs to people” and “I always wished I could have whelped pups instead of you lot.”
The dogs lived at home, while from the age of eight to seventeen I was packed off to boarding schools. This was the 1950s British way; thus we middle-class children acquired a stiff upper lip and the Received Pronunciation (RP) as linguists call it of the Queen’s English. At school, I slept on horsehair mattresses and sheets that the school matron cut and sewed “sides to middle” when they wore thin, so that at night the rough seam insinuated itself along the length of your body. At home, my mother’s dogs slept with her on the big bed in the master bedroom; my father, when he was home, was relegated to the spare room. Through her dogs, my mum expressed her bitterness and frustration with life in general. When the English Setter swept my grandmother’s antique Crown Derby coffee pot off a low table with a brush of his tail, shattering it, my mother’s first instinct was to laugh. Her dogs were her “Up yours” gesture against the world.
For years I thought I didn’t like children either. I was afraid of them. I never wanted any of my own. Children, like dogs, were undisciplined nuisances.
When I had my son I was nearly forty. Inevitably he was born a dog person, a gene no doubt inherited from my mother. As soon as he could walk he would toddle up to dogs and I would cower behind him for protection.
“Please can I have a dog!” he would plead as soon as he could talk. “I’ll take care of it! I’ll pick up after it! I’ll feed it!”
His father and I finally agreed to get him a dog for his eleventh birthday. A dog-loving friend advised me to get a Cockerpoo. “They are intelligent, sweet-natured, sturdy enough to play with a child without getting hurt, and they don’t shed.”
She loaned me a dog crate, and we were off looking at puppies. We visited puppies in their homes, and people brought carloads of puppies to us in parking lots. They were adorable, but none of them seemed to click with our son. And anyway, I thought, they would grow up to be dogs and there would be no sending them away to boarding school. I hoped our son was cooling on the idea.
One visit was to a couple in South Minneapolis who had advertised Cockerpoo pups in the local paper. The puppies' mother, a Cocker Spaniel, was a black shadow inseparable from one of the women. The father, a curly poodle, jumped around us with his son, the last of the male dogs to find a home. 
“That’s your dog,  ” I said to my son, watching the puppy leap about in a hyperactive way. “He reminds me of you.”
“No, I like this one,” he said. I turned to look at a puppy so far unnoticed in a corner of the dog crate. She was sitting watching us, her ears black ringlets framing brown eyes. “That’s my dog” he continued. “Her name is Sarah.”
“Are you sure? Don’t you want a male dog?”
I tried to dissuade him, but he had made up his mind. We wrote out a check for one Cockerpoo puppy and agreed to pick her up two weeks later as she was not quite ready to leave her mother. 
On the way home I asked my son, "Why Sarah?"
"Because she reminds me of Sarah Dagg. You know. Your friend with the ringlets." 
My friend said she felt honored, although she had spent much of her childhood being called Sarah Dog.
So it was that on a snowy evening, we collected Sarah-the-dog, then two months old, and took her home with us. I carried her out to the car under my coat, against my heart. 
I carried her around her new home, much as my husband had carried our newborn son around our first apartment. I showed her the bedrooms, the bathroom, the sunroom, the living room and the dining room. I showed her the dog crate under the kitchen table, and I lay down on the kitchen floor and touched my nose to hers. Knowing my long-held antipathy to dogs, in general, my husband muttered, “I never thought I’d live to see the day”.
The first night in her crate, Sarah cried. I got up and took her outside, after failing in my efforts to wake my son. “I’ll take care of her, I promise!” drifted away on the night air. I watched as she skipped out into the snow and squatted, her tail a graceful arc. Her mother, Rose, had house trained her litter, leading them outside to squat behind her, an ellipsis of black dots in the snow. Back inside, I placed Sarah in her crate with her blanket and went back to bed. As the males in the house slept, I listened to Sarah cry. Unable to bear it, I got up and cuddled her. I took her into my son’s room. “Your dog is lonely. She wants to sleep with you.” I placed her on the foot of his bed and covered her with one of his old baby blankets. After a minute or two, she began to cry again, insistently. Soon, my son stumbled into our room with his dog. “I can’t sleep. She’s keeping me awake.” And so it was that over the objections of my husband, Sarah trained me to sleep with her.