Here is one of my favorite passages from Colette, in which she describes, on her first visit to Paris, \”…the surprise and melancholy aversion aroused in me by what I called houses without animals–mere cubes without gardens, flowerless abodes where no cat mews behind the dining-room door, where one never treads near the fireside on some part of a dog sprawling like a rug; rooms devoid of familiar spirits, wherein the hand seeking a friendly caress encounters only inanimate wood, or marble, or velvet…\” (Colette, My Mother\’s House, translated by Una Troubridge and Enid McLeod, 1953)
I grew up in one of those cubes–in Barcelona, not Paris–a vast, echoing, turn-of-the-century apartment with tiled floors. My mother, having grown up on a farm, was a firm believer in keeping all non-human living things outdoors. A French couple lived in the apartment above us–he played the cello–with a pair of German Shepherds whom they transported in the elevator, and whose fleas feasted on me. That was the extent of my contact with the animal world during the school year.
In the summer, at my grandparents\’ farm, there were plenty of animals–horses in the stable, pigs in the sty, chickens in the chicken house, rabbits in hutches, the hunting dog chained in the courtyard, and the semi-feral cats wherever there were mice. But my grandmother would have fainted at the thought of my bringing the dog, or one of the kittens that periodically tottered out of the hayloft, into the house.
It wasn\’t until after my children were born that I had a house dog. Since that time I have never been without one, or two, and now three dogs, plus the occasional cat, under my roof.
It\’s a pain, believe me, having dogs in the house. They have to be house-trained, which requires the patience of a saint and the focus and strategy of a guerrilla fighter. They shed amazing quantities of hair; they gouge the floor with their nails; they occasionally throw up, or worse; they are forever stretching out across doorways; they run and skid and wrinkle the rugs; they knock wine glasses over with their tails; they snore at night; and they wake you up in the morning. Who would ever want to deal with all that?
I would. In my experience, all warm-blooded animals, all creatures capable of inspiring and returning affection–including children–have their inconvenient aspects: they poop, they pee, they spit up, they wake you up when you\’re asleep, they have to be brushed and thought about and talked to.
But think what you get in return: a pair of eyes that follows your every move; a set of feet that trots after you from room to room; melancholy partings and ecstatic reunions at the front door; something warm under your hand, at your side, or on your lap whenever you want it; a steadying rhythm to your days (wake up, go outside, eat breakfast, nap, go outside, wait for dinner….); a good-humored, all-forgiving presence, and more.
For myself, I cannot think how I ever took a nap or read a book without an animal beside or on me, or fell asleep without the comforting sound of a dog turning around three times and then flopping down like a sack of potatoes. I spent half my life in clean, orderly rooms \”devoid of familiar spirits.\” But I\’m making up for it now.