Every glance in the mirror confirms it: I have definitely attained Little Old Lady status. Not that there is anything pejorative in the term: in the post-RBG era, Little Old Ladies (LOLs) defy the old stereotypes. But there is no question that I have arrived: I can no longer tolerate stilettos, coffee, or hot peppers, and may sometimes be heard groaning as I get up from the sofa. I even have the ultimate Little Old Lady accessory: a Little Old Dog (LOD).
Contrary to the LOD cliché, Bisou, who will be thirteen next month, is neither yappy (Cavaliers seldom are), nor fat. Her BMI is better than mine, because I am more successful at controlling her food intake than my own. But in other ways we keep pace with each other, and it seems odd that she, who was born when I was almost old, has now caught up and matches my decline.
She sleeps a lot these days, and is hard to rouse from her naps, as am I. She is deaf as a doorpost, but she’s really good at following hand signals, just as I’ve gotten good at reading lips and body language when my hearing aids don’t quite do the job. Her eyes, which match the rich carnelian of her coat, are as cloudy as mine would be if I hadn’t had cataract surgery.
We both have zero heat tolerance, and when the temperature reaches the 80s, we exercise indoors. A speed demon in her youth, she can no longer catch balls on the fly. She still gallops after them, but slows to a trot on the return. It used to be that my arm would get tired of pitching long before she got tired of retrieving; now she can only manage fifteen minute sessions. I know how she feels–I used to run for miles, heft bales of hay, and walk to work in high heels. But where are the snows of yesteryear?¹
On the other hand, we both still enjoy our food, having enough teeth left to chew it, and our hearts, according to her vet and my doctor, are beating as they should. She is always at my side, and every time I leave the house she follows me to the door with eyes that say “Are you really leaving me behind?” Of course, in the normal order of things, before too long she will be leaving me behind. I can’t begin to imagine life without that “heartbeat at my feet.”²
It’s easy to scoff at the bond between us LOLs and our LODs, but what is wrong with having an outlet for our maternal instincts now that our children and grandchildren no longer need them— instincts that persist long after the hormonal tides have receded? Mothering a dog, a cat, or a parakeet takes us back to the days of our prime, when we were needed every waking hour (and often during sleeping hours as well). Sure, we were tired a lot then, and longed for uninterrupted time alone. But we were essential, which we no longer are.
And that’s hard for humans to get used to. Just think of retired CEOs, former engineers, and superannuated college professors: give them the least opportunity and they’re back to organizing, tinkering, lecturing. Is it any wonder that the work of motherhood is hard to give up? Hence the little old dogs, the cats, the parakeets, and even the houseplants that enliven the days of LOLs and soak up the endless flow of nurturing energies that would otherwise drive our descendants mad.
So to our grownup children and to society in general I say, be grateful to our Little Old Dogs, plump or slender, yappy or not. They keep us women of a certain age fit (all that walking) and flexible (all those forward bends to pick up poop). They keep us emotionally stable (someone loves us, rain or shine) and give shape to our days (no lolling in bed until lunchtime). And they make us feel needed, which helps us endure our aches and pains, keeps self-pity at bay, and gives us a reason to carry on.
¹François Villon, Ballade des dames du temps jadis
²Edith Wharton, “My little old dog, a heartbeat at my feet.”