I met Sally not long after I started my third grade year, a time when I needed a friend more than anything in the world. The summer prior to third grade, my divorced parents had stopped speaking to each other due to a visitation dispute, of which I was the unenthusiastic center. Two weeks preceding my ninth birthday, Mamma got caught in a metal winding machine at work when the machine’s safety device failed. The accident nearly severed both of her arms and killed her. During her recovery, we had to temporarily move in with and depend upon my maternal grandparents, who lived in a house next door to ours and owned the farmland where both houses sat.
I had other “minor” personal problems, too. Just before school started, Mamma paid a discount hairdresser to bestow a new style on my golden hair, hair which to me was “long and flowing,” but which to Mamma was “straight, flat, stringy, and too tangled to mess with.” My begging and pleading lost to age, authority, and the threat of a spanking if I didn’t cooperate. So I found myself drug into a hair-whack shack—literally a “shack”—located in the middle of a chicken yard and run by a scraggly old hairdresser who looked as if she made up for many a slow business day by selling her own teeth. She chopped away all of my precious hair’s length and shape, sentencing me to a bob cut that my classmates said made me “look like a boy,” a whole new reason to insult and avoid me. Still another difficulty befell me that year when I started riding the bus for the first time, and one of the burly eighth-grade passengers decided to use my body as his punching bag and kickball each afternoon on the way home.
I was an only child with no friends at school. I lived in a tiny, rural town in Alabama that offered few activities for children to participate in, eliminating any opportunity for me to meet children other than the jeering ones in my class. The possibility of meeting friends through neighbors was also out. My mom’s and grandparents’ simple homes were the only two houses located on a dirt road surrounded by forests, empty fields, a railroad track, and a two-lane county highway that intersected with the opposite end of the road, about one-quarter of a mile away from our end. Thus, my only companions were my temporarily-disabled mamma and “Mamaw and Papaw,” my loving but busy grandparents. It’s no wonder I ended up in the school counselor’s office so many times that year.
One Saturday morning following Mamma’s accident, while we were still living with Mamaw and Papaw, Mamaw came into the guest room and awakened me. There was only one guest bed in my grandparents’ house, but Mamma did not sleep in it with me. Childish insecurities had always made me feel more comfortable sleeping next to Mamma, even when we were at home, and it was something I wouldn’t fully grow out of until a year later. But at the time, I had to tolerate it because Mamma had full casts on both of her arms and slept more comfortably alone on the living room recliner, which she felt was safer, in her condition, for the both of us. Looking back now, I’m sure part of it was that she didn’t want me to wake up and see her calling upon Mamaw to help her with her middle-of-the-night excretory functions.
This morning, Mamaw had a big, bright smile on her face. “Get dressed. I have a surprise for you.”
I could tell it was a good surprise for once. After all the bad surprises I’d had that year, I sure was ready for a good one. “What surprise? What surprise?” I grinned, slinging back the covers and almost somersaulting out of bed.
Mamaw warned me to quieten down because Mamma was still sleeping in the chair, and since she hadn’t slept well last night, she needed her rest. Then Mamaw said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
After I got dressed, Mamaw led me outside to the backyard. And there, sitting on the step like she owned the place and us already, was “Sally,” as I’d soon call her. Her big brown eyes were crusty and in need of a cleaning, as well as watery. Later, the family would all speculate that the watering, along with the crust, was from an eye infection. But I always swore it was because she had been crying. As early as that moment, she somehow seemed human to me.
The rest of Sally looked even more neglected than her eyes. Black grease and oil stained her tan hair, face, ears, and body, the latter of which was so undernourished that the outline of her ribcage visibly jutted beneath her skin. Yet to me, she was the most beautiful dog I’d ever seen, maybe the most beautiful dog in the world. Especially when she greeted me by jumping on my lap, licking my face, and wagging her tail.
“Wow! Where did…” I quickly lifted her up to determine her gender. “… she come from?”
Mamaw shrugged. “She was in the driveway when I got up this morning. I guess somebody dropped her off on the highway, then she wandered down here.”
“Why’d they drop her?” I asked.
Mamaw, like me, had a soft spot for animals. She answered with a mixture of sadness and bitterness, “Sometimes people do that with dogs and cats when they don’t want them anymore. Instead of taking them to the pound and doing what’s humane, they just drop them off somewhere and leave them to find a new home on their own, or to starve to death and die because no one takes them in. I guess that’s what happened to her. Her owner didn’t want her anymore.”
“I think that’s just cruel!” I declared. The idea of such heartless owners enraged me, yet it broke my heart, too. “Poor baby! How could anyone do such a thing to a sweet, cute little puppy like that?” I looked at Mamaw anxiously. “Oh, Mamaw, we can’t let anything like that happen to her again. Can we keep her?”
We had a few other dogs around the farm, but they had all designated their care providers and objects of affection as my mom or grandparents. This puppy, though, this one could grow up to be all mine. And if that happened, I just knew she’d be the best one of all the dogs, too. I began to get excited at the idea and started bubbling as I went on, “I’ll feed her and walk her and water her and do everything to take care of her, I promise.”
“We’ll ask your mamma. But for now, we need to clean her up and get some food in her body. She looks like she’s half-starved already.”
So Mamaw gathered a washtub, shampoo, and some old cloths. We filled the tub with warm water, then put it down in the backyard and sat the puppy inside. She took to what was probably her first bath better than any dog I’ve ever seen, never struggling to get out, even when we dumped cup after cup of water over her to rinse her. As she gradually began to look more like an animal than an oil spill, I was able to get a much clearer idea of what she looked like. To me, she was more adorable than ever. Her long ears that stood out and almost straight upright, her small features, her short round face with its long pointed snout, all told us she was a Chihuahua mix, yet only a stone’s throw from being a purebred. She was two colors: tan and white. Tan dominated most of the back of her body, neck, head, and ears. But at the top of her head began a thin line of white hair that ran between her eyes and grew wider along her face and body, making the entire area around her nose, mouth, and neck white. The tips of her ears and tail were white, as well as her legs from the knees down, like she was wearing white knee socks. Even her tummy was white. To this day, I cannot recall having seen a Chihuahua, mix or otherwise, with markings as beautiful as those.
After we bathed and dried the puppy, I pinched slices of bologna into bits and fed her from my hand. She was so hungry that she nearly swallowed each bite whole. Yet never once did she so much as nip my fingers.
I felt she needed something “better than water to wash the bologna down,” so at my request, Mamaw brought out a saucer of milk. As the puppy drank, Mamaw said, “She can’t live on just milk and bologna. I’m going in the house to get some dog food. Or maybe we’ve even got some leftover puppy food around somewhere.” Then Mamaw went inside.
I was clever enough to realize that Mamaw wasn’t just going in that house after food. Mamaw was also going inside to see if Mamma was awake, and if she was, Mamaw was going to ask Mamma if I could keep the puppy. As I stroked the puppy’s head while she drank, I whispered to her, “We’re going to have to come up with something better to call you than ‘she’ and ‘puppy.’” I crossed my free hand’s fingers. “If Mamma says I can keep you, that is.” I couldn’t help but think I knew what the answer would be and hoped my hunch was right. Keeping my fingers crossed, I called into my mind all of the names of my favorite heroines and TV and cartoon characters. Nothing but a name after one of the best characters or shows would do, yet the name still had to fit.
It wasn’t long before Mamaw returned with a pan of puppy food. And she was smiling. Mamaw sat the pan down, and as the puppy ate, said, “I asked your mamma, and she said as long as you agree to feed and water the puppy, keep her as an outside dog only, and let her live in our fenced-in backyard so she won’t get hit by a car, you can have her.”
“Goody!” I cried, hugging Mamaw and even the puppy. “I’m going to name her ‘Sally.’” And to my amazement, Sally looked at me, as if she knew that was her name.
“Well, that didn’t take you long!” laughed Mamaw. “Why ‘Sally’?”
“Because it’s a name on my favorite cartoon, ‘Snoopy,’” I said, referring to the Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” animated series, which I loved because the beagle Snoopy was one of the main characters. “And it fits. She’s sort of a baby, like Sally’s the baby sister, but she seems kind of quiet and smart, too, like that Sally.’” Both times that I said, “Sally,” the puppy looked up, the second time with pricked ears. “Besides, she likes the name, look. Here, Sally!” Again, Sally jumped on my lap and started licking my face. “See? She already knows it’s her name!”
“I see!” Mamaw laughed. “All right, Sally it is.”
A visit to the vet revealed Sally to be nearly a year old and in amazingly good health, other than being underweight and underfed. But we quickly took care of that by feeding her generous helpings of puppy food and table scraps.
People often question the fuss and affection others express over animals, saying, “It’s just a dog” (or “cat,” “gerbil,” “bird,” etc.). But these are people who have either never owned pets, or haven’t observed their own closely enough to see just how human they can become, and thus a part of the family. I quickly learned that through the time I spent with Sally every day after school, and for endless hours on the weekends. It wasn’t long before I discovered I could play with her in almost as many ways as I could have with a human friend or sibling. Sally allowed me to hold her in my lap while I swung on my swing set, and even let me slide her down my tiny slide and then catch her at the end. She even let me dress her in doll clothes and pull her around in my little red wagon without biting or even growling or trying to escape.
Sally also took walks with me on her leash, rode with me in Papaw’s pick-up truck on short errands, and the few times that my grandparents let her inside the house, actually sat on my lap or on her own chair at the dinner table, just like a person. My family and their guests all marveled at how smart and obedient Sally was, and also noticed that she acted more like another person than an animal. After Mamma got better and we moved back into our house, she even allowed Sally to sleep in the house with us a few times, if I bathed her first, slept with her in my bedroom, and understood that this wasn’t to become a habit; she was still an outside dog. Through these sporadic special “sleepovers,” Sally indirectly helped me to let go of the security of sleeping in Mamma’s bed and grow into sleeping in my own.
To me, Sally was not just the smartest, sweetest, best dog in the world—she was my best friend in the world. I constantly talked about her at school to anyone who would listen. When “Santa” brought me a Kodak that Christmas, I used up almost the entire first roll of film on Sally before Christmas vacation ended, then showed off the photos to my classmates at school. School wasn’t as bad anymore because I now had something to talk to the kids about. And even when a few of them still made fun of me, it didn’t matter as much because I knew my best friend Sally would be waiting to comfort me when I got home.
ATTENTION: THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE STORY; IT IS ONLY THE FIRST HALF.
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