I love dogs. I love cats and other animals too. But dogs in particular hold a noteworthy place in my heart. Long before there was Andy and Coco and Rusty there was Sugar and Tootsie and a few others I only know by old black and white photographs. It’s true dogs are our best friends. And sometimes a lonely girl’s little sister.
Little back story. When I was around five years old The Old Man brought a new puppy home to 204. There had been a few dogs before her but none like Sugar. When I look back on my childhood I have no memory that doesn’t include Sugar. It’s as if my life began with a sweet little ball of white fur and heart-melting chocolate eyes.
Sugar was completely white except for a tinge of black in her ears when The Old Man first brought her home. He was a huge animal lover but like me, dogs were his favorites. And Sugar was like another child to him. Ma’s heart was large and compassionate for all living creatures. She wasn’t one for rough and tumble play like me and The Old Man. But she loved Sugar dearly and considered her part of our family. Sugar was never discouraged from languishing on the couch or snuggling on the bed. Ma would often sit in quiet meditation, petting Sugar while she rested her head on her lap. They had a kinship. A rare affinity and understanding that seemed to surpass the human-animal connection.
Back then, a spade was called a spade. Naming a dog was simple. Rex, Lassie, Buddy, Sparky or Skip were all common no-nonsense monikers of the era. Color also influenced the name given to a dog. If it was black, then Blacky was an obvious choice. White dogs, on the other hand, were often named after white things. Like sugar. Our dog Sugar was full of surprises right from the start though. They say a leopard never changes his spots but sometimes a white dog grows some. By the time she was six months, Sugar was covered in them and her ears were jet black. But by then, it was too late to call her Spotty.
I’m not sure what breed Sugar was. We didn’t go much for pedigree back then. We just had pets. She was a mutt from a long line of mutts. But canine rumor has it that somewhere along her ancestral lineage a Cocker Spaniel and a Dalmatian got involved. That was good enough for us. Regardless, she was gorgeous, smart, funny, loving, affectionate, sweet tempered and an extremely good judge of boyfriends. Ma always said, if Sugar doesn’t like him, there’s something wrong with him. I should have listened to Ma. And Sugar.
Sugar terrorized the Mailman. She wasn’t fond of anyone in a uniform but the Mailman in particular was a favorite target. Five days a week. The irony of this is that The Old Man wore a uniform to work every day, a fact that Sugar appeared to overlook. But the Mailman didn’t get off the hook so easily. Even Uncle Bud, Ma’s brother-in-law, wasn’t immune to her snarling, snapping and gnashing of teeth. Needless-to-say, his tenure as our Mailman was short-lived. We all knew why.
Back then dogs ran free and roamed the streets like four-legged hoodlums with nothing but mischief and shenanigans on their minds. They were harmless and everyone knew their names. Ma would let Sugar out in the morning for her daily doggy-do, which also included scouting the neighborhood for feline riffraff and other nefarious varmints. She never went far and mostly stayed in our yard, which she protected like a Palace guard. Every passerby, whether friend or foe, was subject to her relentless barking. She held her ground. Literally. The entire length of our front yard. Doggedly determined to defend her turf no matter what. The truth was, the girl was all bark and no bite. The entire neighborhood knew this. This didn’t make it any less irksome. Not everyone appreciated her doggone single-minded attitude like I did. Sugar found herself in the dog house on more than one occasion. Relegated to the back yard where her inner beast was contained by a twenty foot tether.
Sugar was also a good sport and a very accommodating creature. She was a willing participant in my fun and games, including “dress-up.” I decked her out in old baby clothes, propped her up in my doll carriage and proudly strolled the neighborhood with my dog-baby. It was both comical and sad. Sugar became the little sister I never had but desperately longed for. I wanted to be like the C kids who lived across the street. Three kids all two years apart plus a fourth surprise bonus one to boot, a few years later. They were the lucky ones. I was envious of their sibling rivalry and fights over the toilet. Even my older siblings had each other. So Sugar became my surrogate sibling. My baby sister. She seemed to accept this role with patience, tolerance and an abundance of equanimity. Or perhaps it was mere self-preservation and acquiescence. Regardless of her motivation, she never struggled to free herself from the fancy frocks. Floppy sun bonnets. Nor the little pink socks. I like to think she understood my loneliness and aching need.
We shared a bed for almost twenty years. Unlike many dogs, who preferred the foot of the bed, Sugar spent her nights all nestled and tucked under the covers right next to me. We even shared a pillow. I loved to snuggle her little body next to mine. She was a living teddy bear. My Linus blanket. My comforter. My sweet furry lullaby.
In summer, Sugar had a house of her own. The Old Man built it for her and kept it in the backyard. Nothing fancy. A simple one room abode. But it did the trick when Sugar needed a place to rest and take shelter from the summer heat. In the winter she hunkered down indoors with the rest of us. Northwestern Ontario winters were brutal. A dog’s pee could freeze before it hit the snow. Sugar didn’t linger long outdoors between December and the end of March. She was a wise girl.
When Sugar was about a year old she had a litter of pups. We gave them away to the neighborhood families. It was a win-win situation. Everyone was happy. After experiencing motherhood she was spayed. She gained some weight so we had more of her to love. She was still gorgeous in my eyes.
The summer I turned 25 I was living in a small northern town in British Columbia with my first husband and young son. It was during that time that I got a call from Ma. It was the call I dreaded. It had been six months since I last saw Sugar. Christmas vacation. She was ancient and dog-tired by then. Arthritic and slow walking. Her velvety muzzle as white as her name. But her eyes were the same. She was still my Sugar girl. Sweet as that first day she became my little sister.
I am grateful that I wasn’t there when Sugar died. I’m not sure I had the courage and inner strength to witness her last breath. But I do know intimately how painful it was for Ma and The Old Man to have her put down. What an odd expression. It was impossible for them to let her go. But let her go they did. She was twenty. Her hind end was paralyzed. She was no longer a threat to the Mailman. Her bark was gone.
I have never fully let Sugar go.
I searched in vain for years. I stared into the eyes of every white dog I came across seeking some spark of recognition. It was never there. Until I met Andy. Sweet. Gentle. With Sugar girl eyes. It was love at first sight. I knew him. It was a double blessing too. For in those eyes I also saw Ma’s. And when he barked I heard The Old Man’s voice.
Now there’s my Sugar girl.