When it comes to my first pet, I often forget Susie, but I shouldn’t. If she wasn’t a dog and she wasn’t long dead, she’d never forget me.
Susie was an Airedale and as I remember it she belonged to my Dad’s brother Steven. However, Uncle Steven wasn’t always home, and at the time I imagine their parents–my grandparents–were often traveling as well. So for stretches of time in my young life Susie would become mine. And when my sisters came along, ours.
In my mind I can hear my Mom raving to others about what a good-natured dog she was and I do remember using her as a pillow to watch TV. Not just me either. Imagine three little girls resting their heads on a doggie-belly pillow; her four legs created the arms for our resting place. Susie didn’t seem to mind one bit.
She also loved pancakes. Mom would sometimes make pancakes for us on the weekends when Dad was home for breakfast. Once the family had their fill, rather than throw away the leftover batter, she’d make one last–usually oversized–pancake for Susie, who stood patiently beside the stove through the entire cooking process for her treat.
When I was almost nine, we sold our home and moved in for a year with my Mom’s father. I imagine Susie was home with my grandparents in Chestnut Hill then. There aren’t many details of that year-long stretch that I remember well, other than winning a gigantic chocolate bar for a story I wrote, my sister Jill burning pop-tarts in the toaster one Saturday morning when she wanted to make us breakfast, and receiving my first diary. I don’t know where Susie was, I guess because of her habit of appearing and disappearing at the whim of someone else.
When that year was up, we were ready to move to Oklahoma. Dad left in March to go set up our house that he and Mom bought over the phone (a story for another day) and get a job, making sure all was ready for when the rest of us would join him in June. He needed someone to keep him company. Going from a wife and three daughters to being a bachelor was a little much for any man. Plus Uncle Steven was planning a permanent move to Japan. Susie moved to Oklahoma with my Dad to pave the way for us and for a time when she would be completely ours, all the time.
I religiously read Little House on the Prairie books during those three months Dad was in Oklahoma. I often would imagine Susie running wild and free through the acres and acres and acres of land. Dad wrote detailed letters home, sent pictures and there was Susie, looking like she belonged. Going from the danger and noise of living in the Philadelphia suburbs to a place where three houses occupied a square mile had to be fantastic for a dog who could finally run wherever she wanted, whenever she wanted and not worry about getting hit by a car.
However, Susie had to have been an old dog by then, judging from the pictures of us when I was a toddler. I was a month away from 10 when moved into that old Oklahoma farmhouse, so Susie was probably well into her 70s when she headed west.
I don’t remember exactly how long it was after Dad’s move, but after a few good romps through the prairie with my father, Susie got sick, and it turned into pneumonia which took her life. He told us in a letter. I was sad mostly for Dad, that he had to be all by himself when he buried her out on the Oklahoma prairie, sad that I had lost a friend, but so happy that Susie had experienced the glorious freedom of wide open spaces before the book of her life closed.