It all started with Jef.
My love of dogs that is.
Wait. I take that back. It actually started with Alan, our favorite babysitter. Not Babysitter X, the one who gave us a noogie, that sharp grinding of knuckles into the skull, when we fell out of line. I mean Alan, the guy who let me and my sister and two brothers be the wild hell-raisers we were. Oh yeah, we always begged for Alan when my parents had to call a babysitter. And the great thing was, my parents loved him, too. (The original Eddie Haskell?)
One night after Alan finally got us to bed, we woke to voices, tramping feet, and red lights flashing as if the set of Dragnet had been moved to our front yard. We scrambled out of bed to find a cop at the front door listening to Alan who excitedly rubbed his flat top and punctuated his speech with “Man!” and “Not cool!”
He swore to the police, to us, and later, to my parents that he had heard a prowler, and called the authorities as any good protective babysitter would. The police searched the neighborhood, but found no suspicious character looming in the shadows. The next morning, though, my father announced, “We need a watch dog.”
The search was on, and one day my father answered a newspaper ad. Mom stayed home. An hour later, we presented her with our new “watch dog” – an eight week old, approximately nine-inch long, five-inch tall wire-haired terrier mutt. We promptly made a bed in a cardboard box complete with blanket and ticking clock, and named him Jeffrey Michael Covella—Michael after my younger brother. I guess we thought the name had a nice ring to it.
We called him Jef for short. I don’t know why, but we always spelled it with one “f.” Maybe that was our acknowledgement that he was a dog, that he wasn’t human, although that would prove to be questionable as Jef worked his way into our lives.
I was seven years old, and I was in love. It was the first time I experienced that tug at my heart that I always get when I see a puppy. You know that feeling? It’s the same one I think most women get when they see an infant. For me, it happens with puppies.
Later, Jef started sleeping on my bed, and I never seemed to mind his irritated growl whenever I moved. Maybe that’s why to this day I wake up in the morning with the bed barely mussed.
Yes, Jef ruled the roost. I wonder if he knew how lucky he was when, among other things, he got cake and ice cream at the dining table on his birthday. Then again, he probably just thought it was his due.
Jef would be with us for thirteen years. I’d grow up, go through many changes—physically, emotionally as we all do—and he would always be there, sometimes front and center, sometimes in the background, but always someone to pet and hug and be with, my first doggie love, my little buddy, Jef.
Oh, The Places He’ll Go
I went to the same Catholic grade school for eight years, and during that time we lived in three different houses. I don’t know why we moved so often, but it was always an adjustment—for us kids, and for Jef.
The house on El Molino was Jef’s first home. In those days, dogs freely roamed the neighborhoods. Locked in yards? Leashes? Poop bags? Not back then. Another thing, in the olden days, the neighbor kids played together in the streets and each others’ yards. There was a certain feeling of adventure and freedom playing hide-and-seek in the dark on a warm Southern California summer evening.
Jef and the other dogs were right there with us, racing through the yards, chasing balls, taking over the street for a game of kickball.
El Molino stretched on forever. I wondered how far it went and where it ended. I dreamed of some day having my license and driving until I found the answer. When my grandfather, Pop-Pop, visited, we’d hook Jef to a leash and walk the half mile or so to the tiny market where Pop-Pop bought us bags of penny candy. I don’t remember if Jef got anything, but I know for a fact he didn’t suffer in the food department.
One of Jef’s personal favorite pastimes was attacking spinning car tires. It’s a wonder he was never hurt. Although, he did occasionally come home from his wanderings with a torn ear or bleeding puncture wound. Jef was a scrapper. I always imagined him looking in a mirror and seeing not the little terrier he was, but some tall, muscled Great Dane.
Sometimes his freedom was curtailed. On El Molino, he nipped a neighbor girl. I stood up for Jef. It was her fault, teasing him with that lollipop. But my defense failed, and Jef was quarantined in the back yard for ten days. My Barbie dolls and I kept him company, but I knew he couldn’t wait to break out of his prison.
It was when we moved to the house on Mount Curve that Jef’s life drastically changed.
In the beginning, not only did he have complete freedom, but reigning dominion over the resident dogs. Jef was leader of the pack.
Oh, what a time they had under Jef’s command. Running, digging, barking, pooping with abandon. Unfortunately, some of the neighbors didn’t approve, and the dogs were remanded to their homes. Our yard on Mount Curve was unfenced, so that meant Jef had to be tied to a tree in the backyard.
As the days wore on, Jef became more and more listless. When he stopped eating, my mother took him to the vet. Jef was healthy—nothing physically wrong. Hmmm. Had anything changed in his life? Anything breaking up his routine? Any reason he might be “unhappy”?
Well, there you had it. Jef was depressed. And who could blame him, tied to a tree after all those glorious days and weeks and years of freedom. Luckily for him, my father decided to move again.
Kyle Street was our new home. There we watched the first man walk on the moon. I had a crush on a nerdy neighbor boy. And right before I graduated from eighth grade, just as I was looking forward to high school with all my friends, my father announced he’d been transferred to Pennsylvania, 2300 miles away.
We kids were devastated. And Jef? Poor guy had no way of knowing he was in for the (mis)adventure of a lifetime.
Flying the Friendly Skies
The friends I’d known all my life would spend the summer at graduation parties and preparing for high school while I moved across the country and tried to settle into a strange and scary new life.
There was never any question that Jef would go along. He wasn’t just a pet. He was family. Of course, he couldn’t ride in coach with us, and he was tragically relegated to the baggage compartment. Maybe the tranquilizer would keep him blissfully unaware of his fate, but for the entire five-hour flight, I couldn’t stop picturing him waking up to his dark tomb, terrified, thinking he’d been abandoned for good. I can’t remember how he was returned to us—via the baggage claim chute? An airline employee?—but he was wide awake, looking both happy and miffed. I snatched him out of the cage, hugged him, and kissed his head. “Don’t kiss that dirty dog.” My mother’s usual comment. But I never listened, and kissed him again.
Our house in Pennsylvania was huge. It had an upstairs and a downstairs and a basement. I had my own room! Large green lawns separated us from the neighbors, and the backyard was one sprawling runway of a field—none of the yards had fences. Across the street was a farm with cows and a real barn. We became friends with the farm kids, and had a great time swinging on a rope and falling into the pile of hay.
Jef was once again free to roam. He also made some friends, and at least one enemy. He was quite curious about the cows, which we told him were “fifty-foot puppies.” That didn’t seem to intimidate him because of course he was always master of his domain. This time, though, he went a little too far, and got a little too close to one of the cows. Somehow, the cow found an opening in the fence and chased Jef through the field, across the street, and into our front yard. We frantically shooed the cow away and got Jef into the house. After that, he tended to stay a little closer to home.
I started ninth grade as the new girl from California. I’m sure they were surprised I didn’t have blonde hair and tanned skin, that I didn’t know how to surf, and that I ate other things besides “tackos” (tacos). I slowly made new friends and developed a crush on Armand—a sort of cool nerdy guy who played in the school band. My mother often mentioned the tall strapping farm boy across the street, but I didn’t go for the beauty/no brains type.
Winter came, and we had a blast in the snow—sledding, snowball fights, snowmen. Little Jef joined us as best he could, and we kept him out of the deeper drifts. Once we forced him onto the sled, but one ride proved to be enough for him.
We’d been in PA for six months. I’d finished my first semester of ninth grade. I’d decided it wasn’t so bad there: I’d made some good friends, things were looking good with Armand…And then, another bomb. My parents decided they missed their life in California. My father had applied for a transfer, and we were moving back.
More tearful goodbyes, packing, tranquilizers (for Jef), and we were on our way. I was happy though. The snow had become more a chore than fun, I’d see my old friends, and I could go to the beach again.
Back in California, at my father’s company’s expense, we lived it up for a few days at the Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. Jef seemed to know he was in a classy joint, for once not pulling and gasping at the end of his leash. Instead he walked with dignity over the plush carpet of the hotel lobby. Although, the elevator did seem to frighten him a bit. Maybe bad memories from the airplane baggage compartment.
We’d live in one house for several months before moving to the house where I’d finish out my high school years, and where Jef would settle into his peaceful old age.
Back in California, I connected with some old friends, but it wasn’t the same. I guess six months is a long time when you’re fourteen, and our friendships faded. It was hard starting at a new school in the middle of ninth grade, but I made new friends and had a great time with football games, dances, and the early awkwardness of dating. In my sophomore year I met my high school sweetheart, Jack. He was cute (not farm-boy handsome), smart, and funny. We hit it off, fell in love, and would be together for five years.
At times, I realized I’d been neglecting Jef—selfish teenager syndrome. I saw he was getting older. I’d always loved to brush him, and I did more of that, and took him for walks. He wasn’t allowed to wander the streets anymore. It wasn’t the old days; attitudes about free-roaming dogs had changed. Besides that, we lived near a busy street.
One Friday night, my parents invited me to dinner in Chinatown in Los Angeles, about a half-hour drive. I wanted some company in the back seat, so I brought Jef along. We each sat against a door so we could look out the window. Now, I’m not one to believe in mystical kind of stuff, but some things happen that you simply accept and don’t question. I looked over at Jef, and thought how much I loved him; there was a pull, a connection I felt so strongly. Jef looked back at me, and then walked over and curled up at my side.
When I graduated from high school, I started college at Pasadena City College as an art major. But several months later, I decided to move north and join some friends in Santa Cruz. Before I left, I gave Jef a hug and kiss, and promised I’d be back.
I loved my life in Santa Cruz, and I’d go home for holiday visits. Jef grew more mellow, far from the macho guy he was in his youth. Gray became the dominant color in his wiry coat, and he was content to sleep most of the day.
One day, back in Santa Cruz, I went to check my post office box. In my car, I opened a package from my mother. Inside were some Valentine’s cookies she’d baked, and a letter. I unfolded the paper and began to read. And as I read, the words blurred through my tears, and by the end of the letter, my head was bowed against the steering wheel and I was weeping.
Jef had died, my mother explained. He’d suddenly taken ill—liver cancer, the vet said. Not much time left. One day, she and my father noticed him in the back yard, weaving across the lawn, wandering from this corner to that. She said they realized he was looking for a place to settle. He was weak and sick, so my father picked him up and brought him to the vet’s for a peaceful death.
The last thing my mother wrote was, “I’m sorry I always told you not to kiss him, and now I’m glad you did.”
Aw, Jef. I couldn’t believe he was gone. I missed him terribly; for a long to come, there was an emptiness to my visits home.
But what a life he had. And what a lot he gave me: A life-long love of dogs. A knowledge of the joy, and loyalty, and companionship, and love they bring you. I miss him even now, but I’m so glad he was there and part of my life those many years ago.