Most dogs belong to a family, but Reds belonged to the neighborhood. Up and down 11th Street, across to Johnston, to Marconi Plaza, and along the storefronts of Oregon Avenue, my dog Reds followed on the heels of my mother Katie Lawler in an unmatched display of canine loyalty. When Katie, sometimes shoeless, sometimes in her nightgown, wandered the streets, Reds was never far behind. Reds didn’t need obedience school or a dog whisperer to know how to behave. She waited patiently for scraps of meat from the butcher, sat quietly while my mother paid visits to her friends, and greeted passersby with quiet curiosity.
On those occasions when Reds went off on her own, all my mother needed to do was stand on the front steps of our open porch and call out “Heeere Reds!” and in a minute or two, along she came, tail wagging.
She never had a leash. She didn’t need one. She never was inside a vet’s office. She ate Alpo or whatever was on sale at Pantry Pride.
Reds first appeared on our front porch, a soaked puppy seeking shelter from a thunderstorm on the night that the Beatles played at the JFK Stadium. Once she was towel dried, offered a slice or leftover roast beef and invited for a cuddle on the sofa, it was instant mutual love for every member of my family.
She had a beautiful tender face with soulful chocolate eyes and soft rust-colored fur that hung in elegant fringes along her flank. But what was most lovely about Reds was her personality. Any kid in the neighborhood could pet her, chase her, ride her like a pony, even pull her tail and she would cheerfully oblige. Never a snap or a snarl. She’d sit by your side and listen to your worries with rapt attention, a faithful friend with whom you could share any secret. Reds was a queen among lots of other great dogs in the neighborhood: King and Frosty, Sparkles and Lady to name a few.
If I had to guess what mix of breed she was, I’d say Cocker Spaniel mixed with Irish Setter---there was definitely a dash of hunter in her. What riled Reds were the squirrels who scurried down the trees on Mollbore Terrace. Upon spotting one, Reds would freeze, point and charge with all her might. Most of the time, she’d miss the squirrel by a split second, but one afternoon she surprised all of us, including herself, by catching one. From that day forward, all you had to say was “Where’s the squirrel?” in an excited tone and Reds would stop whatever she was doing and fly out the screen door in search for quarry.
All that wandering around the streets did end up getting Reds in trouble more than a few times. Suffice to say she was popular with certain male dog suitors. As a result, Reds had about five litters. From her first pregnancy, she delivered a single pup on the day Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon; the new addition was quickly adopted and named “Luna.”
Years passed and Reds aged gracefully, slowing down on the squirrel chasing and spending more time indoors, though never far from my mother. On a late summer afternoon, Reds appeared on the steps of the backyard and lied down on the concrete landing under the awning. Panting heavily, she looked uncomfortable. Her dark eyes opened and closed rapidly. Someone said she’d been struck by a car, but no one knew for sure exactly what had happened.
My mother and I waited with her. Reds wouldn’t come inside so we let her rest there as night fell. We stepped into the kitchen to fix her a bowl of water. When we returned, she was gone. And she never returned. She disappeared as mysteriously as she had arrived. My mother told me Reds didn’t want me to see her die. She wanted us to remember the way she’d always been.
When I pass the New York pooches, dolled up in rhinestone harnesses, rain slickers, and argyle sweaters; pedicured, pedigreed and pampered as they sniff the sidewalk at the hands of their hired dogwalkers. I think of Reds’ self-sufficiency. When two passing dogs growl and yap at each other, I think of Reds’ gentle and serene composure.
Since Reds, I’ve had several dogs and cats, all unique and wonderful in their own way, but Reds will always be the most cherished to me---a symbol of a carefree childhood, of simplicity and trust. I comfort myself with the thought of my mother walking barefoot on a cloud in heaven next to Reds---no leash needed---tethered by something stronger—their undying, unique and unconditional love.