A friend was going to look after my dog, Muffin, while I went into the hospital for some surgery. On the way to her house I stopped to see my mom and dad, Muffin trotting in after me as though she were a regular member of the family. A Benji look-alike, she’d been my soul mate for seven years. From the first time I’d spotted the wiry-haired stray hiding in the briers by a chain-link fence, we’d been inseparable. I’d always tried to give her the best life I could.
“Muffin will be just fine while you’re gone,” Mom assured me.
“I can’t believe you’re not putting that mongrel up at the Hilton,” Dad commented. “The way you spoil her! Giving her that fancy-dancy stocking full of dog biscuits at Christmastime and taking her everywhere.”
I steeled myself against his words. That I spent too much money on Muffin was an old issue. That I should be saving for a rainy day was an even older argument.
“I’ve always told myself,” Dad went on, “that I’d be better off if I were Roberta’s dog.”
I just hugged Muffin a little harder and tried to ignore Dad’s remarks. But even after I left, they stung. I dropped Muffin off at my friend’s and drove on to the hospital, still thinking of what Dad had said. Why did his criticism hurt so much? I was a grown woman with a successful career as a nurse. Why did his approval matter? It was as though I were a little girl again, trying to make my daddy proud.
A child of the Depression, Dad had had to be careful with money. He’d worked as a telegraph operator on the railroad and supplemented his earnings selling old pocket watches at flea markets. A horse trader, people called him. When I was barely out of diapers, I picked up his jargon. He loved to tell about the time he tugged on my pigtails and asked if I’d take a five-dollar bill for my Tiny Tears doll. I took a long look at her pink bottle and packet of tissues and shot back, “I want more, this here’s a rare one!”
By the time I was 10 years old, I was doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, hoping to match Dad’s industry. I hosed off porch furniture, waxed floors and starched the curtains in a neighbor’s guest bedroom.
With the first dollar I earned, I put aside 10 percent for church, but the next 10 cents I took straight to Broughton’s Dairy. There I bought a double-dip cone of lime sherbet, Daddy’s favorite, and climbed the steep iron stairs of the telegraph tower where he worked.
I tapped on the screen door and hollered, “Surprise!” I just knew he’d be pleased. “I bought this for you with the money I’ve been making.” Lime-green sherbet dripped down my fingers as Daddy tapped out a Morse code message.
Finally he looked up and smiled. But as he took a lick of soupy sherbet, he cautioned, “Don’t be squandering all your hard-earned money on ice cream now. You should be putting something away for the future.”
All the way home I fought back tears. Wasn’t there anything I could do to make him happy? When I was a little older I took up the violin so I could join in when he pulled out his fiddle. Then I studied piano. My first recital, I knew how proud he’d be of the way I played “The Londonderry Air.” But at the last minute Daddy couldn’t come. He had to work overtime. We needed the money. For a rainy day.
After I studied nursing and pursued my RN career, I became something of a horse trader myself, going to flea markets, collecting antiques. No matter what I bought, Dad was able to take the wind out of my sails when I told him the deal I’d made or how much I’d managed to save.
With Muffin, though, I never cut corners. She deserved the very best. In the hospital after my surgery, I kept thinking of how happy I’d be to see her again.
It was then that I received word Muffin had jumped the fence in my friend’s backyard and raced off. No one could find her. Lying in my hospital bed, I prayed that whatever happened, she would be safe. Still, when no news came, I was frantic.
The morning my mother drove me home from the hospital, all I saw were dogs. Dogs playing, dogs barking, dogs running to greet their masters. But no wagging tail awaited me when I got home.
“I’m so sorry, Roberta,” Mom said, tucking a blanket around me on the sofa. “Your father is worried too.”
Yeah, right, I thought, scrunching miserably into the pillow. Later, I got up to make a cup of tea, and the phone rang. The caller said she’d seen the ad about Muffin and wanted me to know she’d just lost her little pooch and knew exactly how I felt.
The ad? I wondered groggily before stumbling back to rest.
The next night I got more calls. One man who worked at the Waffle House asked for a better description of Muffin. Before hanging up he added, “Your dad must think the world of you to go to all this trouble.” Why did he say that? Another caller said, “The dog your father described to me is here, I’m sure of it.” What were they talking about?
The following day a coworker drove me around to check on the leads I’d received. None of the shaggy mutts people had found were Muffin. One was 100 miles away, but I knew how Muffin loved to jump into any open car door, so I felt compelled to investigate. Alas, the “female dog with matted hair” turned out to be a male cat. “I felt so bad for you I guess I got carried away,” the stranger admitted.
Then my sister called. “I found Muffin at the pound!” I was beside myself with relief as I went with her to investigate. But I knew at once when I approached the cage that the thin, mangy dog wasn’t my Muffin.
“Just call her name,” my sister urged. “Maybe she’s lost weight.”
“Muffin!” I cried. And from the saddest corridor in the animal world, 56 dogs of every description howled in unison.
With that my heart just broke. All those animals longing for a home expressed my own longing for my dog. It was as though my loneliness had found a voice.
That night another stranger called. She wanted me to know she was praying for me. “I don’t know why this had to happen to you, honey,” she said, “but God knows how you feel. Trust him with your sadness.”
By then I had given up, but when one more person called, absolutely certain he had my dog, I allowed myself to hope one more time. A friend drove me to the end of a muddy hollow, where a man stood with a yelping, stubby-tailed orange dog much bigger than Muffin. “She just has to be yours,” he insisted as the huge dog pawed my skirt.
“I don’t think so,” I said sadly.
The man looked at me woefully. “Lady,” he said, “I’ve already promised my grandkids a trip to Disney World with all that reward money your father’s giving.”
I was stunned. “Reward?” From the man who always accused me of squandering money on Muffin? The thrifty father who wanted me to save for a rainy day?
“I got the ad right here.” He pulled out the beat-up newspaper he had jammed in his back pocket. “See, this one.” He held out the want ads and pointed to an item he’d circled.
I took the paper, read it once, then twice, blinking hard to clear the tears that blurred my vision. The ad was clear and to the point. “Please help me find my baby girl’s lost dog,” it said. “$1,000 reward.”
“Thank you anyway,” I said in a wobbly voice. “Do you mind if I keep this newspaper?”
Mom and Dad visited me that night. “Daddy,” I said, “you and I have some things to talk about.”
That’s when Mom spilled the beans: “He’s been looking everywhere for Muffin. He gets in the car and drives all over, calling out the window. And he’s been telling people to call and to pray for you.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. Now I had to ask him about the biggest surprise of all. “Daddy,” I said, “what about the reward money?”
He shuffled his feet. “Well,” he said, “I figured it was the only way that dog could be found.”
“But a thousand dollars? Daddy, that’s so much money! You’ve never splurged like that. What about always saving for a rainy day?”
Daddy fixed his eyes on a crack in his brown leather shoe. “Sweetheart,” he said, “the day you lost your little Muffin I felt the biggest downpour of my life. You were so sad, I would have given anything to get your dog back for you. I’m sorry she hasn’t come home.”
I thought of all the scrimping and saving Dad must have done to put away a thousand dollars and how quick he was now to give it up for me. The years suddenly faded, and I was once more the girl who had learned bargaining from the best horse trader in the business. You can’t put a dollar figure on love, but Dad had come up with “a rare one” of his own. Nothing was too much for my happiness.
“Thank you, Dad,” I said, my voice breaking.
This story has a bittersweet ending. Muffin never turned up, but my prayers that she was okay did a lot to comfort me. Eventually, Dad took me back to the pound, and I brought home one of those howling mutts that was yearning for a home. It wasn’t a replacement for my lost dog—nothing could take the place of Muffin—but this was a new dog to spoil to my heart’s content. I named her Cleo, and we had many happy years together. And from that point on, Dad and I had an understanding. He can complain all he wants about the money I spend, and I can spoil my dog as much as I want.
Love can express itself in many different ways. I realize that when I was young, Daddy worked hard to be a good provider, saving for a rainy day. Then, as now, he was sheltering his baby girl, and giving me love the best way he knew how.