A Letter to My Childhood Dog Wiggles, Who Lived in the Basement and Backyard
I’m sorry, Wiggles.
I was only a child and the rules set by my parents I had to abide by. How they felt a dog should live was not my desire.
In fact, I cried over you. To this day I still have occasional dreams of you outside in the elements, alone. I see you in the cold basement. I remember you whimpering for human contact, attention.
Perhaps you played a role in shaping my character, mainly my fervor to aid creatures in need and connect with them all via limitless love.
I remember one day after grade school let out, climbing into our family station wagon to meet you, a black-and-white Lab-mix pup. I vaguely remember that my mom saw you with other pups in a newspaper ad by a local humane society. She picked you out. You had a typical Lab personality, happy and energetic, and you earned the name Wiggles because that’s what you did.
Most of your puppy stage I no longer remember. I just remember you being kept in our basement with the door to the upstairs kitchen occasionally cracked open so you could see us. That door was hooked with a chain guard allowing just your nose to fit through.
The basement was unlike some finished ones in today’s homes with carpet, furniture, and adequate heat. Ours was dark. It had a concrete floor. It was cold. Cobwebs and spiders lived there. Windows were covered with heavy fabric curtains. Water trickled across the concrete during heavy rains.
When you weren't living down there, you were ushered by a short leash up and down the back sidewalk to a fenced yard behind our home. We touched your head when walking to and from the house and garage. When we gardened or my brother and I played in an aboveground swimming pool in our backyard, we interacted with you a bit.
As gardens increased in number, your access to the yard diminished, as you were fenced out of at least half of it. You stayed outside from the time you whimpered in the basement in the morning until after dark. Rain. Storms. Snow. Wind. You were out there seeking shelter under a wood deck with space between the boards that let the rain soak you. You’d lie there in the mud, alone.
You had a wood doghouse my father built and we put straw in it during cold weather. I stuck my head in it a couple of times and felt that it could not be comfortable.
Many times I wanted you inside with us. I’d tell my mom that you wanted in. She’d respond with, “He’s okay out there. He likes it.”
In the basement you sought rest on a platform where a washer and drier sat. A long narrow space, maybe two by six feet, was where you would lie. No blankets or pillow were provided for you to lie on.
If you weren’t there, you were on the landing just inside of the back door. No pillow was placed there either, just a rug we used to wipe our dirty shoes on. The door beside you allowed cold drafts in during the winter.
You watched the shadow of our feet from under the crack of the kitchen door. You smelled food cooking and faced temptation that you could never fulfill.
My mom called you stupid. You dug holes in the yard. You sometimes tried to hump our legs. If one of us had bare feet you tried to lick and chew on your toes. If you got out of the gate, you’d run at top speed straight toward a river two blocks away. Once you did so in the winter, dashing through knee-high snow and flinging yourself into the icy water. We led you back home by his leash, soaked and freezing.
The reality is, you were a dog. You dug holes because of boredom. You humped legs to show affection or dominance. You ran because you were free.
You drank out of an old saucepan in the backyard. You ate cheap food. You received a bath via the garden hose in the summer. You developed painful hot spots and ear hematomas that we treated with veterinary assistance.
You loved tennis balls and rubber squeaky toys -- the louder the squeak, the better. I always tried to get my mom to buy a new squeaky toy for you when we were at the grocery store, particularly one shaped like a hotdog in a bun. You would chew out the squeaker in minutes.
Perhaps my dad’s view of how an animal should be kept stemmed from his parents. They kept a cat in their cold basement, tethered with a nylon leash to a metal weight. It could reach a litter box and its food, and it had an old piece of carpet to lie on. If it batted a toy too hard out of its reach, playtime was over. If a mouse ran nearby (and there were mice), the cat could not fulfill the desire to catch it.
The rare times I visited my grandparents, I would go to the basement and sit on the floor with this cat giving it brief sessions of love. I cried because I wanted it to be free. No one could or would explain to me why they treated the cat this way.
As I matured you aged, Wiggles, I snuck you into the kitchen more often, much to my mom’s frustration. She said that my dad didn’t want you in the house. They said you were “too stupid” and would “pee on things” and “destroy the house.” It wasn’t true and it wasn’t your fault. You never had obedience training. You never had a chance.
I ached when you whimpered from the kitchen doorway, your nose sticking through the crack. I started putting old towels and blankets on the landing for you to lie on. I sat with you on that landing in your senior years, studying your behavior, your personality that no one else seemed to care to know.
In the end, I remember your arthritis was so painful that you couldn’t walk up and down the basement stairs. I could only imagine the pain you felt when living outside in the cold and rain.
On your last day with us, I remember you being led by leash up the basement stairs, taken to a veterinary office, and euthanized without us beside you.
In the past couple of years I tore down that old, rotted deck in my parents’ backyard. Now, close to 30 years after you left us, under that deck I found indentations in the mud and rocks where you used to lie. Buried in the dirt were a decomposing hard rubber ball and half of a tennis ball. My heart ached all over again.
Thankfully, my parents’ views of keeping a dog differ today from when I was a child. We later rescued a small terrier-mix named Sugar. She lived in the house, had special beds as well as blankets and toys, relaxed on furniture, learned commands, and went on car rides with us. The bond possible between humans and a dog was realized.
I am now raising my second large dog and I cannot begin to tell you the love and amenities I have showered on this animal. I always knew it should be this way.
I have countless photos of my pets today, but only three photos of you, Wiggles. One shows you sitting on the basement platform by the washer and drier. One shows your sad face along the fence. Another shows you playing with a squeaky toy alone in the backyard.
When I see these images, I fight back tears and all I can say is, “I’m sorry, Wiggles. Please forgive human ignorance.”
About Tracy Ahrens: A modern-day Tasha Tudor with a pen as an eleventh phalanx, Tracy is a magnet for small children and creatures, along with strange mishaps and writing errors in need of correcting. Her mind is akin to a 24-hour bustling liquor store and prone to late-night inspiration. She’s most happy planting or pruning something, drinking tea, throwing a tomahawk, drawing or napping. Her obsessive compulsions include planting a peck on each of her pets’ heads before leaving home and brushing/flossing her teeth before bed. Add her book, “Raising My Furry Children,” to your collection.