I’ll admit right now, my mom and I had a very complicated, psychologically enmeshed and possibly unhealthy relationship. Sometimes this played out in relation to her animals, or more precisely, in my reactions to her relationships with her animals. I remember as a little girl being so mad at her for loving the cat more than me. I guess as an only child, I projected a lot onto my fuzzy brother and I was jealous of the attention he got like I would have been a new baby. As an adult, the jealousy diminished, but her relationship with her pets would always be a flashpoint for me.
Mama got Benny when he was a puppy a couple of years after her other dog, Buster, died. Buster, a feisty little black and tan dachshund, had been her constant companion and, he thought, protector. I loved and hated Buster. He had endearing qualities. He was very smart. He hated Ross Perot, for example. He was a great helper in the garden. He loved to bark at the water hose and had his own gardening glove that he would carry around when Mom worked out there. But he was fiercely protective of her, and as her illness began to limit her mobility, he would stand guard at her side and attack anyone who tried approach her. He even bit me more than once! He wouldn’t let me near her to hug her or sit with her on the couch and his barking made it nearly impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation.
Of course, this made me mad at Mom! Didn’t she care about my feelings, my need to hug her, comfort her, and let’s be honest, quite possibly my need to be acknowledged as the good daughter that wants to comfort her mama? Couldn’t she show me the courtesy of controlling her DOG when I came to visit her?
Mom was heartbroken to lose Buster. I looked forward to Benny—Beneficio, her little blessing— filling the gap that he left and being a sweeter and gentler companion for her.
Rat terriers are smart dogs known for their extensive vocabularies. They have very focused attention, and are loyal and responsible. You might think that would make them very well behaved animals. Unfortunately, Mom never trained Benny to understand useful commands like “Sit,” “Stay” or even “No!” Instead, Benny was rewarded for barking at Jesus (i.e., reflections of light on the ceiling—she thought that was HILARIOUS) and for nipping at Mom’s toes when when she used them to tease him into eating. She would dip her toe into his bowl of kibble, inciting him to defend that resource and coaxing him into eating a little. He entertained her.
And he took that job seriously. They spent hours every day playing fetch, often at his instigation. He would bring a toy to Mom, drop it at her feet and then bark at her to play with him. She almost always complied. She was well trained.
He knew the names of all his different toys. It was fun to ask him, “Benny, where is your judge toy?” and watch him pick the right one out of his toy box. And, he was very sweet to people he knew mom trusted. The only person he ever bit back then was my Aunt Leslie. Mom said he didn’t like her because she didn’t fully appreciate the ballet.
So, let’s be real. My mom was a bit of a character. She was whip smart with a mean sense of humor, a great disdain for religion, and a passion for ballet. She had an artist’s sensitivity to beauty. She wrote poetry. She loved music. She saw people’s auras. And for a little more than a decade she was isolated with these passions, her imagination, and an entertaining little experiment named Benny while a debilitating autoimmune disease slowly destroyed her once beautiful body.
I should never have expected him to know he was a dog.
Benny brought all his training and skills and habits with him to my house. He relentlessly tried to get me to play. “Here is the judge toy. Play with me! Why won’t you play?!?! PLAY!”
I didn’t WANT to play! “Shut UP! Leave me alone for five minutes!”
Also, Benny was never fully housebroken. Every day I came home to find a puddle of stinky dog pee. And here he’d come, bringing me the gray squirrel, little tootsie roll tail wagging so fast, and wanting to play. Adorable!
I hated him. And I hated Mom for making him so bad.
What was really going on, or at least was also going on under the surface, was a bunch of guilt and anger and denial. I hated Benny. I identified with Benny. I hated myself. I blamed our mother.
For many months, Benny became the screen upon which I projected all the unresolved anger and childish grudges I held against my mom. He drew them to the surface and forced me to look at them. Eventually, partly because he is objectively so cute, and also because he is a living reminder of so many things I loved about my mom, I let those things go and just loved him. He still drives me crazy sometimes, but I don’t hate Mama for it anymore.