Friday, January 9, 2009

Dog Movie Evokes Cat Memories


(From the January 8, 2009 Grand Haven Tribune)

As 2008 drew to a close last week, I was more morose and reflective. I could blame the mood on the abundance of snow, the cold temperatures, or the lack of sunshine that often causes the onset of “seasonal affective disorder,” better known as the winter blues.

But that wouldn’t be honest. I would have to attribute my sad pensiveness to a dog, two cats, a book and a movie.

Some time ago, my wife handed me a book that belongs to her sister, and encouraged me to read it. It’s called “Marley and Me,” and features the sweet, droopy mug of a golden Labrador retriever puppy on the cover. I shrugged and set it aside for a while. It’s not that I don’t like dogs or books. I was just a bit preoccupied reading books dealing with political philosophy and communication theory. I hope you can forgive me my selfish indulgence into such light literary fare.

With some time off during the holidays, I retrieved the book about this Labrador. I set aside dog-eared copies of scholarly works to immerse myself into a tome that actually mentioned dog ears. I took my wife’s word that it was a good read, and I also was intrigued that it was written by John Grogan, a newspaper columnist with roots in western Michigan.

As it turned out, the book was to me as a stick is to a retriever—I couldn’t put it down. My reaction is not unique. “Marley and Me” is a best seller. The movie of the same title led the pack in gross receipts last weekend. When my wife and I attended a matinee at the Grand Haven 9, there were few if any available seats. As the book came to life on screen in front of us, children and adults alike giggled and sniffled at the corresponding humorous and sad moments in the life of someone else’s dog.

But I think there is something more to all of this. I think people laughed and cried at the antics and trials of Marley because they are reminded of their own pets. The popularity of this book and movie is probably not due to the fact that they reveal the uniqueness of a particular animal. Rather, “Marley and Me” is about you and me and millions of others and their pets. We laugh and cry because we know the joy of unconditional love that animals give their human companions, and we know the pain that comes from the separation made inevitable by the shorter life spans of canines and felines.

I’ve known that over the past several years. I inherited a cat named Mindy from my wife’s sister when we were dating. Mindy was named for my eventual sister-in-law’s favorite soap opera star. I would have changed the name to something more suitable for me, like Selma Hayek, but I didn’t think this was my cat. I thought it was a temporary situation while my future sister-in-law moved. As it turned out Mindy—the cat and her name—stuck. I had a “daughter” from my wife’s sister even before we were married.

But Mindy and I bonded. After breaking her of an uncanny habit of tipping over drinking glasses, we got on just fine. She loved to sit on my lap, snuggle next to me in bed, and lick my beard with affectionate kitty kisses. She was also gracious enough to let my wife move in once we were married, and even became her constant companion in the kitchen. Her nickname became “moocher” for her persistence in begging for people food. She would take a seat at the table with us, eerily human like, and stare us down as we ate. When we weren’t looking, she would haul off everything from corn on the cob to homemade biscotti and gnaw and nibble in feline delight.

One day while working in the backyard of our house in Grand Rapids, my wife hollered something about a cat. I thought Mindy had escaped. But it turns out we were being visited by a stray. She was hungry and seemed to be sleeping under our porch. She had fluffy white hair with a slight brown swirl in it. We looked around the neighborhood and could find no owner. So we fed her, took her in, cleaned her up, and named her “Latte” for the color of her fur.

Latte and Mindy got along well as step-sisters. Latte was more sedate than Mindy. But we were amused by her desire to speed through the house, and by the contortions she went into when she groomed her long fur with her tongue. One of the best memories is of the two of them as they lay supine on a pillow above our heads in bed, purring in symphonic harmony.

Latte passed away in the spring of 2006. Mindy followed her to feline heaven this past June. So reading the book and seeing the movie about a strange dog named Marley brought back familiar feelings about my two cats. I made my own memorial movie about them this past weekend. It won’t play in theatres, but the scenes will play in the hearts of my wife and I for years to come. I suspect that’s the way it is for all people who have ever allowed a pet into their homes and their lives.