I grew up in a small, farming town in central Minnesota. Our little hamlet had just one stop light and a population of about 3,000 people. Needless to say, there was not much to do.
My sisters and I were mainly left to our own devices. When the weather was nice, we were expected to play outside, with the only admonishment from our mother, “Be home in time for supper!”
One summer, when I was about eight, I recall being especially bored. My older sister and her best friend, who lived next door, decided they no longer wanted me to ‘tag along’ and told me in no uncertain terms to “get lost.” Since there weren’t any kids my age in our immediate neighborhood, that meant my closest pal was our trusty black lab, Princess.
Mom was busy with housework, cooking and endless loads of laundry. If I complained of having nothing to do, she would promptly assign me a menial task. Consequently, I kept my feelings to myself.
I was bored, not stupid.
As the month of June dragged on, I decided I’d tackle a summer project. But, what? For days, I floundered around, bouncing lame ideas off anyone who would listen. One afternoon, I was sitting in the backyard having a one-sided conversation with Princess when the perfect idea came to me: I’d teach Princess how to talk!
After all, I reasoned, dogs are smart. I already knew that Princess had the ability to make noise, since she could certainly bark and whine. She had a voice, but she just didn’t know how to use it.
Euphoric, I raced to the kitchen to inform Mom I’d decided on my summer goal. She seemed bemused, but didn’t try to dissuade me.
I found some special treats for Princess and then set up a chair and small table on the back patio. Mom was busy in the kitchen just a few feet away.
My strategy was to start simple. Looking Princess squarely in the eyes, I enunciated, “My name is Princess.” I repeated it five or six times. Then, I rewarded Princess with a small treat and some ear rubbing. Tail wagging, she seemed happy, but really more interested in the treats rather than actually learning to speak.
Undaunted, I continued.
After about ten minutes, I heard Mom’s voice from the open kitchen window. “Nancy, you’re getting on my nerves. Please move away from the house!”
I complied, dragging my chair along behind me.
Since I still had a few more snacks, Princess happily followed. The lessons continued.
“My name is Princess!” Over and over and over.
Now the treats were gone and Princess was starting to look confused. She refused to look me in the eye and gazed longingly at some birds nearby. I persisted.
Suddenly, Mom stuck her head out the back screen door, waving her arm in the air. “Go to the back of the yard, I can still hear you!”
I moved yet again, this time dragging poor Princess and abandoning the chair. The lessons continued until I was called in for lunch. Finally free, Princess bounded happily away.
Over tuna sandwiches, Mom informed me that the lessons were done for the day. “Honestly, you have to give that poor dog a rest!” she informed me, rolling her eyes. I was disappointed, but not ready to give up. That afternoon, when Mom went to the grocery store, I found Princess napping in the front yard. I massaged her stomach and spoke in a soothing voice.
“I know you can do it,” I whispered. “When you are ready, just repeat after me: My name is Princess.”
Nothing. I tried again. And, again. And, again.
By this time, my voice was getting raspy and the sun was making me sleepy. I stretched out on the grass, nose-to-nose with Princess. Soon, she dozed off and her ears twitched back and forth. Small sounds came from deep within her throat. I quietly held her paw and watched her sleep. It was apparent, even to my naive, eight-year-old self that she wasn’t going to talk.
In this world, some are talkers and some are listeners. Princess was the latter.
That long, hot summer, I took on many projects. Some I finished and some, like the speaking lessons, were abandoned after only a few hours. Yet, every single day Princess was there by my side. She was a indeed great listener and my dear friend. Princess, I’ll never forget you.
*photo used courtesy of Dani Jace