What wasn't, will always be


In these anticipatory days before the coming of St. Nicholas, I'd like to put in a good word for St. Francis of Assissi. St. Francis, the saint who listened to animals, brings to mind my favorite Christmas story.

It was about eight years ago when we decided to breed Rosie. Rosie was our dog, a slender, stupid-but-loyal golden retriever with a heart like her hair. Rosie was a city dog, spending most of the day cooped up in our small apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, living a dog's life. It was Christmas when we decided she ought to have puppies, perhaps to reenforce her maternal sensibilities, perhaps just to make some money hustling pure-bred puppies.

So the next summer, we sent Rosie out to a friend's farm in upstate New York to learn the ways of eros with a young golden buck, coincidentally named Buck. It was Rosie's fresh-air retreat, a world of silos and barns and people who made a living making maple syrup. It was, hopefully, a world of love.

By all reports, the mission went well. The puppies would be due just before Christmas, perfect timing to coincide with peak demand in the puppy market.

Rosie came home with a coat full of fleas, and we hoped, with at least a couple buns in the oven. In my young boy's grand sense of the world, I could have sworn I could see the puppies growing. We took Rosie to a veterinarian later that week, and the vet massaged her belly, feeling for the little lives that were growing there. She said that Rosie was due for at least one puppy, if not more. She prescribed a special diet, which basically amounted to feeding Rosie a lot of food.

Winter was coming on in New York and we worked to fatten Rosie up, to get her in shape for a warm, restful pregnancy. As the due date neared, the kitchen where she sometimes slept was getting cold; the heat sputtering out of the furnace as it does in furnaces throughout the city. So my mother went to talk to the superintendent and demanded more heat for our apartment. Soon the kitchen filled with warm dry air and, with Rosie lying on a towel panting happily, she seemed to be living in a giant incubator.

By early December, Rosie looked about ready to burst. We began to anticipate the bounty of pups that would line the cardboard box we had placed her in. We fed her hearty meals and let food drop from our plates at dinner. Like a living vacuum cleaner, she devoured every piece.

We began to plan for the arrival of the baby goldens, asking around to see who might want a puppy. I secretly hoped we would keep one of the puppies for ourselves, though two golden retrievers in a New York apartment would likely not work out to the benefit of the humans who lived there.

But a week later, the box was still empty, aside from our overweight dog. As Christmas approached, we began to question if something was wrong with Rosie, so we decided to take her to the vet again.

At the vet's office, she lumbered through the waiting room and onto a metal scale that doubled as an examination table. The vet noted her weight, telling us that it looked as if she was coming along nicely, then felt her belly again. A confused look swept across her face. Rosie, it turned out, was not going to have any babies; in fact, she never had been pregnant at all.

And so, a little disappointed, we trudged home with our fat dog past stores and sidewalks alive with lights and decorations. There really is nothing like New York during the holidays (as there is probably nothing like Steamboat during the holidays).

As we walked Rosie home, she stopped every once in a while to greet passers-by, hanging her head to let them pet her. She seemed completely oblivious to the promise that had lived within her.

Our family felt a little small that Christmas season, but, as we sat and opened presents with our warm chubby dog, it wasn't hard to forgive Rosie. And, despite the absence of puppies, it wasn't hard to feel thankful for the small things.


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