The Snowball Mystery

Aloud to no one in particular, my mother said, “I wonder if she’ll cry that much when I die.”

At dusk a neighbor had come to the backdoor, telling her she had seen our new puppy dead in the street. Momentarily stunned, Mama said, “But I just let him out.”

I erupted in tears as if there were no tomorrow. Gone forever was something that would love me without any strings attached. Finally, my parents removed the death’s sting and gave me hope when they promised I could choose and name the next dog.

Months later my brothers and I ran out the front door heading for a schoolmate’s house. She had free puppies. As we bounded off the porch, my father called behind us, “Make sure it’s a boy.”

Daddy was waiting at the door when we returned empty-handed. “What happened?”

My heavy heart answered, “Only girls are left.” When he then told me a girl would be okay, I ran all the way back by myself for the white one and named her Snowball.

I grieved for Snowball when my father took her to Virginia for the three-dollar operation. Not because she was “fixed” so that she could never have puppies but because of what happened to her two days later.

Her relentless barking and straining for freedom from the chain anchored in my grandparents’ farmyard caused the inevitable. Snowball burst her stitches. I could only watch and listen to Snowball’s piercing yelps as my father and grandfather held her while my grandmother closed the incision with her needle and thread.

Unfortunately, that was the first and only time Snowball was tied to anything except my heart. She loved all of us, but she showed me I was her favorite when we moved to the row house with my own bedroom. Every school day when I came home, she was waiting for me on the backdoor stoop.

Rarely did I pet her. I didn’t like the strong odor it left on my hands. That guilt chased me when I’d walk over Snowball, careful not to step on her thumping tail.

Her routine presence on the steel stoop gave me some stability in my teeter-totter world. Walking to my house from the school bus stop, I never knew if that would be a day I’d hear my father’s drunken rants bombarding my mother. The times I heard them I wouldn’t look to the right or to the left lest I’d see a neighbor’s face. My eyes focused straight ahead on the backdoor. There I could escape inside the house and disassociate myself from public shame.

When we had moved into our new house, the neighborhood did not know my father was an alcoholic. If the family kept the secret, no one would ever know. Of course, Daddy let it out.

One afternoon Snowball was not on the stoop. She was not there the next afternoon or the next. She was never there again.

As her absence continued, I expressed my puzzlement to Mama. “Sometimes dogs go away,” she said. But her glib answer did not sit right with me.

My heart believed Snowball loved me too much to just up and leave. And I didn’t fear she had been hit by a car. She was not a puppy.

Snowball surfaced four decades later from my father’s lips. “You remember that dog Snowball? She always ran after the mailman. He said he would not deliver the mail to our house anymore if she didn’t stop. We called the SPCA. We had to.”

Twenty years after my father revealed Snowball had been euthanized, I had a dream that I was in a serene place. Alone. That is, I didn’t see anyone, but I did feel I was not alone.

I was squatting as I do when greeting a grandchild face to face. Suddenly, a white dog appeared, running to me as fast as a speeding bullet. “Who is this?” my mind asked. An unseen voice replied, “This is Snowball.”

Good Enough!

My heart sank in front of the hall display. This was the morning the sixth-grade teachers would show off the best notebooks. I didn’t see mine.

Maybe I had missed it at the first look. My eyes moving more slowly this time–left to right, down, left to right, down, left to right–I checked again. Then I zoned in on a particularly scrawny one. It couldn’t possibly contain as much Maryland history as mine. Why hadn’t my notebook been selected? Why wasn’t it good enough?

Wasted were the long nights I had sat alone and straddle-legged on the bare, hard floor cutting and pasting from a stack of Sunday Sun Magazine issues while the rest of the family slept. As my mind and body gave out on that last night, my insides silently screamed for my mother to come into the living room and make me go to bed. I couldn’t stop the project by myself. I didn’t know where enough ended. Finally, the assignment deadline notified me no more would be expected.

Dejected, I walked into my classroom at the end of the hall. As soon as I slumped down in my desk chair, Mr. Viti was squatting beside me. “Judy,” he softly said, “yesterday the other teachers and I tried every way we knew how to put your notebook up, but it wouldn’t stay. It was too heavy. I want you to know, though, you had the best notebook of all. We could see you put a lot of work in it.”

My intention had not been to make the notebook so big it “outdid itself.” As always, I strove to do my best without understanding what that looked like. I kept pushing, pushing, pushing. One more magazine, one more article, one more picture would make the notebook better. Perfect. But where was the point of perfection? Where was the finish line? I was on my own to figure it out, and I couldn’t.

My father, it seemed, could. He had internalized the perfection standard so well that when his expectation wasn’t met by everyone in his world, he took a nosedive into the bottle.

Try as I might during my growing-up years, I felt nothing I did met my father’s approval; for I never heard him say a satisfying “good.” Deprived of that, getting high marks in school became my substitute source of praise.

Then, somewhere in his sober senior years, my father changed. While he was fixing something or other one day, he shocked me with “that’s good enough.” In that moment I understood his “good enough” did not mean he had done a mediocre job. His “good enough” meant he had met a realistic expectation of himself. Also in that astonishing moment, it was as if my father had  cut a cord, releasing me to judge my own efforts as good enough.

My father had learned to recognize and accept the adequate stopping point. Much like a person who understands the exclamation mark.

The exclamation mark (!) punctuates strong feeling. Some people, apparently striving to push the point that they are really, really, really enthusiastic about the meaning of their word or sentence, will attach two or three exclamation marks–or four or five–or more. Theoretically, they could carry the emotional symbol on to infinity. So how do they determine the cut-off point?

There is no standardized chart delineating how much emotional value a specific number of exclamation marks denotes. The initiator and the recipient are left to their own cognitive and/or emotional devices for the degree of happiness or alarm to feel. Pity the neurotic who counts the number of exclamation marks a teacher places behind “nice work” on an assignment and pits it against a different total after the same comment on his peer’s product!

Have you ever seen more than one period at the close of a sentence to convey it is really, really, really finished? Why is more expected of the exclamation mark than its original intent? Why isn’t its stopping point recognized? When we get real, we will accept that one exclamation mark is perfect. It is good enough!