It doesn’t matter how many whaling captains are stacked up in your Island lineage, nor if your surname dots our ancient cemeteries. What makes us real Islanders, or real Vineyarders (frankly, I have no clue what difference exists between those two sub-genres; someone else can write a blog about that), are the departed pets whom we have planted along the way in this blessed plot, this earth, this Vineyard.
For the three Nadlers, it started in 1991 when we moved here year-round from LA to our summer cottage in East Chop. Our cats Hershey and Gismo (mother & daughter) were very much along for the ride, which wasn’t to say they appreciated said ride (for starters both of them pooped in their crates during the airplane haul).
Big black sleek Hershey, who had always been semi-feral to begin with, expressed her sense of dislocation by peeing – repeatedly -- on the sofas.
This may be TMI about feline urine, but if you can place a textile drenched in it through a washing machine, you eliminate it 100%. If, however, you’re dealing with a sofa cushion too large to be cleansed by anything but a bonfire, well, you’ll have that smell of cat pee with you as long as the pyramids have stayed standing. In other words, the odor of old cat wee is imperishable.
So after trying every which way to reorient Hershey, we decided to make her an outdoor cat. After a couple of months of the gal's returning to our porch for her daily kibble, she disappeared. We could only pray some kindly family had taken her in, and that she had learned her lesson about soiling the sofas.
My greatest fear over that particular episode was that Charlie, then going into the 2nd grade, would develop a private fear about misbehaving and being turned into an outdoor child. Of course, had it come to that, we would have built him a lean-to and served him outdoor meals on trays . . . KIDDING! But there’s always the off-chance that one of these days he’ll need to consult a psychiatrist about that particular childhood trauma.
We replaced Hershey with a Siamese kitten with odd rust-colored ears and tails. We named him Baby Roo. Gizmo put Baby Roo through a two-week hazing period, but all of a sudden they were cuddling together, and the kitten even tried to nurse from Gizmo’s spinster’s chest.
And then Baby Roo died, still a tiny kitten, of some rare congenital heart condition. Perhaps because I was feeling guilty about our poor rejected Hershey, I pulled out all the stops for the kitty’s last rites. We buried him in the backyard and invited our neighbors, Bill, Heather, Megan and Billy Munson, to attend. I played Elizabethan canticles on a tape deck, lit candles, and spoke of Baby Roo returning to the Great Mother like a drop of water to the ocean. Afterwards Bill Munson took me aside and told me that, when he died, he wanted me to conduct his service.
We adopted a bro from Baby Roo’s litter, a psycho named Beebe who would scratch or bite us to remind us to feed him, and who we later learned sought out stoners in alleyways behind Circuit Avenue to blow pot in his face (they thought it was funny; Beebe apparently enjoyed the high).
But the main love of our Vineyard lives was our cocker spaniel, Chopper, whom we acquired shortly after Beebe joined the team.
Chopper was Charlie’s boon companion, but he also liked to run away on occasion. He’d have been a fool not to: His first jail break landed him at the newly established Oyster Bar and Grill (the original one down by the harbor.) A sous-chef from the restaurant phoned us to let us know our guy was safely stowed inside. The kitchen help thought the pooch looked peakish -- or maybe they simply couldn't resist his cute cocker face -- and they'd fed him scallops braised in a dijonaise sauce, salmon tartare, and bits of braised beef.
Now, if you a were a dog and you knew that at home you lived with a loving family who served you dried kernels and canned meat of a highly questionable nature, or that you could bolt into town, hook up with random strangers, and be pampered with food the likes of which 99% of humans never got treated to, well, how much deliberating would YOU need to do?
Chopper died at the age of 14 in my home on Chapman Avenue. It was late in the afternoon on a Friday in early September. I was desolated, of course, but I was also practical enough to know it would be helpful to have him cremated. My vet’s message machine referred me to a rota of other vets, and the possibility of finding one on call. I interpreted “on call” to mean available to help a sick pet, not a dead one. I ended up phoning our single mortuary on the island, Coleman and Gleason, and leaving the following message:
“Is it in terrible taste for me to ask if you ever cremate, um, dogs?” And then I did some customary Holly cajoling and outright pleading.
The company never returned my call.
I grabbed a shoved and buried Chopper on the far side of the picket fence of the East Chop home we’d sadly had to sell some years before. This was where Chopper had roamed free in the hopes of eating more sautéed scallops, and now, of course, his spirit floats hither and yon in this spot whenever it takes leave of the Great Oyster Bar And Grill In The Sky.
I’ve given birth to my son on this island (praise the Lord! A native! What legitimacy that gives us!), and raised him from 2nd grade through college. But what also attaches me to this sacred ground are the pets I’ve put into it: Baby Roo, Gismo, Beebe (in his last years living with my friend, Lauren Martin and her family), and floppy dumb Chopper.
Now I’ve got my Boston terrier, Huxley, who I hope will be the one exception to the canine’s age expectancy, and will live forever. These are the elements in my life on these shores which, beyond paying taxes and working jobs for which I’ve never needed my English degree, render me an Islander or a Vineyarder or a townie crack-pot, or whatever you want to call it.