Long before Phoebe joined our family, thirteen years ago, we brought home ten-week-old Esme. A nearly pure-white Border collie, she soon put her shepherd instincts to work, substituting a pack of kids for a flock of sheep.
With a name borrowed from the Salinger story For Esme, with Love and Squalor ("love and squalor" summing up our life nicely), Ez became our nanny. Babies were her love and her life's work. I had wanted a dog smart enough to learn to fetch a baby blanket if I needed one while nursing or otherwise occupied. I got a dog that would stare at me piercingly if the baby cried and I didn't respond as quickly as she deemed appropriate.
Our increasing flock of small boys ranged and wandered safely while our sheepdog kept her keen eye on them. The middle son, the one who was a crawling baby when she was a tiny puppy, became her special charge. If I didn't know at which house on our street his little troupe of boys was playing, I'd ask Ez, "Where's Wylie?" She'd trot over to that front door, looking at me over her shoulder as if to say, "Right here."
Ez soon expanded her charge to all the children on our street, trotting beside toddlers on the sidewalk, nudging them away from the road. She scolded the older children for roughhousing; parents in our neighborhood learned a certain pitch to Esme's bark meant that the touch football game was getting out of hand. Children up and down the road grew up with Ez as "their" dog, stopping by to call her out for a game of soccer, or to keep them company while their mother was at the store. Visiting dog-phobic children would be brought by to meet Esme. Sensing their fear, she would drop to her belly and creep forward, wagging her tail. When her nose reached the child's toes, she would turn bellyside up, eliciting a timid pat and a brave smile.
In her prime, Esme had the run of the town's playgrounds and athletic fields, keeping an eye on the boys wherever they went, taking part in whatever they did. (I taught her to raise her paw to her nose in a clumsy salute. The animal control officer, an ex-Army sergeant, so appreciated the gesture he never mentioned her leashless, wandering ways.) One day at the playground, I turned to see Ez coming down the slide, and scolded the kids for pushing her down it. They all shouted, "We didn't! Ezzie wanted to!" Sure enough, she ran round to the steps up the climbing structure and did it again. Every visit to a playground after was filled with calls of "Do the slide, Ezzie! Do the slide!" Round and round she'd run and slide with a gaggle of giggling kids behind her. My mother came to visit and asked how I had trained that trick. I confessed I hadn't done any training except to teach Ez not to cut in line. During the boys' soccer games, she'd stand on the sideline and stare, alternately, at the ball and the coach. Her eyes said it all: "Put me in, Coach. I'll control that ball."
As arthritis weakened her hips, Esme substituted creaky strolls around the neighborhood for slides and soccer games. She took up visiting the elderly woman who lives by herself, sharing an afternoon snack. Ez had become an old dog. Young Phoebe had enthusiastically taken over the task of herding the kids from the playground to the soccer fields and back again. Ez sunned herself on the front stoop. On their way back into the house, the boys would sit beside her for a moment, rubbing her ears, and telling her what a good dog she was.
Through the years, whenever friends asked for my advice about getting a puppy and the responsibility of a dog on top of raising children, I would explain why I chose to have the hair, the expense, the early morning walks, and all the other extra burdens dogs add to my already demanding days. "At least someone obeys me," I'd say. If my questioner wanted a thoughtful answer, I'd say that being a mother of small children can be a lonely job. Surrounded by voices and bodies all day long, I am still alone, the only one who really knows the thoughts and tasks that compose my days. My children radiate away from the center, from me. My dogs turn toward me, focused on me while I direct my attention outward, toward my children. The dogs keep me company.
As my sons grew out of frontpacks and strollers, too quickly toward skateboards, then bikes to take them downtown, and driving lessons to take them further, my answer changed: Someday, my boys are going to leave me. My dogs will never leave me.
Except that Esme did leave. One day she went for a walk and didn't come home, dying quietly in a hidden spot outside, with typical grace and humility. She died just as my eldest son finished his college applications, in the year when my youngest son started first grade. Her life, from fluffy puppy to old dog on the porch, spanned the small child years of my life. Her last gift to me, her final task as nanny, was to give me a moment in which to grieve it all. And then, to turn fresh toward whatever comes next.
Goodbye, pudgy fingers and corn niblet toes. Goodbye, mashed bananas and corduroy overalls. Goodbye, babies. Goodbye, Esme.