Letter from Katie: Travels With My Sister

Time flies when you measure your days in dog years.

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Somehow when I think of my dog, Sister, it is always autumn and the red and yellow sugar maples blend with her golden coat as if some New York designer had had her dyed to match. Sister was that beautiful.

Sister and I lived together in Over-the-Rhine for roughly a dozen years, until we moved to Klotter Street. She was 14 when she died—a good, long life for a dog, anyone would be quick to tell you. But if she was your dog, and she was smart and beautiful—a medium-sized mixture of border collie and golden retriever with a thick, red coat—14 years wasn’t long at all. It was the blink of an eye.

In those short years I came to know her to be a fierce competitor and a devoted protector. “Ask yourself,” I could almost hear her say whenever we faced an unsettling situation,“do you feel lucky?” Then she’d growl deep in her throat where only I could hear it, and I felt safe and not alone in the quagmire that was Over-the-Rhine in the 1990s.

Sister was the only dog I ever had who was a born athlete. I lived near the School for Creative and Performing Arts at its former location between Sycamore and Broadway, and in the evening I would walk Sister to the playground and watch her run. She would stretch out, low to the ground, and give it her all.

“Run,” I’d yell, carried away by her elegance, and at the sound of my voice her legs would pump like pistons. I wasn’t the only one who admired her. At least two young men walking pit bulls offered to buy her. “That’s a good dog, lady,” they’d say. “That dog can run.”

I wasn’t looking for a dog when we met. Lisa Mullins, the young woman who headed up Enjoy the Arts nonprofit, had rescued her; Lisa had seen the big red dog running along Scott Street in Covington, a rope, which had been deliberately cut, tied around her neck, threading through rush hour traffic as if she were herding cars, barking constantly. “I can’t keep her right now,” Lisa said when she brought her to my apartment on Main Street. “I’ve got work men in the house, and I’m afraid she’d freak out and bite someone.”

My own dog, Hoosier, had died a few months earlier, and I was determined not to take in another. “I promised myself no new dogs,” I said. “But if you want to leave her with me a couple of days, I can do that.”

“I’ll bet we can find her a great home,” I said to Lisa earnestly when I returned Sister to her two days later.

“I’ve got a lead on somebody who has a farm, somebody associated with the Symphony,”Lisa said.

“Great,” I said. “Maybe some culture would calm her down.” I felt a little twinge, but I ignored it.

Lisa laughed and took Sister’s leash and led her off to a rural paradise. But by the end of the weekend, Sister was back.

“She was restless and just wouldn’t stay on that farm,” Lisa told me on the phone. “And I’ve got three carpenters at my house.

“I had to bring her to the office,” she added.

I agreed to a couple more days of dog-sitting, and within moments this new, strange dog came barreling down the street with Lisa in tow, sniffing out my apartment as if she were Rin Tin Tin. When she saw me, she was ecstatic.

If you’ve never experienced a dog that is overjoyed to see you, you’ve missed one of life’s great experiences. Sister jumped up and put her paws on my shoulders. She wagged her whole body, like a flapper do- ing the shimmy. She licked my hands and she sniffed me up one side and down the other. Even when she finally quieted down enough to sit, every inch of her quivered with her desire to please me.

Lisa laughed. “Too bad you’re not in the market for a dog. She’s already picked you out for sure.”

During the next couple of days, the dog and I went everywhere together. She was a good walker once I reined her in, and she’d stay on my right side, looking up into my face, eager for my approval. “Good dog,” I said.

Sister had a couple more weekend jaunts to visit prospective owners, but none of them worked, and Lisa and I kept passing her back and forth. I suspected I was going to keep her when I decided to name her.

We were at the School for Creative and Performing Arts again and I was watching her run, deep in thought. “Ginger,” I said, but she didn’t slow down. “Penny?” Nothing. “Foxy.” “Molly.” “Lilly.” Suddenly, a name popped into my head.

“Sister!” I said, and she looked up at me and gave a short bark. “Sister.” I said it again, a little louder this time. In the South, Sister is a perfectly logical first name, and I had been reading a magazine article about a woman named Sister Parish. The name stuck. “Sister,” I said.

Out of nowhere a nun appeared, walking through the trees on the east end of the playground. “Were you calling me? Did you need help?” she said.

A nun! I hadn’t even known there were any nuns in Over-the-Rhine. “Oh,” I said, laughing. “Well, I was calling the dog.” Now why had I said that? “I didn’t mean to be sacrilegious,” I added, digging the hole a little deeper, my face turning a richer shade of red.

“My name is Sister Monica,” the nun said, and she was laughing too. “None of the sisters will believe this story.”

Sister looked at Monica and sniffed disdainfully. She was ready to go home. With me. And that’s where she ended up staying for the rest of her life.

Over the next decade, we took more than 1,500 walks, ranging through Over- the-Rhine, and across downtown. We covered most of Liberty Street, Central Parkway, and Piatt Park. The people at Fifth Third didn’t allow me to bring her in when I went to do my banking, so I tied her around the telephone pole by her leash, went inside, and held my breath, scared she wouldn’t be there when I came back out. Eventually I switched to U.S. Bank on Court Street, where they allowed Sister to come in and nap beside the visitor’s chair while I made my transactions.

We became a couple, you could say. Sister knew what I was thinking: if she picked up “food” vibrations she’d follow me to the kitchen. But she was no chow-hound. She was selective about what she ate; she wanted to keep her figure. If I went anywhere near the leash, she scrambled to go with me, sure that we were ready for a walk. If I was sad, she stayed quiet, within petting distance, ready to soothe my cares and worries with a dog grin or a well-placed kiss. And in exchange for my giving her a home, she was a considerate roommate, fully housebroken. If she had to get up in the night and go outside, she’d stand at the edge of my bed and bark two or three times until I screamed for mercy, got dressed at 4 in the morning, and grabbed the leash. Better that than the alternative.

Sister understood ball games in a way few humans do. One day at the playground, I heard someone shout, “Lady, get your dog!!” When I looked up, there was Sister playing soccer with the physical education class. Somehow she understood soccer as soon as she saw it. She understood that it was her job to keep the ball away from anybody else and to steal it back if someone else got it. As I watched in horror, her leash in my hand, Sister ran for all she was worth, holding the ball in her mouth, all the way to the end of the field. Behind her, both teams were chasing her, squealing with glee. When I got her collared she was panting happily, dozens of little hands patting her.

Living in Over-the-Rhine as we did, Sister and I became art critics, visiting studios and hanging out with sullen, paint-smeared men and talented women. Final Friday was the night the artists’ galleries stayed open late. One Friday, Sister and I watched all day as some artists from Alaska hung a huge native-influenced calendar in a window. However the sun hit it caused it to move in some miraculous way.

Sister wasn’t allowed in Kaldi’s coffee shop unless it was late at night and I was singing. Then sometimes she would meander in and lay at my feet while I rocked out with a progressive bluegrass band. Those were halcyon days, days of art, music, and poetry readings. The readings were unlike anything I’d ever seen. The poets called them “slams,” and when they spoke their work they hammered with their bodies and no words were off limits.

The artists, models, musicians, and poets—all of us perhaps remember Sister best for her participation in the Bockfest Parade. Bockfest is an Over-the-Rhine institution, held at the end of winter, probably to keep people drinking beer through Lent. The tradition celebrates the Bock beer, a special brew made heavy with grains that monks used to drink during Lent so they wouldn’t pass out from fasting. Bockfest weekend starts with a parade led by a goat-drawn wagon carrying a keg of the first Bock beer and a group of men dressed as old-school monks with braided sashes tied around their rough woolen robes.

One year, on the designated Friday, the parade formed at Arnold’s Bar and Grill on East Eighth Street then turned north on Main Street, heading for St. Mary’s Church, where the priest would bless the beer. It was quite a sight—men in lederhosen and medieval get-ups, women in dirndl skirts and laced bodices with spring flowers in their hair, the Queen of Sausages with her tray of brats and metts, the VIPs riding in a horse-drawn carriage.

To understand Bockfest, and what motivates its participants, you have to take into account the planning and preparation that go into it. It’s like the Macy’s parade—they start working on the event a year ahead. There are committees and sub-committees for publicity, beer, printing, posters, even goat and cart rental—every minute detail. On this particular year, the planners had decided to add the “Bocking Dogs” contingent to the festivities—about 16 purebred dogs of all sizes, perfectly groomed and exquisitely behaved, moving with precision alongside their owners just like that movie, Best of Show.

When the parade got to Kaldi’s, close to my apartment, the group stopped so that the city dignitaries could make their annual Bockfest proclamations. Inside our home, Sister was restless. Of course I hadn’t mentioned a word about the parade to her; still, she knew there was something going on, and every time I popped out to check on my laundry, she paced back and forth in front of the door. I wasn’t even aware of the Bocking Dogs until they stopped in front of Kaldi’s, but Sister knew exactly what was headed her way: the next time I went out the door, she rushed down the stairs like a streak. Some new tenants had propped open the locked front door, and before I drew a breath she was out, with me in hot pursuit, carrying a basket of freshly dried laundry.

She raced outside and into the assembled “bocking” dogs, all of whom forgot their training and turned into a pack of snarling canines. Handlers tried to restore order, but it was chaos. Someone yelled, “Get that damn dog out of here,” but Sister had left the apartment without her collar on, so there was no way anybody could grab her. The parade watchers lined up on the sidewalk, and the artists watching out the window on the bar side of Kaldi’s were laughing hysterically, yelling, “Go Sister.” One tiny white poodle in a little embroidered dress was so upset she walked over to the side of the street and squatted down and peed right on the skirt of her outfit.

The whole thing didn’t last 10 minutes, but it seemed like an hour to me. I was mortified. Someone eventually grabbed Sister by her mane of red hair and got her out of the street and back in the door of my apartment building. The artists thought it was the best Bock Parade ever, but I received formal notice that Sister was permanently banned from future parades in Over-the-Rhine.

Sister and I lived a long time in that apartment. We were the last tenants there when developers decided to turn the place into condos. Some of the artists made a mini-documentary of our departure, and then everybody picked up something and put it on the truck good-naturedly.

We had moved twice—first to Race Street downtown, and then to Klotter Street in Lower Clifton, as I call it—before she died. I had noticed at Christmastime that she was more listless. But her coat was still shiny red and she still wagged her tail when I came in. I thought maybe she was a little down because we were in a new neighborhood. By February, though, I noticed her breathing becoming ragged and labored, and our walks were shorter than they used to be. I took her to Dr. Mike, the veterinarian, who X-rayed her and informed me she had a tumor on her lungs. “She’s not uncomfortable,” he said in his gentle way, “but bring her back next Saturday and we’ll decide what’s to be done.”

“You mean how we’ll get her well?” I corrected him.

“Well,” Dr. Mike said. “She’s 14 years old now. Let’s see how she is next week.”

I didn’t have to wait a week; Sister died soon after we saw Dr. Mike. She behaved uncharacteristically, wanting out early in the morning while it was still dark, racing to the top of the green hill across the street and eating grass to make herself throw up. The tumor was making it hard for her to breathe, and she wanted it out of there. Finally, she came back down and laid herself on the ground and let me soothe her until I could get her back in the house. I wrapped her in a warm towel, put a sheet down, and laid her in my bed, holding her, talking to her, petting her. I must have dozed off, because around 6 a.m., she nudged my chin firmly with her nose, looked up towards the sky and breathed her last breath.

The people in Over-the-Rhine mourned her. The artist Alan Sauer said that seeing her in the Bockfest Parade was the best thing that ever happened to him. “I almost didn’t go,” he told me, “and then I laughed harder than I have ever laughed at anything.”

“It seems odd to see you without Sister,” someone will say, and I smile and say “Yes,” and tell them quickly that she died peacefully, at home, in bed.

It is the street people who show their feelings. I ran into an old acquaintance at Washington Park who looked at me with rheumy eyes and said,“I know’d your dog must be dead by now, but I just had to ask. I thought there might a’been a miracle, and she’d still be alive.

“She was sure some dog,” he added, laughing a little.

“Yes,” I said, “she was sure some dog.”

Originally published in the December 2012 issue.
Illustration by Tuesday Bassen

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