This essay originally appeared in Washingtonian Magazine.
I am at that stage of life where one of my most emotionally rewarding relationships is with a poodle. My husband is busy mid career, my kids are revving on the runway and Elvis and I are spending more and more time together. He is my Empty Nest Dog.
I’m not complaining. While the rest of my family occasionally mistakes me for a handy kitchen appliance, Elvis is the president of my fan club. I am the motherlode, the queen bee, the black spaghetti strap in a closet full of Laura Ashley. The devotion is mutual. Elvis is no general population pet. Elvis is mine. We are one.
This is not a unique phenomenon. Many of my friends are involved in co-dependencies with four legged children. They seem to extend our diminishing roles as nurturers, bridging the span between Mama and Grandmama. The more dependent they are the better. Elvis is just the right size to be carried from room to room. His head nestles in my arm, his little feet smell like popcorn.
Dogs belonging to women-of-a-certain-age are more exalted than your basic starter-pet. When the kids were young, the family dog’s place was that of, well, a dog. No longer. Empty Nest Dogs don’t hang around waiting around for someone to throw them a bone. They sleep next to us with conviction; growl when our husbands come to bed. Not only do they accompany us on vacation they claim permanent dibbs on the front seat. Which is perfectly legitimate. How many of our teenagers or spouses respond to the question, Who wants to go for a ride, by dancing around as if the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Prize Team had just pulled up?
Ironically, the same kids who can’t be bothered by our enduring attentions exhibit rivalry towards these dogs. Katlyn, a high school junior, was caught hiding the beloved stuffed toy belonging to her mother’s bishon frise. When her motive was questioned she explained she didn’t want Jackson to think life was really so easy. Eden, who recently got her driver’s license, informs Parker daily that his nose is too long. My own baby, a senior in high school, tortures Elvis by telling him I’ve left. “Mommy’s goooone!” she whispers, causing the poor guy to race down the stairs at breakneck speed–when in fact I’ve only stepped into the bathroom.
My little doggie’s demeanor incites my husband as well. For six years he’s tried to play fetch with Elvis. And for six years the game has ended with him retrieving the ball himself mumbling, “When can we get a real dog?” or “Vichy Poodle!” Frankly, both Elvis and I think it’s a stupid, degrading sport anyway.
Another source of derision around the dinner table is Elvis’s standoffish manner with other canines. “It’s not natural,” proclaims my spouse when Elvis rebuffs the lonely starter-pet from next door who camps out on our porch waiting for some dog company. But it’s not going to happen. And I know why.
Elvis and I are both closet agoraphobics perfectly content to stay home and watch the world from the comfort of our sofa. The three times a day I push him outside he looks at me accusingly as if to ask, Is this really necessary? When I assure him that it is, he lumbers down the steps as slowly as possible. Then, despite the rabbit-filled woods behind the house (or maybe because of the rabbit- filled woods) he stands on the driveway. He just doesn’t like to get his feet dirty. And, really who can blame him? That’s probably why indoor plumbing was invented.
During those very few excursions when I must leave Elvis behind, he falls into deep despair. According to (disgusted) observers, he pines for me by the window, emitting short bursts of anguish until I return. Our reunion is cause for great joy. As soon as I open the door, he hops around on two feet in some sort of circus dog routine, much like his be-skirted cousins under the Big Top. When no one is home, I join in.