Family Animals

In an excerpt from her new memoir, Grace Talusan fondly remembers the badly behaved dog that won her skeptical father’s heart.

Grace Talusan| an excerpt from The Body Papers | Restless Books | April 2019 | 16 minutes (4,046 words)

 

“Did I ever tell you about the dog I had in the Philippines?” my father asked me when I was younger.

As a boy, my father lived in Tondo, the most densely populated area of Manila, infamous for its slums and high crime rates. Before it burned down, his family lived in a house above their sari-sari store, where they sold prepared foods, snacks, soda, and other convenience items. You could buy single sticks of cigarettes and gum, a dose of aspirin, or a packet of shampoo good for one wash. When he shared stories about his childhood, my American sensibilities were always shocked.

One day, a street dog followed him home and joined the other dogs already living in his family’s yard. The dogs didn’t have names; they were all called aso, dog. “Our dogs were not for petting,” my father explained. “They were low-tech burglar alarms and garbage disposals.”

But this dog was special. Totoy named his dog, “Lucky,” after, Lucky Strikes cigarettes. This detail still astounds me: At eight years old, my father had a favorite brand of cigarettes.

Totoy threw sticks and Lucky would fetch them. They would wrestle and Lucky would clamp down on his arm, but always gently, without breaking the skin.

When Sashi joined our family, she ate from our fingers and licked our faces. ‘She’s a dog,’ my father would answer. ‘This is America,’ my mother would counter, as if that made everything clear.

Totoy’s parents didn’t hug him or say, “I’m proud of you, son.” They didn’t kiss his forehead when he was feverish or celebrate his birthday with cake and gifts. Those were for the rich. Life was tough and you didn’t do your children any favors by softening them with encouragement and physical affection. Lucky wagged his tail whenever Totoy approached. For the first time in his life, Totoy felt loved with abandon.

One night, a jeepney full of rowdy, drunk men slowed down in front of Totoy and his dog. A man reached a hook fashioned out of a pole and a bent clothes hanger out of the window of the jeep. He caught my father’s dog by the neck and pulled it through his window.

“I don’t get it,” I asked. “Why did they want your dog?”

“What else?” my father said. “To eat.”

I shook my head. “Dad, they stole and ate your pet. You were just a boy. That was mean.”

“It wasn’t mean.” He smiled. “It was meat. Dogs are meat the same as pigs, cows, and chickens, and the men were hungry. And drunk.”

This is a trait I’ve picked up from my father. How to tell yourself a story in order to continue.

He liked telling this story, especially after receiving a vet bill for Sashi, our family dog. “Jesus Christ, why does the dog need to get her teeth cleaned?”

My father’s teeth had been replaced with dentures in his twenties, precisely to prevent dental bills. He’d warn, “Be prepared. If this dog ever gets seriously ill, that’s it. She’s not having surgery or cancer treatments or diabetes shots. She’s a dog, for God’s sake.”


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I’d sometimes hear my parents fight about Sashi’s expenses. She required specialty food, venison, for sensitive skin and didn’t even sleep in her monogrammed beds from L.L. Bean. “Sashi is part of the family,” my mother would say. My mother’s devotion to Sashi was surprising considering her tendencies toward germophobia. She is a woman who, when we were children, brought her own cleaning supplies to motel rooms so she could clean the bathroom before we used it. To this day, she carries hand sanitizers, cleaning wipes, and even toilet seat covers in her purse. She has the nose of a bloodhound and it’s impossible to walk beside her down a city street on a summer afternoon without her finding an offensive odor to zero in on. When she gets onto a scent, she crinkles her nose and says, “Disgusting.” She starts sniffing deeply and makes a face. When I ask her what’s wrong, she points to where someone urinated on the street and makes a convincing argument about whether this someone was a cat, dog, or human. She takes these odors personally, as if whoever spilled the fluids of their bodies onto the sidewalk did it to make her ill. I tell her to ignore it. “Don’t pay attention and you won’t even smell it,” I advise her. “I can’t help myself,” she says. I believe her.

She grew up with dogs, cats, and chickens roaming in her courtyard, but she did not consider them pets. As children, we were not allowed to touch our friends’ dogs and cats and were scolded to move away if the pets tried to lick our legs or hands. My mother said they were “full of bacteria.” But when Sashi joined our family, she ate from our fingers and licked our faces.

“She’s a dog,” my father would answer.

“This is America,” my mother would counter, as if that made everything clear.

Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” encouraged the US to follow the lead of Britain and other European nations that had become imperial powers: “Take up the White Man’s burden / And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better / The hate of those ye guard.” This “White Man’s Burden” became the euphemism for imperialism, which Filipinos embodied. It’s a silly thing to think, but before I met my husband and dated white boyfriends, I could not get the thought out of my head that I was a white man’s burden. I dated two white men in the military and I wondered if people saw me the way I saw myself, a reflection of the documentaries I had seen about the U.S. military bases in the Philippines, the prostitution, and the Amerasian children forgotten and left behind. In college, I was constantly refracting myself through multiple mirrors, wondering who I was perceived to be by others, how I perceived myself. When I learned about “double consciousness” from W. E. B. Du Bois, I was relieved to read I was not the only one who felt this way.

Growing up, the consistent joke I heard comedians make about Filipinos was that we ate dogs. No insult felt worse than being called a dog-eater. Even though I’d never done so myself, I felt the shame of this practice tied to my body. Some animals were acceptable food sources, while others made you savage.

Perhaps this way of characterizing Filipinos began when we were displayed in living exhibits during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. These human zoos were evidence to support the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. The Philippine village was reconstructed over 47-acres at the fair and was a very popular site. I found the scrapbooks of visitors to the fair in the Missouri State Archives; among the many images and newspapers clippings about Filipinos, I found a photo of my great grandfather, Captain Pedro Navarro.

One lasting legacy of the exposition, besides the invention of the ice cream cone, was the belief that your dogs were not safe with Filipinos around. My great grandfather Captain Pedro Navarro was one of those Filipinos at the fair, although he wasn’t confined to the areas where “the natives” performed their foreign cultural practices; instead, he marched in the Philippine Constabulary Band with his piccolo. He was the ideal outcome of U.S. colonization: Christianized, educated, military. The embodiment of colonial success. But all that mattered, at least in the American imagination, was what Filipinos did to dogs. When I visited St. Louis to learn more about the Filipinos at the World’s Fair, a man at a museum gift shop whispered to me, “They ate dogs.” Over one hundred years later, this is the story about us that persists.

***

There are stories my father doesn’t like to revisit. Recently, as I was recounting a story about my childhood in the car, he slammed his elbow into his seat and shouted, “Fine! Everything is my fault. Just stop talking about the goddamn chickens.”

When I was in the third grade, we had an incubator at school where we hatched chicks. At dinner one night, I told my father about the chicks, the marvel of the shell cracking and watching the slimy, gray creatures emerge. “I didn’t know you were interested in chickens,” he said.

A few weeks later, as an Easter gift, my father brought home five live yellow chicks, one for each of us. We were ecstatic. He never bought us gifts; to him, birthday cards and wrapping paper and stuffed animals were a waste of money. But real animals had a purpose. We named them. Mine, the only male, was Roostie.

In the covered area under the porch, my grandfather Tatang, who had recently come to live with us, built a cage for the chicks. I overheard my father talking in Tagalog to my grandfather. My grandfather could sell the eggs and earn his own money for his cigarettes and beer. They had big plans: fresh eggs, mating, more chickens, more eggs. My grandfather held out his arms and measured where the other cages would go.

My sisters Tessie and Ann and I also had big hopes for our chicks. We would train them to do tricks, teach them to jump over sticks, and show them how to write their names by pecking in the dirt. On sketchpads, we designed elaborate costumes: cheery hats and silk-backed vests, four wedding veils and one black bow tie. They were our first pets—if you didn’t count the short-lived tadpoles my older sister Tessie would collect from mud puddles or the cockroaches I’d play circus with when I was younger. After school, we raced off the bus. We chased our chicks in the backyard; we let them crawl on our shoulders. We didn’t mind when they peed on our hands—we just wiped away the mess on our pants.

But soon, the chicks got bigger, less yellow, and less cute. They still hadn’t learned to jump on command and they scratched our arms. We attempted to tie toilet paper veils to the chicks’ heads, but they wouldn’t stay on. As their feathers turned red, we lost interest. And the hens never laid a single egg. Over the summer, we lost three of them. A dog or a coyote, maybe a raccoon. Around Halloween, another went missing. My father thought teenagers had gotten to it. Now only Roostie was left.

Growing up, the consistent joke I heard comedians make about Filipinos was that we ate dogs. No insult felt worse than being called a dog-eater.

My mother was in the hospital for an elective surgery and was expected to be gone a week. It was something that today would be treated as a minor procedure, but back in the 80s, my mother seemed to need minor surgery for something or other every year. We weren’t privy to what she was getting done, and if asked by an adult, we were told to say that she was getting her knee fixed. I have a theory that she needed a break from us five children and her work at my father’s clinic. Maybe she wasn’t even in the hospital, but at a tropical resort somewhere by herself sipping frozen drinks. We kids took her for granted—the work she did that was undone daily—but once several days passed, we were desperate for her to return. My father only had one or two specialties that he served us, boiling hot dogs in tomato sauce and opening cans of sardines. We had to pack our own lunches. The bathrooms were filthy by the time she returned; our dirty clothes piled high. My father had sent my two youngest brothers, who were not in school yet, to stay with a neighbor.

“It’s starting to get cold,” my father said to me.

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Your rooster is all alone now.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you still want it?”

“Roostie? I guess not,” I said. In truth, I didn’t care for the rooster much anymore. He did seem lonely in his cage. Maybe my dad knew someone in the market for a pet rooster.

That Sunday, my father asked me to chop some onions and carrots. I tied my mother’s apron around my neck and stood on a stool while I chopped the vegetables. I crushed cloves of garlic with the marble pestle and peeled away the paper. I hummed my mother’s favorite song, The Carpenters’ Rainy Days and Mondays. My father came up from the garage and retrieved a bowl, some rags, and a garbage bag. “You’re a big help while your mother is away,” he told me. He didn’t exactly smile at me, but he did nod approvingly.

“Thanks,” I said. Maybe I was finally supplanting Ann, my youngest sister, the favorite child, whom he had nicknamed Precious when she was born.

I went to the garage to ask my father how much rice to cook. On a workbench, my grandfather was squatting, smoking a cigarette and ashing on the cement floor. My father leaned against the wall, his fingers closed around the neck of a hatchet. Their eyes followed something whirling in the middle of the room, running in circles. Roostie’s head lay on the floor. I watched his body slow down, stumble, and drop. His legs and wings twitched. I couldn’t speak. I ran upstairs to my sisters.

***

Dinner was delayed that night and we were starving, but when the steaming bowls were finally put in front of us, we refused to eat.

“I’m not eating that,” Tessie said.

“You are,” my father said.

“We can’t,” I said. There was a leg in my bowl with pieces of cabbage and carrots floating in oily broth.

“You will,” my father said.

We never cried in front of my parents, but that night we couldn’t help ourselves. We sniffled and shuddered as we stared at the grains of rice strewn on our placemats. We stirred our spoons in the bowl but refused to lift them to our mouths. Our faces were red and miserable. My grandfather and father, headstones at the ends of the table, slurped their soup. My father shook salt into his bowl. (Since my grandfather’s heart attack, we salted our food at the table.)

“When is Mom coming home?” Ann sobbed.  

My mother was always the last one to sit at the dinner table. We would sit and wait for her to deliver the rice bowl and the chicken adobo, the fish-head sinigang, or the stir-fry. After serving us drinks, she would pull up the stool from under the counter and squeeze herself into the corner between my father and Ann, onto the seat with easiest access to the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Tessie sniffed. “It’s about time she came home.”

I tapped my spoon against the bowl’s edge, saying nothing.

“We can’t eat Roostie,” Ann cried.

Suddenly, my father exploded. He banged his fist on the table and roared, “Eat, goddamn it!” My grandfather lifted his face and smirked at the open display of anger. Our misery seemed to please him.

As girls, we had the kind of relationship with my father where he only needed to raise his empty glass for one of us to jump from our chair and fill it. At mealtimes, we waited until he took the best pieces of meat for himself.

Since this was my fault, I dug my spoon into Roostie’s boiled limb, which seemed slighter than the feather-covered legs that had run around the backyard. The meat was gray and stringy. My sisters followed my lead. As we lifted our spoons to our mouths, our tears pattered onto the soup.

***

Some years later, my father and Ann were visiting a pet store—or, as my father called them, “the free zoo”—while they waited for my mother to finish her shopping.

When they stopped in front of the fish tanks, my father looked at the price tags and whistled, “So much money for just an animal.”

Then they moved on to the hamsters, which huddled together under wood shavings. At the sight of one of them running in the cage’s wheel, my Ann squealed, “I want one! I want one!”

Although it was no secret that Ann was his favorite child, my father hesitated. He was a successful eye surgeon at this point, but still acted as if he were that poor boy in the slums of Manila, collecting fares by transporting passengers on his bike.

He calculated. Pet food, cages, wood shavings—but then he remembered the neighborhood girl who was adding to her college fund by breeding exotic rabbits in her garage.

“I’ll take a male and female,” he told the pet store clerk.

The clerk’s voice cracked, “I don’t think that’s a good idea, sir.”

“A male and female,” my father repeated. “One cage.”

He told the five of us that we should advertise to our friends and start taking orders for hamsters. “There’s twenty in each litter,” he said, “so each of you can sell four each.”

The only information my father had on hamsters was the flyer that listed what to feed them and how often to change their water and wood shavings. Soon enough, the female, named 20/20 as an homage to my father’s occupation, had fattened into a lumpy fur ball. We left 20/20 alone and only played with Trouble, the male. I woke up one morning to hear Ann’s ecstatic voice, “She had the babies!”

As I began to count the pink jelly beans, Ann screamed, “The daddy is eating the babies!”

None survived.

“It’s okay,” my father told us. “She’ll have another litter in about three weeks.”

This time, we separated the male hamster right after mating. One morning, we awoke to find the new litter. Seeing the wriggling pink babies was like finding Christmas gifts from Santa or discovering an overnight snow had cancelled school. We crowded around the cage, pushing and jostling each other to get a good look. The odor was strong and eye-watering. Suddenly, the female hamster ran from one end of the cage to the other, squashing the babies into the metal floor with her nails. None survived.

“I don’t want hamsters anymore,” Ann said.

Since female hamsters are in heat every four days and deliver a litter every three weeks, this cycle was repeated a few more times—but always with the same results.

As he was ripping out the urine-stained carpets, my father revealed what he had whispered in Sashi’s ear. He was both surprised and ashamed. ‘How could I say those things to a goddamn dog?’

My father returned to the pet store with the hamsters in separate containers. He wanted his money back. “If you pay us, we will take them back,” the clerk said.

“They’re not used tires,” my father said. “This isn’t an oil change.”

“We have plenty of stock,” the pet store clerk said. “We’d be doing you a favor taking them back.”

Defeated, my father brought them home. We tried to avoid walking by the cage, but whenever we did our eyes would inevitably glance inside and witness the carnage. And the smell—of waste, birth, and death—was overpowering. A few days after the pet store fiasco, my father reported that it was very sad, but the hamsters had run away. “I think they’re living in the backyard now. With the field mice and chipmunks,” he said.

It made Ann and my brothers happy to imagine the hamsters running free in the tall grass and joining a community of rodents, perhaps attending tea parties and cookouts.

I never questioned my father’s story; I was just relieved the hamsters were gone. When he finally told us the truth, we were out of college. For years, the lie had bothered him, a pebble in his shoe. During one of those rare times when all of us were seated around the same table, my father told us: He had dosed each hamster with a syringe of lidocaine, a local anesthetic he used as an eye surgeon, then looked away while they trembled, giving 20/20 and Trouble their privacy. He waited until they stopped shaking, wrapped them in sterile gauze, and hid them in the garbage.

***

The year I graduated high school, my father acquired our family dog, a purebred beagle, on a whim. Although he hated spending money, he could never pass up a good bargain, and a chance meeting with a breeder desperate to get rid of the litter’s runt resulted in Sashi. The plan was that our dog, like my father’s in the Philippines, would live in the yard, and in the New England winters, the garage. From the moment Sashi came home with us, she insinuated her way into our family. In the middle of her first night, Sashi woke my mother up, crying. My mother, half-asleep, picked up Sashi from her box and rocked her back to sleep in the same chair in which she had nursed my brothers. By Christmas, Sashi had a photo ornament on the tree and a stocking hanging on the mantle with her name written in glitter.

My father shook his head at the festive bandannas the groomer tied around Sashi’s neck every few months. “You know, I’ve never paid for a haircut in my life,” he said. “And now I’m paying for someone to clip a dog’s nails.”

Sashi was no saint: she would scatter the kitchen garbage and roll in horse manure after being groomed and pee on the carpet in front of our bedroom doors nearly every day. After stepping in a wet spot, my father would say, “Getting a dog was a big mistake.”

On hot summer days, Sashi would escape from the yard to sit on the cool yellow line painted in the middle of the road. When Ann’s then-college boyfriend Jorge first met Sashi, she snapped at his hand. “Don’t take it personally,” I told him. “She’s bit all of us. Several times.”

Even after he married my sister, Jorge would shake his head, “I’m not kidding. That dog needs to be put down.”

My father pretended to hate Sashi, but things changed after his five children grew up and left home. Sashi began to sleep in the bed he shared with my mother, ride in the front seat with the window down on car rides to the town dump, and keep my father company as he took laps around the lake on his boat.

During Sashi’s annual checkups, the vet always seemed surprised to find Sashi alive and well. She was overweight, and yet my father fed her table food as often as her specialty dog food for sensitive skin. After Sashi turned fourteen, the vet told us to expect things to go downhill, but it wasn’t until Sashi turned seventeen that her health declined significantly.

We set a date to put Sashi down. I insisted on picking up a steak and cheese sub on the way to the vet’s. “We’re going to be late,” my mother said.

I started to say, “They can’t get started without us,” but I kept my mouth shut. My mother carried Sashi on her lap in the front seat as my boyfriend drove.

Sashi lifted her head from my mother’s shoulder as I unwrapped the white butcher paper, picked off the greasy strips, and placed the meat directly in the dog’s mouth.

When we got to the clinic, my father was waiting in the parking lot. He reached for Sashi and held her stiffly. He leaned his head down to whisper in Sashi’s ear. Then, he glared at my boyfriend, “Don’t ever get a dog. It’s a mistake.”

After exiting the clinic, we found my father in his car, eating the other half of the steak and cheese. “That dog,” he choked out. “It’s so stupid. I didn’t even cry when my mother died.”

***

Later that week, as he was ripping out the urine-stained carpets, my father revealed what he had whispered in Sashi’s ear. He was both surprised and ashamed. “How could I say those things to a goddamn dog?”

He said to the dog words he never said to his parents, words I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear: “I love you.” And, “Thank you.”

* * *

Grace Talusan is author of the memoir, The Body Papers, winner of the 2017 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for Nonfiction. She was born in the Philippines and came to the US with her parents at age 2. She has published essays, longform journalism, fiction and book reviews in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Boston Magazine, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, and many others. 

From the book THE BODY PAPERS by Grace Talusan. Copyright © 2019 by Grace Talusan. Published by arrangement with Restless Books. All Rights Reserved.

Longreads Editors: Katie Kosma and Sari Botton