Empty Nesters need love too. Who better to provide it than our faithful servants? Steve reflects on unconditional love.

November 22 is M’Lissa’s birthday and, as usual, I am scrambling. Previous events make the gift selection question more severe for me as compared to other absent-minded husbands. In our first year as a married couple we were patrolling San Antonio’s North Park Mall about a week ahead of the date. As we passed a pet store, M’Lissa sat hard on the brakes. Pleading, soulful eyes caught her attention and she was determined to take a look at the Cocker Spaniel puppy behind those eyes.

Debit. Photo Credit: Howen family photos.
Debit. Photo Credit: Howen family photos.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great book arguing that we can make good decisions in the blink of an eye. M’Lissa was dead set on proving Malcom correct. I was dead set on protecting our newlywed budget. In discussing our diverging views, I told M’Lissa that we could not walk out of the store with the dog for any less than $400.00 in 1984 dollars. To prove me wrong she asked the sales girl how much? The sales girl, obviously working on commission, answered by bringing the puppy out for M’Lissa to hold. Check and mate. With tax, dog food, leashes and toys, the tab ran to about $385.00, a fact M’Lissa remarked on. Until she remembered that food and water bowls would be a good idea. Withthe additional purchase we still came in at 56 cents short of the prediction, but I went ahead and named the puppy “Debit” because she was certain to increase our expenses.

M’Lissa won the argument in the short term and the long term. Debit turned into a trusted companion, always ready to provide whatever emotion was appropriate. If you were happy she would frolic. If you were sad she would nestle. When the first child arrived, Debit assumed a watchdog role, making sure Kelsey stayed safe. I really liked Debit and appreciated her greatly. M’Lissa loved her with her whole heart.

Maybe that was because M’Lissa did not get to have dogs growing up. On the other hand, my house was a place for two Basset Hounds, first Ralph and then Frances. You might notice the poor quality of Ralph’s and Frances’ pictures. They were pets before pets were quasi-humans. So they lived a life not as celebrated as today’s dogs. I feel bad about that, they deserved more love than I gave them, which I would have realized if I had looked into their pleading, soulful eyes. All ever wanted was time with you, maybe a little fetch. Teenagers can think they are too busy for that, but they will end up regretting it.

Being a better dad than a dog owner, I tried to prevent my girls from making that mistake. After Debit left us we decided to try larger dogs, thinking one for each daughter would provide some symmetry. We discussed Labs and Golden Retrievers for all the usual reasons, including (I am ashamed to say, but you should also admit it) how good the Christmas card would look. History, however, repeated itself. Another trip to the pet store for something else and we run into the rescue people. The dogs who would become Fred and Ethel were litter mates with pleading, soulful eyes. For much less than $400 in 1997 dollars, they came home with us.

Fred and Ethel as puppies. Photo Credit: Bob Howen

Fred and Ethel loved the girls and they loved each other. When they were young, Ethel sprained a leg muscle and the veterinarian put her on bed rest, which meant separation from Fred. They laid on opposite sides of the utility room door, whimpering their loneliness to each other. When they stayed over night at the vet, the security camera caught Fred figuring out how to unlock his cage, finding Ethel and doing the same for her. The dynamic duo then paraded around the other dogs, basically saying we are free and you are not.

Fred exhibited extreme pride in being part of the Howen family, such that he intensely disliked anyone without that last name. That proved a little challenging, but we appreciated the loyalty. Also, I knew I was about to pay for a wedding the first time Kelsey brought her new boyfriend Warren to the house and Fred immediately accepted him. Ethel on the other hand, was happy go lucky and not so discriminating. While Fred and Ethel loved each other, the girls, me, and Warren, above all else they loved M’Lissa. And she loved them back with her whole heart.

After 50 years of having a dog around, the last five have been largely dog-less. I say largely because we enjoy relative dogs. My parents had Sadie and later Molly after I left the house. Two fur balls with barks way bigger than their bites, but whenever mom or dad came around, they would quiet, wag and gaze with those pleading, soulful eyes. Sadie and Molly lived good lives and gave more joy than they received. I am not sure why, but both dogs seemed to enjoy M’Lissa more than me.

More recently, the girls have each proved their worth as human beings by making us grandogparents (my new word) of rescue dogs. Kelsey and Warren brought home Collins first. We are not sure of Collins’ lineage, but she is loyal if a bit emotionally complicated. Her pleading, soulful eyes tell you as much. She loves the water and her new buddy, Scotty the grandchild. Just like Fred and Ethel reincarnated, she also holds a special place in her heart for her cousin Harper, a pointer/lab mix full of energy with gorgeous pleading, soulful eyes. I appreciate Harper for keeping Kendall company while she navigates relationships against a difficult backdrop of COVID, medical school and the ridiculousness of the dating app ritual. Most of all, I appreciate Harper and Collins because when either of them show up at out house they come to me instead of M’Lissa. Finally, I feel like I can be the friend to dogs that I was not to Ralph and Frances.

Collins and Harper on Steve’s couch. Photo Credit: Steve Howen
Myles. Photo Credit: Bob Howen

The Howens have had a happy dog life, but maybe the most important canine in our group was Myles, named approximately for Miles Davis. He was my brother’s constant companion, through thick and thin. Family is vital to all the Howens, but for years geography meant Scott was not as likely to be at gatherings. His work in the restaurant and bar business often meant holidays were for double shifts rather than celebrating. Despite the earnest efforts of many beautiful women, Scott has yet to find ”the one,” which sounds glamorous when you are young, less so when you just want to share life’s burdens. Until earlier this fall, however, Scott could always look down at those pleading, soulful eyes and never see anything but unconditional love in return. I am sure in many ways it sustained him.

I really did not mean to write this much about dogs. I started thinking more about the subject a month ago when I ran across a study looking into canine brain activity. The scientists are learning what the poets already knew, that dogs harbor emotions and feelings comparable to humans. Those eyes are not a trick of nature, their love for you is not a need to lick salt off your skin, and the jumping all around is a sign that you really make them happy. That seems important for Empty Nesters, maybe more so than among other demographic groups. The whole point of an Empty Nest life is that there is room to fill with activity and emotions. Dogs satisfy that void perfectly.

The study I referred to an literature that followed it raised the difficult question of whether humans should be owning sentient beings. I am no ethicist and cannot fully answer the question. My 50 years of dog experience tells me, however that the companionship man and dog enjoy, when done right, enriches both immeasurably.

I thought my days as a dog owner were over. About a month ago we spent time with friends in the mountains. I could not help but fall in love with the hosts’ dog, Blanca. She is an energetic, loving something-doodle with beautifully expressive, pleading soulful eyes. It got me to thinking.

Blanca’s only fault was that she seemed to like M’Lissa more than me.

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