⪧ We left our life in New York City to make a new one in Provence ⪦

November 22, 2008


This was Bronte.

This was what she was up against.

My family had this dog. I still think about her a lot. The thing about Bronte is that she could never take a joke. Really. Bronte was a miniature dachshund. Tragically, she was also bulimic and she tended toward hysteria, histrionics and seizures. If a dog could have a personality disorder, Bronte would have had Borderline Personality Disorder. If a dog could tell lies, Bronte would have told many. Her pervasive instability in moods (barring when she was in the presence of our mother), her poor self-image, and her acute fear of washing machines, made for intense, and stormy interpersonal relationships in the family and resulted, for my youngest brother Andrew, with a bite on the ankle: the last straw for poor Bronte.

I had wanted a dog forever. Forever meaning one’s whole life since she was born: fourteen years of wanting a dog. A lot of begging, a lot of wishing, a lot of dreaming of how a dog would enhance my life and make everything cuter (cute was the most relevant adjective at the time). Most of this begging was directed at my father, who was inert on his position regarding animals in the Johnson household. No. That was our answer. He had some sense. There were 7 of us at this time. Seven kids. I’m surprised my mother always seemed up for it, given the yoke of her kids. But she was up for it – we never had to beg her. It was only my dad who wouldn’t really move an inch on the dog issue.

That changed one Halloween when my father was faced with a mound of something he disliked even more than the thought of a dog in his house: candy. It was Halloween night. We had all gone trick-or-treating. All of us (even those of us technically years older than we should have been to continue doing such a thing). I was dressed as Tinkerbelle: green fringe skirt, sparkly white wings, and pointy sequined shoes – the works. My brother Stephen was probably Dracula – he seemed to like that one year after year. My sister Julie, a 1950’s poodle-skirt girl, I think – or maybe a hippy.

So, there we were – home after four hours of going door-to-door, running door-to-door, petitioning for candy at each house. We sat surveying the spoils of the evening. Each of us had been very successful. We are talking heaps of mini Snickers, Twix, Skittles, Starbursts, M&Ms, Tootsie Pops, Baby Ruths, and Tootsie Rolls. We were making order of the piles.

My dad was revolted. He detested Halloween to begin with, but seeing the amount of candy each of us was able to secure in one night made him ill. It was in that moment that he came up with a bargain – a malicious sort of arrangement, but one that no child could decline. He told us that if we would give him all of our candy and if we would never, ever go trick-or-treating again, we could get a dog. He was asking us to relinquish Halloween – an American kid’s dream holiday. But, he got what he wanted. One by one, we mourned our sacks of candy (and that portion of our childhood) and handed them over to him.

The process of choosing what type of dog to get seemed arduous and way too long. We debated between a beagle, a pug, a shiatsu…but eventually decided on a dachshund. Why on earth? These dogs are renowned for their antsy personalities, their yippy little bark, their fierce loyalty (a good trait, right? Not when they attach themselves to one singular person and nip at the 8 others), and their genetic problems with seizures, since the breed has been so purely intermixed. Somehow we missed all that in the literature about dachshunds and thought one of these would be a perfect companion for 7 Johnson kids.

Bronte arrived shaking. She did not stop shaking in all her time with us. The shaking was less and less acute, to be sure. But nonetheless, Bronte was, by nature and in all of our minds, always shaking. She had this little high-pitched, small-dog bark. The minute there was someone on the Johnson grounds Bronte started to bark and didn’t cease until the person was gone.

Bronte had an eating problem. We first noticed it when one night after dinner, we were clearing the table and before we could grab the dish that housed half-a-lasagna, Bronte had jumped up on a chair, up on the table and had gulped the entire remaining portion down. Each night it became a fight to get the leftovers off the table before stalking Bronte hurdled up to pilfer them first.

One fall we noticed Bronte just kept growing and growing, around the middle – like a barrel. Each day – almost hourly, in fact, she seemed to be tubbier and thicker. We all wondered where she was getting whatever it was that was so calorific. It turns out that down in the basement of the house, a huge, glass tub of Ragu spaghetti sauce (Johnsons buy in bulk) had fallen from the shelf onto the concrete floor and Bronte had been slurping it up, each day more and more. We wondered how she wasn’t dead from all the glass that inevitably went down with the Ragu.

Perhaps worse than that was poor Stephen waking up to find a turkey neck and gizzard puked up in his sheets by the curled up Bronte at the end of his bed after Thanksgiving one year.

Bronte would go through any trash she could find and eat and eat endlessly. Most animals (especially dogs) have a good gauge of when their eating is no longer healthy. Bronte had no such measure. Given the opportunity to binge, she would. With all the binging, she was quite seriously always shaped like a barrel. She could hardly climb the stairs at some point; her stomach was lower than her feet.

Bronte also had a luxury complex. She really did think that she was meant for a life of opulence. From the way she would lie on the back cushion of the white sofa in the nicest room of my mother’s house (after being shooed off hundreds of times), to the way she wouldn’t really move unless forced to do so, Bronte thought she was sumptuous. She hated anyone under 17 years old, in a sort-of ‘I’m very posh and children are such an inconvenience’ way.

Poor Bronte. By the time our family moved to Maine (and she was 8 years old), she was in an almost constant state of panic. Sitting, shaking in front of the washing machine as it ran its cycle, chasing after Andrew’s four-year-old friends and nipping at their ankles, trying to assert her position in the family totem pole. She needed to be doted on – an unlikely occurrence for any member of the Johnson family.

The odds were against her to begin with – we named her Bronte, for heavens sake. (Who names their dog after a family of early 19th century English women writers? My sister Julie, mostly). The problem was that we had all staked way too much on her. We had given up Halloween…there were children in the Johnson household who at this point had never in their lives experienced trick-or-treating as a consequence of that dog (and they weren’t even alive or old enough to agree to the initial pact). When she rode away in the back of the dumpy car with all the stuffed-animals piled in the backseat, off to the new home of the people who answered our plea in the newspaper to take her off our hands, we only stayed in the driveway long enough to see the car pull away. Poor Bronte.


Cindy said...

Thanks for your loving memories of Bronte. I don't think her life was as bad as you make it out to be though Ems...that dog had more opportunities to be loved than the average pooch. So many loving hearts in one household...in many ways she was a lucky dog! We felt lucky too...we always felt like we won the lottery when you moved into our neighborhood. Kids of all shapes and sizes...and a really cool dog to boot! Plus a friend for me...I still feel like we are blessed by your family (and its pets) every day!

Julie said...

This was hilarious and well written Emilie. You should try to get it published somewhere or something. It made me laugh so hard. All I know is I don't miss her.

Anonymous said...

How cool that I randomly found this blog! Bronte is alive and well. I have had Bronte now for about 8 years, and she is happy, healthy and well loved. She lives the life of 'opulence' that she knew she was destined for - her days are spent hanging out with Kelsey (our west highland terrier) and lounging on the couch in the sunshine. She had a bit of a weight problem for years which led to her needing 2 seperate disc surgeries, but she has fully recovered and perservered and is now living life at a svelte 13 pounds. I often forget that I haven't had Bronte all her life, as it seems she has always been with me. Her seizures have disappeared, and the only time she does the Katherine Hepburn shake now is when she wants me to get up to feed her in the a.m. or if she is frightened. It's taken some time, love and patience, but most of Brontes biggest personality flaws have been smoothed out and she has become the most kick ass dog a girl could ever want.

Emilie said...

I am really pleased to hear that Bronte has a loving home. Thank you for writing and telling me about it in such a cool way. It is really wonderful that Bronte is thriving in your home. It is certainly the kind of home she was meant for, as you suggest.

Your friend's animosity was bizarre. This is an embellished creative piece of writing. That is all. We gave her away because we did care about her, even if I wrote in a sarcastic and rather biting way. I was writing about Bronte as a personage. It made me a bit sad to read her response to my piece and, of course, made me rethink how I write.

Anyway, so glad to hear you take such good care of her.

Anonymous said...

Bronte, you'll be happy to hear, passed away peacefully, surrounded by those who love her, on the 23rd day of March, 2011. She had ten good years with us, many of which were spent undoing the damage caused by the abuse inflicted by your insenstive family on a loving, helpless creature. You should be ashamed of yourselves for the pain you caused this beautiful animal in her early years. YOU abused her. We LOVED her. May she rest in peace through eternity. She is greatly missed. I thank God we were able to save her from you.

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