Old Mrs. Berman
We lived in a home with a mom who loved animals. When we were kids, my brother, Richard and I wrote a fun song for our mother for one of her birthdays. It went like this:
“Old Mrs. Berman had a home / E.I. E.I. O! / And in her home she had some pets / E.I. E.I. O!”
Then we began to name all the pets and their sounds. You know the song.
I think my mom’s favorite pet was our Collie, Laddie. Not a particularly original name, but he did look a lot like T.V.’s famous Lassie. Laddie was a gentle, friendly dog that everyone loved. But there was a woman who lived across the alley from us. She had some kind of mental problem and also couldn’t tolerate dogs barking. One day, she went up the alley and threw poison meat over the fenced yards of neighbors who had a barking dog. Laddie died. We were all very sad, but Mom was devastated. Not too long after that, we took in a Cocker Spaniel rescue and named him Rusty.
My personal favorite animal was our cat, Mittens. She was an inside/outside cat, and when in heat, she would become pregnant. I’m not sure how many litters she had, but we were always able to find homes for them. Eventually, Mom had her spayed.
We had a canary named Tweetie who sang his beautiful songs. He was not Mittens’ favorite, and even though Tweetie was in a cage that hung high almost to the ceiling, Mittens would sit below him staring and growling. She actually scared Tweetie to death. Mom was really mad about that. We never did get another bird.
But it wasn’t just the usual pets. We had two ducks named Jack and Jill who sometimes would wander out of our fenced-in yard. (I have no idea how they managed this.) Neighbors would see them and call Mom. “Ruth, your ducks are out again!” Not sure why they never got run over. Maybe because we lived on Cuthbert Avenue, in a row house on a dead-end street in a residential area of Baltimore City. Kids played in the street, and people drove slowly. We had rabbits, chickens, turtles and other critters I can’t quite remember.
In 1959, we moved to a larger house on Sulgrave Avenue that stood on an acre of ground. My brother, Chuck, had a 20 gallon fish tank with all kinds of exotic fish. He took really good care of those fish. Once when I commented about his diligence in feeding his fish, changing the water and cleaning the tank (unlike cleaning his own room), he said, “They need me. I’m their god!” At the time, I thought that was a bit of hubris, but maybe not. He was about ten years old, so this was pretty amazing.
Starting Adult Life
When I grew up, I married my first husband who was in the Marine Corps, and we got a boxer. I named him Major because I thought it would be funny for the dog to outrank my husband who was a PFC (Private First Class) at the time. When he was discharged, and we moved back home from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Major was with us. A few years later our son, Geoffrey, was born. Major was his first pet. He was a gentle dog and allowed Geoffrey to crawl all over him, smother him with kisses and just be the perfect dog for a boy.
I’m not sure how long Major lived, but when he died, we found a cat and called her “Scratchy.” You can probably guess why. By this time, our daughter Laura was born, and when she was 1 ½ years old, her father and I divorced, and he moved to California. Because Scratchy was a foundling, there was no way we could keep her inside, so she wandered wherever, bringing us gifts of field mice and birds she hunted. This was upsetting to me, especially the birds, but Scratchy was loved by us, especially Laura when she was old enough to learn how to be with a cat.
When Laura was three, and Geoffrey was seven, I remarried Ted who was a dog lover but did not like cats. He didn’t want Scratchy in the house, but he was outvoted by the rest of us. I think Scratchy knew that Ted didn’t like her, and sometimes she stayed away for days. But, to Ted’s chagrin, she always came back.
Life on the Farm
Several years after we were married, we bought a 3-acre farmette in Owings Mills. We started to collect animals. First it was about a dozen chickens and one rooster. They originally lived in an old school bus Ted had acquired and “remodeled” by taking out the seats and putting in nesting platforms. Laura gave names to every single one of the chickens. I tried to explain that we were raising them to eat when they were big enough, but she didn’t care. When slaughter day arrived, she announced that she would choose which chickens we would eat. She’d go to the coop and choose one and bring it to the “chicken guillotine,” all the time cooing to it.
“Don’t worry, Danny, and don’t be scared. It’ll be quick, I promise.” She would bring the chicken to me, and I would place its head under the axe of the guillotine that Ted had built. She never stayed to watch, but rather, returned to the coop to choose the next victim and repeat this process.
We did have some chickens as pets; little ones we would never eat. One pair, a rooster and a hen, were the same breed and very pretty. We called them Ralph and Ruth after my parents.
At some point, Teddy dug some ground to put in a pond for ducks, which we later acquired. We started with two ducks who eventually mated, and then it grew from there. At one point I think we had about eight ducks.
By that time, we had a large hen named Mrs. Chocolate who was too old to slaughter and could no longer lay eggs. But she would go in the chicken bus and gather the eggs of other hens and sit on them til they hatched. Once she stole two eggs from the ducks and when they hatched, they followed their “mom” around with the rest of the brood.
But they needed to be with the other ducks and go in the pond. Mrs. Chocolate was very protective of her brood, and it was a trick getting them away from her and into the pond. Ted donned his long welding gloves to protect himself from her claws and managed to capture the ducklings and introduce them to the pond. It took a while before they got the hang of it, developed their “water legs” and were accepted by the other ducks.
Of course, we had a dog, a little white terrier named Snowball, but we had no cats. In order to placate Laura, we got her a goat she promptly named Cupcake! When Laura would come home from school, Cupcake would run down to the edge of our property and “Maaaaa Maaaaa” until Laura reached her, and they’d traverse the rest of the walk to the house. She tried to talk us into letting Cupcake sleep in her room, but she shared that room with Natalie, my teenage step-daughter. Believe me, that was never going to happen.
When Laura was in fourth grade at Timber Grove Elementary, she and Cupcake walked to school for a special “Pet Day.” I was concerned about this but the teacher thought it was a great idea. When she came home from school that day, Laura announced, “Cupcake was soooo good. She didn’t make any poops in school!” Well, thank goodness for that! Later, we obtained another goat named India. Our little farm was growing.
We also had other pets such as swans who were elegant but mean. When Natalie and I would hang wet clothes on the line, they’d chase us and “honk, Honk, HONK” until I wanted to kill them right there. But they did lay wonderful large eggs. We also had two peacocks. They were very beautiful and that was mostly their job—to be stunning. I still have some feathers from those beauties.
Twenty-eight years ago, I married Stuart, the love of my life. He didn’t have pets growing up, but he and his former wife owned many cats who he grew to love.
Now all three of our combined children and most of our grandchildren are grown up. Geoffrey’s family has a dog, and Arianna, his 23-year-old daughter, has her own apartment and a dog. Laura travels a lot and has no pets. My step-daughter, Meredith, and her family have three cats. Her son, Nicholas, and his wife, Karyn, have two dogs.
Natalie died of cancer 13 years ago, but her family always had pets, especially dogs. Her son, Douglas, and his wife, Karen, (yes my two granddaughters-in-law have the same name, albeit spelled differently) have two cats. The dogs that belonged to Doug’s brothers, Braden and Shane, have died, and they have not been replaced at this writing. However, they do have a 12-year-old Cockatiel named Dusty, who loves to sing. It originally belonged to Douglas, but he cannot keep him with his two cats, so his dad and brothers get to enjoy his songs.
Stuart and I each had a four-year-old male cat when we married. Crussa and Willie hated each other and fought when we weren’t home, leaving their fur everywhere, but they had to tolerate living together. Those guys have died, and we now have two girl cats named Mommy and Baby for obvious reasons. We love them. Animals bring life and joy to a home.
Read more by Linda Miller.