Have you ever noticed those little old ladies who seem to go everywhere carrying some small dog? I don’t know how they manage to do it, but you can find them in the unlikeliest of places: department stores, shopping malls, airplanes; in short, just about everywhere.
There was a lady like that who used to come into the pet shop on a regular basis. Her tiny little pooch was getting on in years, and required a special diet. She came into our store every Thursday morning to buy the special dog food that her veterinarian had recommended… it was specially formulated for the nutritional needs of geriatric dogs.
Mrs. Johnson used to carry little Harry in the same arm as her pocketbook. He would diligently sniff at the air and peer at the world from his safe blanket haven. I don’t know what kind of dog he was; but he was black with a tuft of white between his ears, which perked up at the slightest sound. Unlike most tiny dogs, Harry didn’t seem to bark much. He was content to examine the world as it passed by.
Last week was typical. “Thank you so very much, Bobo!” Mrs. Johnson exclaimed as I handed her the change. Then she leaned over as if sharing a confidence, “I can get this same dog food cheaper at the Pooch Emporium in College Park, but I don’t really trust them as much as I do you and Mr. Chau!”
I thanked her for the kind compliment, and made a mental note to ask Chau to authorize a discount for her in the future. I shoved the cash register drawer shut.
“We always aim to please!” I said proudly. Just like always, I tried to pet Harry on his little head, but he withdrew into the security of the blanket.
“I’m surprised at you, Harry!” Mrs. Johnson said in a loving tone. She caressed the lump in the blanket, and Harry’s head popped out to lick her hand. “Bobo is the best friend you have! He gives you all your food!” Harry responded enthusiastically to Mrs. Johnson’s affection, but I don’t think he was interested in making my acquaintance at all. She looked up at me, eyes sparkling with joy. “He’ll take to you yet, Bobo! You’ll see!”
With that she twirled and waltzed out the door.
Finally, I could serve the next customer in line, who had been getting a little impatient. I rushed to make up for lost time.
But Mrs. Johnson stayed on my mind. The reason she traveled so far to buy more expensive dog food from us is that we talked to her, while the Pooch Emporium sticks to business. She’s old, she lives alone, and most of her friends have either retired to Florida or died. Harry is her constant companion, confidant, and just about her only true friend. The only time she gets to have an actual conversation with someone is when she makes a purchase in a store—so she chooses the friendly stores to do her business.
This week her visit didn’t go according to protocol. I was carrying several large cartons to the front of the store, when I discovered a customer in the way. I put the boxes down and brushed myself off.
“Mrs Johnson!” I gasped, “I nearly ran you down! How are you today?”
I was cheerful, but she was not. She looked like she had aged a decade: the sparkle was gone from her eyes—and most ominously, she didn’t have Harry wrapped up in his blanket on her arm.
“What happened to your little dog?” I asked cautiously. “Is he at the veterinarian’s getting his shots?”
“No,” she whispered quietly. “Harry got very ill, and had to be put to sleep,” she said in a quavering voice. “It was his kidneys!” She steadied herself, but it was obviously a considerable effort.
“That’s very common in older dogs,” I said, trying to comfort her. “I’m very sorry to hear it. I know how much that little dog meant to you. I’m sure he loved you as much as you loved him.”
“You’re very kind,” Mrs. Johnson said, wiping a tear from her eye. “Goodness, it’s silly of me to be so upset; after all he was only a dog!” Then the floodgates opened, and the tears poured right out. “Oh, Bobo, whatever will I do?”
I quickly grabbed her by the shoulders and hugged her gently. “It’s okay to mourn the death of a friend, even if it is only a dog,” I reassured.
Mrs. Johnson shook with loud sobs. “He was my only friend!” she cried. We stood there for a while, embracing, until she regained her composure.
Then she pushed me away, wiped her eyes and needlessly brushed of her skirt. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything improper,” she apologized weakly.
“Improper?” I asked. “There is nothing improper about grieving over a friend who’s gone!”
“Oh, I don’t mean that,” she explained, daubing her eyes with a dainty handkerchief. “When I was a girl, it wasn’t proper for a woman like me to embrace a man like you…” her face reddened as she stuttered to a stop.
I attempted to clarify what she meant. “You mean it wasn’t right for a white woman to embrace a black man?”
“Yes,” she said, blowing her nose politely into a dainty handkerchief. “I don’t mean to offend you…”
“You can’t offend me by telling me what I already know! I’m even blacker than my shadow!” I said, pointing to the floor. “Would you be offended if I told you that you have two legs?”
She cracked a smile. Finally!
“That was then and this is now,” I announced firmly. “Those rules don’t apply anymore. It’s much better to embrace people than rules!”
“Well, what can you expect from a foolish old lady like me?” she asked. She started to leave the store, but hesitated. “Thank you very much, Bobo,” she said in a tiny, defiantly grateful voice. “I knew I’d feel much better if I came and told you about it.”
I smiled to myself secretly. It’s flattering when people detect that you’re competent at your profession, even when they don’t know what it is!
Then, in a hasty confidential tone, she revealed something that surprised and shocked me.
“It’s the first time in twenty years that someone hugged me. It really felt good!” Her voice began to break, so she ran out of the store.