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Our Christmas puppy

Cha Cha, our family dog
Cha Cha, our family dog
Hal McGrath

It was Christmas morning, 1959. Santa had made all sorts of promises, and my twin sister Teresa and I were anxious to see if he’d deliver. The year before we got our two-wheelers, an assortment of trucks, Barbie dolls (big mistake) and other tomboy items. What we didn’t’ count on this year was the delivery of our first very-own puppy.

Sure, we had enjoyed other family pets over the years. I remember our boxer Buster tearing the clothes off the line in the back yard; a task that no doubt taxed the frugal budget of my working mother who scrambled to provide clothing for all six of her kids.

But this was our first family dog, delivered as a surprise by my eldest brother Hal who thought it would be character-building for Teresa and I to have a dog. So what if there was another mouth to feed? Like most crowded families, you simply move over, scrape a few more pennies together, and make the new arrival feel at home.

Cha Cha, aptly named after my parent’s Arthur Murray dancing days was a mop of black fluff: half poodle, and half dachshund. She really looked like more a poodle, so I don’t know where her hot dog genes came from, except that she like to devour them when they dropped on the floor.

She barked at leaves, barked at the mailman, and loved to eat rubber bands which I discovered when I picked up her poop from the backyard. She also confiscated used tissues from the trash, and gleefully ripped them apart behind one of the sofas, guarding them with her ferocious growl like they were venison bones.

Of course, my mom wasn’t wild about having to take care of another animal. Kids always want pets, but when it comes to their care, it inevitably falls upon the parents. Since my Dad wasn’t around, she had to shoulder this task as well. However, some of the doggie chores were delegated.

Teresa and I used to walk Cha Cha up and down Laurel Canyon Blvd. her sweet swagger and sniffing sometimes getting on my nerves. After all, my pals were waiting for me to play kickball or swing from the trees. Why did I have to walk the dog? But walking Cha Cha did come in handy upon more than one occasion.

Often, we’d use Cha Cha to procure treats from the neighbors who had all sorts of goodies that weren’t allowed in our household. Our babysitter Alma had chocolate chip cookies. Mr. and Mrs. Buzwell, who lived across the street, had thick nutty brownies. I’d claim that Cha Cha wanted to visit them, but in reality, I just wanted something sweet and gooey to eat. Both Teresa and I scored on these walks, our neighbors pretending they didn’t know our true motives.

As I grew older, my relationship with Cha Cha changed. My junior high and high school pals took up most of my time, and Cha Cha was probably relegated to backyard romps. When I went off to college, I only saw Cha Cha when I’d come home to visit.

At 24, I got the call from my brother Hal that Cha Cha had undergone a stroke and was dragging her leg around. Should she be put down? I told him it was time, but I wasn’t brave enough to accompany him to the vet. Looking back to that time, I regret my selfishness since I should have been with my brother to see Cha Cha to the end.

In recent years, I’ve lost three pets. Those of you who have cared for an animal know the cruel depth of this agony and sorrow.

Thankfully, we now have three cats that are in relatively good health. As they age, my heart will be shredded again, but somehow I’ll survive. Until then, the solace and comfort of our animals is something I will never take for granted anymore.

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