By Pamela Zoslov
The first dog I ever knew and loved was Rex, a German Shepherd mix who belonged to Sarah White, the lovely lady who was our family's housekeeper when I was a child.
Although we weren't rich and my mom didn't work outside the house, having a maid was in those days considered the birthright of middle-class suburban Jewish housewives. Sarah was more like a second mom or nanny — she would chat with me while ironing my dad's shirts, patiently abiding my endless questions, even when they betrayed my childish naïveté about race.
At the age of eight, I had no awareness of the social system that relegated black women to working as domestics in white people's houses. One day I asked my mom, whose wistful expression I'd noticed, what was wrong. "I'm just thinking about how poor Sarah is." My mom had grown up parentless and poor, and, I imagine, suffered from a certain level of bourgeois guilt about employing maids. She helped our housekeepers in the ways she could, giving them extra money, clothes and housewares.
|Sarah gave me this snapshot of Rex, in his younger days. I duly captioned it with Rex's first and last names, and the photo, now creased and wrinkled, lives on my dresser mirror.|
Sarah was impeccable and dignified — "classy" was my parents' term. She insisted on wearing a starched white uniform while on duty. I just knew her as a warm and serene presence, a second mother who always seemed to have time for me. I told her about my little-girl hopes and dreams. In the laundry room, there was a cardboard carton of "play clothes" — Mom's old dresses and shoes — and I would put them on, clomping around in size 10 pumps and a polka dot New Look dress. I asked Sarah when I would be grown up, and she replied, "In 1980." So I made up a rhyming song: "In nineteen-eighty/I'll be a lady....!" (Turns out, that wasn't quite true; in 1980, I was only a foolish college freshman.)
My parents traveled a lot then, often leaving me with my aunt (unhappily), but one time, to my delight, they left me at home in the care of Sarah, who brought with her the excellent Rex. I had often begged for a dog, a plea to which Mom's standard response was "We'll see." (By age ten, I realized the "Can we get a dog?"/"We'll see" duet was getting me nowhere. I asked my dad, who said "Pick out the kind you want.")
With Rex living in the house, I was in paradise. Sarah let me clip his leather leash to his collar and take him for walks. I get to walk a dog! He slept on the staircase landing, and every morning I would spring out of bed, excited that there was an actual dog living in my house, I still remember shaking the box of dog treats, and Rex's tail wagging as he took the crunchy morsel out of my hand. A little girl could hardly be happier. I didn't particularly miss my parents that time, and was sorry to see Sarah and Rex leave when they returned.
Nearly a half century later, I can still remember how I felt when my mom told me that Sarah died. She was in her 40s, and had cancer. It was the first major loss of my life, and hit me much harder than the subsequent losses of my grandfather and grandmother, who were comparatively distant figures in my life. I thought I would never stop crying.
Sarah. I hope you know what you meant to me. I miss you, and Rex, too.