Monday, March 3, 2014

Darby, the Golden Retriever Puppy...

We all wanted a dog.  So, after what seemed like forever (I was 7), my dad--the clear Decider of All Things To Be Decided--gave in, and we got one.  We found a Golden Retriever breeder around my parents' hometown (Erie, Pennsylvania) and convinced my mom's dad to drive the puppy from the puppy's place of birth to her new home, our home, in West Point, New York.

We named her Darby.  Guess who decided that?  Yup...  Dad's a Ranger and General William O. Darby was the first commanding officer of the Ranger Battalion; it was a strong name and it had meaning, he thought.  We girls went along with it, as we usually did.  My mom piped up in a that's-not-fair sort of way, suggesting the name could, and possibly should, come from her line of work.  She was an elementary school teacher.  Dad asked what classroom-related names she had.  But the best she could come up with was "Teachy."  We had a good laugh, though I'm not sure we laughed with her.

Soon Darby the Golden Retriever puppy arrived, curbside, to our house.  She was a magical fluff of a puppy, with wiggles and sniffs and sneezes and pees that were all so cute!  If I close my eyes, I think I might be able to smell her, 30 years later.  She and I argued over which one of us would get to walk her first.  We ended up BOTH holding the skinny blue leash as we walked her up and down Winnans Road for her maiden voyage of sniffing and peeing around our neighborhood.

That Darby was a chewer!  She chewed anything made of wood, and we quickly realized that we had a lot of stuff made of wood.  She would just lay around under our table and gnaw on the chair legs and chair rungs and chair seats until they were a prickly sculpture of future splinters. And we were too caught up in her cuteness to really discipline her.

One day, after I had put my bare feet on the rung of a stool, only to be scraped by the rough edges, I took my pain out on Darby.  I looked at the innocent lump of fluff lying on the braided rug in the middle of our kitchen and said in the sternest voice I could: "Bad dog, Darby.  BAD DOG!"  She looked up at me and gave me a sad look that immediately made me feel badly.

Dad was typing on his spiffy Apple IIE computer in the next room, and overheard my attempt at discipline.  He got up from his work and walked over, and knelt down so that his brown eyes were on par with mine.  My dad, Decider of All Things to Be Decided, decided he didn't like how I spoke to our dog.

"Darby is not a bad dog.  She is a dog that does some bad things.  So don't say 'BAD DOG' again."

And I didn't.  (If my dad's name was Decider of All Things to Be Decided, mine was certainly She Who Cheerfully Does What She is Told.)  I should mention that we were in West Point because my dad taught the young soldiers-to-be English, but he was a philosopher by training.  We got these lessons in logic a whole lot.

But the philosophy my dad steeped us in really was a gift.  Decades before teachers started using "good choice" and "bad choice" language my sister and I got it.  Every time we wanted to scold our cute little puppy, we thought about our words and made sure they were appropriate--at first just to avoid a lecture from Dad but later because we agreed and thought like that, too.  And believing that a dog was intrinsically good was a relief.  Because if a puppy wasn't good or bad, then that meant I wasn't good or bad, either.  Like sweet Darby, I was a kid who sometimes chose poorly and did bad things or made bad choices but at my core you couldn't change that I was intrinsically good, and a pretty good kid at that.

And I didn't even gnaw on table legs!


  1. My dad always used to say, "There are so many beautiful words in the English language, why would you choose an ugly one?" if we ever said anything naughty or mean. I, too, was very compliant and did my best to always choose beauty. I wasn't always successful, like Darby, but my dad's words meant something powerful to me, powerful enough that i remember them as I am about to turn 50.

    1. Oh I REALLY like his words--thank you for sharing them!

  2. I love that concept that its not the person (or dog) who is bad but the action. I use that with students often, who have in been trouble so often they believe they are "bad" It is so important to choose our words wisely to support and encourage