Bananas

Kiddie bananas they call them. Bunches of smaller bananas “just the right size for a lunch box or treat”, hanging on a stand in the cereal aisle, not in the produce department. I grabbed them because my knee was throbbing and I was in a hurry. Home, they rested perfectly in the fruit bowl in the center of the kitchen island.

I do not have elementary school-age children any longer but I must have bananas in the house. Bananas for Marley’s breakfast, a favorite and nutritious treat for my seven year old Chocolate Labrador Retriever. Marley’s food allergies became evident in his second or third year when the scratching became constant and the bare spot on his belly grew wider and wider. After much consultation and experimentation, I fell back on a natural diet. Wolves don’t eat grain in the wild, dogs come from wolves, so maybe it was the grains found in almost all commercially available dog food that was causing the itching, hair loss and flaking skin. I began with boiled boneless skinless chicken breasts and sweet potatoes on the recommendation of a dog trainer friend. I added some flax seed oil that my daughter found at the doggie bakery and food store in Indianapolis. The positive results were immediate: less scratching, less shedding, smaller bald spot, and a weight loss of almost 20 pounds. Marley was now a lean and shiny dark chocolate foodie. He devoured his natural diet and the new foods I carefully added: apples, blueberries, cucumbers, plain yogurt. And bananas. He loves bananas almost more than he loves chicken.

Marley is a dancer. He prances and leaps when happy or excited. And when truly delirious, he launches himself upright from the floor, all four feet leaving the ground at the same instant, bringing him almost to my eye-level. It is an amazing feat for a 76 pound dog, especially in the narrow space between the kitchen counter and the center island where he usually waits for me while I fix his meals. In the morning, half-blind without my glasses, barefoot and yawning, I pull the cooked chicken and sweet potatoes and the plain, non-fat, yogurt from the fridge and he wiggles next to me. I fill his water bowl first and then cut up a chicken breast and half a sweet potato into the doggie bowl that matches my dinnerware – yes, I’m that anal. He is emitting little yelps of anticipation by now, nudging my thigh with a cold wet nose as if to say “Get a move on, I haven’t eaten in 12 hours!” When I open the carton of yogurt, he starts to dance; he knows breakfast is minutes away. But when I turn from the counter to take a banana from the fruit bowl on the island, he becomes almost apoplectic with anticipation, He quivers, he paces, he yelps and he moans as I peel the banana. As soon as I start to slice the banana – unnecessary for him because he could swallow it whole in one gulp – it is as if he has become Michael Jordan. He leaps straight up, looks me in the eye and lets loose a whimper/growl/moan that is part demand and part plea. If I am fumbling with the banana, he may jump a second or even a third time before my task is complete and the bowl is relinquished to him with my useless admonition to “take it easy, try to taste at least some of it.” Then his meal disappears into his massive mouth in less time than it takes me to push the banana skin down the garbage disposal.

Yesterday morning, his performance brought the usual smile to my face and laughter to my lips. But also tears to my eyes.

My father has been dead since 1995. He never met Marley who arrived in our lives almost 10 years after my father left us. My dad, for as many years as I can remember, began each day with the same breakfast: hot Salada tea, a piece of toast, one egg and Bran cereal, with milk and half a banana. Woe be to any of us who ate the last banana and left my father to contemplate his breakfast without that fruit.

My last years with my father were strained due to actions he took shortly after my marriage in 1978. I forgave him for my mother’s sake but I never really forgot and I carried a grudge in my heart and distance in my demeanor around him. He became bitter in the last years of his life, his health fading, his business gone. He had always had a marvelous sense of humor but he laughed rarely in those years. The only time he was genuinely amused and really laughed in my presence was when my huge yellow Labrador Retriever, Alex, climbed up onto my lap while I was sitting in a recliner in my parent’s living room. Our shared laughter was one of the few bright moments I recall with him in those years. It is one of the memories I cherish now that I have finally been able to make peace with him in my heart.

I could almost see him the other morning, sitting at my kitchen island, eating that traditional breakfast of his, but putting down his spoon and laughing, really laughing, at the antics of my crazy dog who loves bananas with his breakfast as much as he did. I bent down to hug Marley for giving me one more sweet connection with my dad.

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His hair is dark brown, like my favorite Godiva chocolates. His eyes are large and the same liquid umber color. He is long and lean; he runs fast and furious. His favorite sport is catch; he is so athletic. He is in great shape due to his exercise and smart diet of chicken and sweet potatoes, low-fat yogurt and blueberries. He is my favorite cuddle partner, molding himself to me, back to back, in my queen bed, or sometimes curled next to me, his head on my shoulder, his breath softly whiffling in my ear. He has a far grander lineage than me. His name is Muirfield Marley West. He’s my dog.

Marley is a Chocolate Labrador Retriever, seven years old, used to be male. He turns heads at the vet’s and in pet stores. He is man magnet; when we are out walking, not a male can resist his wiggly butt and eager tail-wagging. Perfect strangers approach everywhere to ask his name, comment on his beauty, pet his shiny coat. He loves the attention; he loves people, men especially. He hates most animals, though, especially squirrels, crows, cats and small dogs. He has two canine friends: his cousin, Tug, a goofy English Springer Spaniel who likes to lick his drool and carry balls for him, and Bam, the rambunctious Yellow Lab, belonging to his boy’s best friend.

I love him as only a mother of a son can love a male creature that slobbers, leaves muddy footprints across the clean kitchen and eats me out of house and home. I baby him, he provides me with companionship in my “empty nest.” I cater to him, he gives me the security of a big dog bark whenever a stranger approaches our door…or walks down the street.

But, he is such an embarrassment.  Not the kind of embarrassment that comes from an ugly mutt that you love anyway. He doesn’t act like a Lab. He looks like the quintessential Labrador Retriever. But, he is afraid of water. He even walks around mud puddles. He loves the snow, but hates the rain. He will not go near the swimming pool. He has to be coaxed into the walk-in shower for his “bath”, where he hangs his head and tucks his tail between his legs during the entire 10-minute ordeal of warm shower spray, expensive oatmeal shampoo and coconut conditioner for his sensitive skin.  I cater to his fears as best I can. He showers instead of bathes, I take the long way around any puddles and keep him away from rivers and the ocean.

On Wednesday, I took him with me on a few errands; since his boy has been gone, he gets fretful and into the wastebasket when I am gone for more than an hour or so.  I promised a reward if he waited patiently while I popped into DMV and used the bank’s drive-thru window. He was happy in the back seat on his doggie blanket, catching treats in mid-air as I rewarded him at each stop. Our last errand was at the library. I pulled into the far corner of the parking lot, near the newly completed nature trail.

Marley loves to walk in the woods, whether it is a real forest, like Kinns Road Park, or just the overgrowth along our development’s outer edges. We headed down the asphalt trail, my unsure steps on the hard surface, his paws on the grass, wet leaves and weeds. I knew the Town had recently competed a small bridge over the small muddy stream that meandered through the woods. As I stepped onto the bridge, he pulled to the right, toward the stream. I called him back. He then veered to the left, down the shallow bank. I made him come back to me and sit. I shortened the leash and told him to “heel.” I took two steps onto the planks before he brought me up short. Butt planted firmly on the pavement, tail tucked between his legs, he dropped to the ground and refused to move. I cajoled, I ordered, I scolded, but nothing I said or did could make him move. I pulled him up to sit and looked in his eyes. Abject terror. My big strong doggie boy was afraid of a small footbridge. I flushed. His tail began to wag. He turned about and headed back to our car. I looked around to make sure no one had witnessed my humiliation. My big brown dog is a wuss.

“Candy ass,” I muttered as I opened the car door for him. He happily jumped onto the backseat. When I got in, he pushed his head onto my shoulder and slurped the side of my face. In the rear view mirror I could see that all was now right in his world. Mom, car, blanket, treats, after a walk and some sniffs among some new bushes. He slept the rest of the afternoon curled up on my bed, with his big red ball, the tip of his tail twitching with remembered adventures.

It is a good thing that he has his looks to rely upon, else I am sure most would mistake him for one of those pocket-book toy poodles. Sigh.

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