It was the spring of 1995 and, like most nine year olds, I was reading the newspaper after church.
My very Jewish, very brilliant grandfather, Herman, insisted that anyone worth their weight in shekels read the paper from front to back. At very least, on Sundays. At the very most, with a red pen, a pair of scissors and a lot of shouting “Jesus Christ!”
I had no idea what shekels were. The nuns at St. Anthony’s skipped that vocab lesson. All I knew was Jesus Christ was a big deal, and any man who served Oreos and Cheetos at dinner parties possessed a certain wisdom I needed.
So, I nabbed the Cincinnati Enquirer from the kitchen counter, settled into my Dad’s brown, leather office chair and propped up my Reeboks on the matching, “distressed” ottoman. The texturing bore a striking resemblance to sports cleats and melted chocolate. By any Italian leatherman’s standards, a very avante garde choice.
I fixed my sights on mastering Herm’s finest journalistic talent. He had a knack for folding the news into impossibly small rectangles, until he had a particular article perfectly cropped. A thousand paper cranes wept with sheer joy at the conclusion of every session.
I figured I’d have this trick licked by lunch.
But within minutes, I slaughtered all my best-laid plans. Mice and men sobbed.
I was slapping the paper with both palms. Repeatedly. I was using my knees as a spring clamp and ironing creases with my teeth. My poor thumb shriveled from vicious tongue thrashings. And then there were the self-induced paper cuts. This was a blood sport. Paper survived government-grade shredders in better shape.
I threw down the A section and moved through B, C, and D with equal destruction.
The only thing left was the flimsy classifieds.
The pages stared up at me from the wood floor. I rested my chin on my chair’s leather arm and listened to them plead for mercy.
Even deathrow inmates got a last wish. So I snapped up the want ads and resolved to give them a gentle, loving read before I beat them to death.
The section greeted me with an entire page of acronyms seeking other acronyms for an acronym.
If I learned anything in fourth grade, it was that you only passed notes in code when you were hoping to hold hands with the boy who slapped you across the face at recess. I loved juicy gossip, so I got to work jotting a few options for possible solutions. But, Solid Wood Furniture seeking Some BaseMent for Storage & Maintenance just didn’t seem scandalous.
So I skipped to the “dogs for sale” section.
There were long-haired Dachshunds, Jack Russells and mini mutts, oh my.
But I was jonesing for comfort after a disastrous morning, and a barking Swiffer Sweeper wouldn’t cut it.
I needed a bear hug from a big lug. Something to consume my entire 4-foot, 7-inch frame of shame.
I scanned the ads with the crosshairs of a pheasant-hungry Southern Republican.
And then – Bull’s eye. A 125-pound New Foundland named—you guessed it—Bear.
I catapulted out of my seat and ran to the foyer, waving the page like a white flag with a distinctly frantic red circle. My mom descended the stairs with a laundry basket, read the ad and said, “I don’t think so, Erin.”
Maybe it was the whiff of Snuggle I caught off the laundry, but I sensed a soft spot in her refusal, and I wasn’t about to give up.
It took a week of subtle sneak attacks and subversive reminders. I even had to unleash my most advanced adorable glances. But she finally agreed to an “informational phone call…and that’s IT.” I could taste victory.
Word reached my father about this defense breach. So I worked him for an “informational visit.” He looks vaguely like a big teddy bear, so I sold that angle hard. After all, they say people are drawn to others who look like them.
The following weekend. General Dad fell at the Battle of Persistence, and he loaded my brother and me into his tiny Chrysler Lebaron for our “visit” with Bear.
We cruised through downtown Cincinnati, across the bridge to Kentucky and into a parking space at our designated rendezvous spot. Bear’s owners requested we meet them at Cork’N Bottle, the region’s largest alcohol retailer because, apparently, nothing says “good old family fun” quite like a good Old Fashioned.
The three of us stood in the nearly-empty parking lot, searching for paws. The cracked pavement rolled uphill to meet a stripped down, white RV. Those rims had definitely seen a few seasons ushering love struck cousins to the alter. A stout, heavier woman with a bluntly cut bob popped the driver’s side door and walked toward us with a knowing smile.
Stand back, she said, and I’ll let Bear out to meet you.
She slid open the passenger door and out loped beauty and the beast. We froze. Visions of a ravenous lion danced through my head. Bear kept coming. He picked up speed on the downhill sprint, and his gait lengthened to a full gallop. Long threads of slobber spun through the air, crisscrossed his black snout and splattered to the pavement. The scene went silent until Bear’s plate-sized paws hit my dad’s denim shoulders. The volume clicked back on to a grown man’s giggles and a big, slippery lick.
I knew these hairy hunks would be a match made in heaven.
Dad signed the check while I nuzzled into Bear’s third neck for my hard-fought hug. Success tasted a lot like dander and kibble, and it felt a lot like hot breath. We were the proud new owners of unconditional love and very hairy shirts.
The woman gave bear one last hug, pulled away and left us completely stumped. No one had considered the logistics of transporting a droopy pony in a car built for petite yuppies. It took a few tries, but dad negotiated a solve.
Ten minutes later, we were cruising town with the top down and the dog exploding out of the back seat. Passing drivers pointed, we laughed to the point of pain, and Bear inhaled happiness. His ears flapped in the wind. I felt Dumbo turn red with envy. I beamed with pride.
The Era of Bear spanned eight legendary years. He played protector, best friend, confidante and dress up. He caught tears, swallowed retainers and ate toothpaste tubes whenever my mom picked up the phone. The FedEx man never dropped off a package without also dropping off a Milkbone for the big guy, and a night was never over until Bear methodically plodded up our creaky front stairs to his final resting place outside my parents’ bedroom.
He consumed our hearts and our dish towels. He snored like a flatulent walrus. And he insisted on drinking his water from the spigot outside the kitchen door. When he ate his “breakfast,” the remnants of my mom’s olive oil, water and kibble mixture dripped from his jowls and across the mudroom. We affectionately dubbed this disgusting trait “droobulling.” To put it bluntly, the more our main man embodied a fat, lazy football fan, the more we loved him.
As for me, Bear became a barking reminder that sometimes life’s biggest gifts emerge from your most epic failures. I now believe there’s always a lumbering upside to every disaster. You just have to keep looking, keep insisting, keep expecting a life-changing cruise in a tacky convertible on the next page.
I may not be worth my weight in shekels, but I’m worth thousands of Bear hugs. And I think Herm could get behind that.