To complement our Sit, Stay (In), Treat Yourselves box, we are publishing our Sit, Stay (In), Read literary salon featuring original writing from some of the most talented writers (and dog parents) of our modern age alongside original illustrations by acclaimed artists. We hope this gorgeous series helps deepen the relationship between you and your dog, just as our Sit, Stay (In), Treat Yourselves box does. Feel free to make yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), invite the dog on your lap, and settle in for the timeless tradition of storytelling about dogs and humans. The first author in the literary salon was Carmen Maria Machado writing about her Beagle mix, Rosie. The second author in the literary salon was Porochista Khakpour writing about her Poodle, Cosmo. The third author in our series was Meghan Daum writing about her Newfoundland puppy, Hugo. This week, we are excited to have Nathan Harris, whose debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, will be published by Little, Brown in 2021, writing about Millie the English Mastiff—and his mother. The Michener Center fellow’s essay is accompanied by an illustration by New Yorker cartoonist Liz Montague, whose graphic memoir will be published by Random House in 2022.
There was a time in my childhood where my family decided—with certainty—that my mother had gone mad. One day, she announced that she would begin competing in dog shows. Now, we had always had dogs, in the same manner that most families have dogs, but this was to be another matter entirely. Our home was now a dog show home. Things, according to her, were going to change.
No one else wanted this. We loved our black Lab, Malcolm, who was now gray at the nose, increasingly senile, and rarely moved from the space beside the couch that he had claimed as his own. But according to my mother, Malcolm would no longer be the only pet in the house. Now, my mother was a former attorney in Los Angeles who had given up everything at the drop of a hat to raise her children in a quiet town in Oregon with the same fierce determinedness she had shown when advocating for her clients. We all knew that when she put her mind to something, it would happen, and no one would—or could—stop her. But the question now was: Where was this new dog, and what exactly was this new lifestyle?
“We showered Millie with love, and in time she returned it tenfold—especially as she grew to over 100 pounds.”
What happened next continues to mystify my family to this day. We did not get one dog, but a series of dogs, in the manner one auditions actors for a role. A breeder lent out a pug, to see if it was a good fit in our home, but the pug would eat only out of a human’s hand and refused any show of affection. An English Setter, Mona, was then loaned to us, but would run from her crate at every opportunity. Our neighbors had to help us retrieve Mona as she galloped from backyard to backyard. It went on like this, a carousel of canines—a Golden Retriever, a French Bulldog, all of them, for one reason or another, a bad fit in a way that seemed far more representative of some wrongdoing on our end than the dogs’. A darkness cast itself upon my family. Where had we gone wrong? This carried on for months.
And then Millie arrived. Millie was an English Mastiff, a little tan lump of wrinkles. When she came out of her cage, my dad first held her close, then my mom did, then everyone did in turn. A hush overtook the room. It became clear that Millie would not be like these other candidates for dog shows. No, Millie was ours. Millie was immediately family.
We showered Millie with love, and in time she returned it tenfold—especially as she grew to over 100 pounds. There was no escaping her. She would lie upon you on the couch, lick you with her enormous tongue when you were not looking, and even Malcolm, that old cotter, came to bond with her just as we had.
So, about that dog show business. It wasn’t for Millie (or us). She would enter the ring and wish to wander, to sit down and take her time. Millie rarely earned points, and never even won in her breed category. Her real passion was eating copious amounts of food, lounging, and simply giving others her love. Malcolm welcomed her to his spot beside the couch. As did my father, who was, at first, reticent of such an enormous beast, yet soon sought her out each morning, nuzzling her with his feet as he drank his coffee.
In fact, so did everyone else who met her. My mother never got to be a champion in the ring, but she did get a best friend and a constant companion. Her wish to show dogs fizzled out soon thereafter. But her love for Millie—our love for Millie—is timeless. And that love is worth more than any champion show dog might ever offer. Millie had won our hearts.
Illustration by Liz Montague