My mom as a housekeeper when I was a kid. She worked full-time cleaning military barracks at Fort Leavenworth, but she worked part-time (mainly weekends) cleaning private homes. I would often accompany her on her weekend cleanings, where I would mainly sit and wait patiently for her to clean someone else’s house, before she went home and cleaned our own. My mom was well-known around town for being very tidy, punctual, and trustworthy. She also beat most competitor prices, especially those “maid services” that were popping up around that time in the late 80s. Before long she had some clients she preferred more than others, who treated her well (and me), and she was able to cut off a lot of the other ones. One of those such clients were a couple of local doctors who had a beautiful, and quite large, house out in the country, across from a field of horses. They had no family near, they were both from New York, and they were both retired Army, having worked their way through med school while serving. They didn’t have children, but they did have the biggest dog I have ever seen and will probably ever see, his name was Zeke, he was a Great Dane, and for a little while he was my best friend.
Zeke was large and brown and looked exactly like Scooby-Doo. Apparently that is one of the things I first said when I met him. I asked why they didn’t name him Scooby-Doo. Missy, the wife, agreed with me and threw her hand out toward her husband in an exasperated manner saying, “This one doesn’t like Scooby-Doo.” That may be why I never really liked her husband, but that didn’t matter much to me because along with Zeke, they had a grand piano, a pantry full of gourmet snack foods I had never heard of, and an above-ground swimming pool that they allowed me to swim in whenever we came over.
I remember the first time I was alone in the great room. Missy had been home when we got there one Saturday morning, but said she’d be running out for errands in a bit. While my mom immediately started cleaning, I sat up shop at the dining room table, which my mom had picked for me, being what seemed the safest spot for a messy six-year-old, in a room full of antique furniture and family heirlooms. It was a modern, sturdy table and it fit more people than I thought you would ever need to. I swung my feet, too small for them to reach the floor, back and forth and I drew in my notebook that I had brought.
Missy came into the room from the kitchen, her sweats on, her hair pulled back, and her bag slung over her shoulder. She asked what I was doing, and I showed her the picture of the star I was working on. She told me she had a trick to drawing stars, and asked if I wanted to see. I said yes, and she came over and taught me how to draw those stars, you know the ones, made of triangles, where you never lift your pen from the paper. I thought it was magic!
Then she told me that she was leaving, her husband was golfing all day, and the house was mine. She asked me to play ball with Zeke at some point, and she suggested I play the piano as no one had touched it in years. I was amazed, but suppressed the giant smile I felt inside, and waved goodbye. I ran to the window when I heard the garage door open and watched while her small BMW pulled out of the driveway. I listened for my mom, as I slowly walked by the piano and lightly touched the keys, tempting myself to push one down. I heard a vacuum somewhere far away in the house, and I froze. Even though Missy had said I could play it, I knew if my mom heard me she would run downstairs and scold me for touching it. So instead I grabbed the tennis ball from the basket that sat near the front door, and turned to yell for Zeke, but before I could get his name out of my mouth, he came zooming around the side of the stairs so fast that he ran into me and knocked us both down.
“Zeke!” I yelled, in the middle of Great Dane kisses and happy tail wags. I was not experienced with dogs. We never owned one. We were renters, and usually pet deposits were too expensive. Not to mention the cost to feed them, take them to the vet, and what about if they made a big mess or broke something? We simply couldn’t afford a pet, pets were luxuries reserved for rich people. But here I was, face to face with this giant, cuddly guy, who wanted nothing more than to be my best friend. It was the day things changed for me. They day that I started to realize that not all people live like we do. That not all people just have to dream about having a dog that loves them. The day I started to piece together what I wanted my adult life to look like one day.
Zeke and I played ball that day. We played in the backyard, in the front yard. We played in the family room downstairs, until my mom came down to clean and kicked us out. We played every day that I went to Missy’s house after that. When I swam in the pool after my mom finished cleaning, and she sat on the deck talking to Missy, both of them drinking Diet Cokes as Missy’s husband yelled about how bad Diet Coke were for you, Zeke would jump into the pool to chase me. When they went out of town, they asked my mom to house-sit for a week, and they asked me to dog-sit. This happened several times, over many years, and I was always delighted. In those moments I was allowed to fully live out my dream. My big, beautiful house with a master bathroom that had a shower with a built in seat, and a basement with a ping-pong table and a big screen television. But mostly, I was able to lay out in the front yard, with it’s meticulously mowed Kentucky Bluegrass, Zeke next to me, a tennis ball in his mouth, and tell him all my little girl dreams.
Eventually my mom stopped house-sitting and I stopped pet-sitting. Missy and her husband had a couple of kids. Her mother moved to Kansas. Missy got cancer. Her husband got sued. Zeke died. I grew into an angsty teen. I forgot all those little girl dreams. But on certain sunny, summer days, I think about my friend Zeke and our time together. When I am floating in a clear, flat pool, when I see a tennis ball roll from under a couch, when my own dog jumps at me with such force I have to steady myself, on those days I think about Zeke, and I remember those dreams, buried way down inside, and I know those dreams are what is pushing me, driving me to do what I do. Reminding me why my husband and I have made the sacrifices that we have. We might not have a BMW, or a three-level home with a pool, but we climbed from the lives we knew, the lives we were destined for, and we are still climbing, everyday, for us, for our son, for the people who can’t make the climb. And we are so thankful for those people who reached back and pulled us along with them. It reminds us to do the same.
Thanks, Missy, for teaching me to draw stars, so I could cast myself out into the world with them.
Thanks Zeke, for listening and loving, all those years ago. I hope you are somewhere chasing tennis balls all day long.
And thanks, Mom, for letting me tag along all the time, everywhere. Allowing me to have experiences and meet people that other kids like me don’t have the privilege of. And thanks too, for never thinking my big, little dreams were too far off. Who knew we’d make it this far.
PS… This isn’t Zeke, but this is certainly how I remember him. When he would hit you with his tail (from excitement) it would leave a mark!