The Sexton family's long love affair with the Dalmatian began in Linda's childhood. There, on a snowy morning in the family home just outside Boston, Linda heard a whimpering coming from the basement. She discovered their first family dog giving birth to a litter. Witnessing the intimate act of birth had a profound effect on the family. Her mother, Anne, used the experience to complete the poem "Live," part of her third collection, titled Live or Die , which would be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. For Linda, the boundless joy of both breed and breeding triggered in her a lifelong love of Dalmatians. All told, thirty-eight Dalmatians will move through her life: the ones that cheer and support her through difficulty, divorce, and depression; the ones that stay with her as she enters the world of professional breeding and showing of Dals; and, of course, the one true dog of her heart, Gulliver, her most stalwart of canine champions.
Bespotted is a page-turning and compelling look at the unique place dogs occupy in our lives. It captures another piece of this literary family's history, taps into the curious and fascinating world of dog showing/dog fancy. Bespotted is an upbeat and commercial memoir by one of the most critically acclaimed memoirists of our time.
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About the Author
Linda Gray Sexton is the daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton. She has written four novels and two memoirs, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide and Searching for Mercy Street , both published by Counterpoint. She lives in Redwood City, California. Please visit lindagraysexton.com to learn more about Linda's books and connect with other readers.
Read an Excerpt
NOW, AS I LOOK back over my sixty years, I realize that sometimes it is in the nature of miracles not to occur in a crisis, but in the most mundane of circumstances, blossoming out of everyday existence into something as yet unrecognized. It was five thirty in the morning on that dark winter weekday in 1966, the floor chilly beneath my feet. I was about to turn thirteen. I yanked up my bedroom shades to reveal the snowbanks of our Boston suburb and the streetlights that still shone over the black ice of the road. Neither my parents nor my sister were yet awake. I had gotten up to wash my hair before my father made breakfast and the seven o'clock school bus arrived, and as I dialed the thermostat in the hall up to 68 degrees, a peculiar noise threaded through the silence of the house, with high-pitched intermittent squeaks and squeals. It sounded like the nest of rats that had taken up residence under the barn at camp last summer. I tiptoed down to the first floor, searching, uneasy. The sound grew louder. When I reached the door to the basement stairs, it hit me: in the stillness of this quiet dawn, life was arriving.
I ran to broadcast the news to my parents and my sister, Joy, calling through the hall between the bedrooms in a loud but shaky voice, and then bounded down the stairs three at a time to return to what we had all been anticipating for weeks.
In the wooden pen my father had built, from inside the cave of a large cardboard box that had once held a case of toilet tissue, birth was taking place.
For the last two weeks, our Dalmatian, Penny, had been incarcerated in the basement — amid the old rocking horses, the discarded rolls of rugs, and an old television set without an antenna — heavy-bellied and lethargic, waiting for her time. Every night during the past two weeks, when I gave her a goodnight ear scratch before going to bed, she had looked up at me from her chair with what seemed an expression of abandonment in her light brown eyes. Why, she seemed to ask, must she be banished to a damp place where no one lived, filled with shadows and the cat's litter box? I felt a wave of sadness for her then; she had been alone, perhaps not understanding what was happening to her. Every night as I turned out the overhead light, I wondered if the next day would bring us the puppies Joy and I so longed for and allow Penny to return among us to the land of the living.
Inside the big cardboard box, two puppies crawled blindly, bumping up against the sides; their mother didn't take notice of them, or perhaps she simply couldn't. For, as I watched, Penny heaved and panted, heaved and panted, whimpered and then pushed, hard. And at last, a dark slimy bubble the size of a baby's slipper slid out in a whoosh of liquid from the space between her hind legs.
Now she worked with proficiency and tore open the sack with her teeth, working savagely yet delicately, and a slick body tumbled out onto the bed of shavings. Lowering her muzzle close to the puppy's body, she began to chew on the thin spaghetti-like cord still connecting the two of them until it severed. Only then did she return to a pup that still lay without moving and begin to lick it hard, and as she did so, it began to move, just a little at first and then with more vigor. Out came the first mewling sound. And the pup began to turn from dusky blue to rosy pink, still wet and slick. The skin was covered with black spots, but within minutes, as the pup dried off, its wet coat turned snowy white, and the spots were hidden beneath what I now realized was fur.
As soon as she had nudged them closer to herself, she half rose on her front legs as if to gain better purchase and began to strain again; another body emerged slowly, appearing just a bit at first and then slipping back. Finally the bloody bag slithered out. Nausea cramped my gut at the grisly sight, a bath of blood and mucus and the dark mass of afterbirth, that, I realized with horror as I stared down into the pen, she was quickly eating. Was this really how it was meant to be?
My sister and my parents came down the stairs in a wave, filling the room with noise and activity, and I felt less anxious and alone. My father began to search the whelping box for more puppies and discovered two wedged into a corner, crying weakly but insistently as they looked blindly for the warmth of their mother's body.
My mother sat and smoked a cigarette, musing it seemed, perhaps caught up in a quiet awe at the way life was unfolding in our basement, right at her knees. She was a woman fascinated with death, having tried to kill herself innumerable, uncountable times. The puppies' arrival, however, brought a vision of abundant life into her psyche — and thus into our lives — on that day.
Joy jumped around happily, helping my father dry off the new pups carefully, having run back upstairs for towels, and settled them in next to Penny, who was, even as the pups tried to stay near her, pushing out another. Her panting had increased, and she no longer pitched herself forward onto her front legs to deliver another whelp. Exhausted, she had begun to rely on her humans to help out.
* * *
My parents had neglected to spay Penny when we got her as a young dog in the autumn months of 1966, just as they neglected to spay our two cats, both of whom had litters before they were taken to the vet to ensure that it never happened again. And so, shortly thereafter, just as biology dictated, Penny came into heat with her second cycle, probably around her first birthday.
A little behind on the uptake, my parents shut her in the backyard with its six-foot fence, topped with pointed pickets, confident that she could not get out. But Penny clambered right up that expensive fence for an assignation with one of the neighborhood Lotharios, a mutt named Herbie, who belonged to my best friend.
Horrified by the idea of a litter of mongrel pups, my parents rapidly decided to breed her again the next day, intentionally this time, to a friend's Dalmatian boy, hoping that his seed would swim faster than Herbie's and rescue them from the situation. A female dog's "seasons" allow for multiple implantations over the course of several days, so it was not implausible that she could either get pregnant solely from Caesar, or else, from some mixture of the two.
Caesar arrived with Maxine and Vic Kumin in tow. Maxine was my mother's writing cohort, best friend, and big sister. They had both become poets at the same time and had risen to similar levels of prominence in the early sixties (and both eventually went on to win Pulitzer Prizes). It made perfect sense that Maxine would supply the male, one without papers I believe, for Penny, definitely without papers. Both dogs had been sold as pets and undoubtedly the contracts between the new owners and the breeder stipulated that neither Penny nor Caesar be bred — if there had been any contracts to begin with, of course. Neither dog was a candidate for the show ring for a variety of reasons: breeders use only the best exemplars of the breed when deciding which dogs and bitches should be bred, as a way of keeping a Dalmatian looking like a Dalmatian and a Doberman looking like a Doberman. Both the American Kennel Club and the Dalmatian Club of America would certainly have frowned on the sort of union we were about to achieve, ironically now known in the fancy as a "backyard breeding," which ignores both pedigrees, health certifications, and registration papers.
Apparently, Penny was as ripe as a peach. Caesar chased her all around the backyard, and Joy and I — having been banished offstage by my parents — snuck to watch from the living room window, noses pressed against the glass. Penny scrambled up on the picnic table, but Caesar cornered her before she could even jump down again, and in an instant, he nailed her right up there for all to see. He pumped away, tiptoe, his front paws hooked up nearly at her shoulders to restrain her. Then they stood absolutely still, locked together. However, after a few minutes, he made what seemed an unwise decision and began to turn and dismount. In a moment, they stood still joined, their noses pointed in opposite directions, looking like Siamese twins stuck together rump to rump. They just stood there. Then Caesar tried to move again, and they tumbled off the table onto the ground. Even this did not dislodge him. Joy and I ran through the house, screaming, "They're stuck! They're stuck!"
My father and Vic turned the hose on the dogs, swearing and panicked, dousing them with a stream of cold water. It didn't work. Nor did trying to pull them apart. Nor did standing there and speaking to the soaking-wet, shivering dogs with gentle words. These dogs were not about to relax and let go. Joy whispered to me in shock, "They're going to have to cut his penis off!"
It seems that not even the adults knew that the dogs were doing something natural. Part of the breeding process is a "tie," where the canine penis, trapped inside the female by its complicated anatomy, acts as an effective dam until the sperm has a good chance to swim up the canal. Eventually enough time passed that Caesar deflated and was released.
As Penny had expanded, looking more and more uncomfortable as the all-too-short sixty-three days of gestation raced by, my mother and father repeatedly said they would destroy the puppies when they came if they were Herbie's offspring. Joy and I were horrified and begged them not to do it. But my parents didn't want to be stuck with a litter of pups that could not be registered, thus reducing the possibility of selling them and practically ensuring that they would have to give them away. They didn't need the money, and there were practically no costs involved, as they did not follow through with things like dewclaw removal or hearing testing, and as the breeding itself had cost them nothing but one afternoon's entertainment. But for some unstated yet persistent reason, it seemed crucial that they sell the pups. Thus they enlisted the help of our housekeeper, Mary LaCrosse, getting her to promise to help them drown the pups if they were "mutts."
Joy had nicknamed her "Mary the Cross" during our early childhood because she yelled at Joy constantly for making messes in her bedroom and at me for spilling soup down the front of my school dresses. She had been with my mother's family since my mother was a child, and she was an adored member of the household. My mother loved and depended on her. For many years, Mary lived on a farm with her husband, Fred, and six sheepdogs, and it was fabled that many of the dogs slept in the bed with them. Once, when my father stopped in at the farm on an errand, he found her up to her armpits in the manure pile, filling a wheelbarrow with which to fertilize the garden by hand.
Mary lived a gritty life on her own and often came to work in a stained housedress, her shaggy black hair wild, sometimes smelling of sweat. Or of sheepdog. Despite these traits, which belied the conventional stereotype, Mary LaCrosse somehow knew how to keep things clean and tidy. Our messy household was uncared for by my disinterested mother, and Mary knew how to change sheets, how to "fan" the magazines on the coffee table, how to straighten out my mother's desk without misplacing a single paper, how to train the dogs we would one day own, and, unlike my mother, how to really cook: slow-roasted chicken swimming in butter, egg-salad sandwiches on soft white triangles of bread, and deep-scented lamb hash from leftovers. Perhaps most important of all, she knew how to manage my mother because she'd been doing it for my mother's entire life. My mother listened to her obediently and would even stop writing a poem midstream so that Mary could dust and vacuum her writing room.
Despite an obvious affection for dogs in general, "Me-Me," as we called her, had disposed of several unwanted litters in her time. She agreed to help my parents fix the error they had made by being late in spaying Penny. But when the early morning of the birth arrived, it was Mary's day off.
After watching for a bit with Joy and me in the poorly lit basement, my parents found themselves unable to go and get the pail put aside for the purpose of the planned euthanasia. And shortly it became obvious that it wouldn't be necessary because all the puppies born were Dalmatians.
At the time the puppies arrived in 1966, my mother was in the midst of writing Live or Die, her third volume of poetry, the one for which she would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize eight years before her death. Up until that point, and despite the title that revealed her ambivalence, much of the book had been occupied with her death wish, including poems like "Suicide Note" and "The Addict."
After the eight puppies had been settled down and Penny had at last been made comfortable enough to sleep, my mother went upstairs to her typewriter. As the sound of the little cries floated up from the basement to her writing room just at the top of the stairs, she began to create a new poem called "Live." In its final stanza, she credited the birth of the puppies for her own increasing mood to do just that — to live. The puppies had worked like some magical incantation, transforming her into a state of gratitude.
So I say Live and turn my shadow three times round to feed our puppies as they come the eight Dalmatians we didn't drown. Despite the warnings: The abort! The destroy! Despite the pails of water that waited to drown them, to pull them down like stones, they came, each one headfirst, blowing bubbles the color of cataract-blue and fumbling for the tiny tits. Just last week, eight Dalmatians, ¾ of a lb., lined up like cord wood each like a birch tree. I promise to love more if they come, because of cruelty and the stuffed railroad cars for the ovens, I am not what I expected. Not an Eichmann. The poison just didn't take. So I won't hang around in my hospital shift, Repeating The Black Mass and all of it. I say Live, Live, because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift.
The poem would become one of her most famous, the centerpiece of the book that would win her a national reputation. To the family, it symbolized my mother's return to us, how she had at last turned away from the blackness that tortured us all. It was her rejection of suicide, if only for a time. The Dalmatian puppies had cheated death.
* * *
It seems to me now that my mother's reaction to the birth that day was a miracle. Even at the age of thirteen, I was able to recognize that it presaged a new era, however short, of a buoyancy in her frame of mind. Perhaps I recognized it, even at that early age, because she had me read and critique the poem, perhaps because she smiled at the kitchen table over her late-morning coffee and greeted me happily when I returned from school each day.
The birth of the puppies returned my mother to us and reinforced my already deeply seated love of animals, Dals in particular, and all that accompanied them: from the birthing to the dying. Dogs provided both joy and solace, bringing with them a special connection — even though it was one that must eventually, inevitably, be severed. And because that connection could not last forever, it was even more precious.CHAPTER 2
IN 1953, I CAME home from the hospital of my birth to a small, intimate neighborhood with houses closely set together, their patches of lawn spread out in neat squares in the front yards. There are black-and-white snapshots of my mother posing in the car with the door open, a squinty-faced baby wrapped in a woolen blanket in her arms. My mother had come from a family where an infant nurse in starched white took care of the babies, and her mother had always been a distant figure. She had no real role model for being a hands-on parent. To say she looked overwhelmed and somewhat helpless, as well as pleasingly proud, would be an understatement.
Our house was red brick, with green shutters and a big oak tree out front at which my father was always cursing, as it housed a bevy of gray squirrels that dropped acorns down into the grass, over which he labored like a slave in an attempt to have the most perfect postage stamp of green on the street. Up and down he went with the fertilizer spreader, laying the white powder out in unwaveringly straight lines. He liked to shoot at the squirrels with his deer rifle, and I never forgot the day he actually hit one of the speedy devils, the coiled red guts blossoming out the side of its belly. I accepted it then as "his way," but I was nevertheless repulsed by it. It seemed to me both unnecessary and cruel, even if it was as small an animal as a squirrel.
There, all the dogs roamed the streets. No one kept them in fenced yards, so we got to know them, each and every one: Tippie, the friendly brown-and-white mix who lived across the street, and Max, the black terrier who lived next door and liked to dig up my father's precious lawn, among others. All my friends had dogs. I was envious of the warm comfort this seemed to bring to their lives. I envied them their canine pets and the peaceful — or so it seemed — atmosphere of their homes. They were what my grandmother called "normal." The father went to work. The mother oversaw the children; made breakfast, lunch, and supper; sewed; and made coffee cake for the church bake sales. Nothing was like that at my house: my father worked as a traveling salesman who spent his time eating up the highways from New Hampshire to Virginia, but my mother worked, too, it appeared, from her desk in the dining room, where she hunched over her typewriter keys. It was Nana, my father's mother, who did the sewing, the child raising. My parents fought all the time, and my sister and I huddled together during the angry altercations. I often prayed for a dog, who would have brought comfort.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Bespotted"
Copyright © 2014 Linda Gray Sexton.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I Mother's Miracles 10
Part II Our Very Own 52
Part III Literati Dalmatians 88
Part IV Dog of My Heart 104
Part V New Beginnings 150
Part VI Keeping the Vigil 166
Part VII Afterward 182
Part VIII We Wait 202
Part IX The Puppy Pen 220
Part X Going Home 246
Part XI Different Sort of Dog 260