“The Retail Queen of Fairfield, Connecticut”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on July 22, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

It is the day after Thanksgiving, and the masses descend upon the local retail outlets like water from a burst dam, flowing like lemmings through the aisles in a pre-Christmas frenzy. However, one woman in a lonely corner of the grocery store is not there to shop. She waits patiently at the Returns counter with a turkey, or at least what’s left of it after her husband and seven kids had attacked it twelve hours earlier. The skeletal remains were easy to slip into the small plastic bag—even the wishbone had long since been taken out and snapped.

“It went bad,” this woman says to the lady behind the counter, sliding the carcass across the counter. Only a pro walks into a store and demands her money back on a turkey without any meat left on it. Janet Walsh is a pro.

My mom understood the craftiness one must adopt when trying to feed a family of nine each day. The family checkbook was packed like a musket with coupons skinned from local newspapers. Trips to the grocery store were military operations as seven kids invaded the unsuspecting stores offering samples on Saturday afternoons—who needs lunch when you can wolf down eight tiny slices of pepperoni pizza and wash it down with a thimbleful of the newest Coke? Our family did not merely buy in bulk; we stocked up as if winter was coming to Valley Forge. Each grocery trip ended with a game of culinary Tetris, where we’d stuff three separate freezers and two refrigerators with surgical precision. There was no rummaging through the fridge in my family; asked what was for dinner that night, my mom’s answer was, “Whatever’s up front.”

It was not uncommon for a loaf of bread to lie frozen in state like Vladimir Lenin for up to a year before it was discovered in the back of the freezer. She’d thaw it like the wooly mammoth on those National Geographic specials, using a hair dryer to separate a few pieces for school lunches. These clay pigeons with peanut butter and jelly slathered all over them sat in our lunch pails like a muttered apology, still frozen by the time our class had lunch.

“It keeps the sandwich fresh,” she’d say as we showed her our chipped teeth.

What the poor lady working at the Returns counter that day couldn’t know was that my family lived on food that had long since passed its expiration date. She viewed the freezer as a time machine, cryogenically preserving batteries, cheeses, cold medicines, and milk that would make the folks at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not take notice. In fact, there were three types of milk in or refrigerator: the “good” milk (within a week of its expiration date), “mixing” milk (older, used on cereal or in recipes), and “sour” milk, which would only be so designated when something inside it tried to bite you.

“The date is only a suggestion,” my mom would say whenever we brought it up. “They just want you to buy more.”

Local shopkeepers were talked into 10% discounts for the privilege of clothing her family.

“I have a carload full of customers in this family: growing children who like to buy new clothes!”

They agreed to the discounts, never realizing that this woman put clothes into a rotation that would be the envy of the New York Yankees. Each outfit bought for my oldest brother and sister filtered its way down to the youngest in a kind of corduroy waterfall, and all our class pictures looked as if we’d just pasted a new head on last year’s set. Being the youngest boy, I was always ten years behind the fashion, a Fonzie t-shirt in a sea of Gap mock turtlenecks. You could pick a Walsh kid out of a crowd because of our awkward Frankenstein gait, a result of my mom’s decision to sew massive patches on the insides of our pants and shirts to make sure they’d last to the next sibling. Where most kids wore clothes, we wore armor of reinforced nylon and denim that restricted our range of motion to that of the Tin Man.

“You just have to work them in a bit, like your baseball mitt,” she’d say.

As we grew older and more conscious of our fashion maladies, she picked up toddler Izod shirts or tattered Garanimals attire at consignment shops and sewed the telltale lizard onto the discount shirts she’d bought at K-Mart. “That’s strange,” my friends would say, “I always thought the alligator was on the other side!”

Growing up with my mom, one learned that opened bags of candy on store shelves were considered “samples,” and that any expensive item mistakenly placed in a discount section must now be sold at the discounted price. Four-dollar wine became vintage when poured into a different bottle. There was so much bread in the meatloaf that we didn’t know whether it should serve as the inside or the outside of the leftover meatloaf sandwiches.  Clothes could be “rented” from local stores for special occasions and returned the very next day as long as you pinned the tags to the inside sleeve and kept the crease. Armed with a receipt and the original bag, there was nothing you couldn’t return.

Her ability to make the most out of little is surpassed only by her incredible ability to make her family feel loved. She never missed an opportunity to tell us how much she loved us, even during times we’d given her little reason to. She made prom dresses and dozens of Halloween costumes from scratch even as we complained that everyone else’s mom bought them new ones. In an age before carpooling, she drove seven kids to tennis matches, swim practice, track meets, ping-pong clubs, soccer practice and extra help after school. She made midnight calls with a cold washcloth and Vicks Vap-O-Rub when we were sick and showed up to every banquet even if you only got the “Participant” ribbon.

How do you follow an act like this? I’ll thank her the only way I know how: I’ll allow my kids to use up all my gas when they borrow the car. I’ll remind them of the high holy days and forgive them when they forget the holiest day of all: my birthday. Most importantly, I’ll teach them about the way life should be lived. They’ll learn about laughter because they’ll grow up listening to a lifetime of stories around the kitchen table. They’ll learn about the importance of family because they will know that your family is the one place in your heart that is always open. They will learn about love because their grandparents gave it unconditionally.

And I’ll wait in line at the grocery store Returns counter with a half-eaten holiday turkey in the original bag, receipt in hand, and wonder how the heck she ever managed to pull this off.

“Puppy Parent Scum!”

ZuZu Walsh

At the dog park, it’s inevitable. “Where did you get your dog?” someone will ask as our dogs do a little butt-sniffing. It’s as if I’m driving a Volkswagen through Auschwitz when I say we got her from a breeder. My wife will chime in that we tried to find one in the pound first, but we can see the judgment in their eyes.

As a white male in America, it goes without saying that I’ve had to fight prejudice and discrimination as I’ve clawed my way up to the lower-middle. The latest obstacle the Man has placed in my path is the stigma attached to acquiring a dog through a breeder rather than a shelter. These days, skipping the local pound is akin to gut-punching a nun.

My wife and I have always looked to rescue abandoned dogs; we’ve volunteered at the local shelter, participated in supply drives, and served on the planning committee for a new shelter in town. We loved the feeling that we’d given a second chance to our dogs, and it allowed us to endure the endless airings of Sarah McLaughlin singing “In the arms of the angels…” over the pictures of neglected pets that dominate late night television commercial breaks.

Then we got ZuZu.

ZuZu is a blessing. She is also a veterinary Black Hole. Unsure of her age or her breed (mostly Cocker Spaniel-ish), our vet informed us on our initial visit that she had horrible ear problems. This was followed by a crippling skin rash that necessitated an extensive drug regimen after a blood sample yielded no fewer than three pages of things to which she was deathly allergic. The Cocker in the Plastic Bubble cheated death, and outside of the telltale baboon butt where she’d permanently scratched away her fur, her skin specialist declared her out of the danger zone. However, she could only eat dry venison dog food. Not only did this ruin any chance of her ever becoming a vegetarian like all the fashionable dogs, it also required us to order this special blend through our vet.

At two, she began biting mercilessly at her paws. Over time, despite a wide variety of trimming, nail clipping, and massage, we had to order special booties to keep her from nibbling them into bloody stumps. She goose-stepped around the house for a while, clearly annoyed at this 80s-era velcro fashion statement. The urge to chew on them went away after a few months, and eventually we mothballed the booties.

At six ZuZu broke her back, apparently as she engaged in the dangerous activity of… lying down. She couldn’t take a step without pain, and after much hand-wringing we agreed with her back surgeon: she needed surgery. She came through like a champ, and we learned how stupid we could feel for passing up pet insurance. At almost five thousand dollars, it was not as expensive as the years of special food or the years of extra vet appointments, but it hurt. At seven, we noticed her having difficulty holding a tennis ball in her mouth. She soon had trouble eating. Another visit to the bone specialist revealed that her jaw was locking up. Our vet revealed that her range of motion was about 30% of what it should be; in his experience, she’d eventually be able to open it less and less until she could no longer eat. He had no idea how this had started, but the prognosis was grim. He could break her jaw and see if this allowed her to eventually open up all the way, but something else happened that ruled this out.

We were scraping together some money for her jaw when she had her first heart attack. We rushed her to the emergency vet on call, put her on an IV, and waited for the cardiologist to give us the results of the tests. The good news was that she would be able to come home with us in a few days. The bad news was that this was due to the fact that she probably had around six months to live. The drugs he’d normally prescribe for her heart would seriously compromise what turned out to be an already damaged liver. In the end we settled on a cocktail of drugs that helped her heart but weakened her kidneys, then switched to drugs that helped her kidneys but failed to address her heart. We went back and forth on this in order to assure she had some quality of life in the time she had left. However, it also meant that she’d never survive a surgical procedure.

We were all surprised when her jaw magically opened wider and wider in the following weeks. The drugs pushed her well past her expiration date, and our vet asked us if he could perform an autopsy after she died to see how this dog tip-toed around Death like Ginger Rogers.

Last year she developed an abscessed tooth, but we all figured the penicillin would clear it up. Of course, it didn’t; she required surgery before the infection reached her brain. Our vet made it clear that she might never wake up from the anesthesia, and the pressure on her heart might be too much to overcome, but she faced certain death if we ignored it. I dropped her off in tears the morning of the surgery, saying my goodbyes and thanking her for all she’d done for us. Sure enough, I was able to pick her up the next day; like Tupac, she’d dodged another bullet. Also like Tupac, there were more in store for her.

Our vet showed me the piece of jawbone he’d removed; it was likely bone cancer, and there was nothing he could do if it was. For once, this allowed us to save the money on lab fees.

Having just passed her tenth birthday in June, ZuZu now waddles around on her ankles and elbows. The ligaments around the joints have completely atrophied—she can bend her paws all the way back to her forelegs in defiance of God and physics. None of her band of specialists can explain how this came about, and we’ve had to remind our vet to let us know when we were keeping ZuZu around more for us than for her.

The fact is that we’ll do anything for our dogs, including almost $200 a month in pills alone. Just like my grandma, ZuZu has a big blue pill box with fourteen compartments, two sets of pills per day. This on top of prescription food, checkups with all her specialists (she has more than we do), and the recently christened ZuMobile, her three-wheeled doggie cart that allows us to include her on our beach walks.

We could put a kid through college on the money we’ve spent on ZuZu, but we wouldn’t change a thing. She’s the best. Still, I’m frustrated that I find myself stumbling over words to justify our selfish decision to protect ourselves from another round of Kevorkian Roulette. Of course I’d rather save a poor dog from the local shelter. However, I also have to refrain from taking on the collective responsibility of all the crappy pet owners out there who neglect their dogs. Couples who arrange for surrogate parents to carry their child aren’t made to feel as if they’re kicking orphans in the nuts, so maybe you could cut us a break?

Ideally, we’d all have to apply for puppies; if you screwed up, you’d never be allowed to have any more. You’d have to pay puppy support if you lost custody. And every scum-sucking maggot who mistreated their pets would automatically be sent to the Karmic Wheel, reincarnated as a dog or cat themselves. Or, even worse, Carrot Top.

Until then, we decided to find some healthy dogs and responsible breeders so we could afford to give our next dog the life it deserves. We’re not evil. Pinky swear.

Now, can we get back to casting aspersions on the training skills of the other dog owners at the park like we used to?