We didn’t want to be in Memphis, or anywhere in the South for that matter. I clearly remember the evening in the middle of a Milwaukee winter when the phone rang. Jeanne answered, then holding the receiver out to me as if it was a piece of rotting meat said “It’s Sister Ann McKean from Christian Brothers University in Memphis.” As I took the receiver, she whispered “I AM NOT GOING TO MEMPHIS” (Jeanne is very capable of whispering in capital letters). The call was actually great news—it meant that one of the dozens of resumes I had sent all over the country looking for a college teaching job in philosophy had caught someone’s eye. In the academic job market, a letter is always bad news and a phone call is always good news—unless the people who want to interview you work at a college in Memphis. As Jeanne paced the hall saying “I AM NOT GOING TO MEMPHIS” I set up an interview with Sr. Ann, the chair of the Religion and Philosophy department at Christian Brothers, and a few weeks later it was the best of times—I had just landed a tenure track job before actually getting my PhD diploma—and the worst of times—we were going to Memphis.
With the help of the CFO at the university, we rented a house just a short distance from campus. One afternoon a year or so in I was pulling up weeds between the paving stones in our backyard patio when a dog with lots of white fur and the body of a cinder block ran up our driveway and knocked me down. I should have known better, but I yelled “Hey come and look at this!” to Jeanne inside the house, and we had a dog. Not that we were looking for one (although Jeanne revealed later that she had been praying for one), but she was a stray looking for some pushover humans and definitely found the right address. We did the proper things, attempting to locate her owners through the Humane Society, but no one was looking for a thirty-pound pregnant mutt with more white fur than any canine should be allowed to have, especially a shedding one in Memphis. She also had yellowish-orangey pointy ears, a slightly off-center spot of the same shade on her forehead, multi-colored toenails and a spotted tongue.
We didn’t let her in the house at first, but she greeted us on the front porch every morning as we went to work, running after the car for a couple of blocks, and was always waiting for us when we returned home. Her persistence was far stronger than our (my) resistance, and soon she moved in. Our cat Spooky, who had been allowing us to live with him for two years, was not impressed but as a feline pacifist put up with it. Jeanne called our new addition “Snow,” for obvious reasons; for less obvious reasons I gave her the nickname of “Snowbag,” which before long was shortened to “The Bag,” the name by which she was known to my sons and me from then on. One would think that such naming abuse would have caused her to move out, but she stayed. I’m quite sure that Snow attached herself exclusively to Jeanne because she had little respect for anyone who would call her by such a name as “The Bag.”
We learned many things very quickly about Snow. She understood, for instance, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. She loved to be petted, but only if she was allowed to lick the petter while being the pettee. She also had an incurable wanderlust. Our backyard was surrounded by a six-foot chain link fence, entirely insufficient to confine Snow when she felt like visiting the neighbors. I watched her one afternoon use all four paws to climb the fence as one would scale a rock face cliff, roll over the top, fall like a ton of bricks into the neighbor’s unfenced yard, shake herself vigorously, and trot off for an unsupervised walk. We usually could chase her down in the car, only for her to find a new way to escape the next day. We were not afraid she would not return—she had chosen us, after all—but we were very concerned that she would be run over by a car. We lived on a small residential circle that emptied into a very busy thoroughfare that fed into the center of the city, and Snow was entirely oblivious of traffic. During one of her excursions, we received a call from a stranger who had rescued Snow from wandering in the middle of three lane traffic on Hollywood Street. Retrieving our phone number from her identification tag, he gave us an address not far away where we immediately went to meet him and pick up our wayward daughter. He had thrown his own two large dogs out of the house into his fenced yard; The Bag was lounging in air-conditioned comfort (a necessity in Memphis) awaiting our arrival.
This was during the years that Jeanne, Justin, Caleb and I were struggling to make our still relatively new step-family work. Primary custody had been awarded to me in court; part of the court’s decision was that the boys would spend Christmas and summers with their mother (on Jeanne’s and my dime, of course). A couple of months after Snow arrived, it was time to put the boys on the airplane to fly to Colorado for the Christmas holidays—The Bag decided that two or three hours before we had to take the boys to the airport would be a good time to escape yet again. We made our usual drive around our circle to find her, but the time we had to leave for the airport arrived and she had not yet returned. By the time we got home and we were ready for bed, Snow was still missing. “Maybe this time she’s gone for good,” we thought, concerned that this would be just one more difficult transition to pile on the boys when they returned. But not to worry. At three or four in the morning Jeanne and I were awakened by Snow’s piercing bark at the front door—she had brought along another dog to enjoy our open-door canine policy. Snow obviously believed that it was more blessed to given and to receive. Her house guest stayed with us until late the next day when we finally made contact with his owner—the local Avon lady from across town who picked him up in a Cadillac.
We moved to Memphis in the summer of 1991 reluctantly, not wanting to leave our beloved Milwaukee that had been our first home as a family, where I had just finished my PhD, and my alma mater lacked the good sense to hire me. We were driving a seventeen-foot U-Haul dragging our Yugo behind—Spooky expressed our sentiments perfectly by puking all over the cab as we crossed the line from Wisconsin into Illinois heading south. Three years later we drove a twenty-six foot U-Haul (still dragging the Yugo behind) out of Memphis heading northeast to Providence with great expectations and the southern bitch who had decided we would be her family. Snow spent the trip sitting on the console in between the two captain’s chairs in the cab like a shedding bobble head or dashboard Jesus, while Spooky ruled the back seat. “I still can’t figure out why we had to go to Memphis,” Jeanne said the other day; “Maybe to meet The Bag,” I replied. That’s tough duty just to get a hood ornament. To be continued . . .