The Gray Wolf

When I was a first year teacher in Hood River, Oregon, my wife and I lived in a converted basement apartment. It was a snug Hobbit hole of a place, dark but comfortable, built into the slope of earth reaching down toward the river on the north side of town. From our front room we had a view of a large green hillside across the Columbia that looked like it belonged in a Tolkien novel and beyond that the rounded snow clad peak of Mt. Adams. From the back of the house we saw …well, nothing; there were no windows in the subterranean laundry room we shared with the other apartments in the converted house.

We were young and foolish and figuring out how to be adults, and a natural part of that was thinking about getting our first pet. Midway through our first spring in Hood River one of my students let me know that her cat had given birth to a parcel of kittens. She ticked off the names, all standard fare and lost to memory these many years later with one exception. Along with Boots and Mittens and Spot and Snowball was the one kitten I knew we needed to have: The Gray Wolf.

Why she’s given this particular kitten such a regal and odd name (and the others such mundane monikers) I didn’t ask and didn’t know. All I was certain of was that The Gray Wolf would be a perfect first pet. I went home and told my wife we were getting a cat.

She and I have been together more than thirty years now, and back then, even though we’d been married less than five years, her kindness and patience allowed her to smile, and then with a level head remind me of a fact I should have started with: “We’ll need to ask our landlord.”

My heart sank, filled with the gloom so many renters feel when they have a sense that they have to ask a question for which they might hear an answer they don’t want to hear. “Yeah,” I agreed. “I guess.”

The next day we were driving up the mountain to the apple orchard where our German landlords lived. Hood River may possibly be the most beautiful place on earth, and their rambling farmhouse had a view of the best of it all. We pulled into the long driveway, drove up to the house, and met our elderly landlords out front.

I don’t remember the specifics. I pleaded my case, of course, doing my best to explain why The Gray Wolf was a natural and important part of our young lives. I was a teacher, we were a nice young couple, this would be perfect. They, of course, said “no.”

It would be another ten years before we got our first pet, well pets: three shelter cats, Tess, Trout, and Chester. This spring Chester and Trout died just a few weeks apart, like an old married couple, at the cat ages of twenty and twenty-one. Tess stayed with us another few months, passing on just last week at a grandmotherly nineteen years old.

But even with these three special animals in our lives, over the decades I have often thought about The Gray Wolf.

And then, this month, still smarting over the loss of our original cats and not long after my wife and I bought our first house, we got a kitten. Two actually.

Maple and Sammy are not gray, so there was never a chance they’d pick up the name of that missed kitten from so long ago. My kids wouldn’t get it anyway if their foolish father offered something as exotic as The Gray Wolf in lieu of simpler catlike names. And that’s okay. Maybe best.

The Gray Wolf lives on in my memory, the idea of him anyway, and is a reminder of the time in my life when I had even less control than I do today.

So many of us have times when we’re told no, when our hopes are answered with a resounding response that sends us away with the same disappointment I felt on that drive down the hill from the orchard and back to our basement apartment without a cat.

If we’re lucky that changes over time. We earn more, we advance in our careers, we work hard and get breaks and find ourselves able to take that trip, go out to eat at that restaurant, or welcome that pet into our lives without asking permission.

When we do, if we do, how fortunate some of us are to have a reminder to help keep perspective, live thankfully, and do our best to say yes when we’re asked about gray wolves.

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