It was only a quick flash on the TV screen, yet that was all it took to unleash a floodgate of memories that made my heart race.
The image that brought about this reaction was a red cocker spaniel that was included in a public service announcement related to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ anti-cruelty campaign.
I have trouble with those spots anyway, regardless of the particular animal shown, because of my lifelong advocacy for creatures of any kind. The first strain of the plaintive musical accompaniment hits the pit of my stomach and then before I can look away there’s Sarah McLachlan holding a dog that needs a home.
It’s always a Kleenex moment for me. I know this from the onset.
But the other day the folks in charge slipped a surprise in on me. Instead of the big brown dog that usually starts off the sequence, there was the face of a red cocker spaniel that was a dead-ringer for the dog that I loved for 16 years with the kind of love that wouldn’t let go.
It wasn’t my Runtsey, but it could have been. And his passing hurts even today, many years later.
He was one of a litter of seven that Ed and I foolishly raised after we decided to allow the mating of our two cockers, Amos and Honey. Later on, we grew a brain and stopped this foolishness, but this was in our neophyte years as cocker spaniel owners.
Runtsey, who was intended to become someone else’s pet, didn’t get picked up in timely fashion, so he stayed on and grew straight into my heart.
My children said he thought I was his mother, but my spouse had a different thought. “He thinks you’re his wife,” Ed contended.
There was no question that this canine did love me with as much fervor as I felt for him.
Truth be told, he almost didn’t make it at all. He was the runt of the litter — hence, the name Runtsey, which had been given to him on a “temporary” basis, but which stuck after he became a Hollenbeck dog.
Mother Honey didn’t care for the weakling and pushed him away from the nursing station, so I became the surrogate mother providing the supplemental feedings. If you’ve ever done this, you can empathize. It’s the nearest thing to feeding a human baby as you can get. The two of us bonded like concrete and that attachment stuck till the last day of his life, which at the time I thought could be the last day of mine.
The pain was unbearable at first, but then life’s responsibilities make it necessary to get on with living and I did. But this was a special dog indeed and one of the few I had that ever impressed my mother.
Mamma was a hard-sell when it came to my animals. As a child I I was allowed to have pets — more cats than dogs — but there was always at least one dog at our house. She liked these animals and actually loved some of them, but she didn’t have my all-out passion for the animal kingdom as a whole.
She hadn’t considered Runtsey special at all until she came for a visit and heard him “sing.”
That’s right; he did sing.
We were at work and she had finished one of her cleaning projects (she had a field day at my house) and had sat down at the piano to play something. Without being asked, Runtsey joined her by the piano bench, and as she played he threw his head back and warbled along with the music.
She was more than a little impressed and couldn’t wait to tell me so when I got home. “You need to get him on Johnny Carson,” she said. “He really does sing.”
As part of that same visit, some cousins were traveling from Michigan and came by our house for a brief visit.
“You’ve got to hear this dog sing,” Mamma told them excitedly and began to demonstrate. She took up her position on the piano bench and called Runtsey to come to her. He wasn’t having any of it. He looked around the room with the blankest stare you’ve ever seen.
He sat stone silent and no amount of persuasion could get him to perform. The cousins thought Mamma was exaggerating the dog’s talent and she was furious.
We thought it was hilarious, but Mamma saw no humor in the situation. Runtsey had embarrassed her and I don’t think she ever forgave him.
In earlier years, during the publisher period of the late Sam Hodges, an avowed dog-lover, I would bring Runtsey with me at times when I’d come to the office late in the day.
During one of these moments, Mr. Hodges walked over to my desk and said: “Lynda, I hate to tell you this, but your dog looks more like you than your children do.”
I treasure the comment to this day. The dog’s hair and mine were exactly the same color. I never produced a redheaded child, nor has there been a redhead to show up in the line of children that have followed my three.
When you see the red cocker in the ASPCA spot — if it’s shown again — you’ll be seeing what appears to be a clone of my beloved Runtsey.
I’ve loved many dogs before him and many since, but he has a hallowed place in my heart. He’ll be first in line to greet me when I get to the Rainbow Bridge. And I hope he’ll be singing.
Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.