When we first got our beautiful boxer, Angel, she was already a fully formed five-year-old who had been through the wringer a little bit. In the four months before she came to us she had lived with three other families, each one under the assumption that the arrangement would be permanent.
But it never was.
Her first family, good friends of mine going on 30 years, were gentle and loving owners who raised her from a pup. They loved her, but when professional opportunity required that they move to an apartment near New York, they determined that it was best that they give her up.
Her second owners were young professionals, too busy and unfettered for the responsibility of caring for a dog. And, finally, her last owner before she came to us was a hard-working man with a pick-up truck who adored her. But he and his young daughter were both allergic to her fur, and she couldn't stay.
And so it was that around about the time of the last Hanukkah, a note out of the blue came to my email box: "Would you be interested in taking my dog?" A picture was attached.
I fell in love with her right there.
She was an adorable purebred boxer, my friend assured me, bought directly from a breeder. Somehow she managed to be both petite and huge, small for her breed but with a big, chunky head and powerful chest.
Her body was the color of an Italian violin, rich mahogany with subtle black tiger striping. She was accented all over in white, including a snowflake on the crown of her head and long extensions from the tips of her big feet all the way up her legs. This gave the effect that she was wearing elegant ladies evening gloves tugged onto the sinewy arms and massive paws of a prizefighter.
Angel's domestic turmoil mirrored our own. A divorce had left the kids and me to soldier on without an adult female presence in our home. There was still a lot of love there, but a sense of loss too. And, since my wife left, the place didn't smell nearly as good as it used to.
On the last night of Hanukkah, I packed the kids in the car and told them we were going to pick up a surprise. We pulled into the parking lot of a 7-11 just off the beltway and took possession of Angel.
Having been through so many families in so short a time, Angel tentatively and mournfully jumped into our car. Perhaps seeking some understanding in the one most like herself she immediately wet-kissed my 8-year old daughter and curled her fat frame in my little girl's lap.
When we got home the kids were thrilled, of course, but Angel was less enthusiastic. We took her for a long walk on the leash and she obligingly posed for pictures with us, which we immediately posted on Facebook.
But when we arrived back at the house it didn't take long for us to see how disoriented and displeased she was. We sat down in our living room while she explored our house a little. Finally, she walked up to the ottoman where I was sitting and stuck her nose in mine and began to angrily bark and growl in my face. This went on for hours.
Not knowing what to do, I called her most recent owner. He was both sympathetic and amused. After swearing she was gentle as a lamb with his family, he listened to Angel snarling in the background and offered up some humor: "Maybe she's anti-Semitic?" he said.
With help like that, and after a week of non-stop barking, I considered giving her away. The kids, who already loved her despite the racket, were beside themselves. So I determined to make the marriage last and made the ultimate male sacrifice: I got us relationship counseling.
At a friend's suggestion I called the cream of dog trainers, Joy Freedman, who taught me how to go Alpha on Angel and in about an hour our problems were permanently solved.
What we were left with was an incredibly loving member of the family (if anything, a little too loving). At night, she demanded to get into bed with me. At first I resisted her overtures, even buying her an expensive dog bed of her own. But within a week she was spooning me all night long and complaining about the length of my toenails.
Her relationship with the children was less complicated. She was unerringly maternal, greeting them lavishly when they returned to the home, bathing them in sloppy kisses, and obligingly providing them a warm and breathing pillow to lay their heads on while they watched television or played cards. When they fell or cried or fought, she was always there to kiss and wag them back to good humor. She would walk them to school and then refuse to leave until she saw them disappear safely into the building doors.
Even Angel wasn't perfect, of course.
For one thing, she displayed an abusive bigotry for squirrels and sparrows. On the other hand, she had a Will Rogers approach to people. We were certain that if any murderers arrived on the scene she would unlock the front door, welcome them in, and point out the cutlery.
She probably came by her affinity for criminals honestly since she was a little bit of a crook herself, although most of her crimes were mere misdemeanors. She would grab a shoe and run around the house with it. Or she would stick her whole head in the sink (ours is always filled with dirty dishes) until she emerged with a spoon, knife or a ladle -- which to her was the Holy Grail.
She also committed a felony or two. She would make daring raids on the pantry, even going to her hinds so she could shoplift off the coveted top shelf. In this way she gorged herself on whole boxes of Oreos and Chips Ahoy!
She eventually made the commitment to eat healthy and downed an entire box of uncooked Cream of Wheat. Trust me when I tell you that you don't even want to know how I discovered the evidence of that one.
It has not always been a smooth road with Angel (the kids say, 'Sometimes she's Angel, and sometimes she's devil'), she's cost us huge vet bills and eats fancy food and messes up the house and adds to the air pollution already ably provided by yours truly.
But none of that equals what she has brought to the family. I suspect that she is conjuring a magical childhood for the kids, filled with affection and humor, petting and kissing. We're learning responsibility, not as a chore, but with every walk and feeding as an act of devotion for someone who means the world to you.
Someday , many decades from now, those lessons will hopefully lead to two hard workers who are attentive spouses and vigilant parents. And the good memories will flood and flicker in their minds, crowding out all the disappointments and difficulties, so that all that's left are images of a loving dad, a happy little house, and the magic dog who glued it all together.