When my mom moved to Memphis in the late forties—leaving forever the small town of McKenzie, Tenn.— she lived in a duplex on Felix Avenue. She walked daily to Cooper Avenue, where she caught a streetcar that took her downtown to the telephone company where she worked as a switchboard operator.
In those days, families often kept chickens in their backyard and nobody complained. Mom says she remembers a family down the street that raised chickens, sold eggs and even slaughtered them for Sunday dinner. There was one chicken, however, that was somebody’s pet.
“This was an unusual animal,” she recalled. “She knew her name and could do some tricks. The neighborhood kids used to come over to play with her.”
These stories impressed me as a child because I thought the pet chicken she described had attributes other chickens did not. Years later I understood we humans tend to look at animals in terms of groups instead of individuals. Ducks, chickens, pigs, squirrels — to many a single representative from these groups characterizes the entire population. And often behaviors are assigned to certain animals that don’t apply to the whole group.
For example, cats are often characterized as non-social, solitary creatures who disdain the company of humans. While some fit this description, others crave the attention and affection of the humans who care for them. Chickens are considered by many people as brainless birds incapable of thought, feelings, or emotions. Numerous studies indicate this is untrue. Some researchers argue they have humor, can make reasonable choices, and are much smarter than we think. Pigs, as growing evidence shows, are intelligent and fastidious. In Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s book, “The Pig Who Sang to the Moon,” he notes pigs share qualities we normally assign to dogs. Loyalty, affection, the ability to forgive and to grieve.
Mom also remembered a thriving farmers market in her days on Felix Avenue. Located in the heart of Cooper-Young, it was a place one could buy an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables, home-made jams and jellies, as well as live birds, goats, piglets and puppies. Mom recalled that one day her next door neighbor brought home a lively Jack Russell puppy from the farmers market.
“I never saw such a change in someone’s personality as I did after she got her little dog,” said Mom. “She’d been a widow for years. She didn’t socialize much, but was genteel and soft-spoken. She played classical music on her piano.”
According to Mom, the neighbor took to walking her dog several times daily through rain, shine or 90 degree weather, dressed as if she were going on a job interview. “She’d wear high heels walking that dog, and probably wore white gloves.” The dog and the well-dressed woman strode down Felix, up Walker and over to Young Avenue. Formerly reserved, she now smiled and spoke to everyone on her path.
One day Mom noticed the lady, whose age she guessed to be around 50, in the company of a tall good-looking man and his dachshund. His shiny black Packard pulled up in front of her house and she saw him open the passenger door. Out slid the neighbor with her little dog, and minutes later she was on the front porch serving lemonade to her new friend while their dogs played amiably on the front lawn.
A year later the widow married the man with the dog and they all lived together in the house next door. Mom said she frequently heard the sounds of classical music and the barking of new puppies born to the little terrier. Back in those days it was rare for pets to be spayed or neutered. “They were good pet parents, though,” Mom said. “We saw them talking and playing with their dogs.” It was speculated the widow met this gentleman while walking her dog around the Cooper-Young area.
Another thing changed after the neighbor wed. Never again did she walk dogs dressed up in her Sunday best, and her walking range shrank down to just a few nearby streets.
“Thinking back on it,” said Mom, “I believe she knew exactly what she was doing. She wanted to meet a man. Someone kind, who loved dogs, and who could be happy living in her little house. She threw out the bait, and hooked in a great catch.”
It must have been animal attraction.
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