My sister Suzanne dreamed of having a collie puppy. She all but devoured every book Albert Payson Terhune wrote about hero and heroine collies. It was 1954 and she was nine years old. In her enthusiasm for collies she even said she planned to have 1,000 of them when she grew up. Mamma, hearing her announcement, smiled as she mixed the Christmas fruitcake. “Maybe not quite that many,” she responded.
As for me, I studied the cameras in the Sears catalog knowing they were all too expensive, almost as unattainable as Charlie’s longed-for jeep. Still, as Mamma said, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”
Weeks before Christmas Charlie began teasing Suzanne. He said he knew something she might get for Christmas. He came up with new clues every day. This thing, he said, would be a little different every day. “It” would be covered with little pointy spikes. “It” wasn’t a ball but it could possibly knock a person over. I tried to help Suzanne figure out what this thing was but we both became more and more perplexed.
It would be a strange Christmas with only four of us kids still at home at Stone Gables and even Stan wasn’t there much since he had a job. Jackie had married and lived in Maryland and all the rest except John lived too far away to come home. John and his family lived in Clayton but all three of his children were sick so only he could come to our family Christmas Eve celebration. John was “too old” to wait in the kitchen for the lighting of the Christmas tree. In fact, only three of us waited for the blast of Daddy’s horn calling us to come see the tree. Where was Charlie, we wondered. No one seemed to know.
We rounded the turn at the arch, Suzanne as youngest, in front. Our eyes would usually be focused only on the beautiful tall cedar tree with real candles aglow. But that year what we saw was Daddy striding towards us with a soft golden bundle in his arms. I think we all lost our breath when he laid that collie puppy in Suzanne’s eager arms. And there was Charlie behind Daddy grinning with an “I told you so” look. Stan reached out to pet the puppy who licked his hand as if he were an old friend. Seems Charlie had kept Lassie, as Suzanne named her, in Daddy’s study during supper. And Stan had been the one Daddy assigned to purchase the dog and bring her to her new home. It was an amazing surprise, impossible to pull off without several conspirators.
The coming of Lassie was enough Christmas for all of us. But we each had a special gift. I don’t remember what the boys’ gifts were but mine, wrapped in a chunky square package, was a camera with two 12-exposure rolls of black and white film. I felt like a true reporter and wasted no time in trying to record the happiness of that Christmas. My favorite photo, even better than those of the snow that fell the next day, was that of Suzanne lying in front of a crackling fire, one arm over Lassie, reading her Christmas book, Lassie Come-Home.
Suzanne and Lassie were inseparable. The dog grew quickly and was an intelligent, smart one. Suzanne’s job at that time was to milk the cow. Soon she learned that Lassie would help her bring the cow gently to the stable for milking. Then Lassie began fetching the cow by herself from wherever she’d wandered. The dog was almost human, knowing when to play and when to lie quietly, when to frisk and run, when to show off her many tricks, and when to be a shadow at Suzanne’s side. Mamma allowed Lassie anywhere except in the bed. Getting nowhere with her pleas to have Lassie in the bed, Suzanne made herself a cozy pallet and the two slept together on the floor. Suzanne remembers that the only time she and Lassie were apart was when the family went to church.
At the age of six months Lassie became suddenly sick and died. Our whole family mourned but Suzanne was inconsolable. Even now, in her seventies, Suzanne says Lassie has always been a part of her life. Now she and her husband have a border collie who reminds her poignantly of dear Lassie. I asked her if she had that picture I made of her and Lassie in front of the fire. She couldn’t find it and neither can I.
But both of us have that picture in our minds. The sweetness of that special Christmas lingers today–the anticipation, the overwhelming surprises, the scents of cedar, oranges, and the taste of Mamma’s Japanese fruitcake full of nuts and raisins. We need no picture to remind us of all of that or of Lassie’s knowing bark, her beautiful full collie fur, her faithfulness and her cheer.