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Holidays stir memories of four-legged friends

'Tis the season when parents can expect to hear the following refrain: "I'll take care of him. I promise." My children uttered those words many times, accompanied by hopeful expressions.

I realize I am not the only mother who has faced this life-changing decision -- whether to acquire a pet. Somehow, fathers seem to be elsewhere after saying: "Ask your mother."

So what's a mother to do? She brings up the responsibilities necessary to care for a pet. It is time-consuming; it infringes on play time with friends; homework can never take second place; chores cannot be slacked off; and so on.

I eventually gave in knowing that for a week, perhaps two, my daughter or son would be diligent and keep that promise, but then it was all downhill. Spring thaws come to mind. After carefully tiptoeing through the land mines deposited on the back lawn and scooping them up, cleaning cages and tanks was a piece of cake.

Through the years, we've had creatures of the fur, feather and fin varieties. Then came the time when God spoke to us. We had been "dogless" for two years. Our oldest daughter's pleas were answered with a firm "no" until the Sunday when a "sign" appeared.

The ushers fluttered about the church searching for something. That "something" trotted into our pew and plunked himself down in front of our daughter. My husband and I looked at each other and mouthed, "a sign." Although this dog was escorted out, we adopted the one who holds a special place in our hearts -- Pepper, a mix with black-and-white markings.

Now at family holiday gatherings, I often hear, "Remember when Pepper . . ." Then his escapades are recounted, especially the camping stories. Pepper, an escape artist, was in dog utopia. He loved the trees and the walks. Picture a cool October night, family and dog asleep in a tent. I had forgotten to pack my warm pajamas, so I was wearing my hubby's flannel shirt and long underwear.

Further, picture me waking up, seeing the shadow of an animal walking around the outside of our tent, and no Pepper in the tent. Somehow he had nosed up the zipper. Ever vigilant -- and stupid -- I ran outside with a flashlight, my oldest daughter close behind.

We followed the sound of jangling tags and overturned metal trash cans until unearthly screams jolted us to a dead stop. Barefoot, we ran toward the yells of "help!" and came upon Pepper, his front paws planted on a man's chest and grinning -- the dog, not the man.

"I thought it was a bear," he said simply. Fortunately, thisnature-loving, outdoor-sleeping person forgave us.

Two weeks later, at another campground, my husband's brother was to watch over Pepper while we attended Sunday Mass. On the way back into camp, our children began screaming, "stop!" Glancing at the building housing the bathrooms I, too, screamed, "stop!"

There was Pepper, calmly sitting and grinning while two elderly ladies cowered in the doorway and a State Trooper pointed a gun at Pepper's head. After many apologies, Pepper was spared.

Despite his numerous adventures, this four-legged creature brought moments of frustration, laughter and much love. Remember this if you are considering a "live" Christmas gift. Then someday, at Christmas time, you will recall, as I do, a wiggling furry ball scampering through the holiday wrappings. And you will remember taking care of him.

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