My daughter’s first word was “dog,” but she pronounced it “go.” It made sense that she said “dog” before “mama” or “dada” since at the time she was often on the floor with our medium-size black dog. They ran around together, so to speak.
But a real live “go” was not enough. The Christmas she was 2, we went to PetSmart because my son, then 5, wanted pet fish. While my husband oversaw the fishing expedition, I pushed my daughter in her stroller, up and down the aisles, when all of a sudden she found something she wanted — a big black stuffed dog.
“Go!” she said and pointed at a Doberman pinscher, twice as big as she was. I handed it to her, and she hugged it tight. The dog was missing one glass eye. I mentioned this defect to her and asked if she wanted a different big black dog, one with two eyes.
She held the stuffed dog tighter and repeated, “Go!”
We named the dog Corduroy, after the bear in the children’s book who had a button missing. If anyone had told me my daughter’s favorite stuffed animal would be a half-blind Doberman, I would’ve asked, “What kind of parent buys a child that?” Through the years my daughter has owned enough stuffed animals to open her own shop. Most of those have been recycled to other kids, but Corduroy remains.
I got to thinking about girls and big dogs when I heard that Norman Bridwell, creator of Clifford the Big Red Dog, died in December. Clifford came into our lives about a year after Corduroy. When my daughter got ear tubes, dear neighbors gave her a collection of eight Clifford books called “Clifford Celebrates the Year.” My daughter adored the simple stories and illustrations. We read them over and over, her falling in love with Clifford, me falling in love with Clifford’s owner, Emily Elizabeth. Super girl.
She’s organized. She’s thoughtful. She’s optimistic. She can manage a 25-foot-tall pet better than any adult. When well-meaning Clifford makes mistakes, as he usually does, Emily Elizabeth simply responds with something like, “Oh dear.” She’s always patient with her dog, always forgiving. They hug a lot.
Emily Elizabeth was named after Bridwell’s own daughter. Bridwell said Clifford, conceived as the runt of the litter, grew so big because Emily Elizabeth loved him. In a September 22, 2012, interview with NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” Bridwell explained the dog’s growth this way: “Love came in there and did the trick.”
Three years after tubes surgery, my daughter had eardrum replacement surgery, and the same dear neighbors gave her a collection of Junie B. Jones books. We now own all but two books in that series. Later came Julie, one of the American Girl dolls, along with her book series.
Now it’s not me buying books for my daughter or our neighbors. Now she is introducing stories to me — Tris of the “Divergent” series and Hazel Grace of “The Fault in our Stars.” (She doesn’t like Katniss of “The Hunger Games” books.) Her heroines are getting more complicated, like Alaska Young of “Looking for Alaska.” I was never more proud than when my daughter told me one recent Sunday afternoon that she was rereading a book with a highlighter to underline the foreshadowing.
Next month she will turn sweet 16. Which of these strong females will she be like? Will she be dauntless? Will she diverge from the norm? Will she prefer reading poetry to writing it? Will she travel straight and fast out of the labyrinth? As she becomes a woman, will she retain traces of Junie B., the sassy girl who makes people laugh? Will she be like Emily Elizabeth, a friend for all seasons?
These days I feel more like Clifford, the well-meaning one making all the mistakes. My heart is in the right place as a parent, but my big ol’ paws aren’t.
Bridwell’s work will live on; two new Clifford books are being released this year. After receiving the sad news about his death, I reread one of our favorite Clifford puppy books, “Clifford’s First Snow Day.” The last page shows a full-size Clifford on his back, holding up a happy Emily Elizabeth, who says, “Snow days are even more fun now that Clifford has grown up. What a wonderful dog.”
Yes, puppies grow up. Our original, wonderful “go,” the one my daughter crawled around with on the floor, has gone to that great digging ground in the sky. Our current wonder dogs — mutts — didn’t grow as big as we thought they would. That little girl who loved a big red dog and a big stuffed black one is not grown up, although she is almost done growing. She is already 6 inches taller than I am.