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The Family Heirloom

By Lori Mohr

The Family Heirloom

What is it about the Pug that compels owners to dress them in costume? My Lucy spends much of her time around working dogs in the Search Dog Foundation office on the days I volunteer. In such serious company, there is no way I would ever bring her in some silly outfit. A visor with the foundation logo hardly qualifies as haute couture. Yes, a visor.

An annual silent auction is our biggest fundraising event. As a seasoned volunteer at our kids' schools, I was Co-chair of the committee. Another volunteer and I split the responsibility—she would catalogue each item, I would present it in the best way on the table. A major perk was that I got to preview the entries in detail, which meant I had first crack once the bidding began.

The morning of the auction I finished setting up the jewelry table with a mental note to keep track of a lovely silver bracelet. Next was the art table. The first item on my list was a framed flyer for a Pet Portrait from a local artist. The flyer had an image of the artist with her dog, a beefy German shepherd. Allison Leete included a separate framed image of her work as an example. It was a Great Dane. Some owner with a sense of humor had had the artist paint the regal dog wearing a robe and barrister’s wig.

My Lucy was captivating enough with her wrinkled face and lush fat rolls on her neck characteristic of the breed. She would need no such garb. But a real portrait— that proved irresistible. The silver bracelet could wait until next year. The minute the auction started, I penciled in an opening bid. For the Pet Portrait.

There were seven competitors, but I was determined to have Lucy's image committed to canvas, the birth of a family heirloom. Thirty seconds before the clock stopped, I put down the final bid. A surge of adrenaline shot through me. Winning an item on eBay gave me the same feeling, but there would always be more vintage postcards for my collages. There would only be one portrait of Lucy.

It took a couple of days to wrap up the auction business, tally the earnings for the foundation. Dog training is expensive. This one event brought in more than enough to get two dogs through the six-month urban search course at $7,000 each. Larry would agree my buying the portrait of Lucy supported a noble cause.

Allison volunteered for the Land Conservancy, whose office was across the hall from the Search Dog Foundation. We agreed to meet for the photo op. She popped her head into the office the following Tuesday. Lucy was groggy after I woke her from her afternoon nap. Clearly Allison was not a pug person. Working dogs may jump at the chance for a walk or a romp on the grass. Pugs not so much. The breed book described the Pug as a wonderful companion with minimal exercise needs. Lucy lived up to the description, the perfect dog for a writer.

Allison, Lucy and I headed for the enclosed courtyard. The artist had never painted a Pug. She was smitten by the wonderful detail in the round black face, all the wrinkles. Allison clicked away. Lucy was surprisingly cooperative, no doubt aware that the sooner the photo op ended the sooner she could resume her nap.
Lucy and I thought Allison was finished when she stopped shooting from every angle. But no. She asked me to hold Lucy, pet her, talk to her.
"Maybe if I knew what you were after I could help," I said.
“I’m waiting for her to smile."
“She is smiling. This is her smile." Lucy wriggled in my arms, unaware that I too was eager for the modeling session to end.
“No way! She looks like someone who just got a letter from the IRS about being audited."
“Yeah, that’s the Pug look." I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice, increasingly distraught that the artist had no clue about the Inner Pug.
She relented and put away her camera gear. "So, what I do for the portrait is take a famous character from history and paint the dog as that character."
The Great Dane in the barrister wig came to mind. I winced. "But not always, right? I mean, Lucy is pretty adorable. Maybe she would be best au natural." I had seen images online of dogs as human characters. A Search Dog mascot could not indulge in such falderal.
Allison giggled. "Don't worry. You'll like it."
Larry was not sympathetic.
"Ah, c'mon, it'll be a fun experiment," he said as he offered Lucy the empty Ben and Jerry's ice cream container to lick clean. "Aren't you dying to know who Allison will choose from all that history? If she did celebrities she could do Lucy as Betty Davis— Baby Jane era—wouldn't that be a hoot?"
"No. I want a real portrait. How could she assume I'd want a character?"
"Maybe it was in the fine print."

Leave it to Larry to point out the offending oversight. But I didn’t recall much info on the flyer. The Great Dane in the wig and robe must've been the fine print. Sometimes I'm slow.

Clearly Larry had less invested in a serious portrayal, a painting that would be passed down to our daughter or son. How could a dog in costume be taken seriously? Think of all those portraits of hunting dogs in the U.K., the one at Balmoral Castle in Scotland for one. Can you see Queen Elizabeth commissioning a portrait of her Shetland Sheepdog as a quasi-dignified buffoon?

There was nothing to do but wait and see what Allison came up with for my Lucy. Amelia Earhart in flight gear? Jane Goodall with a chimp? Come to think of it, a strong woman who has made an invaluable contribution to civilization would be an okay character.

The following week I got an email from Allison. The portrait was finished. She would bring it to me on her way to the Land Conservancy office the next day.

We were taking a coffee break when Alison walked in with the painting. Two staffers along with me and another volunteer looked out from the kitchenette. Alison stood in the doorway and smiled, building anticipation for the big reveal. She joined us in the coffee room. All we could see was the back of the portrait.

After a mental drumroll in the form of a long pause to make sure she had everyone's attention, Allison turned the painting around. My mouth dropped. Giggles with ooohs and ahhhhs followed from everyone as I stood mute.
"I knew Queen Elizabeth 1 of France would be perfect," Allison said, seemingly pleased she had made the right choice.
I stared at the portrait. There was Lucy alright, dressed in a black velvet gown embroidered with colorful thread, decorated with diamonds, rubies, sapphires. A scalloped-edged collar made of lace wrapped around her neck, along with a strand of pearls that peeked out between rolls of fat. The same starched lace made cuffs for her front paws.
"The Queen's favorite colors were black and white to symbolize virginity and purity. Black is perfect for Lucy's mask and fawn coat."
"Uh huh."
"Well? Whadaya think?"
Lucy stared back at me with her quintessential gaze—dark intelligent eyes, tongue sticking out to the side. The portrait was the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen! At the same time, Allison had indeed captured Lucy, the comical and the dignified. The contradictory traits reflected the sum and substance of the Pug spirit. She made us laugh every day. No wonder the Pug was a royal favorite, the Canine Court Jester.

In that moment, I understood the significance of a breed groomed for companionship for more than three thousand years. I took my place in the long line of owners through millennia who adored their little Pugs and indulged in such winsome fun. Like those owners, I was in awe of the dog's ability to bring joy to the moment. I burst into giggles with everyone else.

That night Larry took one look at the portrait and grinned. Without a word he walked to the piano and took down the portrait of our kids as teenagers. Lucy would have the prime spot, at least for awhile.

My mother-in-law arrived for dinner. I couldn't wait to see her reaction. She stepped into the living room and stopped.
"Is this the portrait you won at the auction?"
“It is. What do you think."
She studied it for a moment. "What I want to know is how the artist got Lucy to sit for so long."