Why I Cling to Paper Recipes

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

My folder of ancient recipes, most of them never made.

Nearly any recipe you can cook can be found online. Epicurious, Allrecipes, the Food Network, the New York Times food section…all offer instant gratification and full-color photos and videos for the impatient or impetuous cook. Even obscure recipes from my childhood – such as a recipe for German apple cake made with bread crumbs — can be retrieved with a few well-chosen keywords.

Yet I cling to a long row of recipe books, at least half of them never used. I also have a 30-year-old accordion file filled with yellowing, aging scraps of paper, scribbled with cooking instructions for dishes I’ve never made from people I haven’t seen or heard from in decades. The alphabetized file (do they even sell them any more?) is covered with remnants of wallpaper from the kitchen of my first townhouse, back when ridiculous geese, gray/blue florals and “welcome friends” signs were all the rage.

With few exceptions the books are pristine. Some were gifts from friends. I made appreciative murmurs when they were bestowed and looked through them with good intentions, promising, “I’ll definitely use this a LOT!” Then I put them on the kitchen bookshelf and forgot about them. Their unblemished and uncracked spines stare back at me from the shelf, like the “40-year-old virgin’s” collection of never-played-with action figures. They make me worry that I’m too inhibited a chef. They make me feel lazy because for the past decade I’ve shunned any recipe that ends with the words “serve immediately.” But I keep the books because my friends gave them to me and I feel ungrateful parting with them.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

My library of cookbooks, some of them still virgins.

Other cookbooks on the shelf have been used time and time again, but only for a handful of recipes. With apologies to Julie of “Julie and Julia,” I find the challenge of trying every recipe pointless and daunting. Unlike a more organized friend who cooks, I’ve resisted the urge to keep the most-frequently-used recipes in one binder, with each recipe entombed behind protective plastic. That would mean the rest of the cherry-picked books would indeed be useless, strengthening the case for getting rid of them.

“Joy of Cooking” (the 19th printing, from 1980) is a good reference for technique, but it’s like visiting a time capsule from the first half of the 20th century, with recipes like chicken a la king. “Cooking Essentials for the New Professional Chef,” a book son Ryan gave me from a class he took in college, will tell you all you need to know about mis en place, boning a rabbit, or making eight professional-quality apple pies at a time.   The thick tome by Jacques Pepin, heavy enough to flatten a chicken, was from a class at Sur La Table entitled “Cooking with Jacques Pepin,” which I took with son Jesse. I’ve used exactly two recipes from that book, but looking at it reminds me of how we laughed at the fine print that accompanied the promo for that class: “Jacques Pepin will not be in attendance.”

If cookbooks are the kitchen’s reference library, my old recipe folder is the rare documents room in the museum of my personal history. Inside it can be found recipes in my dad’s handwriting or from his old Okidata dot-matrix printer, on perforated paper that once included holes along the edges. While he’s been gone for 17 years, seeing those old recipes in his handwriting brings him back to me. I can almost smell the steam from the pizzelli iron, as I talked with Dad and timed each pizzelli with a Hail Mary.

Other filed recipes recall old coworkers from 30 years ago, including the recipes on large post cards that were part of a bridal shower they gave me for my first marriage. One, for chicken and rice casserole, has been used many dozens of times, and when I see the handwriting of the woman who gave it to me – a fragile, lonely person who had affairs with two married men at the office – I hope that she has become stronger over time. Filed under “C,” the ripped-out pages from a 1989 Good Housekeeping Christmas issue hold my most treasured cookie recipe. That recipe only takes up one page but for some reason I’ve saved the entire article, including the recipe for “Barbara Bush’s Ginger Cookies.” I was a young mother of 35 back then, busier but still driven to make lots of Christmas cookies – unlike today.

So for me recipes on paper are not only instructions, but tangible relics of the past – the friends I’ve lost touch with, my aunts’ cheerful kitchens, the occasions when the recipes were first tasted, the girl or woman I was back then. The most beloved ones are also the most stained and careworn, like a soft old sweatshirt with frayed sleeves. Epicurious will always have its place, but an iPad screen is no substitute for a book that can be perused on a rainy day, opened up on a countertop or stained by an errant splash of gravy; or a handwritten recipe that still bears the DNA of a loved one who is long gone.

Written Out of the Script

Most parents who’ve been tireless school volunteers eventually confront an uncomfortable truth when their child starts high school: their services are no longer required. This is as it should be, since by that time kids are ready to take on more responsibility. Still it’s hard not to feel a little bereft.

This past weekend John was onstage for the first musical production of his high school career,“Bye Bye Birdie,” and for the first time in two years I was not working backstage. Throughout his middle school years I served as a “costume mom,” helping to sew and fit outfits for dozens of preteen actors, then hanging around during dress rehearsals and performances to zip, mend, primp and supervise. We costume moms have dressed workhouse orphans, Scottish thanes, seven brides and seven brothers, various human fauna and flora, and hundreds of other characters. I spent many hours in our spare room, sewing machine and iTunes playlist at the ready, stitching dozens of costumes and hundreds of yards of fabric. We altered prairie dresses from a size 16 to a size 2, and vice versa. We worked with costumes that had been used in so many productions that they were nearly disintegrating, working magic with fusible fabric and thread, like fairy godmothers in sweats.

But by high school the drama troupe is much smaller, tighter and more experienced onstage than the middle schoolers. Their hormones are calming down; they know how to get dressed all by themselves; and they no longer need parents to tell them to behave and keep their hands to themselves. Unlike with middle schoolers, managing them is no longer like herding cats. In fact, they don’t need to be managed at all. As in so many other realms, high schoolers no longer want or need their moms hovering backstage or anywhere else.

And if I think about it, that’s a key reason why I volunteered, along with the official reason of wanting to help out. It was my excuse to hover, to keep an eye on my youngest child — who has always been like an only child because his five siblings are much older – and make sure that he would be okay. While he dabbled in soccer and Scouting, John was always happiest playing with a buddy or two in our family room. We always had to import friends because our neighborhood was so isolated; he had no neighborhood kids to teach him how to roll with the punches and hold his own in a pack. Drama was his first opportunity to work collaboratively and create something with dozens of other kids his age.

In the beginning, I worried about my new thespian. Middle school children have different levels of maturity and precocity, and backstage we saw everything: a seventh grader who couldn’t keep his hands off his “girlfriend,” an eighth grader who stripped down to her pink Victoria’s Secret underwear in front of the boys, pre-teens who already elevated flirting to a fine art. Just a few feet away from them were pre-pubescent kids still hanging on to their soprano voices and Pokemon cards. John seemed to be part of neither world at times; he was happy to retreat silently into a book when he was not onstage. He didn’t flirt, banter or swagger.

Over the past few years we’ve watched our quiet and introspective boy blossom a lot more, both onstage and with his peers. He does not have the swashbuckling presence of a leading man but thrives best in a “character actor” part. He played a Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, a Shark in West Side Story, an old man in Walden, a British policeman in Oliver, the evil henchman Seyton in MacBeth, the preacher in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and a reporter and dad in Bye Bye Birdie. We documented every performance in video; with each production his voice has grown deeper and his presence onstage more imposing. He’s learned to regroup when things don’t go according to the script, and even improvised a brilliant and funny monologue on the spot during comedy night, something I thought only Robin Williams could do. And through drama he has developed friendships with some terrific kids who appreciate his kindness and quirky sense of humor. He is still quiet and introspective, but he is more engaged with others.

So it’s time for mom to exit stage left, knowing that John Barrymore can take it from here. Our role now is to ferry him to and from rehearsals and performances, not to hover and fret backstage. What goes on behind the curtain is now a mystery, but not a scary one.

Would JFK be JFK today?

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination, a part of history so devastating that everybody who was alive then remembers where they were.

I was in Catholic school art class, where we were making Thanksgiving turkeys from construction paper, when the principal, Sister Pascal came on the PA system to tell us the President had been shot. We stopped what we were doing and knelt on the floor to say prayers, only to learn minutes later that they had been futile. I remember stepping off the school bus that afternoon and finding my mother and several neighbors heartbroken and sobbing. Later, our family would cluster around our one black and white television to watch the unrelenting news coverage and funeral events. My siblings and I, despite secretly missing Popeye and the Flintstones, were aware on some level that our nation had changed forever.

In the ensuing decades, as one politician after another failed to measure up to Jack and Bobby and Watergate made the press less deferential to elected officials, many would mourn for the Kennedy era when we were more hopeful and innocent and our country seemed so full of promise. But how long would the high have lasted if JFK or Bobby had lived? Over time, new information would become public about JFK’s affairs with mafia moll Judith Exener, Marilyn Monroe, intern Mimi Alford and many others….affairs that were known about but never publicized out of deference to the commander-in-chief. One commentator referred to the press of that era as a “Victorian gentleman” who looked the other way when public figures engaged in extramarital flings.

Maybe the trajectory of history would have been different if the Kennedys had continued to unite the country behind a young, idealistic and charismatic leader. Or if Chappaquiddick had not happened, enabling Teddy Kennedy to represent an ideal instead of a flawed mortal. Would Nixon have been elected and would Watergate have happened if a Kennedy had stayed in the Oval Office? Would the press have continued to look the other way when personal indiscretions happened?

Some things we can guess would not have changed. The sexual revolution would still have happened, making us more willing to talk about sex and less prudish, if not less prurient. Magazines like People and Us would still have turned the personal lives of the rich and famous into a hot commodity. The Internet, YouTube and smart phones with built-in cameras would still have been invented, giving anyone the capability to blow up someone else’s reputation within seconds.

Like nuclear weapons, these tools are capable of great devastation, but only if someone is willing to push the button. How willing would we have been to do that if the Kennedys had kept us more hopeful and less cynical? Would Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky have mattered? Today would John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and Anthony Weiner be admired for their ideals rather than scorned for their peccadillos?

Weighing the JFK myth against the man we now know him to be, it’s worth asking: would someone like JFK be able to hold public office today? And is knowing the full truth about a public figure’s personal life a good or a bad thing?

John, Paul, George and Ringo in My Life

beatlesI can’t call the Beatles my all-time one-and-only favorite band. Not sure I am capable of musical monogamy, since I am so easily lured away by an irresistible hook, driving bass guitar, dangerous drumbeat or moody lyrics. I’ve been known to disappear with other bands for days, weeks or even months at a time. I dallied with the Stones and David Bowie in the early 70s; Cheap Trick, Dire Straits and the Cars in the late 70s; the Police and the Human League in the 80s; Radiohead and REM in the 90s; and the Shins and the Clientele more recently. I’ve had one-night stands with the likes of Chumbawumba, Men Without Hats, Fastball and Ok Go and haven’t regretted a thing.

My musical tastes are eclectic and will never be stuck in one era. But if my memories could be bound into a photo album, the Beatles would be the friends who showed up in every picture, looking different each time, sometimes a little dated, but somehow belonging there. In my life, no other band can awaken specific moments and the sights, smells and even tastes that accompanied those moments. So when WordPress asked its millions of bloggers to write about their favorite band or song, for their weekly writing challenge the choice was clear. While other bands have captured my passions and my listening hours, the Beatles have been my only long-term relationship – sometimes wildly exciting and other times unlistened-to and taken for granted, but always part of my soundtrack, long after they stopped making music.

So let’s take a look at some of my pictures through the prism of the Beatles’ catalog:

I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Picture the bus stop for my Catholic school, a Monday morning in February, 1964. My childhood friend Mike Graziola is thunderstruck by the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show the night before, when they sang this song and 73 million people listened. We can’t stop talking about it as we clutch our Jetson’s lunch kits and exhale vapor into the chilly morning air, shivering and eager for the bus to come but not for the conversation to end. Soon afterwards Mike would start dressing more like a Brit and learning guitar. At 59, he’s still playing.

Hello Goodbye – December, 1967. The song was at the top of the charts and my sister Julie and I have just unwrapped our Christmas gifts from Uncle Nicky: new transistor radios with fragrant leather covers. My dad rounds up a nine-volt battery and I plug it in and click and turn the volume button, then the tuning button, until the static disappears. This is the first song I hear. I hear it again under my pillow, where I’ve placed my radio on low volume before I drift off to sleep. The song always makes me think of the smell of leather.

Happiness is a Warm Gun – Senior year of high school, 1972. The cool and dangerous kids in our school, the ones with no curfew, are very much into the White Album. In the hallways I hear some classmates chanting: “When I hold you…in my arms…and I feel my finger on your trigger…”

Got to Get You Into My Life – Freshman year in 1973, a Theta Chi frat party with live music at Penn State. The band had brass along with guitars and they played this song and everybody danced drunkenly to it. This song makes me think of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on tap and its faint taste of parmesan cheese, and a floor that is sticky underfoot.

Twist and Shout – I’ve given up frat parties and joined the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State, where I meet my future husband Bob and friends that I have kept to this day. Our frequent parties usually climax in a drunken clotted mess of friends hanging onto one another and singing loudly to Beatles songs, including this one. Sometimes we girls would dance on tabletops, like disco dancers. Later, as party-goers begin to stagger home and the rest of us lay around in a stupor, we’d switch to more soulful songs like “Julia.”

She’s So Heavy – In 1995, newly separated and fragile, I drove from my home in Pennsylvania to New England to visit with Bob, who was my steadfast college friend but nothing more at the time. We visit with other college friends, go out to dinner and share many laughs. At his home we listen to Abbey Road and slow dance to this song, with its heavy and hypnotic guitar that goes on and on, then ends abruptly when you are not expecting it. I’m in his arms when that happens and not sure what to do, so I break away and feel like an awkward middle schooler.

That Means A Lot – The Beatles never released this song, originally intended for the Help! Album, but it showed up in Beatles Anthology, Volume One, which Bob presented to me soon after we became a couple. It was not the Beatles’ best effort, but it reminds me of a very sweet time when our love was fresh and new.

Mother Nature’s Son 1996, a reunion at Penn State of former Collegian staffers and their families. We are at the picnic pavilion in Stone Valley, a park owned by the school. Our old friend Jeff is playing his guitar and singing this song. My daughter Rachel and I sing along to the “do-do-do-do-do-do-dooooo” part during the chorus. It is a sublime moment.

Helter Skelter – 2011. Our son John is discovering rock music and his own voice, which is strong and clear and on pitch. He is singing along to this song in the car and I realize how good he is. Through his eyes I start to appreciate the Beatles all over again.

In My Life – Perhaps no other song sums up Bob and me so well. We danced to it at our wedding. “Though I know I’ll never lose affection, for people and things that went before, I know I’ll always stop and think about them, in my life, I love you more.” I guess that sums up how I feel about the Beatles as well.

The Monsters in My Closet

Ugly, ugly, ugly. Sweats from a store that's synonymous with tacky. Why can't I throw them away?

Sweats from a store that’s synonymous with tacky. Why can’t I throw them away?

November 1 and the wind is howling outside. It’s warm today but if you believe the weather forecast the wind is ushering in some cold temperatures. A perfect time to edit my winter wardrobe with a clear head…because once the cold weather arrives I will put on anything warm without thinking about how it looks.

Dressing for winter is always a bit of a problem. I’m extremely sensitive to cold (especially damp cold, very common here in New England) and need warm and comfortable layers, preferably in natural fibers, to keep me from shivering. I also don’t work outside the home so have no gun to my head to make me look polished every day. A typical day consists of some writing, answering emails and Facebook-trawling at my home computer, keeping up with two dogs, cooking for the guys, doing some chores, taking a walk, running some errands and maybe meeting up with a friend for lunch. Except for the last two occasions, comfort usually wins out over pride.

I have a closet full of nice clothes that I have picked up at boutiques and shops here and in California, where my in-laws live and the clothes have a bit more panache than they do here in New England. They are filmy tops made from manmade fibers (which look terrific but are never warm), snug-fitting jeans that pinch if I sit too long in them or had carbs at breakfast, dressy sweaters (perfect for an afternoon at an art gallery or in a chic part of the city but not for making homemade sauce with meatballs.) I buy them with the best intentions, and look far better when I put them on – usually when the weather is comfortably warm or cool and the humidity is low. Yet on a raw, blustery day with nothing on the agenda I inevitably reach for the shleppiest thing in my closet – loose jeans, drawstring

UM...this isn't glamorous. But it sure is warm.

UM…this isn’t glamorous. But it sure is warm. (Sorry, UMass.)

sweats, once-proud cashmere sweaters that have holes and have gone through the wash, thick Wigwam socks designed for sub-zero camping trips, corduroy pants that cry out for a sweater emblazoned with country geese, shirts from the loungewear department at Target. Even defended from the cold by unglamorous layers of fleece, I still need to brew lots of hot tea to stoke a warming fire from within.

A few days ago we enjoyed a visit from some good friends from the Silicon Valley area, and we were talking about moms from nice neighborhoods who dress to the nines even when they are walking the dog or picking up the kids from school. My friend Renee talked about the mothers at an upscale grade school who dressed like they were on a runway to pick up their offspring. Picking up my own son from school, I am amazed at the number of pubescent girls who wear bare legs and short skirts with their Ugg boots. And I thank God for tinted auto glass.

I also marvel when Bob and I watch the news on TV and see the female weather forecaster dressed in a chic short-sleeved dress, perfect for a summer night out, when she’s predicting sub-freezing temperatures. Bob does not help when he remarks, “She should do the weather in the nude.”

A few years ago I interviewed a boutique owner who always looked fabulous, and she lamented that she wished more northern gals cared as much as the southerners do about how they dressed. Southern women, she pointed out, wear chic Juicy Couture track suits, good jewelry and nice makeup even when they are shopping for groceries. I’d like to introduce one of these Georgia peaches to a nice nor’easter. After that experience she will happily put on a pair of drawstring sweats from Old Navy.

There must be a happy compromise between being chic and being comfortable and warm. I’ve looked around our local mall for answers but can’t envision myself with the word “Pink!” stamped on my butt, or in anything that Kanye would wear with a thick gold chain. Nor do I see myself in anything that is sold next to the camping gear or that would look good with a folk art sweater.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

One of my go-to shirts: all cotton, brushed on the inside, warm on the coldest winter days with the right stuff underneath.

I do have a few tips that have served me well. One is that if you are only in the car, you need only worry about what you are wearing on the part of your body that can be seen through the window. I have some nice colorful scarves that can be easily draped over those tacky sweats and nobody will ever know. However, this can backfire, as one of my best friends found out. When her daughter got on the school bus without her lunch, my friend pulled a jacket over her short nightshirt, jumped in the car, and sped down the street to a spot where the bus would stop later. Only she didn’t count on a male neighbor recognizing her car and sauntering over for a chat.

Another tip is that the right close-fitting underwear is a fitting armor under those flimsier but more attractive clothes. Maybe that’s what those weather chicks wear; I must ask them some time.

While I have nowhere to go today except for Target, I think I nailed a good compromise: comfortable but close-fitting jeans (thanks to the Lycra gods), a lavender Lucky Jeans waffle-weave top, the pretty necklace that Bob gave me last Christmas. Tomorrow I may not be so lucky.

So in the spirit of true confession, this post includes items I wear when I care most about comfort, most of them very unfashionable. How about you? What do you wear when comfort is the top priority and nobody is looking?

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

A great scarf makes you look like you have great elan when you are sitting in your car, regardless of what else you are wearing.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.

Once a cashmere sweater develops a hole, you are free to make gravy in it.

Hurricane Rita Blows In

IMG_3102Don’t let the cuteness fool you. Our second dog, who arrived on Friday, is at eight weeks already an alpha female. The trainer arrives today, and not a moment too soon.

After a delightful 10 months with the very laid-back Gus, our first dog, we made the decision a few months ago to get another dog as a companion for him. Miniature dachshunds are very social creatures and a few people had advised us to get two dogs from the get-go. But as first-time dog owners, we did not want to tax ourselves.

Gus was an easy dog, docile and easily housebroken, loyal and affectionate…all hallmarks of the dachshund breed. In recent months, however, Gus has seemed lonely at times despite getting plenty of love, attention and furtively delivered morsels of people food. He began seeing us as his buddies constantly, often looking up at us with a tennis ball clutched in his jaws and whining sorrowfully. This was starting to happen late at night when Bob and I lay on the couch in our usual “Law and Order”-induced stupor. We felt we were ready for another dog at this point, and luckily the same breeder who gave us Gus had another litter on the way. They were the spawn of Gus’s older brother Kommodore Schutzhund, or “Schutz” for short. The puppies were born on May 5, Cinco de Mayo, and we claimed and named the only girl: Margarita.

From the moment she arrived, her astounding cuteness inspired awe and ahs, and she melted our hearts when she snuggled on our laps, which she loves to do.  However, Rita has another side:  the feisty and combative second child who refuses to play second fiddle. Unlike most females, she has no problem leaning in.

We had been warned that Gus, who has been treated like a prince since we brought him home, might have some trouble sharing his castle with another dog. Their breeder, Tiffany, advised us beforehand to let them share sleeping arrangements and food dishes and work out their conflicts themselves, an essential part of the bonding experience. She assured us that Gus and Rita (who is Gus’s niece) would share a special and playful relationship.

Yet the relationship has been more Punch and Judy than George and Gracie. It has been painful to watch the ritualistic one-upsdogship – which started soon after the initial butt-sniffing ritual, the canine world’s equivalent of a polite handshake. Since Rita arrived she has been hogging the food bowl, chomping down heartily while the more patient Gus waits his turn. If Gus tries to claim a spot at the bowl she nudges him out of the way. Despite being a quarter his size, she has remarkably sharp elbows when it comes to asserting first dibs on the doggie bed. Gus, unused to having to fight for anything, seems to not know what to do.

Rita has also been getting in Gus’s face and picking fights with him. She bares her teeth, assaults Gus’s side with both paws, climbs onto him when he is lying on his back. Her teeth have come dangerously close to Gus’s private parts a few times. Gus, who shows remarkable restraint, tries to turn the tables with a swipe of his stronger paw. Sometimes he just lays on top of Rita, a tired “can’t we get this over with?” look on his face, as she barks like an angered chipmunk.

This is like watching a middle child gleefully taunt the oldest; or a midget wrester trying to take down a Sumo; or the killer bunny attacking the knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Yesterday, while our son John was watching the dogs as I ran errands, he called me to tell me he had to put each of them “in solitary” in their crates. He was concerned enough to take action and keep them separated. But advised to do nothing, I merely watch with the morbid fascination reserved for car wrecks along the highway.

Along the perimeter of our back yard is a fence and a three-foot-wide gravel path, where Gus has always enjoyed walking with us. Gus is visibly peeved when Rita accompanies us now. He runs ahead of her, then turns his long dachshund body perpendicular to the path, as if to block her. He body-slams her to the edge of the path before running ahead again. Then the process repeats.

I thought raising more than one dog would be more laid-back than childrearing, which often requires parents to mediate scuffles between their offspring. I was ready to be the coolheaded dog owner who rolled with their punches. Still, it’s hard to see my adorable new pup go right for Gus’s balls in the attack. I asked Tiffany if this was something to be concerned about.

Her answer: “Not at all…Ladies know where it hurts a man.”

An Angel in Pet Heaven

John and Angel, 2006

John and Angel, 2006

After nearly seven years as our pet, our guinea pig Angel died two days ago.

We knew this day was coming. Angel was at the upper end of the actuarial tables for guinea pigs; we know of many fellow guinea pig owners who had far less time with them. Guinea pigs are in the same temporary-pet class as rats and hamsters, Eastertime baby chicks, most bunnies, and goldfish. It’s no wonder that “small pet care” has such a tiny stretch of shelf space in the local Target.

Even if they live to an old age, Guinea pigs don’t insist on a bond with their humans like dogs and cats do. They don’t climb into your lap and rub up against your leg. They come out of their plastic igloos just long enough to grab a proffered carrot, then scramble back into it to eat in solitary peace. I’ve heard of several people who’ve trained their guinea pigs – including our friend Bernie, whose guinea pig Elwood had as much free range as an indoor cat — but Angel was more private.

Yet we bonded with this little rodent and she became part of our lives, even though we never expected her to share our lives for so long. She was an eighth birthday gift to our son John, now 14, who had fallen in love with his friend Greg’s guinea pig. We found her at the local Petco, where we had a choice of just two guinea pigs since most pet stores now steer people towards adopting small pets. One was a docile brown one who kept to herself in the corner of the shared cage. The other was a calico-patterned, spikey-haired furball who careened around the cage and squealed like a middle-school girl with a crush. Streaks of brown fur around her left eye looked like smudged mascara on Courtney Love.

We brought this punk rocker home, along with $75 worth of guinea pig accessories, and presented her to John the evening before his eighth birthday. What do you want to name her?, Bob and I asked. The answer was immediate: “Angel Happy Face.” A Sandra Dee-type name for a head-banging hunk of fur, but she became Angel.

We had visions of John becoming an ever-loving, responsible pet owner but in truth this did not happen right away. Angel was the focus of much attention at first but in time he had to be reminded to clean her cage, check her bowl and water and do other maintenance. Eventually, after a few years of nagging, it became automatic. Bob and I were equally guilty of less than hands-on treatment; we held her constantly when she was new to our home but less as time went on. Still, she demanded little and gave us so much back. When we held her she’d make a low, slightly rough purring sound as we stroked her fur. Her eyes never blinked, a constant source of amazement.

In the early years we would let Angel run around our screened-in back porch on warm summer days, and often all three of us had to chase her down to put her back into her cage. Our furry fugitive would run away from us, squealing and dodging the whole way, until we chased her into a corner and dropped a small towel on her, stunning her just long enough to bundle her into her cage. Eventually, we discovered to our great delight that we could train her to return to her cage. We would let her run around; then place the cage in the middle of the porch, open the hinged drawbridge-styled door until it touched the floor, create a path with slices of strawberry, then get out of the way and out of sight. Angel would eventually nibble her way back home; we’d shut the door as soon as she let herself in. Eventually the strawberries were not necessary. We’d put the cage in the middle of the porch after letting Angel play for an hour; and our pet would approach her home, mysteriously circle three times around it, then ascend the drawbridge and enter.

After Angel began chewing our wicker porch furniture we had to consider other options. One Father’s Day John, Bob and Bob’s father Gene built a four-by-six-foot outdoor cage from wooden planks and chicken wire. Angel would spend many summer hours there, in the shade, happily nibbling on blades of grass.

Angel did not have a lot of contact with other animals – except for one wild afternoon romp on our back porch with T-Bone, my daughter’s friend’s chinchilla — but we had great friends who cared for her when we were on vacation, some of whom had pets. Our friend Darren, who raised bunnies, would include Angel as part of his menagerie; he and his children would hold Angel while they watched TV. Angel also stayed over Greg’s house and hung out with his guinea pig, Mocho, and his yellow parakeet, Twinkie. We took care of Twinkie recently when his family went on vacation. Angel helped us bond more deeply with our friends.

Several months ago, when we brought our dog Gus home, we introduced them to each other carefully. Gus was curious at first, then recoiled from Angel when she began squealing at him. He eventually started ignoring her. Since dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers, which remotely resemble guinea pigs, we watched them closely when they were together, but for the most part they left each other alone.

Gus is a more interactive pet. He climbs onto our laps, stares up at us appealingly, whines when he wants attention. He is impossible to ignore, unlike Angel, who was content to be by herself and whistled for us only when she was hungry. Angel taught us our limits as pet owners: we needed pets that talked to us more and gave us more love. At times, even before Gus came home, we worried that we were not giving Angel the attention she deserved, even though we lavished her with fresh carrots, parsley and lettuce until she grew so fat she waddled.

A few months ago I noticed gray streaks in her coarsening fur, some caked spots at the roots and more shedding than usual. And over the past year Angel changed from doing her business in one corner of her cage to being more indiscriminate. She developed a skin infection three months ago and we had to take her to a vet for the first time. Sometimes Angel would just peek her head out of her blue igloo long enough to grab the baby carrot we poked through her cage; then quickly retract back inside.

Over the past few days Angel was not herself. We were accustomed to hearing her squeal when we first entered the kitchen; she knew our footsteps meant a carrot was forthcoming. The past few days were silent and we had to remember to bring her something. Three nights ago John tried to pet her and she bit him, something she had never done before.

Two afternoons ago I found her dead. We told John when we picked him up from school. John does not cry that often and we wondered how he would react. His face crumpled in the car and he did not say much. When he got home, he and Bob dug a hole in a wooded area of our back yard, not far from where we stored the outdoor cage they had built for her, and buried our pet in her blue igloo. I moved a bunch of newly blooming crocuses there and we marked the grave with a rock.

Then we cried for the pet who had outlived the actuarial tables and our attention spans for her, who had given us so much and had asked for so little.