“Shhh,” my brother accented with a finger near his mouth. We jostled for position on the top steps peering through the banisters.
It was midnight: Wigilia. The moon shone through the living room window. Spotty was sleeping in the hall.
“Shouldn’t he be near the Christmas tree?” I whispered. “Or the manger?”
“I don’t think it matters,” my brother Jay knowingly answered.
This was our second year of observing Spotty on Christmas Eve. We were determined to talk with our dog. Our Grandpa Ramon told us this was the time of magic. All animals would talk in a human voice just as they did around the new born Jesus. It was a gift from God to thank the animals in the Bethlehem manger. He had once heard a chicken say “Boze Narodzenie,” which meant “Merry Christmas,” before it flew away when he was a boy.
Last year, my mother heard us getting up and forced us back to bed under our protest.
“It’s just a Polish folk tale. Animals can’t talk. You’ll sleep late and miss out on all your presents.”
“Never mind Grandpa.”
Missing out on Christmas presents trumped a conversation with Spotty. But what if, what if it was true? That thought occupied us after all the presents were opened that year. We had questions we wanted to ask Spotty and throughout the next year revisited and modified the list:
“Spotty, why do you chase your tail?”
“What’s so good about dog food?”
“Why do you smell everything?”
“Do you have names for us?”
“Do you get tired of looking up at us?”
“What’s it like to be a dog?”
“Do you like cats?”
“Who do you like better?”
We argued on and off, not only about the questions but how many we could ask. Just how long could Spotty speak? Grandpa would always say, “Wy musicie miec´ wiara.” We took that to mean a finite length of time, so we limited our questions, and we didn’t know if Spotty had questions for us.
The dog snored and we jumped. We moved to the lower steps. This could be the moment. I turned to my brother and whispered, “What if he speaks Polish like the chicken?”
“Yes, Grandpa is Polish.”
“He’s American now,” my smart brother answered.
“So Spotty will speak American?”
“Of course, Spotty is American too.”
It was then that I noticed the presents under the tree. Santa had been here already! Even through the dark, the bright wrapping and ribbons lured forward.
“Wow! There’s one for me. And for you! And another!” The excitement was more than whispers could handle, and we almost forgot our mission inspecting the treasure before us.
We froze. Slowly we turned toward Spotty. He was standing, staring accusingly at us. We had been caught shaking Christmas presents.
We dropped the gifts realizing what had happened.
Jay pulled the list of questions from his pajama waistband, “Spotty, hello. Why do you…”
“What are you doing?”
This time the voice came from the stairs. Our mother stood with her arms folded. “What are you doing with those presents?”
Disappointment followed embarrassment, followed disappointment again.
Spotty came closer.
“Come on up to bed, both of you,” she said firmly.
We looked at Spotty, then at our mother. Was it her all the time?
We whispered good nights to Spotty and ran up to our bedroom.
“Do you think it was Spotty?”
Hesitation based on hope, then reality, “No, it was Mom.”
“Oh, well. Will Santa come back and take the presents now?”
“I don’t know,” my brother replied. “Go to sleep.”
The next morning our presents were still there and we immersed ourselves in a frenzy of unwrapping. We played with our new toys and began to get ready for the day after Christmas—St. Stephens day, when we would visit extended family and give and receive more gifts.
Our mission to speak to Spotty was forgotten. He died later that winter. We had come close to speaking with him on Christmas Eve, but we were always close.
Spotty’s wagging tail always let us know when he was happy. He was there to comfort us when we were sad. He warned us when a squirrel was nearby. He didn’t speak in a human voice, but he communicated.
Much later, I tried to pass this tradition to my children, but it wasn’t effective without a thick Polish accent and a childhood on a Cracow farm.
Technology and special effects made everything possible and little left to imagine. Animals spoke all the time on the Internet, on television, and in the movies.
I still like to believe Spotty spoke to us that one night, if only because of my Grandpa. He wasn’t telling us a fantasy; he was teaching us a value.
“Wy musicie miec´ wiara: “You have to have faith.”