Note: This appeared in the Monday, January 30, edition of the Life, Under Construction newsletter.
This is an odd weekend for me. Friday was my late mother’s birthday. Monday is the anniversary of my dad’s passing. I have spent most of the weekend at the ancestral home of Miramor in Milwaukee, shoveling snow and salting the driveway with my son.
There was to be a small, unrelated gathering at the home on Saturday but weather canceled the event. Proud Badger staters, once undeterred by the prospect of snow, now retreat into our burrows with the news that winter is returning with its usual January discomforts.
The party postponed, my wife and I enjoyed an evening of television with Eddie Murphy’s latest movie (see below).
But I won’t pretend it’s not odd spending this weekend here in my childhood home.
Miramor was the “kennel name” my parents and my grandparents used for breeding champion Great Danes. My entire childhood was spent with my parents focusing their efforts on raising dogs, showing dogs, breeding more dogs, selling puppies, and then going to more dog shows. When my parents moved to the house in Milwaukee, there was a kennel building in the back where dogs were boarded and the excess show dogs were kept. The house itself was divided between different dogs with a common refrain of “don’t open that door!” preventing dogs with a mutual dislike from accidentally meeting.
My dad, Bill Wigderson, was an expert on cross-color breeding and would even give lectures at meetings of local Great Dane Clubs on the likely color results of cross-color breeding. By the way, a Scooby Doo pattern of round black patches on a brown coat is an impossible result for a pure-bred Great Dane.
The kennel is gone now, taken down by my father after he and my mother stopped raising Great Danes. They had been showing dogs less and less as the costs rose and the judging became more about the dog handler than the dog. Or, as my parents said, the judging at dog shows was “politics.”
The final straw for my parents was not some great epiphany that there are too many dogs ending up in dog shelters and being dog breeders that they were contributing to the problem. I doubt they ever saw themselves as contributing to the overpopulation at animal shelters. After all, they were “responsible” breeders breeding pure bred dogs for show.
Instead, my parents had raised Sherman, the end of the line of their breeding program, and he suddenly fell over dead in our living room at the age of two. Sherman never lived to see his full potential as a top show dog. His death, as shocking as it was sudden, also broke my dad’s heart.
My mother, Molly, tried to push my dad into continuing the dog breeding and showing. But then Sherman’s successor Willie developed health problems. Two adult females were returned that were considered “pet quality” (not worthy of being shown or bred). Suddenly the Sunday routine of visiting cities in the midwest just for an hour or two before making the return trip came to an end.
The dilapidated kennel building came down and, with it, the end of Miramor as a breeder’s name in the show world of Great Danes. Even the Miramor sign which once stood in the front yard has come down, it’s wooden base yielding to the elements.
All that’s left is a concrete slab with a makeshift urban garden next to the grass where my parents enlisted my brother and me to help train the dogs for the next show. Inside the house, I can find a few mementos of those dog show days: old pedigrees, some pictures, a couple of spots of unprepared damage from teething puppies. Somewhere there is a box of old Super-8 films, not of my childhood, but of litters being whelped.
The house itself changed. No longer was every door kept shut. The kitchen was reconfigured to reflect that it was no longer a makeshift surgery and veterinary clinic. The trophies were removed and discarded while glassware filled the cabinets.
The rustic nature of the yard has changed, too. The gravel driveway was paved to accommodate walkers and wheelchairs as my parents’ health began to fade. The closets were converted to be useful in storing medical supplies for caring for the elderly. What could be moved to one floor was moved to make it more convenient for my parents and then their caregivers.
In the last year of my father’s life, he could not always remember where he was. Alzheimers meant that he could stand in the kitchen, look out the window, and not recognize what he saw.
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But on most days my dad had an especially strong attachment to the house that sheltered his family for decades. He enjoyed sitting on his patio looking at the geese and the squirrels. He would tell us often that he was glad he was able to spend his final days at his home and was grateful to us for making it possible. “If I go into a nursing home on a Friday,” he would say, “I’ll be leaving in a box on Monday.”
I won’t pretend that caring for my dad was easy. However, compared to a lifetime of strain between the disappointed life of a father and his high expectations for the son, the last year may have been the least difficult of our adult relationship. When memories came to him we shared them like bread and water. He kept his sense of humor and enjoyed the company of everyone who visited because he knew they were all there for him.
My dad did not get to die at home as he wished. During his last hospital stay, the doctor informed me that my dad needed a truck full of oxygen just to keep him alive – not something an ambulance could provide. He would never survive the trip home.
The hospital stay was blessedly short. The morning my father passed, my brother and I visited him at the hospital in Grafton. My dad was in good spirits as he ate his breakfast in between trying to remove the oxygen tube from his nose. He still recognized both of us and the conversation was pleasant. He looked like he was still strong enough to make it through another day, so we left him and planned to return the next day. Before I could walk through the door in Waukesha, the hospital called to tell me to return. He was gone before I could make the drive back.
We’re now a year into the process of accepting that both of my parents are now gone. My wife and I are slowly transforming Miramor into a place where the family can gather for special occasions.
The house itself is almost ready to accept us for when we move into the later stages of our lives. Eventually we will move here ourselves to enjoy the land, the trees, and the animals of the forest who indulge themselves on the apples that fall in the orchard. But, before then, there are still adventures to be had while our children make the transition to being adults.
I wonder what the next generation’s memories will be of Miramor.
James Wigderson, January 29, 2023