As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 18, 2018.
I wasn’t happy about my family’s move to Narragansett three weeks before I started second grade. I missed my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chris, in Providence. Instead of walking with him on the first day of school, I now had to take a bus, surrounded by strangers.
But things got better when my mother came home one afternoon with a shaggy black puppy with tan and white markings. Mom named the pup Georgy Girl, after the lead character in a recent popular movie.
My brothers and I loved to watch Georgy chase rabbits in a field near our new house, leaping and then disappearing in the tall grass. We laughed when she licked our faces, even though her tongue felt like damp sandpaper.
Thank God we got a dog because there weren’t many kids to play with in our neighborhood off of Point Judith Road. The area’s sparse year-round population prompted St. Mary Star of the Sea Church to recruit my older brother, Rob, and me to become altar boys. It didn’t matter that I had yet to make my First Holy Communion, normally a prerequisite to serving on the altar. Father Hughes, St. Mary’s kindly pastor, granted me dispensation; he needed help, and we lived nearby.
My debut was memorable, though not for spiritual reasons. When it was time for Father Hughes to prepare for the Consecration, I somehow dropped the silver hand washing basin, and it rolled in circles on the green-carpeted altar floor. Attempting to grab the bowl, I looked like Georgy chasing her tail.
Once I settled into my altar boy duties, the language of the liturgy captivated me, as did Father Hughes’ sonorous voice. With his incantations about angels and archangels and “the mystery of faith,” he sounded to me like God Himself.
That made it easy to accept things that might otherwise have vexed an 8-year-old mind, such as bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, and God hearing me when I said my prayers.
The last of these, however, was put to the test later that fall when Georgy disappeared.
“I let her out this morning, and she never came back,” my mother told Rob and me after school one day. Her voice was filled with worry.
Rob and I set out for the leafless woods across from our house. Mom and my younger brother, James, jumped in her red Opel Kadett to comb the streets. When my father got home from work, he joined the search, heading toward Salt Pond. But at bedtime, Georgy was still missing. Unable to sleep, and as upset as I had been in my life till then, I prayed for our dog’s return.
The next 24 hours brought more of the same: anxious walks through the woods, drives through the neighborhood, and calls of “Georgy!” into the evening quiet.
There was still no scratch at the door. On this second night of separation, I tossed in my bed, whispering words to the darkness again.
And then, early the following morning, as my mother drove to the market across from St. Mary’s for a quart of milk, there was Georgy, sitting on the front stoop of a vacant summer cottage. Mom, who said our dog sprang into the car as happy as ever, honked the horn when she got back to our house, and Georgy greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail.
Had my prayers been answered? Did angels intervene? Or was it random luck that my mother had run out for milk at just the right time to find our missing dog? I would wrestle with such mysteries when I got older, but not on this day — not with Georgy safely delivered home and curled up on the couch in our den.
That night, after crawling into bed, I whispered a simple, two-word prayer to the darkness and beyond: “Thank you.”