I am the middle child in a group of exceptionally gifted, wildly successful, highly educated siblings. My eldest sister is an attorney for the US’s major military jet manufacturer. My brother, a year older than I am, graduated with me from vet school, and then went on to receive a Ph.D. in immunopathology. He is one of the world’s foremost authorities on HIV. My younger sister received her Masters and Doctor of Optometry degrees at age 25, maintaining the perfect 4.0 average she had since grade school and going on to become the co-developer of revolutionary contact lenses. My youngest sister is no less than a board certified pediatric eye surgeon.
They had pristine houses worthy of Architectural Digest, expense accounts, and pension plans. They lived in major metropolitan areas, moving away from our podunk ‘burb as their accomplished lives demanded. They attended symphony events and cocktail parties with their equally accomplished spouses.
My spouse was not ever going to be bringing in a six figure salary. He did not have a closet full of Versace and Armani power ties. In fact, he didn’t have A tie. No “mani-pedis” for him, not unless someone provided a defibrillator for the soon to be comatose manicurist. While my brother could discuss at length the subtle differences between vintage single malt whiskies as easily as he could explain the biomechanics of retrovirus replication, my husband could only discuss the difference between Coors and Bud (Coors used prettier women in their ads), and thought “retro” meant dragsters with the engines in the front.
They loved Steve, despite his crudeness, because he helped the family in so many ways. In my grandmother’s final years, my mom had his cell phone on speed dial. Many times, he would go over to her home in the middle of the night to help if my grandmother had fallen or had to go to the hospital, physically carrying her to the car if necessary.
Despite knowing how much he did for us all, I know they could only shake their head in bewilderment at the crazy things he did. I did, too. He gave his grandson on his fourth birthday a gift he said every young boy should have: a hatchet. He painted hot rod flames on our toaster and toilets. He drove to a car show in Indianapolis towing his hand-built lavender roadster. Behind it’s wheel was a blowup rubber doll. Each December, he made me tear my hair out by insisting the other love of his life, after myself and Dillie, also spend the winters inside. Accordinly, he housed her in the dining room, right under the brass chandelier. Serving holiday meals was a challenge with an Indian motorcycle in the center of the room.
So what if my life was not the crystal and caviar life my parents had hoped for me and my siblings had achieved? We were happy. I did actually have a Waterford crystal vase for a short time. It was a beautiful wedding gift. When the sun came through it, it glittered and displayed a prism rainbow.
Steve blew it up. About a week after our marriage, my man-child hubby used it to shoot off bottle rockets.
We would never have the finances my siblings had, nor could travel to the far corners of the world as they did routinely. As small business owners, our financial security completely depended on my ability to keep working. More times than I care to remember we had to completely evacuate our savings to meet payroll. Until we sold the emergency clinic, we were always just one payroll away from potentially having to start all over again.
I hadn’t authored text books like my brother or saved a child’s sight like my sisters. I never attended board meetings in overpriced Ferragamos. I wouldn’t even think of buying a pair of shoes that cost over a hundred dollars, unless they came with a built-in car charger, coffee machine, glucose monitor, and stethoscope. Instead of board rooms, I worked ankle deep in various animal bodily fluids in the only pair of shoes I owned, my New Balance tennies.
I did not doubt my siblings and parents loved me, but it was in an anxious way, like a mother dog tends to the runt of the litter. I was acutely aware that I was– is, am, will be forever– the family Black Sheep. I didn’t believe that it is a coincidence that my first name is derived from the Greek word meaning “dark.” My Black Sheep role was predetermined by the stars. Having a biological cousin to that proverbial dark wooly ovine living in my rustic home only solidified my standing in the order Ruminantia.
Even if my family would never actually say out loud what I knew they thought of my life, as if that ever happens in Sicilian families, they certainly could never deny that I was the official family kook.
Every Corleone family had to have a Fredo. In my Sicilian family, that was me.
Had I been related to Ross Perot, I would be living in his basement.
So, when Dillie became famous, my family’s initial reaction was not so much excitement, but more like amused embarrassment. “What did crazy Steve and Melanie do now? Did she have to use her last name?” I told the CBS crew that showed up at our house the day after Dillie contest video went viral that I knew my family wouldn’t even be surprised to learn we had satellite trucks in our driveway, only that the news story did not begin with “a crazed woman in Ohio today chopped her husband up in little pieces and made crazy Sasquatch husband kabobs.”
They each reacted in predictable ways. My father, a retired advertising guru, complete with vanity license plates that read “Ad Man 1,” was in hog –make that deer– heaven. He thought this was fabulous publicity for my little clinic that was still struggling to stand on its own two feet. He dove into the public relations aspects like Greg Louganis into a pool. Daily, he posted notes to Dillie’s Facebook fans, and encouraged me to use her in any and all advertising for my clinic, even my yellow page ads. He wanted T-shirts, mugs, action figures, and the like. Marketing, marketing, marketing. He envisioned the day when Toys-R-Us stocked their shelves with the Dillie Joe with the kung-fu grip.
My younger sister Sally was the one that seemed truly delighted in the Dilliemania, especially after her teenaged son’s science teacher showed the video clip in class, not knowing Jordan was Dillie’s “cousin.” As any parent of a teenager can no doubt profess, anything that makes a parent connect with a teen for a moment is always welcome, even if that thing is a deer owned by a kooky sister.
My mother, however, was not at all happy about Dillie, and still is not. Just a few months ago, she and I attended the musical Chicago together at Cleveland Playhouse. Just as the lights dimmed and the crowd got quiet, my own mother turned to me and asked: “When are you going to let Dillie back into the wild? She doesn’t belong in a house.”
Somehow, despite two million Dilliecam viewers, countless news articles and You Tube videos, appearances on Animal Planet and Fox news, a center spread in the National Geographic magazine, she has never understood that : 1) Dillie is not a wild deer and cannot be “returned” to the wild, 2) she is in the house because that is where she wants to be, and 3) we love her like a child.
Thankfully, as the curtain on the musical rose, the overture began with a cymbal clash, drowning out my screams of frustration in Orchestra Row G.
My brother, predictably, was more embarrassed than amused; he could not find a hole deep enough to hide in. After our first network appearance, I knew they would find him cowering with a bag over his head in the super-secure subterranean levels of his HIV lab. Too bad for him I believed a woman’s identity did not spring from her husband and had kept my maiden name. I chided him that the next time he won an award for his work the presenter would cite the long list of his professional accomplishments, and then say: “...and his sister has a deer that lives in her house.”
Finally, my oldest sister Karen’s reaction to the Dilliemania was true to her intellectual-property-rights-attorney persona. She constantly bombarded me with messages about how we needed to be charging people to see Dillie on the web cam or in person. She wanted us to make Dillie our cash-cow.
“She does have four stomachs, Karen,” I told her, “but she is not a cow.”
“I’ll represent her!” Karen said.
Life was absurd enough already! I did not want to see the day my house pet had her own attorney, agent, personal assistant, and a contract demanding only green M and M’s in her dressing room. We had no intention of exploiting our child. We felt obligated to let any reporter or photographer do stories on her as they had their work to do and their living to make. However, when people asked us what our “fee” was for such stories, we just smiled and answered: “We love spreading the joy that is Dillie through the world, and that is payment enough.”
We were not naive to the negative aspects of fame, and did not want that particular monster damaging our little family. Accordingly, we turned down an offer for a reality series, much to Karen’s dismay. We didn’t believe that those shows ever really worked out for the people involved, only the producers. They made their money and went on to other projects. The subjects got divorced, estranged, or in some cases committed suicide.
“You’re crazy!” Karen told me. “That could provide income for you for the rest of your life. She could be ‘Honey Poo Poo’.”
Karen had represented me in the sale of my emergency clinic and had a prospective buyer’s attorney shaking like a frightened puppy when we had discovered they had violated a good faith agreement before the contract was even signed. I always recall with a smile how she slammed her briefcase on the walnut negotiation table shouting: “This is unacceptable! This deal is OFF!” The opposing attorney said he had to speak to his client and slunk out of the conference room, tail between his legs.
When they left the room, I turned to Karen and suggested we let it go. This was a lucrative deal that had been months in the making. I may not have a another prospective buyer for years.
Another briefcase slam. “Don’t you go soft on me!” she said. “Don’t you say one more word! I will put duct tape over your mouth if I have to. They’ll cave. And we’ll tack on a few grand more because we caught them in a lie.”
She was right. The attorney came into the room with the classic body language of a submissive delta dog. Head down, no eye contact. He would have rolled over on his back exposing his vulnerable abdomen if it wouldn’t have soiled his slippery polyester coat.
After that day, I called my sister “The Pit Bull.”
Now that legendary bully breed grip had grabbed on to the notion that Dillie should become a media star and would not let go. She had her sights on Disney. She told me she would not rest until the third sequel to “Dillie, the Movie” was released. “We’re going to Disneyland!” she said.
“Watch it, Karen!” I said. “If there is a Disney movie, you are going to be the villain. You’re going to be the Cruella Deville.”
I reminded her that just a few weeks before Dillie became famous, we had had Thanksgiving dinner at our house with the whole family, including my Grandmother Rose who had since passed away. During dinner, Dillie came ambling down the stairs and made her rounds around the table, greeting every one and trying to steal cranberry sauce or spill flutes of Asti Spumanti. Karen had remarked in less than amused terms:
“That animal belongs ON the table not AT the table!”
Oh how she had changed her tune now! She threatened to set up a toll booth in our driveway when people came to visit our little star. She paraphrased the speech from Field of Dreams. “People will come. They'll come to Ohio for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. And they’ll pay.”
“Karen!” I answered. “Can you put a price on a perfect summer day? On love? On beauty? On the smile of a child?”
“Yes,” the Pit Bull replied. “Five bucks.”