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Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars

A Memoir

About The Book

Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars is a memoir about growing up homeless. Lauralee Summer and her eccentric, idealistic mother move repeatedly in search of work and a better life, but most often find happiness and security only in their relationship with each other.
When she reaches junior high Lauralee and her mother set out for Boston in search of a better education. There Lauralee thrives under the care and guidance of Mr. Mac, becomes the only girl on the school wrestling team, and goes on to Harvard. Later, when she's nineteen, she finds her father and begins a relationship with him.
Learning Joy from Dogs without Collars is the story of a girl coming into her own, learning and understanding her place in the world. It is about the innocence and resiliency of childhood -- the space of joy that poverty is unable to demolish or diminish.


Chapter One: Mother

Keeping all this from them --

when they might have helped

-- Adrienne Rich

After fifteen months of being homeless my mother moved into a new apartment. I stood nervously -- hovering in the room's center, not wanting to get too close to the edges -- as if I was on a ship. The further to the edges I went, the whole place might shift under my feet, tipping me off the edge. If I went too far to the edge, I might be thrown to the walls or couch or the sink piled with dirty dishes. I might land in the midst of one of her quaint experiments. For Christmas, she placed the tree in a pot full of thousands of pennies, to keep it upright. The pennies are now soaking in water, being cleansed of the Christmas tree's sticky sap.

Broken bits of toys, confiscated from the church nursery, lie in a colorful plastic heap in another corner. As my mother stands in the doorway between the living room and kitchen, she says to me, "They were too small for safety -- one and five-eighths inches is the government standard for toys for children under three. One and three-quarters is safer yet." The late afternoon sunlight shines on her hair. She sometimes dyes it black or blond, but the gray always grows back in. My own hair is as straight as uncooked spaghetti, but hers spirals in loose flyaway curls around her face, or is tucked behind her ears with bobby pins. She looks girlish and innocent with her little space-rocket curls, salt and pepper colored.

I do not feel at home here though this might have been one of the homes of my childhood. All I see now is the poverty. The bleak walls are broken by yard-sale finds. My mother tries to fill the space with the contents of two bags she had while in the shelter. The refrigerator and cupboards are bare -- only a few items from the food bank: cans, stale taken-off-the-shelf pretzels, a new brand of cereal that didn't sell. All I feel is home's lack.

My mother can spend hours, days, even months on projects of her own devising, projects that utterly absorb her.

There are the three hundred small plants growing in styrofoam cups and egg cartons on her porch. She knows each type of plant and recites its name lovingly. To me they are just plants, although they look beautiful and green in the washed-out yellow sunlight.

In her refrigerator sit row upon row of sprouts: bean, alfalfa; and no food, only half a bottle of flat Pepsi, and some condiments. I worry -- this can't be healthy, Mother. She says she eats oatmeal every day, and uses powdered milk. There are Popsicles and vanilla ice cream in the freezer, which she blends together to make "orange crèmes." This was plain poverty, but it was also what she liked.

I was a snooty college student, a sophomore. I tried to analyze my mother -- distance and detach in an attempt to bring, gather her closer into my understanding. "Mother, do you feel generative or despairing?" I think of Erik Erikson's stages of ego development. The seventh stage, the one my mom should be going through: Generativity versus Stagnation. I sense these feelings pitching back and forth in my mother and I am inadequate to be at home with her. Yet what I have been taught to see as degeneracy (a disorganized house, leaving it only every few days...) may be my mom's way of generating new ideas.

Going to Harvard was in many ways a journey away from home for me. At Harvard, one of the favorite buzzwords of academics is discourse. A discourse is an ongoing conversation, a talking and listening back and forth. Each discourse is physically and culturally situated in a space. There is the discourse of cognitive psychologists, discourse on literature, sociological discourse on poverty and welfare reform. The word comes from the Latin discursus, "to run to and fro." The word current also comes from the same Latin root. So when I think of a discourse, I think of a flowing river of words, a current of communication.

With Harvard's discourses, I could categorize and analyze and discuss my mother's life and situation. I could analyze her according to Freudian or Eriksonian discourse; label her with a neurosis or a psychosocial stage of development. In the discourse of sociology, I could place my mother in a chart or a graph with other welfare mothers. I could understand her in a hundred different ways, a hundred different discourses. Yet none of these were satisfactory to me.

This journey -- from my mother's thought and speech to what I've learned at Harvard and afterwards -- this journey seemed to go in one direction and not the other. When I applied what I learned at Harvard to my mother, she grew farther and farther away from me. No longer a running to and fro, no longer a bridge, a pathway between two (cultural) locations, instead my education was a running away from. I moved away from my mother's thought and speech. I tried to travel back, but I could not find a bridge.

I was told I must not be too at home in the knowledge I created. I must objectively separate it from me as a mother gradually knows her child is separate. If discourses are a running to and fro, then I am left running between my mother's home and the world, out of place (homeless) in both spaces.

Good discourses make it easy to communicate. They increase understanding and clarity. They are like rivers with plenty of water in them, they are like a good steady run, like taking deep long breaths, they flow. There can be rocky parts in a discourse, places you must push through, but you do get from one place to another. As Jeanette Winterson wrote in Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, "I don't know how to answer. I know what I think, but words in the head are like voices under water. They are distorted. Hearing the words as they hit the surface is sensitive work. You will have to be a bank robber and listen and listen to the little clicks before you can open the safe." A discourse may be an imperfect medium but it can help you get from the place inside your head to the place where you can begin to see inside someone else's.

In my mother's apartment, I try to reconcile my two homes, to build a strong bridge, one that will travel between the two (political, class) locations.

Once there was a time when I did not feel distant from my mother's voice. But then I was inside the slippery red warm walls of her womb. Yet it is hard to have been inside the womb of my mother and to know -- I can never take her inside of me. My eyes saw more of her wet dark caverns, spaces and limits, than she has ever seen. Although she felt me inside her, now she sees of me only the skin I present. This is difficult for us both.

You and I can judge her from outside, but in her womb, as she read and talked to me, I listened to her voice coming to me not through the wall of stomach muscles but through every inside vibration. I doubled, tripled, became an infinity of the self I was. I grew in nine months more than in the twenty-five years since.

When I was in grade school and high school, I played a violin. The violin's voice was like my mother's was when she read to the unborn me. The violin not only sounded on fingertips but also quivered and spoke within my body. Resounded in my bent elbows, my chin, between my ears, temples. The music spoke in the bones of my foot as it tapped the floor, keeping time. When I heard my mother's voice it was like this. Her voice did not come to me, it was part of me already. Its vibrations peeled me off the womb's walls. I didn't listen with ears because toes could hear as well.

I felt like I would never hear her voice and feel fully separate. I don't want to write only about my mother; I also want to write within.

One day last fall, I went to visit my mother, hoping to find some answers to questions I had about her life. My mom was a mysterious person. She was thirty-six years old when I was born, had a whole life she'd lived before me. I wanted to understand the hints she gave me about this other life. I knew bits and pieces, but had never heard the full story. I love to get my mom talking about her family before me, her life and her "other" kids. It is important for me to hear about this earlier life, because it helps me to understand how we, she and I, got to the place where we were now, how we had arrived in this apartment, this city, this situation.

My mother will turn sixty-two this year. She lives in her own apartment, in Quincy, Massachusetts, a city of about 90,000 people that borders Boston, where John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams once lived. She took me to see their homes the first spring that we lived in Quincy -- the log cabin with no running water where John Adams was born and the large mansion he later lived in where John Quincy was born.

Nothing is clear anymore when I try to understand or write about my mom. My story about her spirals out in a million directions and covers too much material when it needs to be focused and artistic and concise. I feel like since I've grown up so much, I've lost all my great and inspiring truths. My mother seems to stand on the other side of the bank as the river of truth flows past. I search for the bridge that will bring us together again.

She and I know each other well. I hold nothing back from her. Sometimes I must be gentle and slow, when I ask painful questions. I know that because I am her child, she cannot reject me, the bond is too deep. On this fall day, we sit at the kitchen table near the window, with the fading autumn sunlight streaming in. I ask her questions about her life -- a few require only dates or one-line answers. I also ask one or two questions that I hope she will not resist.

I have my many theories and interpretations of her. I may know why she is the way she is, perhaps even more than she herself may understand or speak of. But I must ask her the questions, because I tend to write too much into her silences. In recent years, my mother was diagnosed and treated for a depression that makes it difficult for her to work. She now receives Social Security disability insurance. I asked her why she gets Social Security, or what she thinks the reason is. This is a point of sensitivity for her and is something she doesn't like to speak of. I could say simply: She gets Social Security because she is certifiably crazy. I know that this is the easy answer, but I also know that she does not see it that way.

I know my mom, and I am able to reach the places of resistance within her. I am able to call up the most reasonable, deep feeling and thinking, awareness in her. I demand reason of her because I love her and I know her to be a true and truth-seeking person. I want to understand the mystery of my mother, because it is invariably wrapped up with questions about my own identity.

She understands me in a way that few other people do. She is my source and mainspring -- to erase her would again leave me alone and blank, wondering if I came only from a place of craziness and strangeness.

As my mother began to tell me the rambling stories of her life, she drifted away, lost in thought. Her mouth quivers when she is thinking hard, or when she becomes upset. As she thought, her mouth opened slightly, as if she were about to speak, and I saw her tongue moving up and down just slightly, inside her mouth.

Here is the story she tells:

My Life and My Viewpoint of It by Elizabeth Summer

I have three siblings -- one older brother and sister, Jane and Jimmy, twins, and one younger brother, Tommy. The first time I heard the word sibling was when I was twenty-seven, and brought my third child, Kristi, in for her six-week-old checkup. My second child, Bobby, was three years old and sucking his thumb. The doctor said something about sibling rivalry and the middle-child syndrome.

After the doctor's comment, I started thinking about my place amongst my siblings. I was the youngest for three years, until Tommy was born. After that, I was the middle child. But I was "middle" in more than one way.

I was born in the middle of the year (July 7, 1940), grew up midcentury, was the middle child (and lived on the middle of the Pacific Coast in Siletz and Toledo, Oregon. My mother, Savilla Laura Craven, was also born midyear, on July 4, the birthday of the United States, in its heartland, in Russell Springs, Kansas.

I was of average height and weight and fairly average looks. As a middle child, it may be that I was neither as uptight, ambitious, or focused as a firstborn child nor as charming, sociable, and easygoing as a last-born. Rather, I tended to be a steady mediator, to see both sides of a situation, and to attempt to keep the peace or restore it.

When I was a baby, I slept in a dresser drawer. I now have a four-and-a-half-by-two-and-a-half-inch flat spot between the back and top of my head. I think this spot may be from the drawer.

My mother must have been incredibly busy, with twin toddlers and a new baby. She worked like the very dickens. She did not have plastic or paper diapers, and had to wash dozens of cloth diapers each day with a wringer washer.

Our house in Siletz -- where I lived until I was almost nine -- had no indoor plumbing. Jane and I used to shout to our father when we had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, "Daddy, Daddy, turn on the light!" Then we would grope our way down the stairs and use the pot in the corner of our parents' bedroom. The outhouse, which we would use during the day, was an unpainted wood building, three feet by four feet, and was halfway between the house and the barn.

My earliest memory is of being in the garden with my mother. A red racer snake was there -- about sixteen inches long. My mother grew raspberries and rhubarb, beans and peas.

Perhaps my love of flowers and plants comes from these early times spent with Mother. Just today, I looked over the wildflower seeds at Wollaston Market. There were several more sweet William and catchfly, but no blanket fly. They had several kinds that I didn't have: rose mallow, yellow and purple coneflowers, rare aster, succulent lupine, scarlet glads, evening primrose, globe gilia, colonial poppies, and yarrow.

I bought rare marjoram, savory, blue flax, a whole package of flowering kale, corn poppy, Texas bluebonnet, four-o'clocks, and Drummond phlox. I also bought a package of moonflower; I'll try again, and maybe have better luck this time.

There are thousands of young whiteflies on my tomatoes and strawflower. There are none on the white and lavender forget-me-nots, which I have blooming quite nicely.

When I was a child, we had red, black, and white chickens, some regular and some bantam, and a brownish red cow, named Blaze for the white flame-shaped marking on her forehead. Our mother sold butter and eggs to bring in extra money.

We had an apple orchard of sixteen beautiful apple trees. The first to get ripe were the transparent apples. I never see these anywhere anymore. They were little, soft, and yellow. The Gravensteins ripened next, hard green with red stripes; they were big and juicy and tasted lovely. There was a crab apple tree, and other trees with small little hard red apples. The transparent tree was our favorite tree to climb. The orchard was behind the house and garden, next to Blaze's pasture.

One night, the gate was left open between the pasture and the orchard, and Blaze got into the orchard and choked on an apple and died. I remember the morning when we found out. I was lying in my wooden bunk -- built into the wall in the little back area where Tommy and I slept. The area was a walk-through and had unfinished wood walls and one window. It was off of the kitchen, and people walked through to get to the pantry, our parents' bedroom, and the staircase to where Jane and Jimmy slept.

My father came in and told my mother that the cow had died, and I remember lying there under the clean white sheets, pastel yellow blanket, and old quilt, and feeling very sad.

Blaze seemed like such a sweet old cow. She had big brown eyes and long thick eyelashes. When we children went down to the river behind the house, we walked through the pasture, through the dandelions, the cow pies, and all the flies buzzing about. We skirted around the cow, because she was so big. If I hadn't been so afraid of her because I was so small, I might have liked to rub the soft hide of her head, and have her push the flame shape on her forehead into my hand. Now that she had died, I would sit under the transparent apple tree and picture Blaze, all alone in the dark night shadows, choking and convulsing on the pieces of apple and core. I would picture her shaking and falling to the ground.

No tears came to my eyes as I lay there in my bunk. I only looked at the wooden walls, the sun slanting in from the kitchen, and the world felt emptier somehow, for a moment.

I was seven. I suppose my feelings were as resilient as a bouncing rubber ball or the string that pulls a yo-yo, because by that night at the butchering, I was happy again. The cow was hung from the loft from the same rope that we used to swing from, out over the bales of hay, until our mother and father found out and told us to stop. The cow was hung there to be bled out. Our neighbors, the Clarks, Rings, Castles, and the Nelsons, were invited over for the butchering, and it was an exciting and festive occasion. Jane, Jimmy, and I tried to break the bladder by jumping on it and poking it with sticks. Thinking about it now, I get a sad feeling, thinking that it was so easy for me to find freedom from sadness so soon again.

When Jane and Jimmy were in first grade they were invited to a birthday party. I thought that was the best thing and I wanted to go. They had to explain to me that I couldn't go because I didn't know the people and wasn't in school yet.

This may be why my mother had a party for me on my eighth birthday. It was my only birthday party, for we didn't have parties for every year as children do these days. My mother often did special things for me, I think maybe because the oldest were twins and got to do everything first; they had bikes and I didn't. And Tommy was the youngest and got more of her attention. But I was the one she picked to go to California with Uncle Harvey and Aunt Wilma when I was five, and she stayed up all night before I left, sewing gray flannel trousers for me to wear on the train.

At my birthday party, it was summertime. I remember large nests of caterpillars -- or tent worms -- in the apple tree outside the kitchen.

The party was attended by our best neighborhood friends -- Alma and Alton Clark and Irene Nelson; our cousins, Shirley and Clinton; and by my own brothers and sister. We had canned vegetable soup and hot dogs, chocolate cake and ice cream, most likely strawberry. At the time I thought that Irene, an older girl who was about eleven, ruined the party because she didn't like the ice cream and made disparaging remarks about it. But her gifts are the only ones I remember: a green rat-tail comb and a fifty-cent piece.

In my ninth year, we left our little "homestead" and apple orchard of sixteen trees on the Siletz River in the town of the same name. We moved to Toledo, Oregon, a larger town not far away. We three older children spent many happy hours on the bank of the stream, "fishing" with string and a safety pin or an old tin can. All we ever saw were tiny fish and crayfish. And -- once, we saw eels! They lived in the deep water across the river from our swimming hole, below the Clarks'. We could walk down a steep path about twenty yards and then carefully -- yet still slipping and sliding -- walk along the muddy, slanted bank of the river to the swimming hole. At one point, there was a one-inch branch that I had to grab on to to keep my balance. One day, there was a fat slug on the other side of the branch. I got a slimy surprise in the palm of my hand. Ugh!

On one occasion, I fell behind the older kids. I got lost and ended up in a garbage dump. I stepped on a rusty tin lid and cut my foot. I remember that as well as I do grabbing ahold of that slug. The wound from the lid was one and a half inches by one inch and a quarter inch deep. I don't remember seeing any blood, but maybe I didn't look at it until Jane and Jimmy had carried me on a "chair" of their arms to the house, which was an eighth of a mile away.

We lived in the house in Toledo for the rest of my growing up years. I went to high school, and even though I got good grades, no one told me I could go to college. My sister, Jane, was valedictorian of her class, two years ahead of me, and went to secretarial college. Jimmy also had good grades. He won a baseball scholarship to go to the University of Oregon. He was a sophomore there and barely twenty-one when he died of leukemia. It's true that no one told me I could go, but I didn't even think of going to college, because when I was young, all I ever wanted to do was get married and have babies. That was my whole life's dream.

I got married when I was twenty-one, in 1961. I had four babies in a row, two boys, and then two girls. My husband and I separated after thirteen years of marriage. He only took the children every Wednesday night for two hours. He and his girlfriend went on vacations often. I was going crazy, alone with four youngsters and their many needs.

I went on a vacation to California. I left a note for him to see when he brought the children home that Wednesday night. "On vacation for a week. Lots of love. See you soon! Mom."

It was January 1976. I packed my bags for California, shut the door, and left the door unlocked so he could get in to feed the cats and dog. I left the dinner dishes undone; I left the bed unmade. I had bought large drums and decorated them for the children to put their toys into, but the toys were still scattered all over the floor. I left them there, for the time being. I left off worrying about my son Bobby, whose muscles were deteriorating before my eyes from the Duchenne muscular dystrophy that I felt responsible for giving to him. I left it all behind -- for just a week, I thought. Taping the little yellow note to the brown door, I turned and left.

I chose, when I closed the door behind me, but did not know that I had chosen. I thought that I would be allowed to come back to my home in a week, refreshed and ready to begin where I had left. Had I been able to see the future, I might have made the bed, done the dishes, put the toys into the drums. I might not have gone to California at all. I told my ex-husband I needed a vacation. He said, "If you go, I'll..." and his voice carried a threat. But how was I to know how he'd finish that sentence? Who is the mother who has such clarity when she has four children, one of them handicapped, spinning her mind into tight circles? Before I was Lauralee's mother, I was mother to four others. They were all small and insistent.

The unmade bed, the toys, the pile of dishes, these were important because while I was in California, he (my ex-husband) entered the house and had pictures taken. The pictures were used in court to prove that I was unfit, unable to be a good mother. The bed, the dishes, the toys everywhere, and a half bottle of wine left on the counter. Proof, I suppose, that my mind was as scattered as the toys. Proof that I had come uncorked just like that bottle of wine.

I came back the next week, to pick the children up. They were at their grandmother's house. The grandmother was baking cookies, the children were enjoying themselves. It was only Becki, the youngest, six years old, who wanted to go home with me. I went out and started to cross the street, carrying my youngest to the car. But my ex-husband came out and pulled the child away from me.

Becki was the only one who wanted to go with me. But he pulled her back, he took her other arm there in the street, and I had to let go.

I had to leave her. She was saying, "Mommy, Mommy, I want to go with you." She was only six. And she wanted to come with me. I had no choice.

What could I do? I had to leave her there. I had to. He was pulling her one way, in the middle of the street, while I pulled another. She would have been ripped apart. I had to leave her.

He sued for custody, saying I had abandoned my children. He won the case. I was left, in my mid-thirties, with one year of secretarial experience, thirteen years of marriage and household labor, but no husband. And he with my children.

My mother's story broke down here. Her face was rumpled and red from holding the tears in, and as she talked, her hands made sharp up and down strokes through the air.

Coincidentally, ironically perhaps, the night my mother left a note on her door and never got her children back was the night on which I was conceived. Before going to California, she went to visit my father, whom she was then dating. Before she told me the whole story, I was confused about the order of events. But now I understood. She was pregnant with me when she lost the custody of the other four children. After losing the case, she returned to California to give birth to me there, in Santa Rosa, away from the scrutiny of relatives and friends, who either worried for or condemned her.

She brought me back from California when I was a baby; the other kids were surprised, because she hadn't told them she was pregnant. I pictured her meeting them: four children as I've seen them in photographs, in 1970s Technicolor. Youngest to oldest: Becki's dark brown eyes -- our mother's eyes -- and gap-toothed dimpled smile. Kristi's longer face, that of a more serious nine-year-old. Bobby in his wheelchair, straining for a closer look; Kirk, the oldest, at thirteen, passive faced.

And she, with me -- a white bundle in her arms -- handed me to Kirk like I was a new present she brought just to surprise them.

On the edges of the scene, the adults hung back and watched, smiled at her caprice, noticing the children's bewilderment. Their father and stepmother might have wondered if the event of my birth would make the kids closer to or farther from her.

I pictured this scene and then asked her about my own father, and my conception (our conception, the conception of our life together) and how she decided to keep me. Did she keep me only because the other four were taken?

Another day, when I was fifteen, she had told me -- because she was angry with me, because I was being snotty and hostile -- "I could have had an abortion, you know. I considered it."

"Fuck you, Mother," I retorted, knowing she didn't mean it. My heart started to beat faster, my palms and temple got sticky with sweat, as I pictured my life cut off before it began, when I thought of this near miss.

From the scene when my siblings first met me, my mind wandered back, and I asked her again -- about my conception, which she said happened the night she left the others --

"How do you know?" I asked.

"I just know," she replied. She didn't want to talk much about it. "I got in a fight with your father that night. I only saw him a couple of times after that -- " And she half smiled at me, her eyes volunteering nothing.

It was difficult to get my mom to talk about this time. It was only after asking many questions that I began to piece the details together.

My mother told me this story, her eyes staring straight ahead, through the window behind me, staring out to the trees and the street outside. Her mouth became a piece of wadded-up paper, and she got ready to throw herself into the garbage like a bad piece of writing.

But --

then she smiled quiveringly, blinked her eyes twice, willing the tears down her face, and she turned to look at me, her eyes still shining under a thin layer of water. She looked at me with her deflated, spongy face, all dimpled and moist, and smiled small-ly. "But I got you (and that's worth something, isn't it?)." I stared blankly back.

I couldn't comprehend losing four children, and going on. I can't imagine the energy I would put into the one I had left, growing (barely...incipient, burgeoning). How would I cling to that one small baby, that small being? I would look for myself in her eyes, I would want her to say that I was worth it, too. Knowing the whole time that of course I was a good mother -- of course I was. Knowing -- yet wanting to show -- yes I am a mother, and I will do the job right (this time).

I was meant to be proof. I was my mother's way to prove she could make up for the four that were taken away. I was the one she got to keep, and I would have to turn out more than good, I would have to add up to more than was expected.

"No," she told me, after reading this, "I just wanted you to be happy. And you were happy." Yes, I was happy.

Copyright © 2002 by

About The Author

Photo Credit: Nadia Cross

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 1, 2004)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743257923

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Raves and Reviews

The Boston Globe A gem...This memoir [tells] of a woman's singular determination and impressive achievement.

Reader's Digest Summer tells her story in a quiet, true voice that will make you smile and cry, sometimes both at once.

Chicago Tribune Lauralee Summer writes about her childhood...with no self-pity and only a touch of awe that she not only survived, but thrived.

San Jose Mercury News Without self-pity or pretension, a young girl tells the story of her climb from foster homes, shelters, and dank apartments to the Ivy League.

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