Letters to Jennifer

By Suzi Schmidt


Dedicated to my sisters, Pat and Faye, who encouraged me to write about my experiences with animals. And to my niece Jennifer, who will be a great pet sitter.

I'd like also, please and thank you, to dedicate this to the kitten who wrote my favorite poem in Francesco Marciuliano's wonderful book, "I Knead My Mommy:"

Looking Good
. . . . . .
Now all your left arm hairs
Are pointing in the same direction
And they glisten
And smell of seafood surprise
And you're welcome

"Without you, Heaven would be too dull to bear, 
And Hell would not be Hell if you were there."

Stolen by a dog named Rosie Jackson 
for her playmate Flower, who is not yet two,
and fighting for his life.








Author's Note

I've been writing since 7th grade, when I tried to pull out what unrequited love feels like on the inside. Almost autistic with grief and pain, my heart breaking and flooding the pages with tears and words, I tried and tried. And then one day I saw a sentence that was, as Annie Dillard describes it, like "a bomb" going off in my lap.

I yelled. "Yes! That's it. I wrote that!" I was so happy. So vibrantly alive. The poet e.e. cummings explained it: "I imagine that yes is the only living thing."

I don't remember much about what's-his-name, but I know that that was the moment I fell in love with sentences.

When I received a letter from my niece Jennifer asking me about pet sitting, I was taking care of two Jack Russell terriers named Lucy and Ethel, a Siamese cat named Nameless, and an aviary full of birds. When Jennifer asked if I thought she would be a good pet sitter, I yelled "Yes!" so loudly that Lucy and Ethel started barking, the birds screeching, and Nameless knocked over a lamp in a mad dash to safety in the dryer. I couldn't wait to write to her.

I hope this book of letters will encourage others who would be great pet sitters. At the very least, I hope it will be read by people who will like some of my sentences. Writing is hard work - even when it's a labor of love. I wouldn't do it if I didn't think it would be fun. My idea of humor may not appeal. I almost rolled off my bed when I read Oscar Wilde's "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all morning, and took out a comma. This afternoon, I put it back in."

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A very dear, very sick little dog named Flower needs help with his chemotherapy bills. If you can donate anything to, please do so now. Thank you.


May 2016

Dear Jennifer,

Thank you for the lovely birthday card. Your letter was such a pleasant surprise. So many questions!

Yes, I think you'd be a great pet sitter. What's more, I think you're a natural. I know how much you love animals. I know you're honest, intelligent, reliable, hard- working. Most important, you always try to do the right thing. You would love this. Most of your clients would be very successful, incredibly busy people, doing some amazing things, who love their pets as they do their other children.

And the animals! Some are happy, healthy, fun-loving balls of fur that throw themselves into your arms with, "Give me love! Give me all that you got!" at the top of their voices, every time. It never gets old. Others may (or not) trust you when they see that you are kind and gentle in a world they know can be cruel and treacherous. Not one of them will be boring. You will find that tortoises will feel your slightest touch. That 5% of the cats you meet are allergic to people and don't know it. You may walk a huge Rottweiler who melts whenever he buries his nose in black-eyed-Susans, or a Beagle who swoons at the smell of narcissus in the spring. And if you arrive at work to find that a python is not in the case, look up, not down. She is probably enjoying the sunny view from the window, wrapped around the curtain rod.&

I hope your decision is yes. The world needs you. Reminds me of when years ago I asked a funny friend, "If I could give you a pill that would keep you alive forever, would you take it?" She said, "Oh, honey, Yes! The world needs me! You give me that pill and we'll find another one for you later!"

You will know, when animals let you into their world, that you are asking the right questions.

With Love,

Aunt Suzi 









June 2016

Dear Jennifer,

I'm delighted to hear it. I envy you, at square one, starting a first business in an industry no longer in its infancy. Help is available to you everywhere - libraries, bookstores, online. And yes, I'm glad to answer what I can.

"Why?" did I decide to do this, is easy. When I retired after 30 years of nursing, I tried and couldn't remember a single day that I had had any fun. Now I count on it every day. A dear friend, a very successful pet sitter, said, "Come to work with me for one day, see what it's like. You'd love this. Believe me, it's not lonely at the top." I advise you to do the same. You will know then if it's right for you. For me it was a "Houston, we have lift-off" moment. If it is Yes, then do 3 things:

  1. Go to The National Association of Professional Pet Sitters (NAPPS) is an organization dedicated to promoting excellence among pet sitters. Membership dues - $135 per year.
  2. You can then purchase, from Business Insurers of the Carolinas, at NAPPS's group rate, a tailor-made liability insurance. ($385 per year) And you need a bond. ($50) The $570 is all tax deductible. Keep every receipt from this moment on.
  3. Get some brochures made, preferably at a local printer, or at Home Depot or Staples. (You may use mine.) I started with 1000. Also some business cards (500). While you wait for them, get your car serviced and shined. Buy a map.

I know that you've heard, Go Big or Go Home. Forget that. Start from home and drive as far as you'd like to travel to work. I drove 15 minutes, stopped, drew a full circle on the map with my home at the center. Decision time. I talked to my faithful friend, my car, and as usual heard what I wanted to hear, "It's a good idea. I've got gas. You got a friend." I put a brochure in every paperbox on every road we could find. Also every bulletin board, pet store, and business that would let me. It took weeks, all the while remembering the African proverb, "Never test the depth of a river with both feet." Car said, "Putz (fool), between us we have six. How many feet do you need?" I worried that people would think I was too old. It was possible that I had already missed my chance. "I Am old. And I'm alone!" Car was offended: "What am I, chopped liver? Snap out of it."

It was Muhammad Ali who did it: "Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing." And the phone started ringing. And the fun began.


Aunt Suzi


July 2016

Dear Jennifer,

Yes, to get started, do that - borrow any car that is reliable and presentable. You will need to get one that you like. It will be far more than transportation; it will be your constant companion, your sounding-board, movable office, make-up room, snack bar, and sometimes your pet taxi. Mine has become Detroit's version of a favorite song, "You Got a Friend." Car likes disco music (Sirius XM 54 radio), also Yiddish slang (for some reason), and funny bumper stickers: "If you can read this, I've lost my trailer" is our favorite.

I urge you to study your roadmap. Memorize it, learn the shortcuts. I love the line, "the road to a friend's house is never long" but I'll bet there is a shortcut. You and I live in the world's largest deciduous forest, so we will always have to get around downed trees after storms, early morning unplowed snowdrifts, rush-hour traffic, and school bus stops set in stone.

Car reminds me often about what's certain..."every two miles it's a dollar off your taxes." Bumper sticker: "Sometimes you're the bug, sometimes you're the windshield."

Thanks for the interesting questions: My "favorite job" is housesitting with the animals. When you are actually living with the pets, you can really get to know one another. Most of them like the extra attention, and you have more time to enjoy them. And their house, the library, artwork, collections, heirlooms, gardens, neighbors.

Also, you have time to watch some incredible specials on TV. One extraordinary experience, which I would probably have missed, was life-changing. For two years the History channel produced and aired "Alone." Both seasons were addictive. Ten experienced hunter-gatherers were selected, given basic equipment, plus a rapid-response emergency call-button. They were taken to separate coves in the forest of Vancouver Island, off western Canada, where they agreed to video tape their experience. They could bring 10 items from home, but no food, water, books, phone, radio, or writing material. The last one standing won $500,000. I rooted so hard for those strangers - worried, swore, yelled, suffered, for 55 and then 64 days. And I rejoiced with the remarkable winners. What a special, satisfying adventure we have had. They said it had changed them (did me) and most of all, that they had been forced to really know themselves. D. H. Lawrence wrote about it years a go.

This is what I believe:
That I am...
That my known self will never be
more than a little clearing in the forest.


Aunt Suzi






Olivia, Pierre & Brewski

Harry (dog) &
Tom (cat)


August 2016

Dear Jennifer,

Most of the truths that we hold to be self-evident, aren't. For example, "Keep It Simple, Stupid" isn't even close:

You'd think an ad/logo on your car would be smart money well spent. Yes, but a passing thief reads, "Family not home in the daytime." Solution: Get a removable magnetic logo. (

It is true that you won't have to buy a lot of new clothes. Yes, but invest in very sturdy ship-on shoes. Sturdy because you could step on a used insulin needle nobody knows is there. Slip-on because when you arrive at an interview and see shoes on the floor by the front door, it could be a cultural sensitivity pass/fail test. Or just because the homeowner knows that scientists have confirmed that our shoes are the #1 pathway bacteria use to enter our homes.

Always call people by their names. Psych 101 says that's important to us all. Yes, but never do that until you are absolutely positive you've got the right name. It can be too late to make a good first impression.

Smile. In business, it pays to smile. Yes, but if you smile when a client knows he has just said something stupid, you will never be forgiven.

Forget "Better late than never" for an interview. That's never true. Be early, double check the address, park nearby, relax awhile then pull up at exactly the right time.

Avoid discussing politics or religion. Don't even hint about either one with a client. Not even with the dogs who listen to your every word - it may all be on a voice-activated tape recorder. Yes, but the new comics in your life are to be the exception. One of my first interviews was with a minister who was thrilled to have moved into his new house. When I congratulated him, he said, "It was as close as I could get to Heaven without having the streets paved with gold." He laughed infectiously and told me a joke he has to avoid telling during a sermon:

"A rich man was at the Pearly Gates arguing with Saint Peter. He had possessions he wanted to bring along and Saint Peter was saying, 'Absolutely Not!' The rich man demanded, 'Let me talk to God.' To make a long story short, God agreed, "Yes, but you are limited to one suitcase, no more." He thought and thought and finally decided to fill the suitcase with solid gold. When Saint Peter said, 'Welcome to Heaven... but I'll have to check your baggage,' he looked in the suitcase and stared at the man, and said, 'Pavement? You brought Pavement?'"

Buddha said, "Look for sand in your rice. Look for rice in your sand." I once read those words to a most remarkable dog, who put his head on my lap, looked at me as if to say, "I'm the rice." I said, "Yes, it's true. And everybody here knows it. You are that rare, that special."

Welcome, my dear,

Aunt Suzi 


September 2016

Dear Jennifer,

I so enjoy thinking about your questions. "Are there any hard and fast rules for success in pet sitting?" I can think of a few:

The Maya Angelou Rule: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." Pet Sitter version - When a dog bites you the first time, get the hell out.

Always behave as if you are on camera. You would be at my house, if I had pets, which I don't - except for Charlotte, my spider. But hold that thought.

IRS Rule - "It is better to travel than to arrive." Because mileage is tax deductible. (I made that up; it's from "The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.")

American Indian proverb: Don't judge any man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins. (That way, if he gets mad at you, you're a mile away and he's barefoot.)

The Rachel Maddow (Host, MSNBC TV News, 9 PM.) Rule: "Don't get overextended. If you burn the candle at both ends, pretty soon you're just going to be wick."

Feed your ego, or feed your family.

Stay focused: You'll hit fewer cars, lose fewer keys, and step on fewer tails.

Take time to smell the roses... and read the books. The doors to some astonishing libraries will be open to you.

Do the important stuff first. Luckily, Marie Dressler said, "Only a few things are really important."

There is one secret to success, and it is perseverance. But do the important stuff first.

Cher's Rule - "Give yourself some slack." Seriously, obey this one.

Remember that:

  • The French writer Voltaire drank 70 cups of coffee a day.
  • Frank Sinatra took a shower 12 times a day.
  • Mozart kept a fart diary.

You will know you are a success when even your silence is golden: the great mime Marcel Marceau's biggest selling album included 40 minutes of complete silence, followed by thunderous applause.

George Carlin Rule - If you are not enjoying your life, you're missing the point.


Aunt Suzi




Roxy & Ruby







October 2016

Dear Jennifer,

I don't want to alarm you but there is something you should know about.

I was taking care of a dog I dearly love, named Bear, who looks like a long-haired version of the sweet-faced white baby seals that killers hunt for money. Bear is a rescue dog who is so terrified of abandonment that he is nearly suicidal when left alone. It was a 24 hour a day job. Bear was on the back deck watching for squirrels; I was in the basement when a cap came off a tooth. I got an emergency appointment with the dentist, which I hate. I thought to myself, "Damn, I have to go to the dentist, and I have to go now, and I have to take Bear." Within seconds he was in front of me, a white whirling dervish, huge eyes filled with pure joy, yelling "Yes!" in full-throated dog.

I sat down stunned, like what I think a bolt of lightning must feel like on the inside. Almost speechless -"What the...?" Unable to believe my eyes. Unable to think the unthinkable.

Later when I told his mother about it, she said calmly, "Oh, I believe it. Happens to me all the time. Bear can read my mind, always has."

I went to the library, my safe house, and told my favorite librarian what I wanted and why. She said, "I have two dogs like that. I can be doing the laundry and think to myself, 'I guess I have time to take the dogs to the dog park.' And immediately they'll be all over me, jumping up and down, barking. I don't know what it is, but it happens."

Paul Darcy Boles wrote, "A library is as important as good bread."

In Dr. Rupert Sheldrake's amazing book, Dogs that Know When their Owners are Coming Home, he described experiments in which dogs were video-taped full time, also their owners who went away from home, in one case out to dinner. On split-screen videos, time-synchronized, independently verified, it was clear when the dogs became excited; their reactions began at the moment the owners decided to come home.

Sheldrake believes it to be a telepathic ability some animals have and it depends on a strong bond between a pet and a person. He cites a large survey of pet owners, 65 million of whom state that they have or had a telepathic connection with a pet. He says it is normal, rather than paranormal (beyond normal.) Just like the known senses, telepathic communication must have been subject to natural selection and since it had considerable survival value, telepathy evolved naturally. Unlike most people, some dogs never lost that ability.

Bear and his military family have moved to North Carolina. I wonder if he knows when I am missing him.

So what the hell happened to people? Being human, with all our baggage - literacy, civilization, mechanistic attitudes, and dependence on technology? Sheldrake thinks so, "and our ancestors may have made up for deficiencies in their own sensitivity by relying on that of the animals around them."

Many writers think that what dogs really want is the company of other dogs. (Cats, they say, want mice.) Dogs want to belong, they want each other. And a valued, respected position in a safe, orderly home. And a place to play and eat and rest together. And especially to sleep - perhaps to dream of meat and potatoes. That we adore them is, well, gravy. That they return the emotion is often what matters to us most.

It is very important to them that we love them. We have the keys that open the door to the whole world. Even locked lovingly in a mansion, they know that the freedom to explore life itself, which we take for granted, is ours alone to give. We arrive home as liberators. "Let's go out" must sound like a pardon to the innocent. Like us they seek fun, adventure. And to read the latest (pee)news and (poo)books, and the highest pleasure of all, to work hard at work worth doing.

Like them, each of us has a "Task," as Robert Fulghum puts it, "to locate yourself in the total scheme of things." When a dog does that, the result is Peace. The reward, a peaceful night's sleep, and when there is nothing that needs doing, perhaps a nap, and then rest afterwards.

I wish I spoke dog; I could use some advice.

For us, it gets complicated. When I go to bed, the earth is spinning me (us) at over 600 miles an hour at southern Maryland's latitude. The earth is racing around the sun. The sun is whirling around our galaxy (the Milky Way), which is throwing itself about in intergalactic space. All at an estimated 2 million mph. And, since the universe is expanding at about 3.7 million miles an hour, when we wake up in the morning we'll all be 30 million more miles away from here!!

I know, freaks me out too. Try not to think about it.

Reminds me of a night last September, sleeping on a deck with two border collies, Padfoot and Buckbeak, named for Harry Potter characters. They were exhausted after having dug their way out of the backyard fence and traveling over a mile, where I found them trying to herd goats, which could easily have killed them.

I was still too upset to sleep, so I enjoyed the bright starry night, and for the first time, identified Andromeda (M31), the galaxy closest to ours, rising in the east. I woke the dogs up to show them, "Look! That light has traveled more than two million light years to get here to your eyes! A light year is 6 trillion miles! So that galaxy is 15 million trillion miles away and you can see it!" They didn't look, of course, but they sensed my excitement. They agreed that, in the total scheme of things, it called for a Two Milkbone Celebration. I even tasted one. Not bad. Needs salt.

Goodnight dear,

Aunt Suzi


November 2016

Dear Jennifer,

I wish you were here. Today it's all cats all the time. I start with one special cat because I'm the boss and I can do what I want to, mostly. Winter is the loveliest, most graceful, gentle cat I've ever known - all white, long-haired, she is the matriarch of a three-cat family.

Her carriage is so elegant that I find myself standing up straighter.

She walks like water flows; I've tried to do that but I can't.

She is so immaculate I have the urge to brush my teeth when they don't need it.

Her welcome is addictive - blinking at me softly in a code I feel rather than understand.

Her head-bumping "hello" could fell me if I were a tree.

A friend gave me some magazines with lots of perfume strips in them and I brought them to her. Turns out, Winter loves gardenias.

I pick her up. She smells my new perfume, and blinks "You love me." I blink back. Her head falls on my shoulder.

Winter's housemates do not get along. The tuxedo cat, Fred (Astaire), doesn't like anybody. "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." Whoever wrote that knows Fred. He is especially mean to the newcomer in the house - a small, young cat who was found half-drowned on a beach, apparently lost overboard from a passing sailboat. He is very quiet and reserved. His parents think he may not yet understand what has happened to him or where he is. His name, subject to change if he decides to stay here, is Fishbait.

A kitten wrote a poem, according to Francesco Marciuliano, which I think describes the situation here:

There Is an Older Cat
. . . . . .
There is an older cat
Who does not want me here
There is an older cat
Who hisses when I approach
There is an older cat
Who eats my food
There is an older cat
Who steals my toys
Who pushes me off chairs
Who bats me on the head
Who bites me on the neck
There is an older cat
Who does not know
Just how big my breed gets
But there is an older cat
Who in six month's time
Is going to learn that 24/7

I am a sucker for intentionally funny animals. Tonight I will be staying with some cats with such wry deadpan humor that I should not be writing this, I should be filming them. When I first met the ten of them, I thought that they were not especially beautiful or graceful or interesting looking cats but their widely-traveled parents told me that each one had been carefully selected. (I thought, silently, "For what?") They said they were happily awaiting the arrival of another one. ("And...Why?") I did admire the elaborate ceiling-high carpet trees built in several places throughout the house. (Though not, I noticed, in their bedroom.)

On some unknown cue at night an unseen curtain seems to go up and an act begins. Two cats at a time begin to chase one another; the goal is apparently to silently shatter any semblance of peace in a room, break some personal best record, survive to joke about it and exit at warp speed. As if the fittest gets a Darwin Award. And the last laugh.

They fly into my room and pounce on my bed like it's a launch pad on their way to the moon. Even at escape velocity, mid-air collisions are rare. Only once did I ever consider canceling my season ticket - when one of them crashed into my solar plexus; I couldn't breathe right for a week.

My startle reflex is now an endless source of amusement. I can just hear them offstage:

"I win! I bet she jumped three feet that time!"

"Did you see her sandwich go flying?"

"Bet she was writing about us and forgot what she was saying."

"She's locked herself in the bathroom again!"

"Better let her calm down. Dinner is in a half an hour."

I am a well-paid audience of one with the best seat in the house in a private theater full of flying comics. "There is only one thing about which I am certain," W. Somerset Maugham wrote, "and this is that there is very little about which one can be certain." I am certain that they are without malice.

And that usually no harm will probably come to me most of the time.

Fortunately the troop sleeps soundly through the night, with the exception of a gold tabby named Pi, who often slips silently under my quilt and crawls slowly, zigzagging toward me. It takes a long time. Apparently, surprise itself is the covert mission. Suddenly he pops up in my face and head-bumps me between the eyes. I don't know how to describe that gentle BAM! He curls around my neck, taps a slow tune with his tail, and rests a sweet, soft paw on my cheek.

I wish you were here,

Aunt Suzi



Mau Mau






Author's Note, December 2016

Writing an important letter to someone you love is very difficult. Each word matters too much. Mark Twain said, "The right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."

From her last letter, Jennifer is off to a good start in her new business and is now at a Stop and Ponder point -about becoming a full-time pet sitter. Sounds like a milestone called the "Hudson Bay Start." Meaning it's not too late for her to go back to her 9 to 5. Either that or kiss most of her free week ends goodbye. I hope she hangs on like a kitten in a tree.

Robert Fulghum described the Hudson Bay Start in "Uh - Oh: some Observations From Both Sides of the Refrigerator."

"In the glory days of fur trading in North America during the eighteenth century, the Hudson Bay company was known both for its willingness to take adventurous risks and its careful preparation for those risks. Trading journeys were habitually begun with vigorous enthusiasm, yet the frontiersmen always camped the first night a few short miles from the company headquarters. This allowed the gear and supplies to be sorted and considered, so that if anything had been left behind in the haste to be underway, it was easy to return to the post to fetch it."

From a fur-trapper's diary: "Fourteen hours on snowshoes and I wish I had pie." What a great line.

"Psychology Today" printed the results of a survey asking, basically, "Is there an aroma that really turns you on?" The runaway favorite was Hot Cinnamon Buns!

From Francesco Marciuliano's book of poems "written by kittens," "I Could Pee on This"

I Miss Me
. . . . . .
I miss my special sunny place
I miss my head pressed against your face
I miss the carpet rub against my paws
I miss the sofa tug against my claws
I miss skidding across the kitchen floor
I miss yowling at your bedroom door
I miss lying on my windowsill
I miss refusing to take my pill
I miss my family, my home, your sweater
I even miss that worthless Irish Setter
I miss everything that was me
Before I climbed this stupid tree


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