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'Mass Ave Lola' wasn't my dog, but she helped me feel at home

"Mass Ave Lola, surveying her empire," as captioned by the author in an Instagram post, March 2019, Cambridge, MA. (Courtesy E.B. Bartles)
"Mass Ave Lola, surveying her empire," as captioned by the author in an Instagram post, March 2019, Cambridge, MA. (Courtesy E.B. Bartles)

When I finished grad school and moved to Cambridge from New York, in 2014, one of the first things I noticed was a curious sign. It hung in my neighbor’s first-floor window on Massachusetts Avenue (Mass Ave): four large construction paper letters spelling out LOLA, with an arrow pointing down to the sill.

“Who do you think Lola is?” I asked my boyfriend Richie on a walk to Porter Square.

“A dog. Most definitely.”

Then, there she was: a tiny Yorkie in the window, watching everyone walking by. After that, I saw Lola almost every day. She napped, she barked, but mostly she watched everyone outside walk by, just going about their day.

I began making sure I was on "Lola's side" of the street, and Richie looked for her too. We gave each other updates: "She was sleeping!" or "She barked at me!"

Richie and I weren't the only ones who kept an eye out for Lola. Lesley students gathered outside, calling her name. Kids waved at Lola. Often when I approached Lola’s window, there was already someone peering in. "What's she up to today?" I'd ask. "Oh, just snoozing." We'd exchange a smile.

It seemed the whole neighborhood loved this Yorkie. When a small sign appeared in the window saying: "Follow me: @massavelola,” she collected 600+ followers -- admirers commenting on her photos, posting their own images, tagging her with #massavelola. Cambridge with its universities is by nature a transient city. People move in for a few years then move on. But this one small dog was a point of consistency on Mass Ave, and even the worst day got a little brighter when I spotted Lola. She felt like a good luck charm.

Then one day in spring 2019, after almost five years of walking past Lola, Richie said: “She looks really old today.”

Lola was napping more, barking less, and her owner had recently posted several updates to Instagram about some health problems. In June, Richie and I stopped seeing Lola in the window. Then, on June 26, I saw the update: Lola had died.

Without even knowing her, so many people had loved this dog. She brought us together.

I sent the post to Richie, who cried at work. I scrolled through @massavelola’s posts, and I looked through my own photos of her as I teared up. No, she hadn’t been my dog, but she had been part of my life all the same. In the five years I had been walking by Lola, I had gone from floundering recent MFA grad to a confident writer with my own literary agent and a book deal at a major publishing house. I'd worked as a nanny, taught middle school and high school English, and freelanced. Richie had transformed from my boyfriend to my fiancé. Several people I loved had died, and other family members had struggled with illness. It had been a transformative and, at times, really challenging five years, but Lola had been there through it all, even if she had no idea. She was just busy keeping watch out the window.

I didn’t know what to do, so I wrote a note. I found a sympathy card and wrote to Lola’s owner. I told her how much Richie and I had loved keeping an eye out for Lola and how much better she had made our days. Lola brought me joy in the same way my own pets have over the years. I left the card by Lola’s window.

Walking down Mass Ave the next day, I glanced up at Lola’s window out of habit, remembering too late that she wouldn’t be there. But what I saw made me quickly inhale — 10 photos of Lola, taped up inside the window where she used to sit. It felt, for a moment, like Lola was still with us. Even better, resting outside the window was a pile of flowers, cards, notes and candles. I took comfort in knowing I wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood so saddened by Lola’s death.

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Lola’s owner posted thanks for the cards and flowers to the Instagram account, saying she felt that Lola wasn't just her dog, but all of ours. She was grateful so many people honored her memory.

Mass Ave Lola's window, June 2019, Cambridge, MA. (Courtesy E.B. Bartels)
Mass Ave Lola's window, June 2019, Cambridge, MA. (Courtesy E.B. Bartels)

The internet is an incredible way for people to bond over the deaths of pets — even pets you don’t know. The kindness that people are able to express can be overwhelming, and while much of the internet is full of hateful rhetoric, it seems pet forums are one of the last places online that are full of kindness. They’re communities of fellow animal people, people who aren’t going to tease or make fun of you, people who get what it feels like to mourn a pet -- often one who meant the world to you.

On July 3 that year, there was one more post about Lola: a photo of a small wooden box, next to a pink rose, in the sunny spot where Lola used to sleep, back on her perch. Lola's owner wrote that while the little Yorkie may be gone, she hoped that people would continue to look up from their phones as they walked down the street, smiling at strangers, and basking in the warm days, just like Lola did.

Without even knowing her, so many people had loved this dog. She brought us together.

Even though Lola is gone, and I no longer live in Cambridge — even @massavelola is no longer on Instagram — whenever I am back on Mass Ave I still look to Lola’s window, remembering the comfort and consistency she brought me during a time when I felt new and unmoored.

I notice others looking for her too.

E.B. Bartels is the author of the book "Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter" which published this week.  

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Related:

E.B. Bartels Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
E.B. Bartels is the author of "Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here And Hereafter."

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