In Memoriam: Brownie

by Elizabeth McGinn on February 25, 2021


Photo courtesy of

by Fiona Clarke ’23

When someone says, “My dog died,” there’s a certain somber ring to it. It’s a few shades less solemn than “My grandpa died.” But unless you’re Jimmy Stewart in Harvey (1950)—whose best friend is a 6’ 3.5” white rabbit, invisible to everyone else—then, well, man’s best friend is rarely a rabbit. It’s the same thing with ferrets, I imagine, and no one’s face falls in the same way when you say, “My gerbil died.” From me, at least, you’d get a better reaction if you said, “The battery in my Woody the cowboy doll died,” because when Woody’s batteries run low, he sounds like he’s been possessed by a malevolent demon. Now, if you said, “My capybara died,” well, a capybara sounds like a plant, or maybe it’s what you call your grandmother, and with that much room for interpretation, there’s really no telling what reaction you’ll get. 


When my brother was 13, he had a pet mollusk that he named Moby. Moby—“lived” just doesn’t seem the right word, partly since I’m not sure he was even alive, and even if he had been, I don’t know if you can call existence in a mozzarella tub “living”—at any rate, Moby remained with an indeterminate amount of vitality in a mozzarella tub for two months. Then he began to wilt (if a mollusk could wilt—he was already pretty limp). Then he began to smell. My brother, whose nasal powers are insignificant (unlike his nose, which, like mine, might be more aptly entitled, in the Yiddish, a “schnozz”), remained in denial about Moby’s declining health (if mollusks at any point possess health). Eventually, a foot, attached to a parent with a keener nose, came down firmly, and Moby was laid to rest in the river near our house.


Unsurprisingly, Moby was no more touching in death than he had been in life (or whatever would be the most apt term for the time in which his unsegmented body was housed in the mozzarella tub). In this, as in most categories, rabbits have the upper hand, and not just because they have appendages that at least loosely resemble hands, unlike mollusks, which don’t have any limbs. Rabbits are lovable little buggers, and, well, not to put too fine a point on it, mollusks are lumps of cold, wet flesh. If I explained to a stranger why I was crying, I think that it’s more likely the reaction would be one of sympathy if I were to gulp out, “My rabbit died,” as opposed to “My mollusk died” (or, if I were being honest, “My mollusk was disposed of”)—to which that stranger would probably try speaking Russian to me, hoping they’d misheard, or maybe beat a nervous retreat. 


When I found out, a few weeks ago, that my rabbit died, I was at my desk job. My mom and I were sobbing to each other on the phone, and my snorts and snivels were echoing throughout the art gallery, at the moment that the only gallery visitors of the day chose to wander in. Mutually embarrassed by such an unseemly display, the visitors and I hastily and idiotically apologized to each other, and I turned my attention back to my mother’s description of my dad digging the grave with grim determination, knee-deep in the frozen ground. 


This wasn’t just any rabbit. I had Brownie for nearly fourteen years, since, to be precise, November 4, 2007. At the tender age of seven, my petitions for a pet rabbit were answered. Brownie was a normal-sized rabbit, neither small nor large, with mottled brown and black fur so soft you almost couldn’t feel it. My mom built him a cage out of chicken wire, which in retrospect, I hope didn’t trigger any kind of identity crisis. We gave him a towel—which he chewed to shreds. As much as that sounds like it could be in a mopey love song, maybe a duet version of Taylor Swift’s “Back to December” (“You gave me roses, and I left them there to die” / “I gave you towels, and you chewed them all to shreds”), I don’t say that in reproach. I just hope he enjoyed it. 


Brownie lived a long, rich life. He was well-educated; I used to hunker down by his cage and read aloud to him. He was well-fed; I used to give him parsley. He was well-traveled. When my family moved from Michigan to Washington in 2011, Brownie rattled around in the back of the station wagon—and then was rudely relocated to the back of the 12-seat once the station wagon gave up the ghost on the side of a road in Montana. When we moved from Washington to Massachusetts a few years after that, he was no longer the sole beast in the bus—he had to share his carriage, like a character in a Jane Austen novel trapped with an unwelcome suitor. The suitor in that case was the cat, or rather the two cats, who were very loudly enraged at being thwarted in following their killer instincts. The cats have outlived Brownie, much to the chagrin of my dad—who I think preferred Brownie because he was silent and didn’t get under his feet. 


It’s funny that Brownie isn’t there. I don’t remember ever really thinking about him not being there. I think it’ll be strange, the next time I go home, that he’s not there. I think I believed he would live forever. I’m glad he was around as long as he was, especially for this reason: My two-year-old niece has an etymologically inexplicable name for rabbits, the very Germanic-sounding “P. Heiss.” The “P” is her pronunciation of “pink,” and she does have a pink stuffed rabbit, but the origin of “Heiss” is known only to her—and we’re not even German. When her dad, my brother (not the erstwhile mollusk-owner), heard about Brownie, he gave me a crumb of comfort: “Siobhan will miss him.” I’m glad that P. Heiss was around long enough to be a highlight of my niece’s day.