When I was a very young child, I had an affinity for animals. My grandmother used to tell a story about me washing a newborn kitten in the well water from the spigot in the yard when I was about 2. I had dogs my whole life and had wanted to groom them myself but my mother was against it. I even did a working job interview with a groomer who said I was too slow (isn't that funny knowing that today I teach groomers to be fast!). My groomer even told me that unless I learned to groom I would never be happy with anyone who groomed my dog and suggested I “just get a book” and learn to groom. I knew there was more to it than that. So I put the idea in the back of my head and went on raising kids and working at a job that I was good at but didn’t truly love doing.
1994 was a bad year for me. My husband of 13 years and I were divorcing (finalized in February) and my life was disintegrating. I had been a military brat or wife for my entire life. That was suddenly over and I had no idea what I was going to do next. I was working as a merchandiser with Hershey Chocolate and at the base commissary. It was a fair living. I managed to make it on my own and was beginning to feel like I might be able to do this after all. I mean I had three small kids and taking care of them with minimal child support and no help (my ex-husband was transferred to another state across country) and two part time jobs. I was tired and working my behind off. I took on two more part time jobs to help. My kids went with me every time they could on my paper route (it was a good job!) and I was able to replace my Hershey route which kept me on the road all the time, with this newspaper route, and that made my life a bit easier.
June of that year is when my life completely fell apart however. My kids went to their father’s house for the summer. I had primary physical custody but we shared joint legal custody.
While they were there I decided to move from my home in Massachusetts to my parent’s home in Georgia. I felt like having more support was going to be a good thing and the cost of living in the area was so much less that I thought it was the right thing to do. I was able to get a job at the local supermarket immediately and living at my parent’s house was saving me lots of money. Things were looking up. We had the house all set up for the kids. I had even gotten their school records transferred to the school in Georgia.
In August my ex-husband informed me that the kids would NOT be coming back to my house for the fall. I was apparently useless and was failing miserably at taking care of them. He could do it better. My life fell apart. I could not function. I lost my job. My parents did everything they could do to help me get the kids back but the state of Arizona was not willing to help me enforce my divorce decree from MA because no one had ever filed the decree in another state (me in Ga nor he in AZ). I spent weeks crying myself to sleep and trying to figure out what to do. I got another job, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I continued working that job and took over my father’s job after he had a major heart attack. I was working his job delivering papers and my job, trying to keep the house afloat and I was stressed out as much as I could be. It was a bad 6 months. I made my car payments and kept the household bills paid, but wasn’t getting anywhere with legal fees to get my kids back.
Then my boyfriend at the time, who had moved with me from MA to GA suggested I go to AZ to get the kids back. He was moving back to MA because he was miserable in GA away from his family and I decided it made sense. My ex wanted the van that we had bought right at the end of our marriage back and I knew the only way to see my kids again was to go to AZ. It was now March of 1995.
I bought (and please don’t laugh) a wonderful, fabulous condition 1968 VW camper van for $550 from a pastor in Sylvester GA. I named her Daisy and my dad and I rebuilt her engine. I drove her to AZ and my mother came with me in the van that my ex-husband was demanding back. She flew back to GA after visiting with the kids whom she had helped raise for two days. It was very hard for her to leave but she went back to her life in GA and I stayed in AZ to try to rebuild mine.
My parents were kind enough to loan me $3000 to restart my life in AZ. So I got a studio apartment. Paid the rent for three months and set out looking for a job. There was nothing in my filed of work that I had done for the last 6 or 7 years (merchandising) anywhere in Sierra Vista. I spent a month living off the money my parents had given me. I spent as much time as I could with my children. This was in May of 1995.
I had been to the labor department and put in applications there (that is where most of the work advertisements were) and one of them was for a dog groomer trainee at a local kennel. I never heard back. This will be important later in the story I promise!
I finally found a job driving a cab. In a town and area I knew nothing about. I got lost a lot. I made good friends. I kept looking for more work elsewhere because it was not as much income as I needed it to be. I worked overnight most nights and while there was a steady bar crowd I was still barely making ends meet. Because I was paid daily in cash I could not even apply for food stamps or assistance of any kind.
I met a local tattoo artist driving that cab, Johnny Ray Rogers at the Enchanted Dragon. I am not really sure how it happened but I had been wandering around some galleries in Tucson one day killing time while waiting on an airplane to land so I could pick up a fare that had pre-booked to Sierra Vista. I saw a wonderful Dream Catcher that was not round or oval, but was made with twigs. The story of the Dream Catcher was there as well and it was the first time I had seen it. I was overwhelmed with a desperate desire to have a Dream Catcher tattoo done and he designed it exactly as I had envisioned it and I used the last of the money I had from my parents on that tattoo. Not the smartest thing I could have ever done, I agree, but it was something I had to do and I could not quite figure out why. Little did I know that tattoo was going to be the start of wonderful change in my life.
I lost my job as a cab driver because my ex-husband was so demanding. He was calling the dispatcher, pulling me off the road to have discussions over things that were really not that important. I was then upset and had to turn in the cab. This happened several times and it became such a problem that I had to find another job. I got another job with another cab company. He tried the same thing with them, but the dispatcher backed me up and refused to pull me unless it was a true emergency.
In the meantime, my lease was up on my apartment and I was trying to find another place to rent because I could not afford that apartment any more. While looking for a new apartment my VW van started having fuel line issues. The fuel line would come loose and splash gasoline all over the engine. It always resulted in a small explosion. Well, we all know that is not good right???
SO one Monday when I had the day off completely I took my kids and we went to get the van looked at in Bisbee, which is about 30 miles away. They had the best VW garage in the area there and they knew Daisy and also worked with me because they knew I had very little cash.
We were almost at the top of the mountain when traffic came to a standstill. There was a blasting crew there working on widening the road.
I felt my heart racing and I was thinking, don’t stall, don’t stall, don’t stall.
Well, she did. And this time the explosion turned into a fire. I was able to pull her to the side of the road and get the kids out. The blasting crew DID NOT have a fire extinguisher. I did but the police officer that was there directing traffic refused to let me back into the van to get it so all we could do was sit there and watch as my wonderful, beautiful van burned while the supervisor headed down the mountain to get a fire extinguisher. The damage was bad, but she did live to see another day.
Needless to say I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do. I was crying the entire way back to Sierra Vista in the front seat of the police car while the kids sat laughing and carrying on in the back seat. They thought it was funny. I thought it was the end of my world.
I made up my mind on the way back to my apartment that I was going to go home. Back to GA. I was going to call my mother to get more money to rent a vehicle and drive home with the children. My phone had been disconnected the day before because I could not afford to have it any more, so we went down to the courtyard of the apartment complex where there was a bank of payphones so that I could make a collect call to my mother.
I put a quarter in the first phone. It fell straight through. I tried the next one and it was blocked with a Mexican coin and wouldn’t eject it. The next one took my quarter but did not work. No dial tone. At this point I almost gave in and went back upstairs to rethink, but the nearest payphone was about 4 blocks away and so we decided to walk to the corner store and use that phone. My kids and I headed off, kids singing and laughing, me trying hard not to cry. I was not sure my parents were going to help me again, but I had to try. There was nothing else I could do.
I don’t think we had gotten a half block down the road when a white truck from a pest control company pulled in behind me screeching to a stop. I was scared to be honest with you. I could NOT imagine what was happening but with the day I had had I was expecting the worst (even though I had no idea what that could be). Someone grabbed me from behind, spun me around and hugged me screaming “DEBI ZEHMISCH! WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?”
It was Larry D. (name left out to protect the innocent) a man I had known at Fort Devens MA. We had worked together on community government and had been friends. What the heck was he doing in Sierra Vista???
He was dating a woman named Carol H. (name left out to protect the guilty). She owned a place called Liberty Kennels. They had a job opening and a trailer home on the property for rent. It was the place I had applied for a job at months before. Apparently the Labor Department had given them a wrong number for me.
Needless to say I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t come back to GA right then. I moved into their mobile home and continued driving a cab at night and working in the kennel during the morning, scrubbing runs and taking care of boarders and the owners show dogs, while attending their “grooming school” during the day.
I learned a lot there about what not to do. About what animal abuse is and what I did not want to do in my own life. But I also learned a great deal about grooming. I got a great foundation in this wonderful career. We often didn’t have lights, phone or shampoo because Carol couldn’t pay the bills. We didn’t have equipment that I now consider critical to grooming, like force dryers. What we did have was a tremendous teacher who saw something in me. She told me I was going to be better than her one day. I learned a lot about safe handling from that teacher. About grooming techniques that I still use today. About patterns and breed profiles.
One day at Lunch I got someone else’s paycheck. There were two Debi’s and I got the kennel helps check. She was making almost $5 more per hour that I was. Carol told me that until I could groom ten dogs a day I was not getting a pay raise. I was making $5.75 an hour as a g roomer and the girl cleaning the kennels was making $11 an hour! It wasn’t enough to live on. In fact I couldn’t pay my rent and my boss was my landlord! My electricity was currently cut off because I could not pay the $55 light bill. I had my phone reconnected and I called my mother. I must have sounded horrible as I begged her to send me $300 so that I could drive home to GA. She agreed. I packed everything I could possibly pack into and on top of my new (to me) Eagle station wagon and loaded four cocker spaniels and three kids into it.
We left for home that night. I have been working as a groomer continually ever since that night.
It was two weeks before Christmas, 1995. 22 years ago.
How we made it back to GA is a miracle as well. Lost an axle on the Pontchartrain bridge and had to have MORE Money wired. Ran out of gas (almost) in GA and had to scour the parking lot and seats of my car for change. We made it to my mom's on fumes. I didn't make it to the next gas station in fact...but we were "home" and my journey was about to really get underway.
I had a job within 2 days of my arrival in GA. This vet clinic owned grooming shop was... "interesting". Every card said "Carmen knows". WELL since Carmen called out the two days after I started and it was the week of Christmas, I had no idea what to do to anyone, so I just dropped back and punted. She left shortly after I was hired and I was thrown into grooming 10-20 dogs PER DAY with little to no help. How I survived it is beyond me. We moved out twice, moved locations once and I was hospitalized for a bad cat bite that still haunts me to this day.
I left that job after a bit less than 6 months and went to work in another shop, an hour the other direction.
The owner of that shop was a nurse part time at night and a VERY abusive groomer in her own right. I learned (again) what NOT TO DO while working for her. On my days off from her shop I began working at my veterinarian's office and that led to a second vet offering to hire me on. I value my time spent at vet clinics more than you will ever know. I walked out of that job with the shop on a Monday morning. I still had a key. so I was loading my car when the owner came in. She blocked me from leaving, refused to let me take some of my stuff (shampoo, conditioner, a dryer I had bought) but I left anyway.
I was working as kennel help at a vet, grooming at two vets and wondering if I had made the right move (grooming). I was then offered a THIRD vet clinic and a FOURTH came along soon afterwards. I was making upwards of $700 a week (this was 1996 remember?) and while working hard and being tired all the time I was making a good living and having a good time doing it.
I cannot tell you at what moment I decided to open my own shop, but about a year after leaving the grooming shop, I had a wild hair. I wanted my own place. I wanted to be able to run it the way I wanted and use the materials and equipment I wanted to use, as well as have more freedom. HA! looking back I know how lucky I was...
My dad took out a $7000 loan and we redid a commercial site from the floor up. My dad laid tile, installed a tub, a water heater and built me tables. We bought cages, dryers, advertising. Made deposits and a month later we were open. October first 1997. I lasted in that shop a year then moved to another location. Was there for 8 years, then the building sold. We moved to a small, cozy shop and we were there a year. I have been in my current location 10 years now.
I love every minute of what I am doing, even if it hurts, makes me tired, wears me out. I would not give this up for the world. I met my husband because of my shop. We have been married 17 years next year. I got to blog because of my shop. I got to give classes and write articles because of my shop.
I have no doubt that I would be out of grooming had I stayed working for someone else. That daring jump with $7000 saved my grooming career.
The photos above are my shop today. I love my 1200 SQ foot building! It is all decked out for Christmas as we speak and it is my favorite time of the year. It remoinds me every day that I have come from such a distant place in history to my current happy place.
Back to the earlier story, I fully believe the dream catcher caught a dream I never knew I had and helped me make it a reality in a trial by fire.
It was a miracle of impossible circumstances that have led me to where I am today. I can still to this day remember my ex-husband say to me “you are fat, ugly, repulsive and no one would ever want anything to do with you! You will never amount to anything!”
Well…. My kids and I have never looked back. And if this is what you call amounting to nothing, I will take it! I have a great , successful shop, a wonderful husband and a blog that people apparently love to read. TWO Barkleigh Honors awards and 12 nominations. I am successful in what I love to do.
And by the way the dogs don’t care if I am fat or ugly. They love me. And I love them. Who could ask for more than that?