The Beginning of the Long Goodbye

Greta
James and I came home from the college at almost two o’clock, and the dog was not downstairs. I found her snuggled into the extra blanket on my bed.

Mark had texted at noon, “Dog seems fine but I can’t get her to go downstairs.”

I lowered myself gently onto the bed next to Greta. Her head rested between her paws, and she rolled her eyes to look at me. Her tail thumped slowly. I stroked her silky head, gently rubbed her back, and I felt her little heart pelting frantically against her rib-cage. Her back legs were tucked beneath her.  She turned her head to lick my hand.

“Want to go downstairs, pup?” I asked her, and she sighed gently and laid her head back down between her paws.

***************

We got Greta at the Animal Shelter a few months after our beloved Holmsie died. We missed that sweet presence so. The house seemed empty.

“Never again,” we’d said, grief tearing us. But one Sunday, the car turned in at the shelter, maybe of its own accord.

Just to look, we said.

All of the dogs were named for celebrities. In one kennel, Roseanne, big and fluffy, bounced and crashed, barking for attention. In the kennel right next to her, Greta huddled in the farthest chain link corner, tiny, shivering, wanting to be alone. She was brown and black and white–there was a beagle among those terrier forebears–and her eyes, like Holmsie’s, looked as if they’d been outlined in kohl.

“Look at this,” I said, and Mark and Jim turned away from frolicking puppies and crouched with me by Greta’s cage.  She inched over; she licked our hands through the chain link. A volunteer appeared.

“She’s never done that before,” she said. “This is the first time she’s shown an interest in anyone.  Would you like to see her?”

Keys jingling, she went to let the little dog out of her pen.

“Yeah,” Mark said later, “they probably tell everyone that: oooh, she really responds to YOU!” But it didn’t matter: true or not, the imprinting was done. Greta was our dragon. She came home to stay about two weeks later, after a rigorous home visit and the requisite surgery.

**************

I could count on Greta’s routine. When I got up in the morning, she got up, too, marching to the back door and waiting while I turned the coffee on. I’d mix her food while she ran into the backyard, took care of urgent business, then stood at the door quietly until I let her in.

She’d wolf her breakfast greedily, then trot back upstairs, snuggling into the still warm spot I’d vacated, nestling behind Mark’s knees. I’d shower and dress, and when I was done, she would follow me back downstairs. She’d curl up under the chair at the head of the dining room table, sighing in that little cave, while I wrote my morning pages. She was waiting,–hoping, I always thought, that there might be some sort of breakfast meat.

That happened every day, a regularity since we’d moved into this house. But then suddenly, recently, everything began to change.

****************

We got Greta almost thirteen years ago, and the folks at the shelter weren’t sure how old she was. One vet guessed seven months. Another thought she was much older than that, maybe as much as two years old.

What the shelter people knew was how she’d arrived: a projectile heaved over the ten foot fence by someone who burst out of a running pickup truck, threw the dog, and left. A male volunteer, new to the work, ran to get her. When she wouldn’t budge, he slipped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she whimpered, across sixty feet of gravel yard.

By the time someone ran out to intervene, her head was permanently turned away. And she definitely did not want to deal with men.

*****************

This spring, Greta started reacting to storms very differently. She had never liked thunder, but usually we could tuck her up next to us, talking to her soothingly, and she would settle down. But now she could not be comforted. She shivered violently. She panted. She followed me from room to room, tight at my heels.

Soon, thunder didn’t have to roll to bring on this response. A hard soaking rain was enough to send the little dog into hours of frantic shaking.

We tried a thunder shirt; she tolerated it, but it didn’t quell the tremors or the panting. The vet prescribed a pill, which seemed to work. But once the shaking started, we could not get the little dog to open her mouth and swallow the tablet.

We tried a blue gel, squirted between cheek and gum. She squirmed and struggled. She had a blue grin for days afterward.

Then she started rousing us every night, storm or no storm. I would startle awake, the little dog’s face pushed up next to mine. As soon as she knew I was up, she’d pace over to Mark’s side of the bed, and wake him, too. She panted, paced, and shook, until finally we got her settled between us in the warm bed, shivering into slumber.

Two hours later, her snout would be next to my face, jolting me awake.

I’d read somewhere that, in elderly humans, urinary tract infections produced symptoms that looked like dementia. Maybe dogs are like that, too, I thought. Maybe this is all Greta’s kidneys talking. I brought a sample in and had it tested. The dog’s kidneys were fine.

The vet prescribed different medications–some zonked Greta out completely during the day; she refused to eat or sleep, but by nighttime, the panting would resume. One pill made her nasty and snappish, not unknown behavior for a dog who didn’t much like visitors, but never before had she bared her teeth at us.

We were frazzled from lack of sleep; we were concerned for the little dog’s health. The vet did a complete physical and finally prescribed Prozac.

When she came in to talk with me after the battery of test results were in, the kind, compassionate vet sat down on her bench and sighed.

“Physically, it all checks out,” she said, and she paused. “This is all,” she said carefully, “consistent with what we sometimes see in elder dogs: early signs of canine dementia.”

Greta pushed her head beneath my knees and shivered.

Oh my, I thought. I took the dog, and her big bottle of Prozac, home.

**************

Greta circled us warily when she first moved in; we could see her tense, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for…yelling? Violence? We didn’t know. When we reached to pet her, she flinched.

She followed me throughout the house, avoiding the boyos.

She dragged her food dish underneath the kitchen table. She would only eat when no one else was in the room. She did not want to be combed. She would tolerate only a certain amount of petting. She was wary, on guard, waiting.

Then one day, I took her out into the side yard with me. I was weeding, kneeling on a little cement walkway. It was late spring; there was a warm sun. The air was pleasant and the concrete radiated sun-baked warmth. The dog sat, alert and watching for a few minutes, then she lowered herself to the cement warmth. In a few minutes, she had surrendered; she was sprawled and sleeping–sleeping deeply and heavily–the kind of sleep one is drawn into, the kind of sleep that, like seawater, closes over your head when exhaustion has reached its very peak.

I swear that, when she woke up from that deep bout of sleeping, she was different. I swear that, after that, Greta knew she was home.

*****************

The Prozac helped the dog make it through the night; she would wake us only once, and then she’d hop up into the bed, circle and sigh, and settle down for the rest of the night. And so we could sleep too, a very good thing.

But the changes didn’t stop. She was slowing down, and now we saw–the loving time-filters peeled away,–the pure white muzzle, the cloudy eyes. The toes bent and twisted by arthritis. Greta sighed when she heaved herself up after a long rest. She didn’t always run to get her dish when dinner was served. The mail would fall through the slot–an occasion that had always brought her, barking and challenging, right out of a full, deep sleep. But now she’d perk her head up for a moment, consider, and sigh herself back to snoozing.

I’m sure the mail carrier was relieved, but grief settled into our awareness.

********************

We thought, in those early days of Greta, that if we just loved her enough, treated her kindly enough, that she would morph into the friendly, wonderful sort of dog her predecessor had been. We noticed enough to suspect former abuse. She tensed at men with facial hair, growled and threatened and ran to hide. She went into full alert-mode when sharing a couch with someone and that someone lifted the TV remote. We imagined the back story there.

It took her months to realize no one was going to steal her food.

And she did settle in. She would jump into our laps in the evening when we gathered to watch TV; she would nudge our hands to pet her.

We went for long walks. We would take her, on weekends, to an enclosed ball-field at a nearby park. We would unclip the leash and yell, “Go go go!!” She would explode into movement, streaking around the base paths, a tiny blur.  She would run and run and run.  But she always came back; never once did she attempt to break away, to get shet of her restraints. The safety of family seemed much more compelling than the lure of freedom.

But she never opened up to other people. I remember my friend Kim, a true dog-whisperer, working with her gently, coaxing, narrowing the gap between them, until finally it reached a point past comfort and Greta turned and growled at her.

Kim was startled. “Animals LIKE me,” she said. “I’ve never had an animal I couldn’t win over.”

Greta was the first, stubborn and untrusting.

I talked to the vet, who sighed. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s because of the abuse, and you can work, gently and patiently, and the dog might blossom, might accept new people. Sometimes, it’s just who the dog IS, a wary, suspicious little being. And you can do your best.

“And sometimes,” the doctor said slowly, “sometimes you’re dealing with the effects of abuse and neglect on a little creature who’s wary and shy to begin with. And then it’s really, really hard.”

She paused and looked at Greta, curled up under my bent legs, her back firmly to the doc who had poked and prodded her. “I think,” the vet said slowly, “I think, you’re dealing with both.”

***************

I couldn’t talk the dog downstairs. Her tail thumped when I talked to her, but she didn’t budge. I hated to leave her upstairs alone (What if she DIES? a panicky little voice entreated in my mind), so I pulled out my cleaning tools and attacked the bathroom. I scrubbed and sprayed; I threw towels and rugs down the laundry chute. I swiffered the floor.

I could hear the dog sighing.

I opened the closet door to put the mop away, and I saw the vacuum. Ha, I thought. That will move her. I plugged the machine in, and I pulled it out into the hallway and turned it on. I pushed and pulled down the hall, getting closer, watching the dog from the corner of my eye.

I wrestled the vacuum into the bedroom. She opened her eyes but didn’t budge. I circled around the bed, giving her a clear escape route, but she stayed, immobile, a stubborn little lump. I finished cleaning, shut off the machine, emptied the dust bucket, and went downstairs to get my book. I snuggled in on the bed with the dog, reading, her silky head under my hand.

Soon we were both snoring gently, enjoying a mid-afternoon nap on a cool spring day.

She finally went downstairs while I was in the bathroom, and she waited for me at the bottom of the stairs. She went outside agreeably, and she ate half a bowl of food.

In the evening she curled up on the carpet while we watched Doc Martin, and she climbed the stairs willingly to go to bed. But we knew that we had turned a corner.

Something had changed, and a new era had arrived.

*****************

Some days, now, the dog stays upstairs long after I’ve started the coffee and poured my cereal. Today is a good day: today she came downstairs with me, trotted right to the back door, ate her breakfast greedily. She’s sleeping now, Greta is, in her special corner of the couch. She is interested when the mail arrives. She rouses herself to sigh at the boy when he comes down for breakfast.

But an ominous countdown has begun in the back of my mind. The changes happen quickly. Our little dog, loyal and skittish, anti-social and demanding, is failing. The tethers begin to slip.

The rhododendrons have come back strong this spring; the little rosebush is covered, already, with buds. The Whomping Oak in the backyard released, quite suddenly, its winter load of old dead leaves and burst immediately into green-leafed glory. The birds are raucous, and there are three bunnies that meet to munch on clover in our backyard early every morning.

It is a spring when new life pushes boisterously. It is a spring of  last days, too, a spring, we realize, a spring when we begin to say the long goodbye.

*******

Here’s one source on canine dementia: https://www.thespruce.com/senior-dementia-in-dogs-3385016

 

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Don’t Let’s Go to the Vet’s Tonight

the-great-gretzky
I am perched on a little bench made for much shorter people to sit on. It’s so low to the ground, my knees form a roof peak. Tightly wound beneath them shudders my little dog, Greta, who is huddled and pressed and quivering uncontrollably. We’re in an immaculate green-tiled room room that is rimmed with locked cupboards. A metal topped table sits center stage.

A hum of voices, barks, and howls filters out from beyond a swinging door at the back.

We are waiting to see the veterinarian, my terrified pup and I. The kind, sweet vet tech has been in twice and taken Greta away, to be weighed, to have blood drawn. Both times, Greta went willingly enough, looking over her shoulder at me, making sure, maybe, that I wasn’t leaving her.

To her, this is a place where we leave her behind, in the care of strangers and the company of crazy companions, when we go away. This is the place where needles shine in fluorescent light, where harsh metal clippers make fast work of her nails, where a man with a shaved head pries her lips open and studies her teeth.

For me, this room provokes layers of memories. I have sat in examining rooms much like this one with other dogs, aging dogs; I have prayed, in those rooms, for miracles, or at least reprieves. Sometimes those have arrived, and a loyal friend has bundled back into the car with me. Going home: home to try the new medication, the rub, the bath…the thing that we hope will make life comfortable, livable, longer for the pet who has come to be a beloved necessary presence.

Sometimes the visit ended in harsh reality, in bowing to time’s inexorability, in knowing we could not subject our liquid-eyed dog to a life of unending pain.

Greta looks up at me as I rub her silky, bony head. She shoots one message from her big black eyes: Homehomehomehomehomehome…

“You’re not staying tonight,” I murmur, soothingly.

Then I hope I’m not lying. The tech, Melissa, says the dog has lost four pounds. Suddenly, Greta empties her big water bowl every day. At night, she wakes, panting heavily. Her scratching shakes the house.

I have found a lump on her back; there’s another on her belly. When James and I took her out to the car, she had trouble, my nimble little hound, jumping up onto the seat.

I am confronted with the reality of time’s relentless march.

***********

Cleaning files the other day, Mark found our adoption papers for Greta. We looked at the date–2005–and looked at each other and shook our heads. Eleven years.

An eye-blink.

We got the dog at the animal shelter. Something pushed us, almost physically, to stop one Sunday afternoon. It was spring, and still cold; the death of our beloved Holmsie was not that far behind us. We weren’t sure we were ready for another dog.

We’ll just look, we said.

The kennels were full; volunteers were bringing food around, and big dogs were jumping against the chain link walls joyously. Little dogs were running in circles and yipping. Puppies were tumbling obliviously.

But Greta–she was huddled in a corner of her kennel, quiet, sad, so very alone. She had the brown and black and white markings that belied a beagle ancestor. Holmsie, too, had been a beagle descendant; she also had a strong German Shepherd strain–she was big, solid, a rock.

Greta must have had terrier forebears; she was smaller. She was quivering.

“Look,” I said to Mark and Jim who were laughing at the antics of a fat, woolly beast whose name tag read, “Roseanne.” Roseanne was jumping against her cage walls to get the volunteer’s attention, then dropping down to the ground to preen and flirt.They came over to where I knelt by Greta’s kennel, and the little dog crept over to see. The boyos knelt down too, and the pup put a paw on the chain link, stuck her snout through the metal to try to lick Jim’s hand.

A volunteer, crepe-soled, stood suddenly behind us.

“I’ve never seen her be so interested in anyone,” she said. “Would you like to meet her?”

And in that moment the die was cast.

We had to wait, though, for shots and neutering. We had to be–no pun intended–vetted by the staff; they wanted to know our house was clean enough, our yard was fenced, we had no toddlers. Greta was not a dog for a toddler household. We waited several weeks in a cold, wet spring, when Mark would toss at night, and murmur, “Do you think she needs a blanket?”

The staff brought her home to us, watched the interaction, watched her settle in, and finally, satisfied, they went away, and Greta was our dog—our twitchy, nervous, sensitive, ill-treated dog.

The staff had told us stories about her origins. How they found her huddled in a corner of a kennel–someone had apparently driven up, after dark,and lofted her, dirty and flea-ridden, over the ten foot high fencing that kept the dogs from bolting. How the former volunteer who’d discovered her had clamped a leash around her neck and dragged her, as she wailed and whimpered and resisted, across the pebbled driveway to intake. How after that, she turned her head away and didn’t want the company of human or beast.

Until we came. It felt like she was always our dog. It felt like if we just loved her enough, we could heal the wounds and bury the memories and make her over into a loving, trusting pup.

The first night, she paced and searched. She dragged her tupperware bowl of kibble under the dining room table and huddled over it. She didn’t eat the food during daylight. When we got up in the morning, the dish was empty, and the dog was quivering under the table.

We cooed and held out hands to sniff. That afternoon, I took her out into the fenced in side yard with me, company while I was weeding.  She paced and prowled as I inched my way down a wild, weedy flowerbed. She wandered over to the sun-warmed cement sidewalk  three feet from where I worked. She circled and sat, and suddenly, I realized she was sleeping–deep and urgent, sleeping as if she had never slept before. And I thought that finally, finally, the little dog felt safe.

She came to love us, Greta did, sometimes treating Mark and Jim like they were annoying brothers. I was always, to her, the alpha dog, the center of safety. Often, she followed me around the house, upstairs and down, just staying by my side.

We took her out to fenced in ball fields and she would soar around the base paths, running and running until she ran herself out. She always came back; this was not a dog we would ever have to worry about wandering away.

We took her for long evening walks.

We bought her toys. We realized she had no idea of how to play.

She settled in; our home became hers, but she never got comfortable with visitors.  No matter how much we loved her, claimed her, kept her safe, Greta was who she was: a nervous dog who didn’t much like change or company.

************
She moved with us, five years ago, settled into a new home after some days of consternation, but changed her nighttime place. Greta had always snuggled into a corner of the couch to snore the night away. After the move, she slept with us, starting in a cozy dog bed we bought for her.  When we woke up in the morning, she’d be snuggled between our feet.

She was never sick. We took her in for yearly visits, practiced flea and heart-worm prevention, walked her in our new neighborhood. The only time she needed doctoring was the night she greedily swallowed chunks of pork bone, which lodged in her intestines, making her feverish, taking her to the animal hospital for three scary nights.

We bought soft food instead of kibble for the healing time; she refused to eat bare kibble ever again. She gained three pounds.

They started calling her a ‘senior dog’ when she turned eight, and we snorted: Greta was still spunky and nimble and anxious, each night after dinner, for me to get the leash and head outside to wander. We didn’t register the facts of age.

***********
But sitting on that bench, I had to face the truth. We don’t really know how old she is. One vet guessed that Greta was eight months old when we adopted her; another was sure she was at least two years. We settled for the younger age; we gave her a birthday in May.

So the truth is that the little hound is at least eleven. She’s 77 in dog years–and maybe more than that.

The truth is, that she has moved from ‘senior’ to ‘elderly.’

The truth is, she will not be with us forever.

**************
The nice vet, the young man with the shaved head, wearing his green polo shirt emblazoned with the name of the practice, came smiling in to see the little dog; she turned and hid her head beneath my legs. He coaxed her out with gentle hands; he stroked her head and examined her lumps and he searched for anything internally that might alarm.

The lumps, he said, were harmless cysts.

She had, he surmised, a UTI.

Her lower back was raw from some sort of dermatitis.

And it was true: arthritis is setting in.

He sent us home with shampoo and pills–antibiotics and anti-itch pills. And when those are done, we can start the anti-arthritis pills; those are pills she’ll take now, forever.

*************

Oh, it could have been much worse.

I didn’t lie to my little friend; we will go home and start the medication regime, and maybe, tonight, she’ll sleep better than she has in a long time.

But time’s drumbeat is louder to me now, like that moment when the background noise–the thrumming of the furnace, or the backbeat of the band from the bar down over the hill–rears up and becomes the prominent, important sound. My little dog is entering those last days. I hope there will be years full of days in this era.

Our time with her will never feel endless again.

************

Once, jokingly, a few months after we got the dog, when she’d bared her teeth as he playfully tried to steal her rawhide bone,  Mark said to me, “Tell me why we felt compelled to get this nasty little beast!”

I was stumped for an answer. Why do we invest so deeply in these furry friends, these emissaries from another land, who change our lives and shed in our houses and demand our love and care and time?

But we do. On sad days when the house is empty of the tick-tacking of unclipped nails, the residue of hair on the couch, then we wander and we grieve.

“Never again,” we say, “never again. This hurts too much.”

And then the car stops, of its own free will, it seems, and the little beast comes to the fence…

I cannot find a reason; maybe this is one of those things that goes deeper than thought or practicality, some kind of inherited need to which we willingly accede.  For we need her just as much, I know, as she needs us.

**********

This time, I  clip the leash on and take the dog out to where young James waits. Greta looks at him, sniffs, and raises her snout snootily in the air; Jim has been petting the fluffy, caramel colored cat that prowls the practice. Greta is not amused at this defection. But she lets him take her outside while I pay the bill and gather the pills and head out into a sunny, cloud-scudded autumn day–a day when I’ll take my dog, healthy for the most part, home.

An Ordinary Week, Triumphant

 

I clip the leash on to the little dog’s collar and we step out into pale morning sunshine.  This early, the air is cool, and I think I will bring my coffee and IPad outside and sit on the repurposed chair, with its plush new cushion, and write this morning. I’ll pour steaming coffee into my Hartstone mug, the one with the pansies–but first, the insistent little dog needs her morning walk.

We head down the driveway, and we veer to the left.  Greta sniffs and grumbles among the rocks in Shirley’s landscaping, tippy-toeing around the plantings, investigating last night’s rich residue of smells.  In the hard, caked dirt, there are exactly round drill-holes, the evidence that the cicadas were here, vividly present for much of May and June. Now the offspring of those noisy, vanquished conquerors have begun their long slow burrow below.

Birds call; a robin pulls a tidbit from the dirt on the other side of Shirley’s lawn. I just read something about birds and their relationship to dinosaurs, and now I can’t help but picturing T-Rex with feathers. Or seeing hidden meaning in the bright, bold glint of a robin’s eye. This one ignores me, hopping into clumsy flight, its morning treat dangling from its beak.

****

I think, as I wander alongside the exploring hound, about last night’s presentation at the Gant House, where Anita Jackson, with a simple prop or two, made the character of Anna Maria Gant come alive.  Love’s difficult when you’re enslaved: that was a big part of Anita’s message, and she told the story of the Gants in the mid-1800’s, owned by different people but united in lawful marriage.  When Nelson’s owner died and left him free, Anna Maria was still someone’s personal belonging. Nelson worked all summer to earn a thick bundle of bills; he came and put it on the mistress’s table.

And she, Anita showed us, laughed at him.

Nelson persevered, and he finally purchased his wife’s freedom; they started a family, and they left a legacy, spiraling from the building where we sat, watching Anita bring them back to life. We looked at the transom over the door, with ‘NT GANT’ etched into the fine old glass, and we thought about their triumph.

We listened to a local lawyer share a tale with a different ending, of a man from the same era who’d escaped slavery and settled into Zanesville. Who, after three years of freedom, was returned back into slavery by the local sheriff.  That sheriff argued that he was bound to uphold the law, the lawyer said, but he was excommunicated by his church, which held that God’s law supersedes man’s.

Too late for the slave, though, who disappeared back into the system of bondage.

We listened, Mark and I, and then we talked to friends afterward in the full and milling room.

This week, we remembered that history also burrows into the ground where we walk–that tragedies and triumphs both have led to this time now.

*****
We reach the end of the morning’s forward march, Greta and I, and turn back so she can start to re-snuffle all the things she’s just explored. And I think about the visit yesterday, in the building where my office is, of a wonderful group of adults from the local disability services center.  We’ve partnered with them, our little college, providing rooms for meetings and an aud for a movie and a venture into adapting technology at the IDEA Lab.

Those partnerings have provided times of fun and laughter and opportunities for thought and growth; they have been gifts in themselves, the events, but the folks involved wanted to thank the college a little more tangibly. They brought in little glass jars. Each one was labelled with a letter, spelling out ‘FANS’…an acronym for friends and neighbors. Our visitors filled the jars with candy, with Twix and  Milky Ways and Snickers bars. They set a pan of home-baked chocolate chip cookies on the counter, and they provided paper plates and napkins.

The display was resplendent (we eyed the goodies greedily), and the providers turned from it with happy smiles, proud and generous.

“I LIKE your purple shirt!” Miss J said to my colleague Jaime, and when I asked if I could snap a photo on my phone, young Mr. B. ran over to give Jim, our CHRO, a big, spontaneous hug.

JIm and Mr B

The hubbub drew a few faculty from their offices and a few interested students from the lounge on that late summer day, and there was a warm little group to appreciate this lovely act of giving.

We focus, Missy Hartley, who coordinates the outreach, told me months ago, on people’s strengths, and not their weaknesses–a person-centered philosophy. People with disabilities have a lot to share, in tangibles and in other, deeper, ways. 

This week I was reminded of that; and in the loving acts of this gentle group, I saw a different kind of triumph.

*****
Greta and I reach the car port; I stash the evidence of our walk in the trash, unhook her tether, and we go inside to get her treat. I gather up my coffee and my aging technology, and I head outside to the cool and quiet patio. I cast my thoughts back over this ordinary week. This week we joined, after much dithering and indecision, a beautiful gym on the college campus.  It’s a gleaming two story building across the road, on the furthest reach of the College drive, nuzzling up against the nature walk.  It has two pools and it has an indoor track.  There are treadmills and stationary bikes and coaches and classes. We vowed, this time, to use our memberships regularly.

That was Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, my son James got up in time to come to work with me at 7:00.  He left his book-bag in my office and he took his laptop over to the gym and he came back, grinning, 90 minutes later.

“I walked on the treadmill for 36 minutes,” he said proudly, “and burned off 96 calories.”  He wedged his laptop up in front of him, he said, put it where one might rest a book, and he typed as he strode on the moving belt.

“It was pretty cool,” said my autistic son, for whom new people and unfamiliar places can be pretty daunting challenges, and he allowed how he can’t wait to go back.

*****

Maybe, now I think about it, triumph’s all around me.

*****
This week, a friend is feeling better after the latest round of chemo has rassled its way through her system, broadening the part in her hair, wreaking havoc with her digestion, but doing, we pray each day, its harsh and hopeful work.

This week another gutsy friend dared to put her vision out there, to interview for a wonderful new job. It’s a position where she could take her gifts and broadcast them wholesale, helping thousands instead of hundreds, sending ripples far out in our endless sea. A dreamer, a do-er, she cast her longing out there into highly competitive waters. We’re praying her power links slickly and solidly with the enterprise that, surely and certainly, needs her wondrous talent.

But, even if that doesn’t happen, there is power in the daring.

This week, we used the bounty of Randy’s fields to cook up a pot of veggie soup, to swirl together an imaginative stir-fry, and to simmer a big batch of tangy chili. We are learning about using peppers–Hungarian, banana, and jalapeno. We are circling around the habaneros, wondering if we’ve got what it takes to appreciate them fully.  And we are enjoying the sunshine in the flavors, and the zest of locally grown foods.

New tastes. New explorations. A little culinary triumph.

*****

In fact, I realize as I write this morning, there’s been a lot of the triumphant in this mundane and ordinary week.  One little, hardly unusual, barely remarkable week: but fully triumphant.  Seeds were planted. Seeds flourish. Hardship is endured to bring on the next stage, the blossoming.

Is this ALWAYS there, I wonder today, amid the bustle, below the bellowing, these real and vibrant, important things? Prayer forms: Please keep me awake–don’t let me miss it.  Help me strong-arm the frou-frau off the table and help me see the triumphs–triumphs past, and new, and brewing–triumphs that are surely there, just as now, in every ordinary week.

Weathered

Something wakes me up at five AM; I throw on comfy old pants and the dog, Greta, follows me downstairs. She runs outside, and then she hurries back in. I set up shop at the dining room table, my battered old binder in front of me, and I pull out sheets of looseleaf to do my morning pages. Greta sits under the table, almost on top of my feet. In the quiet dawning, I scratch my thoughts onto the paper.

The sky lightens through the bay window, and I see that the wind has picked up. The little tree is smacking its limbs against the carport roof.  The tall bushes that line the curving drive are doing a crazy, improv dance–each going its own way, shaking and swaying discordantly.

The dog begins to pant; she nudges my foot until I reach down to scratch her head.  I feel her whole body vibrating, tightly strung, in tune with the coming weather.

I grab my phone and press the weather app.  Sure enough: thunderstorms are on their way.  Greta didn’t need me to check the weather; she felt the onset in her very bones.

The rain sweeps in, battering and pounding, and deep rumbles roll overhead.  The dog jumps up; her whole body quivers, and she rests her chin on my knee.  I croon to her soothingly. She shakes.  Bright flashes scald the bay window, and Greta whimpers.

A chunky black garbage can lid bumps down the slickened street in front of the house. I reach out to pick my pen up, capture a thought, but the dog rears up with a paw and bats my wrist.  She needs my hand on her silky head, needs touch and connection.  It’s how she gets through the storm.

I stare out the window. The sky blackens and lightning crackles and sense memories surface.

*****************************

I am ten and wrapped in a quilt, huddled in a corner of my bedroom.  Angry voices spit through the furnace grate as thunder roils above me.  My stomach aches with worry.

Would she really take us and leave?

Would he really let her go?

Rain pelts and thunder crashes, but this is a flash storm, and it quickly passes.

******

I am nineteen and he has a fully cracked, wide open smile, an extra helmet, room on the seat.  I strap the helmet on, slide on behind him, slip my arms around his lean leather-clad waist. We race away down the main street of the little college town, and I hear the sound, but can’t discern the meaning, of the words my friends shout behind me.  He leans around the curve and I lean with him and we charge out into the hills.

The storm begins just as the Harley  peaks a rise; rain echoes crazily on my helmet; flashes illuminate wild landscapes.  He’s very sure.  The rain settles into a pleasant patter; we dip and surface, dip and surface, over the gently rolling hills.  When we crest I see jagged shards of brightness splicing the night sky.  Its glow picks up wild shining eyes at the road’s edge.

There is no other traffic.  We blaze through the storm, tires spitting water, and then he takes me, finally, back to where my friends are huddled in the dark nether regions of a bar.  We walk in together; I shake my long hair free from the helmet and laugh over at him.

My tightly-strung, mother-hen friend grabs my arm.  “Are you CRAZY?” she asks me.  “Are you just plain freaking NUTS?”

I see that she was really worried, and later I will apologize, reassure her. But in that moment, propelled by that triumph, I cannot care. I grin wildly back at her. Me–always such a good girl, riding through a thunderstorm with that fast boy on his Harley. My blood sings.

This was nothing, I assure her, but a gentle summer storm.

******

I am 36 and Jim has just turned two and we have four visiting children–a little home-grown day care–in the house.  The sky is bruised and purpled, a weirder, darker color than the night-time brings, and the children are uneasy.  We gather on the couch and we start to read Patricia Pollaco’s Thunder Cake, and then we troupe tightly to the kitchen and begin pulling out pans and bowls and ingredients.  In the small, close space, children bump and giggle.  They studiously grease pans, crack eggs, put plump hands on the top of the blender that churns up that odd main addition: ripe tomatoes.  They laugh at the vibrations.

We take turns holding the hand mixer.  We pour the rich, chocolatey batter into the pans and the kids step back as I slide the pans into the hot oven.  We do the dishes and cook up some fudge frosting.

While we wait for the cakes to bake, we finish the book. Just as it promises, when the baking process is complete, the storm is done, but Megan, big-eyed Megan, refuses to leave my side. When the cake is cooled and iced and ready, she eats her slice firmly ensconced on my lap.  Right now, she does not trust the calm.

******

I am 48 and we have transformed a little house trailer into a cozy home for the law school interval.  It sits on a corner lot; it backs onto an endless cornfield.  It is 8:30 PM, and there is a funny feel to the atmosphere; James and I sit on the little porch to escape the still and stifling air inside. The Dad is at the library.

And then we see the storm coming, advancing through the corn, a dark blue wall of rain, marching quickly, sweeping toward us.  Relentless.  Jim rustles uneasily, and then a siren begins to blare.  He turns a shocked face toward me, and I hustle him to the car, throw in a couple of his favorite books, and we speed down to the law school campus, race inside, find a comfortable corner near the admissions office, and page through the books as a prairie storm rages.

When it is over, we drive back, a little fearful. We find, despite torn leaves from battered corn stalks and an errant branch or two in the yard, the sturdy little house trailer is fine.

*********************************
I sit with the dog for twenty minutes while rain batters the house, and then I leave her, quaking, while I shower and change. I dig through cupboards, making sure there are flashlights on the counter just in case the power flickers off, and I drain my coffee cup and pack up to go.  The dog looks at me imploringly; I caress her silky head.  She follows me to the door; she pleads silently, but work is a relentless obligation and I leave her trembling there; she will snuggle in the corner of the couch; she’ll tap restlessly around the living room. I tarp my raincoat over my head and dash to the carport, my purse chucked under my chin, travel mug in one head, book bag in the other.

Rain sluices down.  My wipers whip madly.  But by the time I arrive at work, the torrent has subsided to a gentle shower.

*****************

The sun is shining when I go home for lunch.  The dog waits at the door for me. I clip the leash onto her collar and tug her firmly outside, where she blinks warily.  Gently, I persuade her to walk with me; we head down the driveway and veer to the right, off to the Helen Purcell Home on the corner.  By the time we reach the sweeping drive, Greta has perked up; she excitedly explores the leaves and sticks and residue the storm has spread onto the sidewalks.  She sniffs the air.  It is fresh and cool, and she begins to trot.

I trot along beside her, enjoying, remembering. I am invigorated. This is what the storm always brings–this is the aftermath, the pay-off. The reward.  This is the rain-scoured world, the wind-beaten cleanliness, the opportunity to sally forth and begin again.  This is–remember this?–this is what follows the storm.

Walking in My Neighborhood, Several Stories Deep

Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood...
Maxie, the newly appointed mayor of the neighborhood…

I clip the leash onto the collar of my wacky little dog, Greta, and pull open the back door. Greta stiffens, and I look down to see Maxie, the new mayor of the neighborhood, standing expectantly outside the storm door.

Maxie is a black cat with a priest’s collar; his head is the size and shape of a squashed softball. He is sleek and talkative. He waits in the ivy, under the shrubs that line the drive, when I come home. As soon as I open the car door, he starts his approach, spouting a long line of complaints: Yowlyowlmewwwwrrrryowlyou! MEW.

He always ends decisively, waiting for a response.

I usually give him a little piece of frozen turkey from a baggie in the freezer; he accepts this, but seems none too thrilled.

Max lives with the Next-to-Newest Neighbors across the street–a lovely mom and her just-college age daughter. Max was the daughter’s friend’s cat. When Daughter’s Friend was going off to school, Daughter’s Friend’s Dad calmly informed her he was going to shoot the damned cat.

Apparently he wasn’t kidding; so, Maxie came home with our next-to-newest neighbor.

He’s an outdoor guy, Max: he only goes in when the weather is too cold for cats to sleep au naturel. Meantime, he prowls the neighborhood, making sure everything is safe. He spends a lot of time with Shirley, our elderly, widowed neighbor. He naps in her window well. She provides food and drink in case Max needs a little nosh.

Sometimes I’ll pull up the driveway and see Max sitting outside Sandy’s Florida room next door, staring hungrily through the window at her squawking gray parrot, who is not amused by the visitation. And for a while, Max decided he wanted to check out the Newest Neighbors’ home across the street. He would stand by their front door and warble insistently. From the house, deep ominous barks resounded. Maxie was unfazed, but the Newest Neighbors did not seem inclined to let him in to explore.

Today, Maxie glances at Greta on the leash, then looks at me in disgust. Really? he registers clearly. Walking that stupid dog??? He gives his sleek shoulders a shake and ambles off toward his nest in the ivy. Greta rumbles deep in her throat and pulls me toward the yard and the front walk. Let’s avoid that scary cat, she’s implying.

We head out to the street. Maxie forgotten, Greta settles in to a nice sniffing meander. We don’t get two steps before she finds a fascinating pocket of scent. We stop, and I gaze across the street, at the lights down below, twinkling out this early morning. A walk with the Grets is a stop and start affair.

Our neighborhood traces a ravine; my house is on the firmly planted side. Across the street, where Next-to-Newest and Newest Neighbors have their sparkling white abodes, the houses perch. Front yards are lovely; back yards drop off abruptly.

The ravine is long and steep and wooded, a refuge for a herd of deer who wander up, unabashed, almost daily. We watch the babies grow up during the summer; we watch the wary relationship between Senior Buck and Junior Buck. Greta snuffles up their scent, fascinated, and they obligingly leave lots of it around, sometimes in freshly steaming piles on the pine needle carpets in our backyard.

Woe to my plantings; they’re fast food for deer. But this Spring—hah! I have a recipe from my woods-and-fields-savvy friend Theresa. I’ll be dousing my hosta, my impatiens, my everything, with the Theresa Formula. Take that, you foraging deer.

There are gray squirrels and black squirrels in the neighborhood; they bore Greta, who just ignores them. There are bunnies, too, and chipmunks, — although, come to think of it, not as many sightings occur since Maxie’s moved in.

Having read her olfactory messages, the dog snorts and we move on. Phyllis’s house is the last on the street, ravine-side. It has a lovely side deck, between the house and a little woods. The driveway leads right up to that deck, which overlooks the ravine, and, at night, a beautiful light display: you can see the busy commerce and industry of Linden Avenue just below; off to the southeast, the lights of the city glitter in the night sky.

The way Phyllis’s house is situated, the street at the corner leads right into her driveway.

One night, shortly after we moved in–congratulating ourselves on landing in this quiet neighborhood–(Mark would stand outside at night with his eyes closed and his arms at his side, palms parallel with the ground, murmuring, “It’s so QUIET.” Our vacated neighborhood was NOT.)–I went to bed early, worn out from the strenuous haul of moving and unpacking. I was reading in bed, eyelids drooping, when the sirens began, a low whining that grew closer and closer.

And closer. Soon, one could hear speeding cars, tires on pavement, brakes squealing; that grew rapidly closer, too. And then, very close, a crash!

I heard Mark’s startled exclamation, heard him scuffing into his old shoes, heard the front door open as he ran out to see what was going on. “Oh. BOY!” Jim said; he was, I could tell from the placement of his voice, standing at the front window.

I considered going down, but knew the Markmeister had it under control. He would tell me the story when he came in.

And so he did. Hotly pursued by a police cruiser, a car drove up the street, couldn’t make the turn, and flew right on to Phyllis’s deck. The driver jumped out and ran into the backyard, where he didn’t expect a ravine. He tumbled over the edge.

Mark stood with Phyllis and her husband Terry as the drama unfolded. The hapless driver, thinking to avoid arrest, crawled up the ravine at the other end of the street. The police, who’d been nonchalantly watching his progress, cuffed him and threw him into the cruiser, called for a tow truck, and took all the necessary information from Phyllis and Terry.

Mark, who works for a county government unit and gets all the juice, brought the details home next day.

Seems Driver Man was from a notorious ne’er-do-well family. Needing some weekend drinkin’ cash, he called for a pizza, thinking he’d take the delivery guy’s stash. Driver Man lived in an isolated country locale.

Delivery Guy arrived, got out of the car, and was confronted by Driver Man, wielding a pistol. Delivery Guy was big, and not a man for nonsense. He slapped the pizza box into Driver Man’s face and took his gun away. Then, when the pizza box fell off Driver Man’s face, Delivery Guy popped him a good one.

Down went Driver Man. Delivery Guy pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911. As he was talking to the dispatcher, Driver Man scrambled to his feet. Delivery Man popped him again.

Down, again, went Driver Man.

Now stop hitting him! the dispatcher purportedly said. Get in your car and drive back to work, and an officer will meet you there to pick up the gun and get your report.

O-kay, said Delivery Guy, reluctantly, but when Driver Man got up again, talking some smack, he couldn’t resist knocking him down one last time. By the time the police arrived, Driver Man had wobbled into his own vehicle, and the chase began.

They drove darned near all over the county before Driver Man flew his vehicle onto Phyllis’s deck, decimating it.

By the time the luckless felon crawled up the cliff, he was battered from the repeated poppings, scraped and cut from the fall down the ravine, and ready for medical attention and a comfortable bed in a cell.

The insurance rebuilt Phyllis and Terry’s deck, but it was one of the last times we saw him, that kind, friendly, helpful neighbor. He was hospitalized shortly after the Deck Event. He never came home. Now Phyllis and her sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren enjoy sitting on that deck, talking softly on starry summer nights. But we know how much they miss Terry.

Greta makes her mandatory sniff-examination of Phyllis’s rose bush; satisfied, we wander across the street and up the long curving driveway of the Helen Purcell Home. Helen Purcell had been the sickly daughter of a local family in the early 1800’s. Since she was puny, anyway, she was designated as the one to stay home and care for Mamaw and Papaw. Her siblings went to school, got married, moved away; Helen learned to sew. And she was pretty [I so want to say ‘darned’] good at it. She took in sewing and made a little extra money.

And then, the parents both died, and there was Helen, suddenly and sadly free. She packed up her sewing stuff and her belongings and she moved herself to Cincinnati, where she set up shop. And she succeeded; she was a sought-after seamstress, and an independent woman.

Until her brother got sick. Then Helen was called home–her role, after all, was to care for the sick ones. She left her beloved independent life. She nursed her brother, but she never forgot her taste of freedom. She, the sickly one, outlived all her family contemporaries. When she died, she left her estate in trust, to establish a place where women in need could recover from whatever vicissitudes plagued them. It was a healing home for independent women needing to get back on their feet.

Now it is a home for the elderly; not so very long ago, they agreed, finally, to admit men, too, and the facility offers independent and assisted living and managed care. The staff is lovely, the residents energetic; there is a van that takes people out and about, although many of the residents park their own vehicles in the long carport that faces our house. In the lovely common area, with its polished paneled walls and massive fireplace, there is always a jigsaw puzzle in progress, and always clusters of people visiting and laughing. Not bad neighbors to have.

We round the expansive driveway, and come out on Norwood Boulevard, near the Mission Oaks Gardens. The park, open to all from dawn to dusk, is reached by crossing the Hendleys’ driveway. The Hendleys had a vision of a winding, meandering park within the city; they bought the house and acquired grounds abutting their property, then acquired more, and the gardens grew. We walk there in the good weather, sometimes sitting in the rustic log tea house; we watch throughout the summer, as the plants shoot up and bloom.

There are rhododendrons, local of root; all kinds of hosta; native flowers and imported flowers; trees and shrubs. There is a vast conifer garden. There are two ponds with tall waterfalls, and there are benches and gazebos and many places where a bride can splendidly pose.

It is not a place for Greta to walk, though. I am not sure, prissy city dog that she is, that she’d even consent to walk down the grassy paths; she’s a sidewalk girl, my Greta. But it doesn’t matter: she’s not invited. The park is home to an aging Scottie dog, who greets all visitors and likes a bit of a scratch. When we moved into the neighborhood, there were a pair of Scotties; now this guy remains, alone. He’s awfully glad to walk a ways with a visitor to the garden.

But it’s cold and muddy January; this is not a Mission Oaks day. We walk the sidewalk by the gracious, Spanish-style home on the property instead. This house, with its lovely upper deck (what a great place for morning coffee, I always think) has a Past. It was the abode of a wealthy businessman’s mistress, who lived brazenly there and entertained her paramour while the respectable wife held court across town.

Deer at the Hendleys

Now the Mistress’s House is the gateway to a great gift to the community. You just never know, I figure.

We start down the street past the Hendleys’, but Greta abruptly changes her mind, turns around, and leads me home. We take the sidewalk, the fast way. We encounter no feline or otherwise furry friends.

It’s not a long walk, but it certainly is a story-filled one. We all know how exhausting stories can be to a tired little hound, one who has to protect a house all day and contend at times with an ornery neighborhood cat.

Greta waits patiently for me to treat her with frozen coins of hot dog once we are safely inside, and then she jumps up on to the couch, paddles down the throw, and snuggles up. I get my book and join her. She puts her heads on my leg and snores; I travel vicariously to Scotland.

We’ll find more neighborhood tales on future days, as we deepen our relations with our neighbors, share their memories, hear their adventures.  It’s one of the perks of coming to such a stopping place: here we can send down our roots, several stories deep.

*****************************************************************************

The cover photo on this site shows one of the ponds from Mission Oaks Gardens…

Parsing the Puppy: A Tale Told to Family

Image taken from open Internet source
Image taken from open Internet source

By the time the day—lazy hours on the beach, chasing kids in the water; late afternoon browse through the shops; a long walk with Martin; and then dinner at the restaurant,–had wound itself into almost sunset, Dell was beat. The family had spun off into single cells; she could hear her daughter-in-law Jillie bathing Shaylynn, a raucous, splashy event. Nessa was out for a walk with her aunts and the girl-cousins. The men, Martin included, had scattered.
Maybe there was a game on, she thought. In the quiet of the kitchen, sifting through the debris of five families bunking in one big rental house, Dell found a clean glass, loaded it with ice cubes, and poured white wine over the top. She found her Louise Penny mystery and, cradling that and her drink, she stepped through the sliding doors to the deck.
She slid into a comfortable Adirondack chair. There was a breeze; she felt deliciously cool after the heat of the day, a degree above goose bumps. She put her feet up on the little metal table, testing its pebbled glass top. The water shimmered, sooshing softly. On the horizon, the sun limned clouds with the special rosy peach glow of setting sun. Her brother Kevin, alone on the beach, stacked wood for a fire.
Dell opened her book, took a long, sweet sip of wine, and, savoring the quiet and the opportunity, began to read.
She was two chapters in, the sun just poised to dive, when she realized suddenly her solitude was busted. A little face peered up at her, framed by a fuzzy glow of fine blonde hair, rubbed dry and flying, staticky, fresh from a bath.
“Tell me a story, Grandma Dell?” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled the sweet smelling three year old, toweled and jammied, onto her lap.
“What story would you like?” asked Dell, and Shaylynn, whose current passion was puppies, replied immediately. “Tell me the time Grandpa Joe brought Pantry home.”
“Oh,” said Dell, “that’s one of my favorite stories, because I was there, and Pantry was my best buddy for a long, long time.
“It was a crisp Fall day, and I was four years old, just a year older than you are now, punkin pie. Just before dinner, my mom–your great grandma,–called us all into the kitchen. We were watching TV–the Three Stooges, I think–and my brothers–those are your uncles Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony–thought she wanted us to turn off the TV and get ready for dinner. But instead, here’s what she said:
“’Your dad is coming home in a few minutes, and he’s got a big surprise. A big surprise that’s kind of little.’”
Shaylynn sighed contentedly, and Dell saw Martin rounding the corner of the house, swinging his espadrilles. With him were Lyle and Anthony; her son Nathan’s infectious laughter followed them. They stopped at the beer cooler, and she heard the ‘cha-chooch’ of bottle caps turning; then the men settled onto the bottom step of the deck where they could watch the sun take its plunge.
“Well, imagine,” Dell continued. “We were all in a tizzy. We begged and begged for her to tell us what she meant, but she just said it might be a good idea to get the table ready for dinner so we didn’t have to worry about anything when the surprise got there. So you bet we set that table as fast and as nice as it’d ever been set. My job was to put the silverware by each place and I made sure the knives and spoons were neatly and nicely on one side, and the forks lined up straight as soldiers on the other.”
“Huh,” scoffed Lyle. “I don’t remember you having any jobs.”
“And we hadn’t any more than gotten done than Grandpa Joe’s big blue Buick pulled up the long driveway, crunching on the autumn leaves,” Dell continued.
“Dad had the woody wagon that year, not the Buick,” said Lyle.
“Shush!” warned Shaylynn.
“We all yelled, ‘Dad’s home! Dad’s home!’ [“We didn’t ALL yell ‘Dad’s home!’” said Lyle, darkly] and Little Joe and Lyle and Anthony, who had their sneakers on, went flying out the back door. I was in my stocking feet, so I stood by the storm door, so close my breath made steam clouds on the glass, and waited anxiously.”
“I believe,” said Anthony, “that Little Joe was out delivering papers that day.”
Dell sighed. “Grandpa Joe climbed out of the Buick and your three uncles were bouncing all around him. He took his time; I could see him putting his hands out like this” (Dell extended her arms, palms out flat, and made a puzzled face) “and I knew he was saying, ‘Surprise? What surprise?’”
“He was saying, ‘Get your little asses out of my way,’” said Lyle.
“Lyle! Hush now,” said Mary Rita, his wife, who’d just come out on the deck. She settled in on the step behind the men. She poked her husband in the back.
“Anyway,” said Dell. Shaylynn was glowering at the interrupters. “He bent over to reach back in for his battered old black lunch pail, and my brothers had their heads every which way around him, trying to find the big surprise that was little. But they couldn’t see it. They clustered around your Grandpa Joe as he walked across the yard, through the late afternoon sunlight, to get to the back door.”
“Wasn’t it winter?” asked Anthony. “I believe there was snow on the ground.”
“I held the door open for him and he tousled my hair and leaned over and kissed my mother.
“And we were all clamoring: ‘Where’s the surprise? Where’s the surprise?’
“And my father looked all surprised himself—“
“–Make the face, Grandma,” said Shaylynn, and Dell pulled on a mask of comic shock and stared down, wide-eyed at Shaylynn, who mirrored the same exact face and stared back.
“…and he said to my mother, ‘Claire, was I supposed to bring a surprise home?’
“And she said, ‘Oh, you remember, Joe. The big surprise that is very small?’
“ ‘Oh. Oh, THAT surprise,’ said your Great Grandpa Joe, and he said to Little Joe, ‘I think I put it in this pocket.’
“Grandpa Joe had on his big working coat, a kind of golden color, so thick and hard that it could stand up by itself in a corner if my dad forgot to put it on a hanger in the back hall closet.”
“Oh, now,” said Anthony. “That’s not right. He had a blue denim jacket. Remember that, Lyle? It was a long denim jacket with a black corduroy collar.”
“The pockets,” said Dell firmly, “of the gold jacket were big and deep and your Uncle Little Joe reached into the one my dad pointed to, but all he pulled out was a balled up plaid handkerchief.
“‘Uck!’” said Little Joe, and he threw the used hankie down the cellar steps toward the washing machine.
“‘Huh,’ said Grandpa Joe. ‘Not there, eh? Try this one, Lyle,’ and Lyle reached into a chest pocket, and all he found was a stinky old pack of Camel cigarettes.
“‘Bleahhhh’, said Lyle and he tossed the pack on the table. Our eyes were all on my father, not missing a blink.”
“Another piece of revisionist history,” said Lyle.
Shaylynn sat up, extended her arm, and shook her stubby forefinger. “SHUSH!” she said.
Lyle tilted his beer and drank.
Dell continued. “‘Well,’ said your Grandpa Joe, thoughtfully, ‘I only have one pocket left, Anthony.’ And Anthony reached into the other big, deep pocket. His expression, first all excited and wound up, kind of melted into a sweet surprise, and he left his hand in my dad’s pocket for a long moment. We were holding our breaths, and finally Lyle said, ‘Come on. Come ON!’
“And Anthony slowly pulled his hand out of Grandpa Joe’s pocket and there, curled up like a little furry ball was a tiny little puppy dog.”

“What color was it?” asked Shaylynn sleepily.
“It was black and white with tiny golden brown spots. The tip of its tiny black tail was white,” said Dell. Shaylynn sighed and snuggled deeper, having nailed down this important fact.
“The brown spots,” said Lyle, “didn’t show up until later.”
Shaylynn growled, deep in her throat.
“‘Put him on the floor, Anthony,’ said my mother, and Anthony lowered the puppy to the floor. The little thing just wobbled there for a minute and then it seemed to find its legs, and it scrambled around in circles.
“‘What will we call it?’ asked Little Joe, and my mother said we’d have to start thinking of a name, and we all sat and watched the little mite explore. It went this way and it went that way.”
“Was it a BOY dog or a GIRL dog?” asked Shaylynn, prodding, reminding, the arbiter of essential detail.
“Thank you, darling,” said Dell. “It was a girl puppy, and it skittered around and then suddenly it made a straight little bee-line for the cupboard we kept the canned goods in, the cupboard we called the pantry.”
“It didn’t make a BEE line,” said Anthony. “It came to me first, and I POINTED it toward the pantry.”
“That dog,” said Lyle, “didn’t even LIKE you, Anthony.”
“The hell you say!” said Anthony. “That dog LOVED me.”
“BOYS,” said Mary Rita.
“‘It’s a PANTRY dog!’ I said, and my mom said, ‘Maybe we will call her Pantry.’ And we did.”
“Oh, so YOU named the dog?” said Kevin, helping himself to a beer.
“Shut up, Kevin,” said Anthony. “You weren’t even born yet.”
“Did you FEED it?” nudged Shaylynn, and, “We did,” replied Dell. “Your Grandma Claire poured a little saucer of milk and put it on the floor and that hungry little puppy did an about face–she knew that milk was all hers–and she lolloped over and put her tiny little head down, and she drank every single bit. She drank so much, her tummy got so full her little legs couldn’t touch the floor. Grandpa Joe had to pick her up and put her softly into a little nesty bed of newspaper and a soft old rag, and she curled right up and went to sleep.”
“And did Pantry have to pee?” asked Shaylynn.
“Oh yes,” said Dell. “There was pee-ing and there was pooping and all of that stuff, and she had to be trained and walked and cleaned up after, but she was a good, good dog, and she lived a good long life. She was 16 years old and that’s a very long time in dog years. She went from a tiny puppy to a grand old lady dog.”
“And we have pictures,” said Shaylynn.
“Yes,” said Dell. “We have pictures. And it’s time for a mama to put a sleepy little girl to bed.” She planted a kiss on the cotton candy hair and boosted the snuggly little body to Jillie, waiting patiently.
Jillie hefted her daughter and turned to head back into the house, but Shaylynn’s sleepy voice made her pause.
“Grandma?” asked the little girl.
“Yes, darlin’?”
“Did they live in your same house?” asked Shaylynn, jutting her chin toward the uncles.
“Well,” Dell said slowly, “not always and not exactly. They lived in a place called Silly Uncles Fantasy Land. But we let them come to visit once in a while.”
“Okay,” said Shaylynn. “GOOD.”
Jillie maneuvered the sleepy child through the sliding door and into the dark, quiet house.
The sun plunged. The water was glints in the darkness; Kevin’s fire snapped and shimmered on the beach.
Lyle and Anthony both opened their mouths. But before they could speak, Mary Rita put a bare foot on the small of each back. She rocked backward for traction, and then she kicked them, firmly, onto the sand.

 

 

Donna B. Randolph

Fiction, written after reading the morning news, thinking about how little the obituary really tells about us…

 

Earnstville: Donna Beth Randolph, 72, passed away Wednesday, August 27, at Renaissance Hospice.
[She fooled the doctors several times; when they found the cancer, they told her they would try some things but gave her no big chances. Well, she said, she wasn’t going to die a cancer patient. She was going to be Donna Beth Randolph till the day she died.

So she kept up her reading, going to the library on Wednesdays, and she met the girls for lunch every Friday–even when she didn’t feel like eating. She wrote to the kids and grandkids every Sunday, and talked with them on the phone once a month.

She painted her bedroom yellow because she loved its sunny lightness. Jeffrey had always liked a darker room to sleep in, but he was gone, and really, she figured, would there be another chance?
Against all wisdom, she accepted the little terrier, Mitzi, who cowered in the corner of Bethany’s old Caddy. A rescue dog, Bethany said, it had been beaten and abused.

“I can’t,“ she said to Bethany. “You know I’m sick.”

At the sound of Donna’s voice, the little dog slithered over to the open door and licked her hand, a feeble, hopeful lick. And Donna sighed and picked it up.

“I guess I’ll call her Mitzi,” she told Bethany. “She looks like a Mitzi.” After a pause, she asked, hopefully, “It IS a girl, isn’t it?”
That was the first bout. Before she knew it, a year had passed. Mitzi—who was indeed a ‘girl’– had grown sleek and sassy, and Donna felt pretty good for someone with a death sentence hovering around her. She went to the doctor, and he told her something wonderful: the cancer hadn’t gone, he said, but it seemed almost to be at rest. It wasn’t growing the way they usually saw it grow, invade, conquer.
She had two good years then; she traveled all over the country, visiting the kids and grandkids. Mindi’s late in life twins took a special shine to Mitzi, and Mindi had promised that, when Gran died, the dog could come home with them. That put Donna’s mind at rest.
The cancer came back, but again, she wasn’t going to make it her focus. Kind of like a spoiled child, she thought, when it got no attention, it went and hid in a corner, pouting. Another year of treatments; another reprieve–three years this time.
But the last time it came back, she knew it wasn’t messing around, and she made her peace; and it settled in, making up in voraciousness for its lack of growth in other visits.]

She was born November 7, 1941, to Bart and Mira (Lincoln) Tophers in Buffalo, New York.
[Mira was old to be a mother for the first time, old at 34; the nurse clucked over her, tsk-tsk-ing. Mira was scared half to death, and when labor dragged on for 36 excruciating hours, she was pretty well convinced she was going to die of it. But then Donna Beth was finally born, at 12:41 AM, and the nurse whisked her away, hidden in a blanket, to be cleaned and checked over.

Bart brought the little, mewling bundle back in; he proudly laid the baby in Mira’s tired arms. Mira lifted the blanket and gasped. The baby’s head was cone-shaped; her skin was chapped and angry looking. Mira began to cry. ‘An ugly baby!’ she thought. ‘My Donna Beth is an ugly baby!’

But two days later, the baby’s head had settled into roundness and her skin smelled sweet, and Mira was thoroughly smitten.]

Donna Beth was a beloved wife and mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
[Jeffrey, Sr., always treated her with the honor and respect with which he’d courted her. He was not a man for saying, “I love you,” at the drop of a hat; he told her that the day he married her, when each of the kids were born, and the day he had the first huge heart attack. But she knew. He always came home after work; she was his favorite bowling partner; and he often mentioned how sorry he felt for other men, whose wives were lazy or mean.
The kids, too, were always so sweet to her; she felt their love even though they were not a huggy, smoochy family. Jeffrey Jr was the oldest; from the time he was four he always held the door for her and wanted to carry the groceries. Mindi, who was big-eyed and solemn, never gave her a moment’s worry.

Donna Beth kept waiting for those rebellious years, but they never came. They were both kids who liked to read and study; they did well in school, had nice friends, and were helpful at home.
How did I get so lucky? Donna Beth often wondered, after they’d finished their schooling and made their solid marriages and still kept her in their lives, respected and loved by her daughter-in-law and son-in-law, too.
Donna Beth loosened up just a little with the grandkids. What a treat grandkids were; they loved her silly games and old songs, and they were constantly giving her wet baby kisses, sending her X-s and O-s in the mail. She loved her children; but until her grandchildren, she had never known pure, unadulterated joy.]

She is survived by her son, Jeffrey Randolph, Jr.; Daughter, Mindi (Leonard Coggins) [Mindi decided not to change her name when she married Leonard, a professor with a big hearty laugh. Donna Beth was a little shocked at first, and worried that, when kids came along, they’d have those horrible hyphenated names.

But Mindi had no problem with the children having Leonard’s name. “I had Dad’s, after all,” she said. “All of our names started with a man; they may as well come from a man who loves you dearly.”

After a while, Donna Beth kind of secretly loved it that Mindi had that little independent streak. Leonard was always big and hearty; Mindi was always calm and composed. They had, Donna Beth could tell, a good life.]; grandchildren, Sandy Smith; Leonard Coggins, Jr.; and Jimmy and Julie Coggins; six great-grandchildren; and her beloved dog, Mitzi.

In addition to her parents, Donna is preceded in death by her husband, Jeffrey Randolph, Sr., whom she married in June, 1962 [Married before she even turned 21! What did she know about marriage, except that girls were supposed to find a good man and do it?

Jeffrey was a serious, good looking man, 25 to her 20. Her parents thought he would take good care of her. She did not love him the day she married him; but she came to, over the years. Respect and, truth be told, a little fear, grew into gentle passion and liking, slowly flamed into a full-blown, lifelong love affair. The day came when she realized she could not imagine life without him.
He was a kind and creative father; he built doll houses and played baseball, went in swimming, and taught the kids to drive. Every Sunday night, Jeffrey took Jeff Jr and Mindi out for ice cream, giving Donna an hour of peace and quiet.

He was not a man for big dramatic splashes, not Jeffrey. But by the time he died, in 2005, of heart troubles, Donna knew she had been well and truly loved]; brother Joseph Tophers, [Oh, Joey! Just the thought of him, his splashy smile, his contagious laugh,–well, she still got tears, right up until the end.

Joey was born when Bart and Mira were 40; Donna was already six, and she treated him like a little dollbaby. Joey was always yelling at her, “I can do it! I can do it myself!” And that’s what he was doing when he died, doing it himself, driving his buddy Bob’s motorcycle, which he had no right to be on.

He was drunk, for one; he’d never in his life driven a motorcycle, for another. And he was grandstanding for Hattie Ketcher, with whom he was desperately smitten; he zoomed by her, turned his whole body to wave and veered at a very high speed into the viaduct.

The sergeant who investigated said he had never seen–best unsaid. Never mind. But…Joey. The pure laughter, the liquid electricity of him.]; grandson, Stephen Randolph; and daughter-in-law, Jenny Randolph [Babies don’t die in childbirth anymore; isn’t that what we believe? And mommies don’t die from complications of a difficult birth. We thought.

Worse than your own pain is having to see your son suffer. He was a wonderful dad to Sandy. He nurtured that girl right up until the day she married Wally Smith, handed her over with tears in his eyes. Welcomed her little Bobby into the world the year after. Told them both they could stay as long as they liked after Wally took a long, one-way walk.

That was the year Bobby was four; they stayed with Jeffrey until Bobby was ten. Sandy got a teaching job and saved up and bought a house. Jeffrey was sure lonely after that, but he was proud, too, that Sandy had built a life for herself.

It looks like Jeffrey might finally be seeing someone, that Spilker girl he went to high school with. Her husband had been no better than he needed to be. She thought she’d died and gone to heaven when Jeffrey called her up.]

Memorial service will be Friday, September 5, from 6 PM until 9 PM at the Laurel Lake Inn, 2093 Independence Drive, Earnstville. Mrs. Randolph requested cremation. The family will choose a later date to inter her ashes.

[She had turned her back on church the day the pastor told her mother Joey’s death was meant to be. Meant to be? Meant to be WHAT? That was the most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard.

She knew there was a God. She saw God in the kindness around her, in her children’s grief over their father’s death, in the fluid, expansive joy her grandchildren showered on her when she visited, in the trusting, tail-wagging enthusiasm with which her little dog greeted her every time she returned home. She never went back to church, but she prayed every day.

In her last years, she started to think the feminists were right–maybe God really was a She, a great big loving Mother. “Why not?” she thought. But she didn’t talk to anyone about that idea; she kept it close by, and it comforted her.
Her dear friend Bethany’s family owned the Laurel Lake, and one day they talked, her and Bethany, and decided between them the service would be at the Inn. There were a couple of songs Donna liked, and three of her friends would speak, and of course the kids might want to share some memories.

Really, just comfort for those she loved, that was all Donna wanted to think there’d be. She herself wouldn’t be in need of any attention by the time that day rolled around.]

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the public library–or to a charity dear to you–in Donna’s name.

No Guilt Sunday

Sunday morning, 10:22, and I am having my first outdoor table time of the season.  I’m at our little, round, newly wiped down, outdoor table perched on a similarly prepared metal mesh chair.  Babe the Stone Pig sits stoically behind me, blue baseball hat fastener pulled jauntily over her snout.  Greta the Live Dog stands tensely, loosely chained, to my left, sniffing the air, listening to the birds, gauging whether this outdoor stuff is to her prissy liking.

It is Sunday morning, and I haven’t–sigh–gone to church.  And,–despite a tightly wimpled voice rooted deep in my psyche, a voice that says, “He gave up his LIFE for you, and you can’t give up an HOUR on Sunday morning?”, — I am feeling, truly, no guilt.

Please don’t misunderstand–this is not a diatribe against organized religion.  I really like my organized church, and the organized book club that meets on Sunday mornings before organized services.  I like reading things of spiritual nature in company and wrestling with our individual understandings in a group.  I like the service that follows, and the fellowship of kind and caring congregants.  I appreciate our pastor’s sermons; they are thoughtful and depth-filled, and I take notes on my bulletin and come home and look things up on the internet, or request books he’s mentioned at our library.

My church both gives me perspective and broadens my perspective.

But. Some Sundays…

Mark and I have overlapping weekends. His is Saturday and Sunday.  Mine is Sunday and Monday.  The only non-work morning we have as a family is this one, this Sunday one, and it’s usually fine that I run off to join the book group, Mark meets me for services, and Jim stays home to ask, “How was it?” when we arrive back just before noon so we can lunch together.

This late winter/early spring, however, has been busy.  Busy is good in many ways–busy means involved and somehow vital to someone or -ones, something or -things.

Sometimes, though, I picture little clumps of leisure time rolling tantalizingly on life’s Astroturf.  There I am, further down on the field, fussily doing all my oh-so-essential little things, and thinking of those lovely clumps of time I’ll gather up soon.

Then a clanking roar swells up and an enormous, battered, iron and copper contraption lumbers speedily onto the playing field.  It has a jointed snout and obvious power, and it rushes over to the leisure time clumps and it sucks those babies up, wheels around in its ungainly efficiency, and swiftly disappears.

The time-sucker leaves me whining and bemoaning and sadly in need of a Sunday morning at home.  That brings me to this little table, a soft spring breeze, and a well-fed family.

This morning we did what passes in late, late middle age, for sleeping in–we stayed in bed till after seven, till our helpful bladders reminded us we’re a long, long way from 30–or even 40–and till an inquisitive little dog snout an inch from my face reminded me that–HELLO! — my bladder might not be the only consideration here.  And we got up and wandered drowsily downstairs.

I leashed the dog and we trotted out into the front yard, where the annoyed Deer Bunch huffed, showing us the white sides of their tails as they left our sweet grass and went to explore the neighbor’s, across the street.  The daffodils swayed cheerily, there was a swell of excited birdsong, and the Sunday papers waited, full of promise and crosswords, on the front walk. A big fat bee bumbled harmlessly around me, and a voice in my mind spoke to me sweetly.

“You have,” it reminded me, “all the ingredients for Heath bar coffee cake.”

That voice was louder and much more convincing than the wimpled one. And so this Sunday morning found me–after saying my solitary prayers in the morning stillness–doing the Sunday crossword across the table from my husband, who snorted his way through the op-ed section. His muttered commentary was an accompaniment to the creaking of my fuzzy brain into some kind of life as I searched for a word that floated, like a message in one of those eight-ball prophecy toys, just the other side of awareness.

And I caught up on four weeks’ worth of uncut coupons, and I got on the internet and printed out the Heath Bar Toffee Coffee Cake recipe.

Jim came downstairs around nine o’clock; by then, the coffee cake was almost ready to emerge from the oven.  I heated one of my old cast iron skillets, drizzled in it a little olive oil, and sautéed the week’s remaining ham in the sizzle.  When that was crisp and fragrant, I poured in six eggs, nicely beaten, and, as that scrambled, pulled the coffee cake from the oven.  Its toffee bar topping oozed in a golden brown crust; I grated Asiago onto the scramble and threw some grated cheddar, left over from Thursday’s fajitas, on top of that.

We poured blueberry pomegranate juice into our mismatched glasses, and we tenderly leveraged that oozey chocolate mess onto our plates, sidled cheesy eggs up next to that, and sat down to a Sunday brunch.  And we talked and planned and felt the tight winding of our weekly clocks ease a little.

This morning I beat the time sucker to one of those nice little clumps of leisure time, and I relaxed and listened to my boyos talk.  I wandered through the neighborhood with our neurotic little dog, and I watched the field of daffodils at the old folks’ home on the corner nodding expansively to one another. And I brought my I-Pad out to this little table, and I lost all track of time.

I will emerge from this lovely tunnel; I will do the dishes, make the bed, and put on my outdoor face so we can head to a support group gathering in Columbus this afternoon .  Greased, our wheels will gather speed, and we will ride them into a nicely busy week.

Most Sundays, my time at church undergirds my being and helps me reflect and prepare.  Every once in a while, though–and today was one of those days–a morning at home, a breakfast leisurely prepared and shared with a couple of Zanghi boys, time to walk, and time to appreciate, is a necessary balm.

******** PS–You can find the Heath Bar Toffee Coffee Cake recipe at Food.com.

The Stone Pig Story

 

Back o' BabeSmiling BabeBabe spring dreaming 2

 

 

Babe the stone pig came into our lives as a kind of a substitute hound dog. This is how that happened.

When our older guy graduated from high school, we moved. We wanted Matt to finish school in his home, with his friends, and with wonderful teachers who knew and cared about him; but then, although we loved our neighbors and our community, we had to consider our hefty commutes. We decided to move to the small town where I was working, which had good schools, old friends, and a direct route to Mark’s work.

The first year, we decided, we would rent, and we found a beautiful old farmhouse just out of town. In the 1840’s, it had been an inn. The house had a stone porch, tall ceilings, sweeping rooms; it had beautiful yards and a drive that turned into a trail leading into a vineyard.

We shared the drive with John and Shirley, who were the caretakers for the property.

They were also animal lovers. Shirley walked out the trail each day and fed critters stale cereal, and they expected her; she had a giant bruise on one leg where a woodchuck, wild for its Wheaties, barreled right into her.

John and Shirley had a beautiful long-haired cat, an incredible white parrot, and a big shepherd dog named Tasha. I’ve been in their house when all three of these beasts were snuggled together, napping—cat curled up on dog with a bird on its shoulder.

Tasha was an impressive dog. She had a head as big and as thick as a good shovel; her feet were like pie plates. She was loving and loyal, but not a dog a casual visitor would want to mess with.

She was also a rescue dog. John had saved her from the basement of our house after realizing that a former tenant, the kind who left in the middle of a night, had left behind two dogs, locked in the deep, wet, scary cellar. The other pup, sadly, didn’t survive, but Tasha thrived with John and Shirley. She wouldn’t go anywhere near the door of our house, but she felt a little territorial about the yards.

When we moved in with our Holmsie dog, John dragged over a sturdy white dog house. We set it up in the backyard for Holmsie. It had a wood floor which we covered with a blanket, and we made a port for her chain.

Generally, Holmsie sought out a sunny grassy spot to snooze her days away, but whenever Tasha came near, she snarled (under her breath; no fool she) and took up residence in the doghouse.

So she used the doghouse quite a bit, and when we moved 18 months later, into a wonderful house and wonderful neighborhood on Orchard Street, John insisted we take the doghouse. She loves it, he said, motioning to Holmsie dog, and so we put it in the truck, unloaded it at Orchard Street, and parked it in the far back corner of our new backyard.

Holmsie never went near it again; she only liked the doghouse when Tasha threatened to take it over.

Holmsie spent her days at Orchard Street joyfully making dirt nests in flower beds I had recently reclaimed and choking herself when Kathy’s cat taunted her. The cat, which lived in the house (you’ll pardon the pun) kitty-corner behind us, was a genius at estimating just how much slack there was on our dumb dog’s chain.

What to do with the empty dog house, such a sturdy structure, with such nice memories of our year and a half in the old inn?

We thought we’d buy a stone dog statue and perch it in the door, and maybe paint a name over the lintel.

So we haunted outdoor stores and nurseries and couldn’t find a dog statue that called to us. We kept coming back to a pugnacious stone pig (a pig in a doghouse?), and finally it came home with us. A serious family discussion decided the name, and I took out the black enamel and carefully lettered ‘Babe’ over the doghouse doorway. And the pig took up the seat of honor.

The neighbors grew very fond of Babe, and we made sure she was dressed for any weather. She was a silent witness to our backyard barbecues and bocce games. Holmsie had no problem ceding her place in the old doghouse.

When, several years later, it was time to make the family move to Ada, Ohio, so Mark could pursue his law school dream at Ohio Northern, we left behind the doghouse, but we couldn’t part with the pig.

We’d thought long and hard about where to live during the law school years, and we decided to buy a trailer in a mobile home court. We wouldn’t have neighbors above or below, we wouldn’t have college kids partying on weekends, and we could recoup some of our investment when we left.

We found a nice mobile home court on the edge of town, and the first trailer was for sale. It had the corner lot, a nice young couple and a cornfield for neighbors, and a roomy front yard. We painted inside and out, refurbished the shed, and downsized our furnishings, and we settled in for a two-year stay. Holmsie found her favorite spot, and we planted Babe in the midst of a day lily bed, facing the curving drive.

Other people in the court had stone geese they dressed; we were the only ones with a pig, and she was noticed. Once, when the seasons were changing, we had removed her winter togs but hadn’t yet found an appropriate spring replacement at the consignment shop. Mark was shopping at the dollar store one night when a woman he didn’t know stopped him.

“Where’s that pig’s hat?” she demanded.

He promised to take care of it, and we did.

When we moved to Mount Vernon, Babe, who lost a trotter in the move, took up a seven year vigil in the corner of the fenced side yard.

Her ear broke in the move to Zanesville, but she is firmly ensconced in a little squared off spot in our old fashioned brick and cement patio.

How does a silly, quirky, HEAVY item become such a family fixture? We would not leave Babe behind. Battered and broken—which is how I feel some early mornings—she maintains her pugnacious attitude. There can be rain falling mercilessly, there can be snow piled on her knitted hat, and she sticks that intrepid snout into the air and grins that piggie grin. She bears the change of hats well, and she presides at   our outdoor meals. She beams at our visitors.

She’s been with us on the whole strange trip,–which, yes, may have cost a trotter or an ear tip, but has yielded such wonderful rewards.

Many families have icons—a battered ceramic Santa with taped toes, a blanket lovingly made by hands long stilled, a book of photographs and drawings spanning generations. Ours is a stone pig named Babe, who took up the empty space in a doghouse. She reminds us where we’ve been, greets us every day, and makes me think that, whatever the years may bring, there are some things, steadfast and sturdy, that will remain.

 

 

 

 

 

A dog in the house

Mark’s foot crunches a bit of kibble in the living room.

“Worthless beast!” he mutters, and Greta, the little dog, hears his tone and hangs her head.

When I walk by the family room, five minutes later, they are sharing the love seat. Greta has her head on Mark’s leg, and he is stroking her silky ears as they watch TV together.

Mark catches my eye. “Why’d we ever decide we wanted another dog, anyway?”

It’s a question I ponder. Why DO we need a dog?

We first decided we had to have a dog when Matt was eight or nine, so we went to the local dog pound and fell in love. Hannah was a wee little thing, fine boned, with long reddish hair, a distinguished snout, and liquid eyes.

Matt put his head near her kennel, and she licked him through the bars and that was that. Hannah came home with us.

That night, Mark’s parents came over to meet the new granddog, and we sat outside and watched Hannah and Matt romp. It was a perfect spring evening, and boy and dog chased each other around the front yard. Long-legged, energetic, they looked perfectly matched.

It was the last time Hannah ran; the next day she could barely lift her head.

Two days and three trips to the vet later, she laid down on Mark’s feet and died as he called the doctor one last time.

The doctor, a young farm vet, was as sad as we were. “Damn shame,” he said. “Beautiful dog. They never should have let a dog that sick leave the pound.”

Mark had been fixing the garage roof; Matt ran up the ladder and sat on the peak and sobbed. He would not come down.

I called the pound and told the volunteer who answered that Hannah was dead. There was a long pause.

“So,” she finally said, “you want a refund?”

I want, I said, for you not to give people dying dogs. I want you to unbreak my kid’s heart. And yes, I took the refund, because I didn’t want to pretend that what had happened was all right.

We buried Hannah in the backyard, next to Sylvester the hamster.

Five years later, Jim was a toddler and Matt a young teen when we passed a house with a ‘free puppies’ sign out front. We passed it, and then we turned around and drove back to it, and we went into a garage full of yipping, bounding puppies. In the back, quietly watching us, was the smallest pup, a little black, brown, and white charmer.

“A boy dog,” said Matt. “I want a boy dog. I’m going to call him Sherlock Holmes.”

We bulled through the bouncing puppies, and hunkered down by the little guy in back. Matt rolled the dog over; there was a tuft of white hair in the right place, and we nodded at each other.

We put Sherlock in the car; the dog licked Jim’s cheeks and then bounded onto Matthew’s lap. I’ll never forget the look he gave me…that look that says, at this moment I am completely happy.

We took the puppy home.

We had forgotten a couple of things…one was to consult Mark, who grumped for at least a minute before falling in love. And we forgot we weren’t exactly nature kids, because Sherlock turned out to be Shirley. We called her Holmsie, though. She was the best dog.

She went to the lake with Matt and his best buddy Rob; she jumped off the dock and swam with them. I walked her on the leash pushing Jimmie in the stroller; we took long strolls through Mayville, exploring the town.

We put the baby gate up in the kitchen when we left the house to keep her out of the dining room. One night we came home and she was waiting for us on the other side. She was standing with her paws on the gate and a proud grin on her face, and the chocolate cake I’d scratch-baked for Mark was almost all gone.

“WHY do we HAVE to have a dog??!?” Mark howled, but it didn’t take long for him to forgive her.

She protected the house and the boys; she was sweet and loving and could not end the day without sitting in front of the television, sighing with bliss, as one of us combed her out. She was with us from Matt’s boyhood to his manhood, from Jim’s baby days till his teen years. She moved with us to four different houses in two different states, and she rendered, every day, unconditional love.

When she got so sick, at age fourteen, that her life was a living misery, Mark and I took her to the vet and let her go. We held on to her thick dark fur and we sobbed as our friend breathed her last. When we looked up, the doctor and the staff members all had red eyes and wet cheeks.

And we got in the car, and we looked at each other, and we said what you always say: Never again. This is too hard.

Less than a month later, on a Sunday afternoon, we were driving by the humane society, and we said, we’ll just stop and look. The kennels were crowded with puppies and young dogs the staff had named for television and movie personalities. We avoided Roseanne—although she lunged at us, hugely,–and bypassed Peewee and Bruce, and then we saw Greta. She was huddled in a corner of the kennel, and she looked so sad.

When I bent down to look, she came right to me.

“She’s never done THAT before,” said the volunteer. “She usually runs away.” And she brought Greta out to see us.

You know the rest of the story. We weren’t able to just pop her in the car and bring her home; the young professionals who ran the kennel came to see our house, and once they were satisfied we were somewhat sane and the house and yards were safe, and we arranged to have Greta spayed, she came home to stay.

Greta is not a Holmsie dog. Holmsie was a big-hearted giver; Greta was a mistreated need-er, and we poured our love into her. Eight years later, she loves us fiercely, but she still is leery around other people; she still sometimes drags her food dish to a hiding place and dumps it, eating furtively—hence the kibble on the hardwood.

Why DO we have dogs? I read a book on the subject not long after we adopted Greta, long enough ago to have forgotten title and author, but I remember what it said. There are two theories, it stated, about how and why humans and dogs developed their bonds.

One said that dogs would follow human hunters, and when the hunt was successful, and the people had eaten their fill, the dogs would enter the camp and polish off what the people couldn’t eat or didn’t want. That was GOOD, because no other wilds were attracted by the leftovers. Soon the humans were training the dogs to help them in the hunt.

The other theory said that humans, with their unprotected tender parts, trailed the dogs; when the dogs were finished eating, the humans would move in to take the scraps. And soon the humans had figured out the art of weapon making and were helping their benefactors in the kill.

I can see the possible truth in both theories. Holmsie would have been the sharer, the dog who gave, who hunted and fed the humans; her life’s goal was to serve.

Greta would have been the follower, depending on the tribe for her food, wary and frightened outside the circle of the fire.

Whatever. Needed or needer, giver or taker, the circle closes. Some houses are empty without a dog.