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.



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.