Ah, the multifaceted, unique ocean. She defies all expectations as surely as she exists. At 6am, July 21st, 2019 in Tiverton, Rhode Island, the beach is as barren of human life as a shipwreck. The dew points are in the 70% range, meaning, the air is like a sweaty tee-shirt cast off by a roadside flag man at the end of an August workday. Yet the ocean breeze carries the salty breath of the advancing tide to blow valiantly on one’s perspiring face, bringing temporary relief. The water itself rushes in vain to encircle humidity swelled ankles, and as it recedes, it tickles the toes with a promise to be right back and try again to provide respite. Alas, the ocean is as warm as bathwater. But if her temperature does not refresh the body, the playful antics, and displays she puts on possess the power to sooth the human soul. A rock in the sand makes a perfect seat for the brave soul who awoke so early to attend the show. Behind the single rock bench, an imposing, black-walled cliff momentarily shades the seething July sun. The slightly cooler air beneath the cliff smells of decayed seaweed and salt. Along the greenish horizon, a single fishing boat putts along, noisily trawling the shifting waters. The fickle acoustics of the water amplifies the annoying hum of the motor. The ocean competes and triumphs. Her deep green waters roll and pitch, hurling themselves into a fit of waves that crash with a familiar drawling roar against shiny black rocks. Droplets of surf leap above the rocks, and a cascade of diamonds shower down, glinting in the sunlight like so many cast away jewels. They disintegrate into creamy white sea foam. The lone audience member dips her feet into the water and a sea foam frosting glazes her painted toenails.
Where is everybody? The beach is so empty, one can imagine they are the sole survivor of some catastrophic event. If you overlook the obvious inconveniences and sorrows and loneliness such an event would incur, one could imagine a life of days floating on a tranquility that comes from within. A cleanness of mind derived from the absence of other human voices. Voices that all too often criss-cross over one another in conflict, hatred, and fear. The show is over. The lone survivor grabs her sandals and walks onward to the north end of the beach. The tide has delivered a bounty of ocean detritus. Piles of minuscule pink and orange shells glisten in the sun. There is less rock and more sand on this end of the beach. Barefoot walking is pleasant. Heels strike hard, damp sand, and the impact vibrates up through the spine and against the eardrum. The sound is hollow and scarcely perceptible. The sun cuts through the humidity and lays a its burning talons on the back of the neck. The survivor’s path swerves into the shallow water, seeking even the slightest hint of coolness to make the blazing heat more tolerable. Sweat beads form on her hairline and drip steadily down her face, her neck, into her ears. Up ahead, a set of giant rocks form a line into the water. A yellow sign stands in the sand, beckoning. Is it the end of the walk? Is it a warning? No, it states one is entering a nature preserve area. Foot traffic only. She walks on. The sand becomes powdery and deeper, dotted with single spikes of sea grass poking up here and there. There are tidal pools full of rocks, shells and seaweed. One could wade and find treasure. Maybe later. The beach comes to a point and turns a corner to the left. On the right, several sea birds lounge on a rock jetty. The ocean drowns out any sound they may make. For now, they are still life birds. They are a postcard-like backdrop to a random tuft of tall green grass.
The survivor rounds the corner to discover the ocean here turns itself into a river. A little spit of sand at that point reveals footprints, both human, and dog. But a wary glance in all directions for at least a mile reveals no hint of human life. Only hazy blue sky, sand, water, and tall grasses. A sudden movement startles; a pterodactyl with a huge wingspan rises from the far bank of the river. It is so big that it casts a momentary dark shadow over the sun. The creature lands about 30 feet further away. It is not a pterodactyl. It is a heron. The survivor has disturbed its fishing expedition. The heron shakes its jagged feathers and settles itself back to the task at hand. The sun is rising higher in the sky and sears through the torpid haze of the morning. The walk back daunts her. The survivor turns back. As she passes the footprints on the spit of sand, she wonders, where did the owners of the footprints go? The tracks seem to appear from nowhere, nothing leading up to or away from them. Did two ghosts materialize from the ether to haunt the last place they inhabited? Did she disturb them, causing them to vanish in haste back to the heavens? When one is a lone survivor on an empty beach on a hauntingly beautiful July morning, anything is possible.
The walk becomes less leisurely. Thoughts of civilization distract the survivor; a mug of coffee, a soft seat in a high-back chair, her feet up, the drone of an air conditioner. As she passes one cottage, she sees a man standing in a kitchen, coffee in hand. Their eyes meet through the picture window. She averts her eyes, not wishing to intrude, but before she does, the man gives a nod and a small smile. Relief washes over like a sparkling wave that breaks into tiny diamonds within her heart. It is simply the beach that is absent of people. One can smile to oneself and feel good about that.
It happened while the three of us were relaxing on the deck, watching the sunset together. My husband and I, and our dog, Smokey. The sky had gone from pink and blue to a brilliant yellow-orange. Jon and I sipped a cocktail, and Smokey lounged at our feet, while Jon absently scratched his head. All three of us stared in reverent silence as the colors began to fade into the darkness of the trees. Suddenly, Smokey abruptly stood up and looked down at the deck in confusion.
“What’s the matter Smokes?” Jon asked. And then, “Oh no, what is that?” A significant puddle of liquid lay where Smokey had been. Jon and I exchanged a look. Smoke seemed confused, sniffing uncertainly at the spot. Giving us a worried look, he started to sneak away, as if he did something wrong.
“It’s ok, buddy, you’re all right.” We patted him and encouraged him to lie back down on a dry part of the deck.
“He just lost control of his bladder, “ I said. My heart sank. This was the latest in a string of events signaling our beloved companion’s decline into old age. Why is it these things seem to happen too soon?
As best as we know, old Smokey is at least 12 years old. He was a rescue who adopted us in January of 2008, on Martin Luther King Day. This is the day we chose to call his birthday, since all the shelter was able to tell us was he came from Alabama and had been living on the streets. He is a “cattle dog cross hound”. We wanted a dog with enough energy to accompany me on jogs, hikes and snowshoeing. A herding type who would fit right in on our growing, 5 acre mini farm. I am almost ashamed to admit he was not my first choice, as I was distracted by the energetic, cavorting puppies in the shelter. Jon stopped and knelt down at a small enclosure where a medium sized black-ish colored dog with funny ears lay quietly, his chin on his paws, which were sticking out into the aisle as if reaching for us as we walked by. His wet, cold nose sniffed Jon’s hand through the chain link. He was silent amidst the yapping of the other dogs. His eyes followed our every move.
The attendant asked if we would like to take him for a little walk outside. He walked shyly on the leash held by Jon, and was neither animated nor frightened, just kind of quiet and a little on the dull side. Looking back, I think he was probably a little shell-shocked. Jon was impressed with his calmness amongst the cacophony of barking in the shelter. If I were being totally honest, I had my doubts at what seemed to me to be a total lack of enthusiasm on the dog’s part. But, Jon was pretty insistent and pointed out that his age, approximately 9 months according to the shelter people, meant he was already house trained, something we didn’t want to mess with. And, I really wanted a dog, a rescue, and convincing Jon to visit the shelter in January when he had wanted a purebred Husky and to wait for summer had not been an easy sell. So, pretty soon we were signing adoption papers and preparing to take this dog home. He jumped willingly into the back of Jon’s SUV, and quietly laid down on the mat. Jon walked me to my car, and we made plans to meet back at home. (We had driven to the shelter separately). He immediately returned in a panic; he had locked the dog in the Jeep while it was running. We circled the Jeep, talking in fierce whispers, like crazed parents who locked an infant in a car.
“We need to go back inside and ask for help,” I said.
“No! They’ll think we are bad adopters! They might take him back!”
“Well, we can’t just leave him in there! What if he’s scared? How can we comfort him?”
We both peered in the windows. The dog was fast asleep. He had no idea he was trapped and in danger. He was in La La Land. We looked at each other and laughed hysterically. Jon called Triple A and within 20 minutes help arrived and unlocked the car. The only creatures in any danger were the two dimwitted human beings standing outside in the freezing January cold. But, at least nobody at the shelter seemed to be the wiser.
Once at home, “Mickey” (his shelter name) curled up in a corner on the kitchen floor and pretty much refused to budge. We coaxed him to go outside to relieve himself, and fed him right where he stayed. Otherwise, he was silent, head on his paws, in his corner, watching every move we made.
“This dog is kind of a dud, “ Jon said. “What do you think is wrong? Maybe he doesn’t like us.”
“Maybe he just needs to learn to trust us. Maybe he thinks this is only temporary. Maybe he is frightened and confused. He did come all the way from Alabama, and it’s freezing cold January here.”
I brought out a thick cotton towel, and laid it on the floor. Then I sat down next to the dog, and put my arm around his neck. He let me rub behind his ears. He was mostly black with some spotty gray and brown markings here and there on his back and chest. His chest was wide and his back tapered down to a pair of skinny hips. His legs were slender and delicate and seemed to belong to a different dog entirely. He kind of resembled a hyena. HIs eyes were a bright, warm caramel color. His ears didn’t stand up straight, and they felt bumpy, as if scarred. As if something had happened to them. He laid his head on my lap, sighed, and closed his eyes. A minute later he shifted the whole front of his body so he was half sitting in my lap, his bony dog elbows digging into my thighs, and his front paws wrapped over the top of my legs, as if hugging me. He sighed again and fell asleep. My heart melted. I sat there for an hour. It reminded me of the days when I held my sleeping babies, sitting as still as possible so as not to wake them. For the next couple of days, when he wasn’t sleeping half in my lap, he continued to watch our every move from his safe little corner with his back to the cabinets. On the third day, he stood up and followed Jon to the door as he went outside to work on a project.
“You want to come outside with me?” Jon asked. The dog’s tail wagged in response. He followed Jon out onto the deck. I looked out the window an hour later. The dog sat, shivering on the deck, watching Jon saw wood. I opened the door. “He’s freezing! He isn’t used to the cold. He needs to come in.” But, Mickey refused to budge until Jon came inside.
I believe that was the day he decided to keep us. He opened up his huge heart and personality to us, and we have never been the same. Our worlds, his and ours, opened up like a beautiful oyster.
This southern hound became a quintessential winter dog. Snow is joy to him. The first time he saw snow, he leaped off the back steps into it, up to his chest. He leaped like a deer hopping up and over the abundant white stuff, over and over. He put his head completely under it, sniffing the ground and the popping up out of it, sneezing and shaking his head, only to do it again and again. His favorite sport was leaping for snowballs. He was very athletic, and could leap completely off the ground and catch them. He loved to go with me on my snowshoe forays into the back fields. I would climb clumsily over snow covered stone walls. The dog would race ahead of me. Every once in a while he would come back to check on me. He’d appear from behind a tree or at the top of a hill, panting, and smiling in that way dogs do, as if to say “Are you ok? Are you coming?” I’d laugh and say “Hey show-off! No fair! You’ve got four legs! I’ve only got two!” Off he would go again, leaving me in the dust. But, he always came back to check on me. My loyal companion.
Somewhere along the line, Mickey became Smokey. Smokey for the hazy gray markings that fade into black. It just fit.
As winter melted into Spring, Smokey not only learned how to be a dog, living amongst humans, but also how to be a farm dog. Some lessons came easier than others. If Smokey were a first grade child here is a list of what he may have needed to write 100 times in detention:
-I will not eat my mom’s new chickens
-I will not poop under the end table, way back in a corner so mom can smell it but not find it for days
-I will not sneak over the stone wall to visit the next door neighbor dog and then hide from mom under their deck while she panics for 25 minutes trying to find me
-I will not chase deer across the road, no matter how tempting they are to race
-I will not steal my mom’s Starbucks cappuchino from the cup holder in the front seat while she is in Home Depot with Dad
-I will not eat an entire loaf of fresh Italian bread after stealing it out of a grocery bag while mom and dad run into Home Depot
-I will not try to make friends with skunks or porcupines
-I will not nip Mom’ s horse on the nose as an introduction
I learned a couple things as well. Like not to trust the idiot who advises a skunked dog be doused with Downy fabric softener. There really ARE stenches worse than skunk. I learned never to move too quickly lest I trip over my shadow, Smokey, who trailed me everywhere I went in the house.
The best thing about Smokey besides everything, really, is that once he learned something he did upset us, he never did it again.(with one, forgivable exception – more on that later) He killed one of our first chickens, but seeing our horrified reaction, that was it. He quickly figured out his job was to protect them. And protect them he did. Once, he darted like a bullet to nip the butt of a hawk that had swooped down from the sky to nab a chicken. It was quite the scene, like watching an airplane abort a landing at the last minute. Feathers flew, but they were the hawk’s not the chickens. To this day, Smokey scans the skies for hawks, barking at them from below. His circle of guardianship over the past ten years has grown to include chickens, ducks, a mini donkey, a horse, and visiting children. He also has tolerated our Quaker parrot climbing on and nipping his paws as he lies on the floor. He ran circles for hours to the delight of my nieces, until, exhausted, he hid from them in the tall grass until they gave up looking. I saw him hiding from the corner of my eye. I winked at him. His secret was safe with me.
One of my funniest memories of Smokey was the Italian Bread Incident. After devouring a fresh loaf of Italian bread he stole from a grocery bag in the car, Jon and I bought another. It was for a family dinner we planned that evening, which was a great success. Everyone loved the food, especially the bread. As we walked into the house after seeing the last guests out, Smokey greeted us a little too enthusiastically, considering we had only been gone a few minutes. His tail wagged in the helicopter motion he reserved for the most exciting encounters, but his head hung low and he couldn’t meet our eyes. “He looks guilty,” I said.
“What did you do?” Jon asked Smokey, who turned his head and looked away. That’s when I saw the empty cutting board. In the brief amount of time we were outside, he scarfed down a half a loaf of the Italian bread. He looked at us as if to say, “I know, I know, but it was so good I just couldn’t help myself!” We could hardly blame him. It was the one and only time he ever counter surfed. Well, except one other time he ate an entire bunch of bananas, removing them so expertly from their peels it looked as if someone had peeled them and left the peels neatly stacked. The dog has talent.
Up until January of this year, his favorite activities were playing tag with Jon as he chased him around the cars in the driveway, dodging any attempts to grab him, riding to the feed store and the dump every Saturday morning, and hopping up next to me on the couch, to rest his head in my lap while I tried to read, or knit, or watch tv. And most of all, curling up with Jon on the floor in front of the fireplace for hours on winter nights. You could learn a lot hanging out with a dog like Smokes. He lived in the moment and the joy he felt during these moments was contagious.
One day shortly after Christmas last year, Smokey began limping. The vet said he had a small tear in his meniscus. We decided to try rest and medication to help him heal, rather than put him through surgery so late in life. He got better, and we let him resume his rides to the dump. Then, he tore the meniscus in his other hind leg while hopping into the truck. We felt awful. The vet said we could continue treating him medically, with pain meds, rest, and limited activity, and although it would take a while, he would develop scar tissue and be able to walk again. We carried him down the steps so he could go outside and hobble to do his business. He spent hours sleeping, groggy from pain meds. Gradually, he healed enough to walk comfortably again, and as spring approached, he resumed his patrol of the property, and accompanying me on my morning barn chores. It took him twice as long to get there, but he was happy, which made us happy too. He could no longer come on long hikes in the woods with me, and my walks were made in solitude. I felt a little less secure, without my loyal companion there to explore the trail ahead to make sure it was safe. I missed his doggy grin looking back at me to make sure I was still there. We tried making a ramp to the truck but he was too freaked out by it, so, the rides to the dump were out too. And, lastly, no more games of tag around the cars in the driveway. We felt his absence, but if it bothered Smokey, he hid it well. His world became a little smaller, but he still inhabited it in abundance. He was as joyful as ever, just a little less animated about it. Instead of sitting on my lap, he was happy to lie down ON my feet, as I sat in my chair. He adapted. Another lesson we humans, the ones who are supposedly the superior beings, can benefit from applying to our own lives.
And, so we lived happily within his new boundaries. Some mornings, I let him sleep in a little before waking him to join me outside. Then, the loss of bladder function happened and another trip to the vet has revealed there is a mass in his abdomen, and some changes in certain blood levels that could indicate cancer. Jon and I agreed there will be no invasive measures taken, and Smokey has had a great life with us. He deserves his dignity, and as little pain as possible. There is no reason to think he won’t have a decent amount of quality life left with us. So, for now, we all continue to enjoy our sunsets, our moments of joy, made all the more precious knowing that forever is not guaranteed, not for any of us. We will continue to live the Smokey way, in the moment, and with much joy, as he has taught us.
Today I had a rare day spent in the company of myself. After getting my cholesterol screening (12 hour fast) out of the way, the day was my oyster. I started the migration of my summer writing space from the back porch overlooking the field and barn, to my spare bedroom office with Aunt Mary’s desk and window overlooking the side yard. I brought in half of the plants, and promised the others they would soon follow. It’s cozier, and less of a daydreaming kind of space. Maybe that will be good for my writing.
Then I cleaned the stalls and lingered in the barn, to give the equine kids a good scratch, warm hug and fresh hay. I have not once turned on the television, or a radio. Even the birds are silent, except for the gorgeous hawk I disturbed this morning on my damp walk through the woods and fields next door. The silence of the woods was such a stark contrast to even just a little while ago, when a chorus of birds, crickets and distant lawnmowers serenaded in a buzz of the late summer’s mix tape. Today the silence was only pierced once by the cry of the hawk, and the gentle tap of raindrops as they dripped off the red and gold leaves of the maples and oaks bordering my property line.
Later, I broke my fast with a hearty tomato soup in which I mixed red lentils. What is it about tomato soup that brings me back to the comfort of childhood when my mother served steaming bowls of Campbell’s tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches on toasted white bread? The richness of the butter melted into the golden crisp surface of the bread, the tangy taste of the soup and melted cheese, that first bite when your teeth crunched through to the soft belly of the Wonder Bread. I still remember the cheerful blue and red balloons printed on the Wonder Bread wrapper peeking over the tops of my winter boots. Did all of our mothers use the bread bags to line our winter boots and keep out the dampness? Remember the smell of the plastic , wool and wet boots that emanated from the coat room in school as our winter coats, boots scarves, hats and gloves dried in front of the radiators? We were a community of children who walked to school, in any weather, and who (most of us) came home for lunch to our Mothers, who had a hot lunch waiting on a TV tray in the living room, our favorite tv show tuned (Kimba the White Lion was mine) I know the world was far from perfect, even then, but parts of it sure felt that way. Today was a beautiful escape from the real world where, fortunately, parts of it are still perfect enough for me.
And now I need a tissue, the rain seems to have gotten in my eyes.
One morning, I was just about to rush out the door for work. As usual, I was running late. I kissed my husband good bye, and as I walked past my bird, Finn, on his perch, he called to me with his bright, sassy chirp. I stopped, and made a fuss over him, giving and receiving little kisses and kissing sounds. “Awwww, Good boy!” I said in my little baby bird voice, over and over, then turned to leave.
“What about Smoky?” my husband asked. I followed his gaze and pointing finger. There sat Smoky, on his dog bed, tail wagging his entire body from the back end up, his deep brown eyes shining in adoration at me. He was just quietly waiting for me to notice and say goodbye to him, too. My heart shattered in my chest, and fell to pieces on the floor. I put down my briefcase, my purse, my lunch bag and my mug of coffee, and walked over to hug my dog, scratch his ears, tell him what a good boy he is. He shivered in pleasure at the attention, smiling his dog smile. I could just hear him saying “Ah! She remembered me!”
To think I would have just walked out without a kind word to him. He would have waited until he heard the car leave the driveway, and then, silently laid back down on his dog bed, nose to tail, a little sad, a lot lonely, and waited. How many days has this happened already, how many times has he witnessed my mad rush, my only paying attention to the ones who made the most noise? How many times have I passed him over in his faithful silence? Leaving with nothing on my mind but the full day of work ahead.
And yet. Every night, hours and hours later, when I come wearily through the door with my burdens of the day, he is the first one to greet me at the door, with the same smile, the same shining eyes, helicopter tail whirling, lower body wagging along with it. Waiting for a kind word, a pat on the head, and if he’s really lucky, a scratch of the ears. All is forgiven, or, no, more than that, as far as he is concerned, there is nothing to forgive. How lucky am I to have known the grace of a dog’s love.
When I was born, my dad was serving in the US Navy. One of my earliest memories is of my mom singing to me:
“Bell bottom trousers,
Coat of Navy Blue,
My Dad’s a sailor
And he loves me too.
When you get married
And have a family,
You’ll dress your kiddies in sailor’s dungarees!”
I think I will always be able to conjure up her beautiful voice and those sweet words until the day I die. Mom always claimed she cannot carry a tune, but I think she has the most mellifluous voice in the world. Every day, Mom would wake us up with her sweet greeting; “Rise and shine!” I was a grumpy, moody child. Never a morning person.I would grumble back from under the covers, “I’ll rise but I won’t shine!” I felt wickedly clever for saying that. To her eternal credit, It did not deter her from her daily greeting. Every night at bed she hugged and kissed us and tucked us in saying “Good Night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite!” Always in the same cheerful tone. She could have had the worst day of her life, but would never let it show to us kids. Her love for her children was and still is unconditional, and as consistent as the sunrise.
My early years were spent in a small village in upstate New York. You could walk to school and I did; every day to Kindergarten then home to Mom and peanut butter sandwiches and milk on a TV tray in front of my favorite cartoons. Mom and I and my brother walked downtown and had milkshakes and ice cream sodas at the local lunch counter. Every day in summer I could play outside to my heart’s content and Mom was always there to run to for comfort, food, and hugs and kisses as needed. I had a pretty normal childhood spent running in and out of a slamming squeaky screen door and being told “in or out, one or the other!” We could spend hours buying penny candy and melted popsicles with nothing but a dime at the corner store all summer. I recall ice skating at the local park down the street in winter. Mom stuffed the toes of her own childhood skates with newspaper so I could wear them. We greased the blades with Vaseline and polished the leather with white shoe polish. I remember the pride I felt that I could fit into Mom’s skates.I imagined her laughing and skating with her friends, an image I took with me every time I circled around that iced-over lot at the end of the street. Those ice skates were more valuable to me than any brand new store bought pair of skates could ever have been.
I was never a girly girl who welcomed dresses and pink hair ribbons. If Mom had hoped for that kind of daughter, she sure hid it well. I was the kid who tore up her new winter coat sledding under a barbed wire fence and barely ducking in time to avoid getting clotheslined from it. My buster browns were permanently scuffed, my permed and set hairdos went frizzy, and my clothes never stayed clean very long. When we moved to the country, Mom was the one who set me free to roam the lush pastures and cool, green forests and creeks every single day. I would return home grass stained, sweaty and brown as shoe leather, and happy as a clam. If my dad nurtured my love for adventure and animals, my mom was the one who sent me out into that world, unfettered and free to live out those adventures and loves. I don’t think I ever realized her part in giving me my independence and letting me decide who I was, without judgement or restriction.
Just because she was cheerful and loving does not mean she was or is a pushover. My Dad always said my mother is the best judge of character he knows, and it is entirely true. Woe to those who hurt the ones she loves, and if Mom doesn’t like someone, which is rare, you know that person has a very serious character flaw.
When I was at the lowest point in my life, pregnant, a single mom to a two year old, alone and afraid, not knowing where I would live the very next day, I called her. I hadn’t told her much about my dilemma when she interrupted me with the two most beautiful words I have ever heard: “Come home.” She knew I would never ask. This allowed me to safely prepare for a new life with my two wonderful boys. It probably saved my life. She was a believer in tough love, to my eternal benefit, but she also knew when I truly needed her. No matter where I go, Mom is always home to me.
Mom has done so many things in her lifetime. She worked retail, at a local department store when I was in high school. Her sense of fashion and style sure helped me out, since I had no interest in such things. Thanks to her, I didn’t go to school looking like a bumpkin. I can still remember showing up at the breakfast table dressed for work, barely awake only to have her order me to remove my skirt or dress so she could properly iron it. “You are NOT going out looking like that.” And I wasn’t the most grateful teenager for all her attempts to make me presentable. She also was an aerobics instructor, and ran programs for the YWCA. She wrote grants and obtained funding that benefitted a lot of people. She hiked mountains – she and my dad took my sons to hike up Mount Washington when they were very young. She is an artist – she creates the most beautiful quilts I have ever seen! She is a merciless Scrabble player. All the grandkids know they can truly brag if they can beat their Grammy. Ultimately, I think it is her role as a Grandmother which she cherishes the most. She is the proudest, and most loving grandmother on the planet. Not many Grammies can boast that their teenage grandsons invite themselves to dinner and to play Scrabble. My boys did that, and to this day they travel the 5 hours up to Maine to spend time with their grandparents, as do all of their children and grandchildren.
We are so blessed to have you for our Matriarch, Mom. I love you a bushel and a peck. Happy Mother’s Day!