Here we are in November. Can you believe it? Who of us ever, back in March, expected the pandemic would still be here? Not only still here but getting worse! We are two days away from the election and I am beyond the feelings of scared, worried, stress. It’s like the old test your strength ring the bell carnival game where you strike as hard as you can with a mallet to ring the bell at the top. I have hit the bell so to speak, and I don’t have the mental strength to lift the mallet anymore. My feelings peaked at a form of grief beyond description. I will have to just leave it at that. Now, a low-level malaise is the best I can muster.
We live on a farm, and we have plenty to keep us busy. Every evening while the weather was still good, we sat on our back deck, watching the sunset over Pack Monadnock Mountain in the distance, enjoying a cocktail and talking, talking, far into the night. We still perform this ritual, migrating to the tiny, screened in porch off our bedroom. We can see the barn and the back pasture from there. We sit, in our winter coats, huddled up in front of a small propane heater, and talk, talk, talk into the night. Sometimes, my wine glass gets refilled a couple more times than it should, if I am being honest. It helps to buffer the tumultuous feelings I am wrestling with. I think at times, I am hanging on by a thread. All I can do is hold on to that thread, with both hands. Because, what other choice do we have?
Here in New England, we were gifted with wonderful weather this year. I remember in Spring, standing in the green fields, feeling kissed by the sunshine and gentle breezes. The sky was a brilliant blue and there was something brighter, clearer than I could ever remember. Even the birdsong sounded brighter, cheerier than usual. Was it because I appreciated it more, or was Mother Nature patting us gently on our shoulders to tell us everything would be okay? “Just look up,” she seemed to whisper. The glorious summer bloomed into a spectacular Fall, in which the maples, oaks and sumac burst into shades of orange, lemon-yellows, and crimson reds bordering on, I swear – hot pinks. The Fall seemed to last longer, too. And then, it all culminated with an early Halloween snowstorm. Overnight, a brilliant white backdrop made for a beautiful study of the blazing trees. It was like a painting, a sumptuous feast for our weary eyes.
In our little town, there was trick or treating this year. Every year Jonny and I love walking the streets in town, looking at the spooky displays, and we enjoy watching the children in their various costumes skipping from house to house collecting their loot. This year, we were out running errands, and happened to come home just when trick or treat started, at 5PM. It was still light out and we could see a few costumed figures walking on Main Street. “Want to take a spin to see who’s out this year?” I nodded. We passed by the Legion where masked adults were standing at the top of the steps, by the festooned door with buckets of treats offered for self serve. Even behind the masks, I could recognize a couple of townspeople. We drove slowly through the streets by the elementary school, where I once read to my boys under a giant oak tree, over thirty years ago. Costumed children ping-ponged back and forth in the ball field, including two who were dressed in those funny dinosaur costumes with bobbing tyrannosaurus heads and tiny arm waving, and dragging cartoonlike tails behind them. Across the street in front of a heavily decorated house, was a little booth, made up to look like one of those Zoltar fortune teller booths at amusement parks. Inside was a man was dressed up to look exactly like Zoltar himself. From behind the plexiglass, he could drop baggies of treats to the waiting little ghosts and goblins hands. The children lined up, six feet apart, to the sidewalk. We drove by twice; it was so entertaining!
At the top of the hill, three very scary looking clowns sat in web-backed lawn chairs next to a pumpkin head full of treats. Across the street from that, tiny ghost-shaped napkins full of treats were tied to the branches of hedges, for the children to grab as they went by. We marveled at the creativity.
Finally, we turned the corner, and drove past the library, on our way up the hill to home. We stopped the truck at the crosswalk to allow a cluster of costumed children and parents walk past. A little further up the street we stopped again to allow a mom and dad to walk across the street. Between them, each held the hand of a tiny girl in a pink tutu. Her legs beneath the tutu skipped joyfully, but her little face was all business, her large brown eyes seriously watching us as she went by.
Maybe it was just me, but like the brilliant spring skies, and glorious autumn leaves, the faces of the children seemed extra joyful this year. Absolutely everyone, adults, children and even the occasional teen were smiling. Many of them waved to us as we drove by. There was hope in the streets of my beloved town, and a sense of community that seems rare these days, as we isolate at home. We face a bleak winter season of limited or no family gatherings, or, so I thought. But do we have to look at it that way? Maybe with some hometown ingenuity, no matter how far apart we all are this year, we can find a way back to joy, which taken in small doses will help us to lift our chins and our eyes and continue to look up. Yes, here is where I once again arrive, to a place of hope. We can do this.
I love how, for the writer, writing can bring the past back to life. Today I rewrote the summer of 1971. Once again, I walked through dark green cornfields in Upstate New York, climbed the twisted boughs of apple trees, watched puffy white clouds lumber across a turgid sky, nudged by the heavy breath of mid summer. Fistfuls of juicy blackberries stained my fingers, dripped down my chin as I crammed the sweet, warm gems of the season into my mouth. Oh, to once again roam the sweet spot of childhood when summers stretch endlessly before you, ripe for adventure and offering a treasure trove of sensations: icy cold creeks to plunge dusty, bare feet into, where shiny darting minnows dare you to catch them in eager, cupped hands, the taste of ice-cold sweet watermelon slices and hot, buttery corn on the cob. Saturday morning cartoons shared with your little brother, the two of you tangled on the couch in a twist of spindly arms and legs, as you fought for your own space and argued half heartedly over Flipper or the Flintstones. Your Mom half listening and refereeing from her seat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and working a crossword. Ah, close your eyes and come with me, we will escape the icy grip of winter and leave this middle age behind! Just take my hand, and hear the sound of the screen door as it slams behind us. Feel the grass as we kick off our Keds and run heedlessly through the back yard, into the fields and the thickets beyond. The sun is warm, the wind is light and the corn fields are whispering our names!
Six years ago I rescued a mini donkey named Angel. Which, by the way, is a misnomer if I ever knew one. (More on that later). My husband and I wanted a companion for my horse, Shiloh. Shiloh had been living with us for a year as an only horse, and he seemed just fine. But so many people had told us it was mean to keep Shiloh all alone and the guilt was too much and we succumbed to the pressure. (And besides, what animal lover doesn’t love a good reason to bring a new fur baby to the family?) Soon I found myself standing in a tiny grass paddock at a local rescue farm with a pissy little mini stallion named Jack, a goat, and a mini donkey named Angel. She stood apart, her back to everyone, under a scrubby tree, staring into space, looking slightly grumpy. I slowly approached her, and quietly stood next to her as she stared out into the distance, thinking her remote donkey thoughts. After a few minutes she gave me a side eye, as if grudgingly acknowledging my presence. I reached out and touched her neck and then reached up to scratch her giant ears.
The rescue lady spoke up quickly, “She doesn’t like her ears….” her voice stopped, as I scratched the inside of Angels beautiful ears, and she stood perfectly still, and even leaned on me a little to enjoy the feeling. “Wow,” said the lady.” She does not let any one touch her ears. Ever.”
Deep from the abyss of those liquid, black eyes I had fallen into, a soft voice, my voice, spoke. “When can I take her home?”
Trees sigh and shed tears of yellow leaves onto the breeze.
Sad, for the passing of summer.
The leaves having soaked the lemony summer sunshine up
Into their veins, yet in vain
For the sun is not eternal, and none of us are immune from dying.
Except, perhaps, the thousands year old boulder excavated a hundred years ago, where I sit, holding an apple up to my nose, eyes closed. (You can’t really smell an apple unless your eyes are closed) Cinnamon, clove, citrus and the earthy scent of raw honey.
Red jewels with shiny skins the apples lie in the golden and green grass like treasures. Prepared for sweetness, I bite the smooth hard skin and it bursts beneath my teeth with a snap and a flood of tartness breaks the spell the scents have put me under.
Autumn has crept up as usual, to spring in front of us and wave her red-gold-orange-flag to dazzle by day and enchant by night with a crisp diamond studded sky, as if winter is not far behind.
I can’t stop the seasons.
But I can still take the broken apple to the barn and share it with my friends, the horse, and the donkey, and we can still bathe in the warm honey sunshine.
See the dust rise up from the hay bales and dance in that last fools gold light of summer.
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.