Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Puppy's Garden of Verses

Although we tend to report or write only about significant moments, and this blog is no different, life is lived in the day to day.  This week, I wanted to provide five little snapshots of daily life with Cleo.  While each could come with a longer explanation, I hope that these five haiku give an insight into the beauty of a day with our girl, or maybe sound familiar to other Bedlington moms and dads.

Crow, cat, squirrel, child,
Any a potential friend.
Wide smile of greeting.

*            *            *

Ten toys on the floor.
Stretch, nose to the counter-edge.
What toys are up there?

*            *            *

Grass blades don’t rustle.
Each step silent as moth wings.
Joy!  Stalking gophers.

*            *            *

Darkness.  Crisp air.  Leap!
A riot of happy barks.
Ears swept back by speed.

*            *            *

Reclining figure
Limns the couch back, paws adrape.
Is it stuffed or real?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shaggy Dog Stories

After my aunt’s service last week, the family went out for dinner.  It had been something like fifteen years since I had seen so many uncles, aunts, cousins and second cousins all in the same place at the same time, what with them living on the East Coast and me living in California.  Amid all the reminders of what a funny, warm and deeply affectionate group they are, one fact emerged most clearly, and for me, it was as much a revelation of one of my own personality quirks as it was insight into family dynamics:  We are a family of storytellers.  And every bit as much as we love to tell a good story, we love to hear one.

When I share information with my colleagues, I prefer to do so in story form.  Not that I make things up or over-dramatize, but that I like to allow the information to unfold as it was presented to me, complete with dialogue and description of tone and facial expression.  After all, if you don’t know how a fact was communicated, how can you know the full import of the information?  Over the past year, I’ve become aware that not all of my colleagues appreciate this degree of painting the picture.  I think the major tip-off was the day I was recounting an altercation between students to the two colleagues with whom I work most closely.  One listened with concern and attention.  The other suddenly rolled his eyes and said, with an exasperated tone, “Oh, my god, the detail!”  It’s not like I’d gone on and on for minutes on end.  And it had been a pretty intense moment between these students.  Nonetheless, I have since practiced to report the facts and nothing but the facts.  I feel like I’m wearing a straight-jacket.  Or like I’ve lost half the colors from my palette.

But now I know where this penchant for storytelling arose; I credit my dad’s side of the family.  As we sat in the restaurant, and even earlier during the post-service reception, heck, even during the service itself, stories flowed.  They spooled out as naturally as our dark brown hair is trending towards grey.  Just as often as someone would say, “Let me tell you…,” he or she would turn to someone else and say, “Tell the one about…,” then sit back to enjoy the hearing all over again. 

I remember that my Uncle Charlie was always a wonderful storyteller, able to see the absurd in the every day and to relate an event with a certain sardonic disbelief that reduced us kids to peals of laughter.  He retains that gift.

The conversation inevitably rolled around to stories of my grandparents.  “I’ll never forget,” said Charlie, “the time the whole family went out to lunch and forgot me at home.  He paused.  “Shoot,” he added, as he looked around the room full of people who had gathered for his sister’s memorial service, “there’s no one here who would remember that story anymore.”  One Thanksgiving, he went on, his grandparents came to take the family out to lunch.  With eight people to transport, four kids, two parents and two grandparents, they had to take two cars.  In the flurry of getting out the door, six-year-old Charlie was left behind.  He crawled under the dining room table, his only companion Bumpy the Boston Terrier, and listened to the silence.  Turning to Bumpy, he put his hands on either side of the dog’s face and looked deep into his bulging eyes.  “Oh, Bumpy,” he moaned.  “They don’t love us anymore.” 

Of course, as soon as they arrived at the restaurant and the adults realized that each thought Charlie was in the other car, they hightailed it back home to rescue him.  The image that sticks with Charlie, though, is of sitting underneath the table with Bumpy.

How often do dogs lighten our loads?  My heart aches as I think of that tiny boy clinging to his dog as he sought sanctuary in the darkness of the tablecloth fort.  To recast the scene without Bumpy is to multiply the desolation a thousand-fold. 

"C'mon!  Let's play!"
There is a student at school, Jane, who spends every spare moment with Cleo.  If she has an extra five minutes between classes, she is in my office.  Every lunch period—my office with Cleo.  Tutorial periods—you guessed it.  After school?  You get the picture.  She will toss a ball as many times as Cleo will run after it.  She will play Tug-of-War, Chase, Hide-and-Seek for hours on end.  She will sit and let Cleo lounge all over her until her legs lose feeling.  She is endlessly patient, teaching Cleo tricks like Close the Door and Look Pretty.  When she isn’t with Cleo, she spends (probably far too much) time on YouTube learning how to teach tricks or researching dogs for the moment she gets to have her own.  She is a wealth of information on a wide variety of breeds and their characteristics.  Her parents, sadly, but most likely appropriately, won’t let her have a dog.  She pines for one of her own.

The other day, Jane was in my office at the end of the day, as usual.  She said, “I saw you and Cleo up on the field after lunch today.”

“Oh, yeah?” I responded.  “From the Latin classroom?”

“Yeah.  It was scary!  I saw Mr. K tearing around in his cart up there, too, doing something on the field.”

“He was measuring for the new striping.”

“Well, I think it’s okay that I was a little distracted from Latin.  I mean, I wasn’t sure if my best friend was going to get run over by a—“  She went completely silent.  Then she laughed.  “That sounds really lame,” she giggled, her cheeks reddening. 

“Your best dog friend,” I suggested.

“Right, right,” she agreed, still giggling.  Then added with the slightest breath of sarcasm, “That’s exactly what I meant.”

I know what she meant.  Some day, sixty-some years from now, though there will be no one left who remembers the story, she will begin, “Once, I knew a Bedlington Terrier named Cleo.”  And she will relate the way that many licks of the face and a fuzzy head tucked under the chin helped her make it through her teenage years.

Cleo and friend

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Thank You Note

Aunt Marion & Uncle Ken

After twenty minutes of staring at the blank computer screen, debating between two possible topics for today’s blog, I went to the source, quietly snoring on the couch in the living room.  Within a couple of minutes, I knew what I wanted to write about, but I lay with her for a good while longer; it just feels so good to have a mini-Wookie sacked out on top of you, nose wedged into your neck, back legs splayed in complete relaxation.  If a noise outside hadn’t roused her to action, I’d be there still.

The debate with myself stems from the fact that what I wanted to write about today has very little connection to Cleo.  The alternate topic, which I will get to before much longer because it presents itself every single school day, has very much to do with Cleo.  Can a blog that styles itself as the chronicles of a perfect Bedlington Terrier developing into a therapist for a group of extraordinary adolescents really turn to a topic that has no connection with that particular dog, or indeed, dogs in general? I guess we’ll see.  I do know two things that holding Cleo helped me to recognize: In just over a year, she has become so entwined in my life (and John’s) that there is no part she doesn’t relate to, past, present or future.  And the other is that to neglect writing about my aunt who died Friday night would be a betrayal, not only of her, her family and mine, but of that which makes me human enough to find Cleo beautiful, delightful and precious.

When I was very young, my dad’s next younger sister, her husband and three children moved from Emmaus, Pennsylvania, a little over an hour away from us, to St. Davids, about ten minutes away.  The clear message that penetrated my tot-mind was that both my parents were overjoyed.  My dad deeply loved his sister Marion.  She was his intellectual equal.  She was quick, opinionated, funny, never let him get away with anything, and loved him every bit as much as he loved her.  To my mother, she was a sister, a confidante, someone who loved and supported her, someone who probably had more faith in her than she had in herself.  My uncle Ken was a gentle bear of a man who earned the highest praise my father could bestow: Not only did he trust him, rely on him, and respect him both for his professional expertise (as a minister and an advice columnist for one of the big Philadelphia papers) and as a human being, he believed him to be a worthy partner to Marion.  That may sound horrifically condescending, but Dad took seriously his role of oldest son and had astronomical standards for the person who would become his beloved sister’s husband.

Gwyn & Aunt Marion
My mother was a year and a day older than my aunt, and Marion and Ken married a year and a day after my parents.  Their oldest child and my parents’ were born just days apart.  From the moment they moved to the Main Line, we were regularly in each other’s houses.  My mother and Marion traded Thanksgiving and Christmas for the whole tribe, but really, they were a team and a partnership at every holiday feast.  Family dinners together were filled with uproarious laughter, heated political arguments, unburdening of worries, thoughtful advice.

I loved being at their house, and some summers I would go to spend the night with my cousin Kris and stay for a week or more.  It was they who taught me that families tease each other and laugh about it.  Marion and Ken modeled a loving relationship that had friendship at its core, as well as mutual respect and regard and a love that carried them through over sixty years of marriage.  Kris and her younger sister Gwyn, always close, made room for me and allowed me into their sisterhood.  The house itself beckoned with endless possibilities of adventure and play: an enormous yard with a creek in the front and a mulberry tree in the back.  We would come in from a day outside, muddy from searching for newts or the headwaters of the Nile, and with purple-splotched hands, face and clothes from sustaining our adventures with handfuls of sweet, juicy berries.  At night we would snuggle in their den and all watch Ed Sullivan or Gunsmoke on the black and white television, Aunt Marion exclaiming her delight at Topo Gigio or her children or just at life in general, Uncle Ken humming along with the music in his low rumble that seemed to vibrate in your chest and permeate you with a sense of safety and warmth.

Uncle Ken & Kris
Aunt Marion and Uncle Ken were with us at all of our important moments, from graduations and weddings to hospital stays and funerals.  It was they who my mother called to come take her home from the party at which my father died, they who fought through the aftermath of a blizzard to rescue her when she had the first of the strokes that eventually ended her life. 

Last week, knowing that our aunt was dying, Kris held her mother’s hand and asked her who she was looking forward to seeing on the other side.  Her answer was immediate: “Uncle Dick and Aunt Pat,” she said, naming my parents.

We never say enough to the people we love while they are alive.  It’s too late now, Aunt Marion, but thank you.  Thank you for your years of patience, support and encouragement, up to and including your email last month telling me you loved my blog and that our parents would be so proud of my sisters and me.  It doesn’t matter how old we get to be, those words have profound meaning. 

Uncle Ken, Tim, Kris and Gwyn, words are inadequate.  I am so very, very sorry for your loss.

Mom, Aunt Marion, Gwyn & Kris