While my father was not the one to teach me about horses, he was the one to teach me about flying and daring and all the things that horses would eventually bring into my life. He was the one who swung me gently by the arms, his enormous hands under my armpits and threw me to the sky, only to catch me on the way down and rub his rough chin across my cheeks, grinning as I shrieked in glee and my mother fretted. He was also the one who tugged at my feet as I sat on the deck of our pool, coaxing me into the water. Towing me, tiny hands wrapped in his, around the edge, away from the edge, out into the center, the water stretching away below me, my fingers digging into the flesh on the back of his hands, tiny feet kicking wildly at the slick surface. He was the one who whistled or hummed a song softly from behind a long, waxed mustache before letting go…watch me sink, gasp for air and then scoop me up onto his broad shoulder before the water swallowed me. In time he would convince me to jump from the deck into his outstretched arms…first crouching, inching to the edge, one, two…we would recite together…filling my lungs and pinching my nose between wrinkled fingers before I lept, eyes squeezed shut. He taught me to jump logs and climb fences, to climb up into the branches of our pear tree, swatting at bees gathering around the sickly sweet rotting fruit and hang from the boughs of the apple tree. He sat with me in the driveway, his gray trousers pulled up at the knee, exposing short socks in leather loafers, and helped me remove the screws that secured the training wheels to my red bike. We wheeled it down between us to the sidewalk and he held the back tire while I straddled the seat, tongue wedged into the corner of my mouth in concentration. One, two…we recited together before he gently pushed the seat, jogging a step or two alongside and then watching me slip away, one cement square, two cement squares, three cement squares.
On certain summer nights, my father would roust me and my sister from the bed we shared across the hall from my parents, holding our hands and guiding us out into the night. We would sit on either side of him under the canopy of the garage door while rain pelted the drive and thunder rumbled across the dark sky. He taught us to count the seconds between lightning and thunder to judge the distance and then we would all fall into silent contemplation as the storm wrung itself out. Leaning against his side tucked under his arm, I would look up to see just his bottom lip curled in a peaceful smile, a curl of smoke rising from his pipe or thin cigarillo, illuminating the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. If I feel asleep (or put on a convincing enough act that I was), he would snuff out the pipe, fold me into his arms and carry me back to the warmth of my bed, tucking me in and patting the curly black head of our family dog, stretched at the foot of the bed. If I woke, I would plead with him for a song or a story and he never had it in him to say no.
My dad’s younger brother, my Uncle Johnny, taught me about horses. But it is my dad’s strong and silent ability to fill the moment with his presence that I think of when an animal needs me or allows me. When I bow my head against the warm soft neck of a horse, I see my dad’s head bent in prayer and draw his undying faith in all things good into my hands.
What my dad did teach me a great deal about, through example, was dogs.
Ours was a full house, my mother and father and my four sisters and always a pet or two. I arrived last and just before my oldest sister left home to create a space for her own family, a girl and a boy and a doting father of their own. Though the house was small, it never fell short of making room for all of the life we could fill it with. There were regular visits from relatives who traveled across the Canadian border to sit around our table and share bottle after bottle brought up from my father’s basement cellar and scrape the last bits of my mother’s creamy polenta from its wooden platter. The dogs hovered beside chairs and scooped up wayward crumbs, offered or mistakenly discarded.
The house was always full of people, just our immediate family was enough to clog the dining room table even without the near constant stream of cousins and neighbors and school friends that came through the front door, the garage or in from the backyard. The backyard, our childhood Disney land. Today when I make the pilgrimage home, I am always shocked when I go into our backyard. It is a tiny footprint of land, I can bound from one end to the other in less than ten big steps. As a kid, it was a vast expanse offering up one adventure after another with a pool, a basketball hoop, a garden and fruit trees lining one side; pear, apple, cherry, and plum. The opposite side was a forest of raspberries and rose bushes. Against the back of the house rose a fig tree that had traveled from Italy and that my dad somehow brought to life after every harsh winter until it rained down sticky plump fruit that my mom gathered and cooked down into a thick fig jam and spread between layers of sponge cake. Every year there was a garden, tall blood colored rhubarb standing next to bright cherry tomatoes and fat little carrots lifting their shoulders above the soil. My sister Heather was married in that backyard to her first and lasting true love. There were graduation parties and baby showers in that yard. When summer passed into fall and then winter, my dad would go out into the dark cold night on a Friday and run a hose over our little basketball court until a layer of ice formed. On Saturday morning, we would pull ice skates on in the back hall and slide out onto its surface, the neighborhood kids showing up one by one to twirl and race around the little rink.
And always, there were dogs. Chasing us, chasing squirrels, chasing bees.
My first dog was born just hours before me, my mother’s friend bringing pictures of the puppies when she visited me and my mom in the maternity ward of the hospital where they worked together. Bimbo-Dean came home nine weeks later and slept at my side for the next fourteen years. When I “ran away” from home at seven, I only got as far as under the kitchen table where I fell asleep next to him and he kept my secret as long as he could until my mother discovered me there. He was the only brave soul to stay by my side as I tried failingly to learn to play the guitar. When I was old enough to walk to school alone, he would walk with me to the corner and sit until he could not see me anymore, then slink home to sit with my mom or lay under the kitchen table until we came home. I loved school but I dreaded being away from the busy environment of our home. When I headed out each morning, I would dart to the front closet and grab one of my dad’s hats or his old gray bomber jacket. Never mind that they hung off my thin frame or threatened to cover my eyes. They certainly didn’t match the plaid skirt and white shirts of my parochial school uniform. My mom would sniff and wonder aloud what possessed me. But having something of my dad’s with me made school tolerable. I liked my classes and had friends in class but I was often the subject of teasing because I was the tallest student in my class and clumsy and my body was well ahead of schedule compared to the other girls. I hid inside that bomber jacket to avoid the stares and jeers and felt safer with the smell of my father’s cigar close by, my fingers working the old candy wrapper he left in the pocket or the quarter that had buried itself into the hem. The boys in my class would make fun of the eight-panel newsboy cap or the long sleeves that hung past my fingers, but I preferred that to what else they might have poked fun at. That bomber jacket disappeared one day. My hand went to its hanger as I headed out the door and simply fell into empty space. I looked and then looked again. I checked the floor and rifled through the other hangers. My mom saw my pained expression and smoothed my hair. “Honey, I didn’t know it meant that much to you. It was so tattered, I sent it with the goodwill box.” I didn’t let her see my anguish. A few weeks later, my faithful old dog, nearly blind and stiff with age, snapped at me when I accidentally bumped his hip as I walked by him in the hallway. I crumpled to the floor and held him, rocking and cooing to him through stinging tears. Not too long after that, he was gone too. Again, my hands searching through empty space for what I loved, for what was no longer there.
The toughest jobs always fell to my mom, taking our pets to the vet, holding their paw as they passed, humming to them so that hers was the last voice they heard. Burying the endless parade of baby birds and dimestore goldfish in our postage stamp of a yard. Finding our cat under one of my dad’s bushes, rigid and blue gummed. She is our families angel of mercy, never complaining, always gracing us with a tired smile when we swept breathless into the kitchen with the next stray in tow.
A German Shepherd Dog came into our life next like a gale force. She refused to be contained. She could and did scale fences effortlessly, winding up in neighbor’s yards or galloping alongside traffic. Refusing to suppress her spirit and determined that no dog would suffer at the end of a chain on his watch, my dad took her for walks on the leash tirelessly and searched the streets for her desperately when she did manage to wiggle past us through a door or, in at least one instance, eat through the bottom of one. Inside she was a paragon of virtue, sitting, laying down, rolling over, determined to please. But the sight of open space was too much for her. In the end, she went to live with my sister in a more rural neighborhood with a bigger yard and nearby woods where she could sniff out adventure. She was devoted to my sister, who spent nights alone with an infant and a one-year-old while her tireless husband worked a night shift on his second job. Sundance managed to lose her tail in a fight with a passing car. It took the grit out of her somehow and she decided life in the backyard and at the foot of the couch was enough adventure for one dog. The children rolled on her and tugged her ears as she regarded them like a sphinx.
The next dog was small by comparison, a mixed breed with silky hair and mischevious black eyes. He was a gift from my sister to me for my sixteenth birthday but from the moment he passed our threshold, he and my mom belonged to one another. He pranced on his hind legs for her and would fall over himself to hear her sweet laughter. She fed him lettuce from our salad bowl and made him eggs for breakfast. They talked to one another in the kitchen at length and in animated voices while the rest of the family watched tv or did homework at the kitchen table. He hovered under her hands and followed her everywhere. When she left the house for work or to run errands, he flopped down by the door with his chin on his paws and, forlorn, fixed his gaze on the door until her return. The only time his attention was drawn from her affections was from 8-10pm when my dad settled onto the couch to watch a game or a western movie or the news. Rags, named for his unruly hair that hung in his eyes and dripped from his chin, would run to the low cupboard in the kitchen, open the door with his nose or front paw and sit wiggling until my dad came to retrieve the bag of peanuts. Together they would hold down the couch, a Tupperware bowl between them and my dad would give one peanut to Rags and take another for himself. Rags had learned by watching and would hold the shell under one paw, pry it open with the other and munch contentedly. I don’t think my dad ever mastered teaching him to put the shells in the bowl.
The phone in my dormitory hallway rang and one of the girls from my floor came knocking to let me know my dad was on the phone. I placed a holder in the page of my organic chemistry book and walked down the hall uneasily, my dad had never called me at college before. It was Rags, of course, he wasn’t doing well. My mother was worried. Did I want to come home for the weekend? So much life in such a tiny body, I couldn’t imagine it ever running out. It was more than my mother could handle, it wouldn’t have been fair to ask it of her. I took the bus home that Friday after class and took Rags to the vet’s office where I had worked through my last years of high school. The vet, a kind man and one of the best bosses I had ever worked for, led us to his office and sat on the floor with me, Rags between us. Though saying goodbye is never easy, it is a gift to be there to witness their passing and to be with them in their final moment. Our family’s angel of mercy had chosen to pass her halo down and it has served me well many times since. Now in my midlife, I have a farm for retired and injured horses and others who manage to find their way to our driveway too, chickens, goats and a miniature donkey. When I am faced with having to make tough decisions on their behalf, as I do now more than I ever imagined I would, I dig deep into the locker of my heart and pull out that tarnished halo and try it on. It does have a certain magic to it and as I hold their head or rest my hand on their shoulder, I hum a little something that I remember hearing from my mom.
I moved to Vashon Island at the close of 2011. My partner and our three dogs took a fantastic leap of faith that landed us in the center of twelve of the most heavenly acres I have ever known. In a blink of an eye, there were two horses, and then four and then goats and so on until we were surrounded with beating hearts and ears and eyes that watched our coming and goings like sentries. My parents, in their 80s at this point, made the long trip from Detroit to Seattle. Before they had been on the property a full hour, my dad was digging a fresh bed around the big fig tree that stood on a high point near the house, fertilizing it and tying up its heavy branches against the pull of the earth below. He inspected the house and classroom, deciding in his mind’s eye where the tile entry should go and wondering how we were going to manage to get up on the roof each year to clean it. He walked and he walked and he walked and by the second day, he knew more neighbors than we and counted no less than twenty different birds on our grounds. When my mom put out the call for us to come to the dinner table, my husband and I went to look for my dad and found him sitting on the top rail of our pasture fence, facing into the setting sun. His silver head was tilted upward, his thick hands hugging the board, swinging his feet like a kid.
After dinner, we sat around a fire in the yard, my dad playing harmonica, stopping to tell a story and all of us singing along to tunes he picked out. As the fire died down and we stared into the bottoms of glasses, my dad put a hand on my mom’s knee and started singing softly to her. She closed her blue eyes, her cheeks blushing and leaned against him as he sang. When he finished, she said it had been their song back in their dating days in Toronto when they would go down to the bandshell on the waterfront and dance to the Big Band music. Sometimes being in the forcefield of their love takes your breath out of your chest.
My parents are in their 90’s now. They don’t speak about trips to come as often as they used to, though they still make it out regularly to play music with friends and to visit the grand and great-grand kids. My mom plays Candy Crush with the best of them and answers the phone on the first ring most of the time, ever hopeful that it is one of her girls. You feel lifted by the smile that you can hear but can’t see. My dad uses her as an interpreter, asking questions from across the room, filling in the details of the story she is sharing. Reminding her not to forget to tell you whatever it was she just got finished telling you. Unless of course, he is in the yard shoveling snow, as he was on the morning of his 90th birthday. Or he is walking the neighborhood as he has done nearly every day since we lived there, checking in on the neighbors, seeing how the trees are holding up, whose planting what or building what or repairing what. Bringing the random news of the day home to my mother. The other day when I called he was in the yard digging up an old Rose of Sharon bush to make room for a new garden bed he was planning for spring.
Decades ago, my sisters and my mom and I took to calling him Superman. From our countless experiences of him swooping in to save the day, from miraculous feats of strength we had both seen and heard. He has a way of appearing exactly when and where he needs to be to steady a careening toddler, to keep a door or window from slamming shut, a vase from crashing to the floor from my mother’s hands. To keep a heart from breaking or a tear from falling. As if he had a sense we all lacked. And, like Clark Kent, an aw-shucks humility about his magnificent self.
My dad had a mild stroke several years back. When his doctor told him a very small area of his brain was probably scarred and he may have lost some memory as a result, my dad was quick to tell him not to be worried, that was where he had kept the bad memories, and they only need a very small space because there were few.
My dad’s kryptonite came in the form of hearing aids. Like his mother before him, his better senses have decided that he has heard so many wonderful things and that today there are many things not worth hearing at all, and so it’s playing the odds. Hedging its bets that he only needs a fraction of new sounds to minimize the risk of displacing all the wonderful ones. So he’s selective, choosing the coo of his most recent great-granddaughter over the evening news, focusing on the homily on Sunday and ignoring the days and times of doctor appointments and dental check-ups on Monday. He has heard the lilting voice of my mother pledging her love for over 70 years and is as happy with the playbacks now as he is reading it on her silent lips. He pulls his hearing out like a party trick sometimes now, appearing from the back of the house to recite for you exactly what you just said from several rooms away, just in case you were wondering. Of course, he hoards his hearing for his harmonica, preferring it to the television or conversation. And for talking to his daughters when they come to gather at the table around a bowl of pistachios to hang on his every word.
I envy my daddy a bit. I like quiet contemplation. I rarely turn the radio on in the car if I am alone. The thunder of my own thoughts is enough to make me cover my ears most days. I like to think he is listening to his memories much of the time; the sounds of kids in the pool, dogs in the yard, each of us singing in the church choir, my sister Rose playing guitar, Theresa and Madonna practicing their cheerleading routines, my mom with my Auntie Margaret and Auntie Ruth doubled over in laughter, perhaps his own mother and his brother Jimmy whom he loved fiercely. When he is pulled out of his reverie by someone asking him a question, my wish is that they have the patience to give him that moment to pack away whatever memory he was playing, for I am certain it is a precious one. When I speak to him, I don’t waste words and whatever I am saying, all I am thinking as I say it is I love you, I love you, I love you. And I know he hears me.
I’ll love you don’t let us part
I love you I always knew it would be you
Since I heard your lilting laughter
Peg o’ my heart
Your glances make my heart say
How’s chances come be my own
Come make your home in my heart