Author: Lola Michelin
Clean windows remind me of home and my 12 year-old self. At our house, window cleaning was an annual production for my mother and my sisters and I, although truth be told my sisters and I were often less than willing helpers. The brightening skies and fleeting warm weather of spring beckoned us out and stirred our need to venture not just outside the house, but out of the neighborhood. Our bikes begged to be freed from their moorings in the garage, where they had leaned on one another for support through the long gray days of winter. School was drawing to a close and friends from our block would come calling at the door, singing out my sisters name and mine. A gang would form down our street as each stop yielded up one or two children, the choir growing to six or eight before reaching our door, third house from the end of the street. My sister Rose and I knew who was gathering from several houses away, the thin pretty voice of our friend Annie, the boyish bark of Rachelle, the deep timbre of Olga’s syrupy voice. Even our dog would raise his curly black head when he heard the advance, tail thumping the floor in anticipation. What a strange lament we had created, seemingly out of no one persons doing, never discussed or planned, it just came to be. Someone stepped onto a porch and cried out, “Annie, Annie”. And then there would be two, “Shelly, Shelly” until a demanding song from a four foot tall choir rang out at our door, “Rosie, Rosie” but we were through the door before they could finish the verse. We were off and running and only the glow of the streetlamps would bring us back.
But for my mother, window cleaning was a resurrection of sorts. A throwing open of the doors to scatter the melancholy that settles into a home during a Michigan winter. It was her own spring catechism and it heralded a whole series of spring and summer sacraments, the hanging of laundry in the backyard, the rolling back of the pool cover and subsequent dredging of leaves from its depths, the tying of small metallic strips of paper to the stems of her sour cherry tree to scatter the early robins. It coincided with my father starting tomatoes and and fertilizing the raspberries in the backyard. It followed on measured steps behind Easter morning like a bridesmaid, when the dogwoods would be in blossom and often the last small flakes of crystalline snow would perch on their petals. My sisters and I would pile into the station wagon, careful of the hems of our dresses and ducking to keep the wide brim bonnets perched smartly on our reddish-blond heads, off to Easter Mass to shed the shackles of Lent. It would commence when the last of the hot crossed buns were eaten and it would last several days. Window cleaning came before the rising temperatures of May that would dry the cleaner before it could be wiped clean, leaving stubborn streaks across the glass. It was a harbinger of the planting that would come soon, delicate pentunias and bright marigolds that my mother would border her domain with, kneeling gently on one knee with a trowel in one hand and using her free hand to wave off the black cocker spaniel dancing at her feet in search of attention.
We would recognize its coming by the way she looked out the window at supper, silently counting in her head a string of reliably warm days. The gathering would begin, newspapers that usually gathered in stacks in the garage waiting for a school paper drive would collect in the dining room. An old sheet or my dad’s old work t-shirts would perch on the edge of the couch to be cut into tidy squares twice the size of her delicate hand in the evening. The scissors would snip away while we huddled around the tv or sat at the table finishing the last of our homework assignments, my father dozing off with his long legs stretched out before him and his calloused hands folded across his lap, the dog by his side, black muzzle resting on his pantleg.
Soon she would bend to the task of polishing the glass to gleaming perfection, giving her a perfect view of the outside world from a vantage point at the dining room table. When the work was done she could sit with a cup of tea in a rare moment of repose and look past the flower bed to her two youngest daughters playing kickball with the neighborhood gang. Her eyes would dart up and down the street when she heard one of us call out “Car” and scatter like starlings to the curbs until the car passed.
Window cleaning is on my mind today. The pandemic has as sequestered at home, businesses are closed, even church gathering forbidden. I am hosting an absurd number of conference calls online these days. During my most recent call, reflected on the screen infront of me, I caught the smudge of dog kisses that fractured the light coming through the bottom panes of the french doors leading into my office. My youngest terrier considers herself my personal assistant and insists on joining me in the office. Her plaintive whining and scratching at the french doors never fails to win me over and she spends the afternoon touring my desk, curling up in the discarded office chair that kills my back to sit in and brings me regular gifts of business cards and discarded receipts she roots out of the recycle box. I log in to my task tracking app and add Clean Windows to my weekend to do list.
I did not inherit my mother’s cleaning skills naturally, but thankfully she did take the time to teach me. No harsh soaps or detergents on glass because it might scratch the surface. A simple mix of white vinegar and warm water strong enough to itch the inside of my nose into a sneezing fit. I rummage our closets for fodder for several soft cloths (an old shirt from a 5K run years past, a flannel sheet that refuses to remain tucked in anymore) and rob the basket by the woodstove of a few pages of newspaper.
First the screens would have to come out. As a child we stacked these alongside the house where my father usually parked his beloved brown Ford pick-up truck, loaded down with a treasure of tools he used for his Italian tile and terrazzo business. His tile mosaics and marble floors graced the entries of buildings, fine dining establishments and posh homes from Grosse Point to Birmingham. As a grade school student, our classes would occasionally field trip to various Detroit area landmarks and I would recognize the perfect cuts and even caulk lines as we trudged single file through a foyer or inner sanctum of halls of government and historical homes. On summer weekends, my father would retreat to the driveway after Friday dinner and set to removing his tools from the bed of the truck and arrange them carefully in his shed and sweep out the bed. The truck had a bedcover, gray metal with windows on all sides. Into the back of the truck would go a full size mattress, blankets and pillows and a peach packing box of books and crayons and musical instruments. He would stock his glove compartment with mints and a deck of cards and shake out a quilt from a chest in the basement to cover the bench seat infront where my mother would sit. Bright and early in the morning, we would pile in to the truck. My mother and father in the front listening to NPR and my sisters and I in the back, a tumble of long legs and bare feet stretched out on the mattress, battling for space or lying head to toe. Usually we were headed for Canada to visit relatives but less often, a brown Coleman pop-up trailer would follow behind as we trundled off to a campground somewhere in northern Michigan or Minnesotta. We tumbled around, read books, napped, ate the nuts and fruit my mom had packed and when we bored of each others antics, we slid open the narrow window that communicated with the front cab and listened to the radio with our parents or begged for mints. My dad would feign that he had forgotten to pack any candy until we groaned and begged to stop. When we slipped outside the city limits, I would take my position at a side window and scan the countryside for any sign of horses. A few here, huddled together in a small pen beside a gray barn. A group of mares and foals scattered over a green expanse. A muddy group of ponies running toward a barnyard where someone was carrying out hay to a low wooden feeder. My favorite would be the farms where a horse or two grazed alongside a small group of cattle or sheep or when I would catch sight of someone near my age smartly trotting across a dirt ring on their horse, hair spread out behind them. Those trips sometimes ended with the pickup truck pulling into the driveway of my Uncle Johnny’s farm and I would blast out of the back of the truck bed and sprint to the field where my cousin’s mare Babe stood lazily swatting flies and a little black pony named Nipper raised his head and pondered whether this visit would require biting or kicking.
But when my mother had deemed it time, she whipped into a frenzy of airing out the house and my dad’s Ford was regulated to the curb. My father would be stationed in his driveway, hosing and scrubbing the window screens, watching as a graying stream of water and a few crisp corpses of flies meandered down the the sidewalk and to the sewer drain. My mother would be lining us up like soldiers and passing out assignments. It was critical that the cleaner be sprayed thinly over the glass and then quickly whisked off the surface with a clean rag. Someone would come behind that with a second rag to rub the surface free of streaks. If the window needed to be done twice, repeat the steps, no skipping. When rubbing, start in the upper left corner and work across the glass, repeating this in overlapping strokes to the bottom of the pane, never bottom to top. The final step, the window-cleaners piece de resistance, the secret weapon in my mother’s cleaning arsenal was a balled up piece of newspaper. We painted small slow circles across the glass with the newspaper, the siren squeek of paper on glass sending our dog under the bed and our cat to the neighbors yard.
Only yesterday I learned from my dad that the newspaper wasn’t to clean the glass but that the ink from the newsprint made the glass sparkle. It was the halo to crown my mother’s efforts. It created the glint off the glass that made her eyes sparkle in delight and our visiting aunt’s click their tongues in admiration.
I was in our farm garden, skyping with my mom and dad. They have been nearly 11 weeks in quarantine now. They are both in their 90’s, healthy and doing their best to stay that way. My daddy’s hair has grown over his ears and he is sporting a proper beard now. My sisters deliver groceries to the porch after carefully wiping them down and talk to my mom through the mail slot. I dream about that one night, that I am sitting on our little porch at home, my back against cool red brick with my sisters, my mom sitting on the tile floor of the foyer, leaning into the door so she can peer through the mail slot at her daughters, lined up outside like prisoners on the wrong side of this thing.We can’t go in, they can’t come out. Their yard has become their world, they can wave across the street to the young family that recently moved in, their three young children mystified by why they can’t go over to hear my dad play harmonica for them or eat muffins at the breakfast table with my mom. My mom smiles into her tablet from her living room chair and fiddles with the camera, my dad leaning on the arm of the chair behind her, one hand occasionally drifting across the silver hair of her head affectionately, absently. These calls have become a ritual for us both, I take them on virtual walks around the farm so they can see the horses, the trees and the rhododendrons in bloom. They come with me to work in the barn aisle, to see the coop that my husband has built for the hens from the safety of their living room. I am showing them the peas in the garden that are flowering and pulling weeds as we talk. There are tomato starts to put in the ground and I ask my dad about tying up the fig tree that is starting to lean precariously. He tells me that his tulips are done and it is time to decide if he is going to dig up the raspberries or try for another year. The soil has grown old and tired, he says, the irony doesn’t escape any of us. For the last 60 years my dad has worked it into rich black beds, but he isn’t sure he has the desire now. My sister usually brings him compost from her and her husband’s two horses but with the travel restrictions, she hasn’t visited in weeks and nobody can get to the nursery anyway, its been closed since the Governor declared a stay-in-place mandate.
I am reminded of my office windows. I ask my mom if she will be hiring someone to do the windows this spring and this is what leads us to talking about the best ways to clean the windows and to my father explaining the purpose of the newspaper.
After our call, I gathered my cloth and cleaner and newspaper. We haven’t bought a newspaper in years, gleaning all we need or want to know about the world news from the screen of our smartphone or computer screen. The only paper is a local store circular. I don’t think schools even have paper drives these days. I head for the French doors. Spray, wipe, rub. Spray, wipe, rub. I take my time doing one side of the pane and then going to the other side of the door to clean the opposite side. Then I go back and forth to find the streaks or smudges, leveling my gaze alongside the glass. It is mindful work, slow and deliberate. I miss my sister’s help.
Windows speak to me on a deeper level than a mirror. I have been looking through windows more and more of late, stationed at home as we are, hidden away from the coronavirus. I look out and count the blessings I see, the massive black figure of my horse grazing in our front pasture, the two statuesque cedars framing the grass field beyond where deer cross in the evening and coyote follow behind once the moon has sent the sun to bed. There has been a progression of growth since the start of the stay-in-place order. My front yard has paid no heed to the halt of activity that is evident in the streets of town. My front yard marches on, blissfully unaware. The bare Japanese maple has covered its crooked bones with a spring frock of dark rust colored leaves. The narcissus, also fans of their reflection, have come and gone, as have the daffodils and tulips. Noone had to tell them to stay in place, they held their ground as they always do and bent to the prevailing wind as needed until their time passed. They have been replaced in the deck pots by the rosemary and chives. The dandelions are busy shaking their manes loose on the breezes. Poppies bob their heads, just like I find myself doing late afternoons when there are no errands to hurry off to and nobody coming by to sit outside and share a meal or a glass of wine. Several of the rhododendrons are ablaze in blooms, while the others have begun to shed their sticky petals, which appear on our tile floor, traipsing in to the house on the pads of our dogs paws.
I am rubbing the cloth on the glass when it occurs to me why I prefer windows to mirrors. My husband has just walked into the room, drawn by the long sonorous whine of the glass singing under my ministrations. He looks perturbed for a moment, he is assuming I have locked my personal assistant in the office again and she is whining to be let out. When he sees me worrying away at the glass with my cloth, he smiles, standing a little longer than needed. He steps closer to the pane and looks through it at me, holds my gaze for a bit. Says nothing and everything in his constant way. I see us, myself and him, at the same time, overlapped, blended, separate but together. We are looking at the same thing but we are seeing it differently. It causes me to reflect on this moment in time in a new way. This new world insisting we look out at it through the paradigm of disease. For some, the view is terrifying, bleak, miserable, the glass permanently cracked. Others struggle to see through the clouded glass and feel stuck, uncertain about what they can’t quite see. Still others are looking for a silver lining, trying to see the light beyond the dark, peering into the now to try to see some glimpse of the yet to be, what people insist on calling the new normal.
All of us are looking out, but it seems all of us are seeing something different. We are separated by this disease, and yet we do see one another now, more than before. We are finding new windows, on our computers, between us and our teller, our grocery clerks, our barista. Some of us are staring directly into the window, hands alongside our eyes to narrow our view. Others glance sidelong at the glass, checking for shadows that blur all that there is in this. There are even those who would have you believe that they are offering you a window but thrust a mirror infront of you instead, have you believe in a picture they are creating behind the scene as if they were the Great Oz.
There is another reason I like windows. Yes, they remind me of my mother and a simpler and carefree phase of my life. Yes, they allow me a view of the beauty I am surrounded by on my farm and in my home. Yes, I feel deeply satisfied as I look through this clear firing of sand that I have polished clean until my view, at least, is crystal clear.
But more importantly, windows remind me that I have been looking into windows for as long as I can remember, the windows on the house of a soul. For the one other place where I can look and see both myself and the other, looking from the other side back at me is in the eyes of animals.
In the soft eyes of my horse, shining onyx from behind a mantle of long black lashes as I lean on his shoulder and he twists his neck around my body in a hug that brings us eye to eye.
The green eyes of our cat imploring me as he laces himself between my legs, tail ticking lazily in feigned interest.
The swirling flecked bronze eyes of my goats that spin with laughter and mischief.
The languid brown eyes of our oldest mare, who spends half her time on this side of the window in our world and half on the other side checking out the real estate and maybe looking for her next home and her former friends.
The extinguished light, flickering like a flame in a breeze, from the eyes of my heart dog as I cradle him in my lap, hold my breath as he takes his last in this form, in this life. His wise but pained gaze replaced by a youthful far away look as his soul spills out across the room and spreads itself into every corner of my life and my world, constantly reflected back to me in moments and surprise spaces.
I hope I take one thing into my new and changed life after this virus loses its hold on our collective pysche. I hope I remember to look into the eyes of others I meet with the same curiosity I feel when I look through windows. That I remember that they see me too. That they may see a different world than I but that we are not separate, there is no pane that separates us. That I can look at things directly or sidelong and the view will be different, and that it is okay to look at the same thing and see different things, as long as we look through it together. That I pause. To reflect.
It’s morning. I lie meditating, gently scanning from foot to head, ears tuned to a lilting voice of a Buddhist nun coming through my earbuds, urging me to follow my breath into my body and out again. I begin in resistance, as usual, the hands curled, the arches of my feet knotted, the ricocheting sound of my mind glancing off the walls of my skull. Breathe. The simplest of tasks. The activity that governs and rules itself all day, every day. The mother of my body, quietly toiling and sustaining me with a hum on her lips and never a plea for notice. The maternal rhythm that catches me when I am scared, gallops alongside me in play and slowly rocks me in sleep. But as I try to channel it, to control it, to not just abide in it but to guide it, the breath rises up to wrestle with me, pushes back and complains as I try to hold her still. She becomes the teenage sister, wrestling with me and chiding me, coaxing me to cry uncle and give her control. She loves me as much as the mother but in the taxing way that pushes me beyond myself, makes me look at my flaws, tosses my own emotions at me like a hat or toy quickly snatched and invites me to catch…catch…
Catch the breath. Breath in, Breath out. Back in the present moment. My body prone, legs and arms outstretched on the warm mat like a lizard stretched out on a rock, basking in the sunshine of my breath. Spine elongating, bones gently oscillating, joint capsules floating like jellyfish in synovial tidepools. My tendons are like ropes tied to a dock, allowing my muscles to drift to and fro on the waves of blood and lymph, the saline ocean of my body. I feel myself regenerating gradually with each measured breath, the cast-off remnant of worry wriggling away from me like a severed tail.
The body’s slow unfurling begins. The right hand relaxes, opens the fingers to receive. The left hand still clenched, like a snake with a mouse in its maw, allowing me to scrabble and squirm with no promise of freedom. I roll the shoulder blades down and back, feel the spine gasp in relief. My scapula scrape against my ribs, tethered to a brittle sternum that yearns to crack open like a dried branch. I think of my dog, how she lies on her back with her front legs bent midair, seemingly at rest and in motion at the same instant. Her little scapula rest on their edge oriented as they are, running north and south alongside her ribcage, unable to spill across the floor as mine, pinned easty-westy across my back. I envy the freedom of her ribs and chest in the moments when I watch as she careens around the yard, her heart and lungs bouncing in the inflated house of her ribcage, forward, backward, side to side. At this instant, on my mat in practice, my own ribcage feels more like an iron maiden, squeezing my heart and lungs like a boa constrictor. Tara’s voice comes from some distant place and gently invites me to open my chest, set free my heart with my breath. Instead, my inhale swoops into my lungs like wind throwing open a doorway. My ribs rise in protest, a small cyclone of air forming deep in the chest and rising into a muffled cough. The metal cage door around my heart rattles against years of internal rust and a childish sad difficulty with forgiveness. My true heart presses against the bars like a dog in the pound, leaping against them in a tug of war with my own will. I exhale, the left hand jerks once, twice and then falls open, soft and receiving. In its wounded palm lies a crooked scar, a spiritual key, glistening in white promise. Deep in my state, I test the key, crafted through fire, in the lock on my heart. The rasp of metal on metal causes my heart to jump to its feet and run to the bars, the flush of blood through my body begins to warm and melt the hinges of my joints. Pelvic bones melting over the rolled towel beneath them, hips gliding gently into the back of their sockets, the spine pooling across the floor as the body gently becomes unhinged, like the jaws of a giant snake.
“Unlike a mammalian jaw that is built for brute force, a snake’s is rigged with tendons, muscles, and ligaments that give the jaw a gymnast’s flexibility…The two lower jaws move independently of one another… The quadrate bone is not rigidly attached to the skull, but articulates with the skull at one end and is therefore freely moving…”The two mandibles are not joined at the front by a rigid symphysis, as ours are, but by an elastic ligament that allows them to spread apart,”…Flaunting proper table manners, a snake takes its time muscling food down its throat, walking its skull over dinner…”1
The image delights my sedated mind and I regress to a moment in time when I worked closely with the menagerie of reptiles at a Florida zoo that doubled as an amusement park. Young and limber myself then, I walked through the park grounds on certain days with a 16-foot reticulated python encircling my body like a corset, its diamond head resting in the palm of my outstretched hand, inviting park guests to come forward to stroke its smooth cool scales, daring them to float their hand beneath his mouth to feel the flick of his forked tongue. I would find a sunny spot beneath a palm tree to stand, talking for long stretches of time about the nature of the snake, the devastation of the rainforest they called home, their habits and diets to anyone curious enough to listen and not desperate to hurry off to the long line at the log ride or to make the noon showing at the primate pavilion. This is how I spent my days as a conservation education specialist, a glorified name for those of us fresh out of college who divided time between cleaning the various animal’s night pens, herding children and livestock around the petting zoo and taking animals out for educational talks. I hungrily learned as much as I could about every animal in our education department collection, passing test after test to be granted permission to work with different animals in educational settings; Trixy the toucan who incessantly bit my arms with her clacking beak until I yielded up one tasty grape after another, a yellow-eyed douroucouli aptly named Luna squinting against the Florida sun until I could make it to our shaded location near the park’s synthetic waterfall outside Nocturnal Mountain. On the best days, my schedule placed me by the elephant exhibit where the cows would lumber up, calves in tow, so the keepers could bath and scrub them with long-handled rough brooms. While the calves fondled the water hose with their trunks, I talked to a gathering crowd about the evils of ivory and handed around precious tail hairs and toenail clippings for the children to feel.
Pulled back to the present, the mixed feelings of my time working in this captive community rise to press against my diaphragm and fill my heart, causing the hinges of my ribs to whine as they work to spring open and release the breath held within.
And yet, the memory of standing transfixed, the Florida sun warm on my shoulders, feeling the muscles of my reptilian companion relax around me and slide from my ribs down to my waist, his head heavy in my hand, his fixed gaze shadowed by a lazy nictitating membrane and the sun playing patterns like oil slicks across his herringbone scales is one I hold without guilt or shame. Forgiveness begins this way.
Unhinged. A term of madness, of reckless abandon. A term that makes a person think of lunacy, of unmasked anger and manic laughter. Unhinged, whispered from behind hands held below raised eyebrows. Unhinged, persons in rooms struggling to hold their clarity of mind like so many helium balloons. I had an uncle, now passed. He lived in a home, his moods passing between peaceful contemplation and rage. An injury suffered as a toddler that left him uncommunicative and untethered. He had mastered time though. He could fix watches and clocks. He knew the time without reference, a savant of hours and minutes. I remember sitting at his feet when he would come home to my nona’s cottage for holidays, his enormous hand resting gently on my head, a smile as beautiful as an infant’s creasing his square jaw. He reminded me of the gentle giant from the Grimm’s fairy tale. I imagined him sitting in a room in a home, his mind busily traveling in time as his body stood watch, as I imagine my lungs sitting in the room of my ribcage while I travel between the inhale and the exhale.
But why, why is it thus? Unhinged to me seems unique and special, like a talent or a gift to unwrap, to loosen the bonds. Unhinged could be, should be flexible, adaptable. To unhinge ourselves is to redesign our thoughts and feelings to a changing world and allow it into a bigger, more generous space. I sit or lay in meditation to unhinge the accumulation of a day’s toils so my chakras spin freely, scattering energy like broadcasting seeds in fertile soil.
Hinged, perhaps, is the term we should find fault with. Hinged closed like a sepulcher. Hinged to the point of minimalism, unmoveable. A hinged mind seems small, an unhinged mind expansive. A hinged body stands taut and rigid, unhinged joints able to dance and frolic. I start my meditation with a hinged heart that feels caged but my unhinged heart now races toward the new day, arms flung open.
Meditation takes an inward gaze, observation takes an outward one, evolution a steady one. The snake, despite all its distinction, has yet to rise up from its home on the ground, it remains bound to earth, even its gaze cannot travel to the clear sky above it despite its perfect form. But other reptiles did take to the sky, sprouted feathers and talons and reached to the clouds above. Birds floating, flapping, riding the thermals in ever-widening lazy circles. My snake body sinks into the floor while my bird heart takes off in flight. Which is hinged and which is unhinged?
Father and Time
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
The Scoop on Dogs
Beagles are dogs perfectly made for boys. The younger the boy the better. For both are designed to wander, forbidden or not. And to find their voice. Boys need a companion on their journey and beagles have the stamina for it. And someday, they can lend their nose to find the way back home.
Herding dogs are well-designed for women of a certain age. Women who know their desires but are just discovering the path. A woman takes strength from a guide who merely seems to be along for the ride. To huddle with when lost or forlorn and to leap and yip with when the moment calls for it. One to keep track of the things they will recklessly discard. To keep a careful watch when a mother’s eyes are far away. To gather all the pieces and keep them organized. A black and white dog to help define the shades of gray.
Hounds are for the horsemen, and terriers too. Rugged and gritty with dirt under their nails from the digging. Breathless from the chase. Tireless and fearless and ageless. Able to keep up and not afraid to scrounge up a meal of their own when their partner is busy attending to a winded horse or a wounded calf. Full of song and yearning.
Hunting dogs for hunters, both too rowdy and keen for regular company or walls to confine them.
Shepherds for the shepherd, for trading watch through the long hours. All sharp eyes and stiff shoulders, tail to the breeze.
Mothers and fathers seem to favor the heavy chested dogs with thick blonde or black coats. Tolerant and playful with broad rounded paws and big grins. Good babysitters who are proficient at cleaning the kitchen floor too. And happy to stretch out on the couch after the children have gone to bed. To watch the game or old romantic comedies together and never care if you cry into their necks.
Among my favorites are the dogs I see accompanying older men. Men whose backs are bent from experience, gray from the years. They enjoy the company of small dogs, with billowy coats of white or caramel or buff and jet black eyes. Resting at their feet or in their lap or curled in an old dog bed folded over just so, nestled down between a corduroy leg and the arm of the recliner. A mixed breed to mirror the mixture of memories in the wrinkled eyes. Father, husband, grandfather. Soldier, worker, son. The knotted hand rests on the mantled shoulders. Snoring gently so as not to wake one another.
Is it any wonder there are over 400 breeds of dogs and countless combinations. So many different people, so many stories, each needing a familiar to take on the walk of life.
Whatever the breed or your stage in life, be sure to have a dog. Have one right after the other. Or many at once.
Decide first the life you wish to lead and then find the dog to help you live it.
Photo Credit, Wendy Dahl of Dahl Behavior