Small Bursts of Grief

It’s a perfect summer day, and we were walking back to the cottage after a swim.  I asked my husband: Do you ever find, right in the middle of a normal day, that you feel a sudden burst of grief for your parents?

He didn’t even look back. “Well, it is Father’s Day.”

My father, Hugh Riordan, and my mother, Ethel, while they were dating.

My father, Hugh Riordan, and my mother, Ethel, while they were dating.

 What follows is the eulogy I delivered at my father’s graveside. My dad never lived to see me as an author, but I know he would have been proud of me. That’s what fathers do.

I miss him every day.

It may seem a little strange to find a Brooklyn boy here in a remote country churchyard. Daddy was a man of sophisticated tastes, well-travelled in the world. As a boy, his mother took him every Saturday to the Metropolitan Opera. In his early years, he rode the subway every day to school. But there was always a rural thread in his life. Brooklyn was farm country in the 1920’s, and he spent his summers in Mill Rift, Pennsylvania, a small town with rushing falls and gentle mountains, and several vacations he worked on a farm.

I have always been proud of Daddy. Proud of his intellect, his accomplishments, and his dignity. I have never known anyone else like him; he knew the answer to every question, he could fix anything, he remembered everything. His interests ranged from science to poetry and music. He is literally the only person I ever met who read Einstein for fun. When he was recovering from his first major illness, we knew his brain was undamaged when he commented on the Monet hanging across from his bed.

He was a brilliant engineer, whose inventions advanced technology, saved lives, and helped in the defense of his country. Above all, he was a man of impeccable integrity. That is a rare thing.

I am indebted to him not just for his love and support of me throughout some of my more wretched moments, but for the gifts he gave me. Almost everything I love in life, I learned from him. From Daddy, I learned to love music and literature, to care about reason and rational thinking, to value education and languages, to be a patriot, and to love freedom, and perhaps most important, I learned my insane passion for dogs. I guess we all did.

When Brian and I were talking this morning, he reminded me that for all Dad’s affection for his Mercedes Benz–a car he cherished, coddled, and fiercely protected from the rest of the family–he drove it into a ditch and wrecked it to avoid hitting a groundhog on the road. He was not a demonstrative man, but he was tender-hearted. He loved to be hugged, and beneath his quiet mask he was extraordinarily affectionate.

Of all the places he had lived, he loved Wisconsin best. I think it was partly because the German culture seemed familiar to him, like the households of his German grandfather and uncle, and partly because he admired the simple integrity of the people here. He liked farmland and the animals, and he saw cities as places that corrupted lives and culture. For all his accomplishments and education, he had no pretense or snobbery. He was a good man who lived a simple, honest life. And it seems exactly right that he should rest here, among settlers and veterans, underneath tall trees.

My father, H. E. Riordan, and his favorite dog.

My father and his favorite dog, Rudy.

 

Another Sign of Spring

For some reason, my husband decided yesterday to take Moses to the barber shop with him.

Don’t ask.

Perhaps one factor may have been that the night before Moses had had a rather thorough bath, complete with shampoo and conditioner, as opposed to the daily rinse in the dog shower he usually gets to clean his feet. He smells good now, and he’s all soft and shiny, and this seemed like an opportunity to give him a good brushing. Thought for the day: Never brush a wet dog. Especially not in the house. No, not even if it’s really cold and miserable outside.

German Shepherds are a breed that have a spring molt, which is referred to as “blowing their coats”. An odd expression, I thought, in my innocence. But that was before. Now that he is four, and officially fully mature, Moses is having his first real blowing-of-the-coat, and I have come to think that whoever coined the phrase had a gift for understatement. Moses’s long black hair with its creamy roots is coming out in massive tufts which do, indeed, blow. Everywhere.  Piling up in insane quantities in the corner behind the kitchen door.  Stuck to the stamp on the Easter card I sent to my aunt.  Appearing, unexpectedly—and disturbingly— in my coffee cup at work.  But this was nothing compared to the wet dog hair that he and I, together, artfully distributed about the mud room, on the white kitchen cabinets, and on my person. There is no broom, no vacuum, no lint roller sufficient to the task. It’s like glue, and your only hope is to wait for it to dry and then wipe it off with a dry rag.

NASA ought to look into potential applications.

In any case, and for whatever reason, Moses had a trip to the barber shop. He was permitted to wander around and sniff at things, he obligingly lay on his back to have his tummy rubbed by several admirers, and when asked, he lay quietly on the floor nearby while my husband had his hair cut, all amidst the chaos of dryers, and razors,  and customers coming and going. He was, in short, a very good dog.

It would have been nice if a trip to the barber shop had resulted in a bit less dog hair, but I suppose I should just be grateful that he was shedding somewhere else for a while.

 

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For the Love of Pete

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No, not that Pete. But yes, the love interest in my novels is named Pete. I was half-way through writing the first book before it struck me that my character and my dog shared a name, so it was completely unconscious.  Pete, the dog, however, is not quite as suave or subtle as the novel’s Pete, and he rarely quotes poetry.  But he’s every bit as good at getting his own way.  We’re not quite sure what breeds went into his creation, but we call him an Indiana Spotted Dog because he’s from a kill shelter in Indiana, and because he’s, well, spotted.

So, sometimes the quieter members of the family get a bit lost in the shuffle. Moses is big, and young, and boisterous, and he can easily put himself between Pete and a hug from one of us. We have to make an extra effort to make sure he gets his share of attention. Pete, himself, makes sure he gets his share of food. Nothing gets between Pete and food.

Pete is eleven-ish, and he has been with us since he was about ten months old. We’re not sure what happened to him before we met, but it was something that has scarred him forever. When we first brought him home, he would flinch if you moved your hand suddenly, and roll over fearfully and subserviently if you tried to reach for him. Occasionally, under stress or commotion, he still will. Oddly enough, he is not shy with other dogs. On the contrary, his injured leg came when he attacked Moses, and in the scuffle, Moses landed on him. In our house, even though he is only 70 pounds, Pete is the Alpha Dog. Moses is the follower.

I started out obedience training with him, as I do with all our dogs, but once he had learned to sit, and lie down, and stay, and come, I left him alone. The whistles, the shouted commands to drop, the wheelchairs, and the sudden noises that are part of the training left him shaking and slinking away. It wasn’t worth it.

So Pete isn’t a Canine Good Citizen. He is afraid of children, and of people with hats. He will not go outside in the rain, and does not delight in our new dog shower, no matter how necessary. He used to be afraid of cameras, and for that reason, until the advent of the I-Phone, we had very few pictures of him. The camera would come out, and Pete would disappear. My husband says that someone must have once taken an unflattering picture of him, but I think it might have been the high-pitched whine of the electronic flash. A friend has commented that the expression on Pete’s face often looks as if he’s in a hostage situation. Unless he’s around food. He smiles around food.

We didn’t teach him to sit up and beg, or to respect the plastic flags of an invisible fence. He came pre-programmed. But we never hit him, either, and he came pre-programmed to expect that, too. For the first few months after we got him, I would wake up in the night worrying about what had happened to his reported ten brothers and sisters. But Pete, no matter what had happened to him before, had won the dog lottery.

On the other hand, Pete is a survivor, and he has learned the survivor’s skill of how to quickly ingratiate himself once he knows you are not dangerous. He has a sort of Eddie Haskel quality that he uses to great advantage, even–or perhaps, especially–on us. He also has the survivor’s knack of knowing exactly what he wants: yes, it’s usually food–he must have a lot of hound in him–but often just his own space.

We got a new big bed last year for our new bedroom, and it’s pretty high. Even 120 pound Moses contemplates the leap before attempting it, but for Pete, who is about half that size, it’s a bit of a reach. Now, Pete is a snuggler. Lying in bed is what he does. Many times in the past, I have awoken to Pete’s face lying against my face, cheek to cheek. But with the new bed, he simply wouldn’t come up. Maybe it hurt the leg he once injured. Maybe it was better to be away from that nuisance, Moses. But he wouldn’t come.

We felt bad about it, and called him, and tried to lure him with treats. Pete is always lured by treats. But it wouldn’t work.

One day, our friends and general contractors were over. They were at our house every day during our almost two years of remodeling, and our dogs love them like family.  Pete was pressing earnestly against their legs, begging for love and attention.

I watched him, and shook my head sadly. “Poor Pete,” I said. “He thinks no one loves him. He can’t get up on the bed anymore, and he’s sleeping all by himself.”

My friends exchanged glances while rubbing Pete’s ears. They were silent for a moment, and then Patti said: “You know, as soon as you leave every morning, he’s on that bed. He stays there all day.”

She sent me the photo later to prove it. There he was, comfortably ensconced on the pillows of my cream colored bedding.

He is mostly trained, and pretty well-mannered, but not perfect, and I don’t demand of him the same things I demand of Moses. There’s no margin of error for Big Scary Dogs, but for Pete, well, we let some of the details slide.  Pete does things pretty much the way he wants. And in the end, that’s ok, because we love him, and after everything he’s been through, he deserves it.

But I do wish he wouldn’t leave quite so much black hair on my pillows.

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Pete, above, snuggling.                                 Pete, in a hostage situation.

 

 

 

 

Dog Joy

Whenever I can, I like to take our dogs for a walk in a particular woods. We have to drive there, and the dogs know the place by sight. They also know the difference between when we are actually going there, and when we are only driving past. Even if I haven’t said anything, when the turn signal goes on at a particular intersection, they know we are going to the woods. But usually, just to give them the pleasure of anticipation, I say to them: “Do you want to go to the woods?” and they immediately begin to sing with joy.

Moses, who until recently had been the least vocal of the two, is the most expressive where the woods are concerned. It’s his favorite place. He starts with warbles in a rich baritone, but as we get closer he switches to yipes in an increasingly higher tessitura, until he reaches soprano range, in keeping with his rising excitement. Pete joins in with his characteristic alto.  By the time I can get around to open the door, they are tumbling over one another to get out and run, barking as if they were on the hunt. Sometimes there are deer, or squirrels, and the dogs tear after them, disappearing into the hills out of sight. If I am patient–meaning: not too cold–I let them come back when they want to. But if I whistle they always come. I can hear them coming usually before I see them, and they arrive at my feet bustling with joy and pride.

Their happiness delights me, and is often the best part of the day.

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Star-crossed Love

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I had to stop at a store yesterday to return something, a task I detest, but which you might think was among my very favorite activities, given how often I find myself doing it.

The clerk and I started chatting, and one thing leading to another, I mentioned my two dogs in the car. “What kind of dogs?” she asked. I gave my standard answer: Pete, an Indiana Spotted Dog (Pete is a rescue from a kill shelter in Indiana, and of indeterminate breed, but with a speckled coat that looks like granite), and Moses, a German Shepherd.

Her attention was instantly riveted by the words “German Shepherd.”

“I had a German Shepherd,” she said. “But I had to put him down.” I felt a wave of sympathy. The shortness of dogs’ lives is a looming loss for those of us who love them, and the thought of it can shatter me if I linger on it.

She knew what I have learned: that there is something different about German Shepherd Dogs, no matter what other kinds of dogs you have had or how much you have loved them. I told her what the vet told me when Moses was a tiny puppy: “Nothing and no one on earth will ever love you as much as a German Shepherd will.”

Her eyes filled with tears, and mine did, too. She told me how true that was, and how smart her dog had been, and what a clever jailbreak artist he was. She told me that even when his hip dysplasia had made it impossible for him to walk she had cared for him until his pain became too much.

She seemed so sad. When I suggested that somewhere in the world there was a dog who desperately needed someone like her to love him she shook her head. No. She could never endure that loss again. It was too much.

The store was busy, and people were waiting for her attention, but I wished I could have taken her out for a cup of coffee, and brought her over to meet Moses and Pete, waiting patiently, if a bit odoriferously, in the car.

I have writing to do, and I have to go to Washington for work tomorrow, and I don’t know how I’m going to get everything done before I leave the house at 5:30 in the morning.

But Moses and Pete and I are going for a ramble. Life is all about priorities.

Living in the moment

My husband and I have a treehouse. At least, it feels like one. It is an upstairs deck under the branches of a very large old crabapple tree that can only be accessed via secret door. It was an accident of design in our new addition, but a delightful one. Last year, when it was new, I surprised him by having adirondack chairs delivered and hoisted up by ladder and ropes. On nice nights we go up there with the dogs to drink wine and enjoy the last light of the day before the mosquitoes get too aggressive.

We are both early risers, and go to bed absurdly early, but tonight when he was ready to go in, I was about to follow when it suddenly occurred to me that I could do my evening yoga practice there.

It’s not a particularly convenient location, what with the tiny secret doors and all, but I gathered my yoga things, and accompanied by two faithful dogs went back into the twilight among the branches. It is utterly private, and the night was one of those late-summer-feels-like-fall-is-coming nights.

Afterward I lay on my back for the final pose of relaxation, and instead of closing my eyes, I looked up into the deepening blue sky, the scene rimmed by the branches of enormous trees.  Two nighthawks were whirling, and, I hope, dining on mosquitoes.

It was the best moment of the day.

Big Fur Hat

In her last years my mother was always cold, and she complained about it regularly. She always admired ladies she saw with mink hats, and since she rarely asked for anything, a few years ago, I decided to get her one for Christmas.

After some searching I found a company called–Big Fur Hats. I spent a ridiculous amount of money–had she known, my frugal mother would have been horrified–to buy her one. I was pretty pleased with myself when I presented it to her, but I could see instantly that she did not like it. Gamely, she tried it on, and I think she wore it once or twice, but she hated it, I could tell.

The Big Fur Hat (BFH) is mine now, and it is an essential part of my equipment on Washington Island. I don’t care what I look like there–which is part of the fun, I admit–so I wear it when the dogs and I go for our walks. I look ridiculous. Nevertheless, it is a lifesaver, especially when the wind is blowing. Without it, I would be forced to shorten our walks, the source of the dogs’ joy, and my inspiration.

There may be lesson here, but I’m not sure what it is.

Big Fur Hat

A few weeks after blowing all that money on the unloved BFH, I found a vintage mink hat in a consignment store for $12. My mother loved it.

That’s mine now, too.

Last Day North of the Tension Line

January sunset

Today is my last day on Washington Island. The ferry leaves tomorrow at 8 am and we’ll be on it.

Normally I like to walk the deck and chat with the crew, but the dogs are with me, and there’s something about the ferry ride that scares them. So we sit together in the car, and I talk and sing to them. They like that, and they usually sing along. Pete, who is undoubtedly the coward in the family, is mostly unbothered by the motion, but that is enough for Moses. When we hit the ice fields the noise frightens them both and they tremble. It seems to get worse each trip.

Last night I walked home from a dinner party in the dark with the wind screaming from the lake. Its noise and power were awesome–in the old fashioned sense of the word. The dogs leapt with joy to see me, and we went out again to hear the wind and look at the moon and the clouds. They ran ahead of me through the snow, sniffing at deer tracks. The wild remoteness of the Island is oddly comforting to me, and I feel safer here than anywhere else on earth, even when the wind leaps and howls as if it would tear us off the ground and spin us into space.

I like to say I live in exile from Washington Island, and most people think it’s a joke. But leaving this place tears at me, and even though I will be happy to be home again, a part of myself will be missing.