A little girl wants a beautiful show dog, but she gets funny little rescue dog, Pete, instead. He’s not beautiful; he’s trouble looking for a place to happen. Based on the story of a real dog, this charmingly illustrated and delightful tale about an unwanted dog ends with love and an unlikely hero, while teaching children not to judge by appearances. Perfect for ages 0-7. Fun for parents.
Now available, a special, limited edition hardcover version of MY DOG PETE, autographed by the author.
Price is $22.00 each, plus shipping.
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This piece will appear in my new book of Essays And Still They Sing coming soon from Beaufort Books.
There comes a moment in grief when you begin to feel that you are being judged for it. People tell you that life goes on; that you need to stop looking back. I know that, because although I would never say it to anyone, I have often felt impatient with people who get into their problems and lie down in them. I have wanted to tell someone to get over it. In my own life, after various hard blows, including some difficult losses, I have managed to accept, to pick up the pieces of my life, and to move on. But it’s closing in on two years later, and I still have not gotten over Moses.
Life has a way of teaching us our faults.
His full name was Moses, Prince of Egypt. My husband and I argued about the name all the way to Iowa when we went to pick him up for the first time. I was insistent. It had to be Moses. It wasn’t a particularly religious choice. I had just watched too many reruns of The Ten Commandments, and wanted to be able to shake my head sadly at a naughty puppy and say “Oh, Moses, Moses, Moses.”
The name suited him. Despite having been bitten by one as a child, I had wanted a German Shepherd my whole life. I had even made a German Shepherd a character in my novels. Readers who met Moses always assumed that my character Elisabeth’s big dog, Rocco, was based on him. But Rocco was really an expression of longing. He came first. Then came Moses. Sometimes I have the sense that I willed him into being.
And he did, after all, lead us out of the wilderness. Our beloved Golden Retriever had died after a futile battle with lymphoma. Our other dog, Pete, was grieving, and our house felt empty, so we decided to sign up for the twelve to eighteen month waiting list for the perfect German Shepherd. Within twenty minutes we heard back: there had been a cancellation. Did we want a puppy on Saturday? I had the sense that it was meant to be: unplanned, the result of a series of unforeseeable events. And isn’t that what Fate is? The inevitable coming together of paths that seemed intended to diverge? Does it always have to be a human story?
From the beginning, I knew he would break my heart. I loved him too much. I can’t even explain exactly why. All I know is that there was a kind of destiny, an inevitability about him that I always felt. We belonged to each other. He was my soulmate. How to convey how much I loved him? How much I love him still? I know most people won’t think it normal. I can’t help that. It just was. It just is.
When he was only a few months old I sat in our living room, holding him on my lap, hugging him and whispering endearments. He was already too big to really fit, but I had my arms around him like a baby. My husband walked into the room and said casually: “You love that dog too much. You know he’s going to break your heart some day.” To the surprise of us both, I burst into wild sobs.
I was afraid of him at first. I’d never had a German Shepherd before, and I didn’t have confidence in how to handle him. By the time he came along I’d trained four dogs, and felt that I knew what I was doing. But when he chewed a shoe and I slapped the floor with it, scolding to show my displeasure, he avoided that spot in the kitchen for three days. That’s when I realized how delicate his sensibilities were. If I hurt his feelings, I could lose him forever.
But the moment that really frightened me was when, at 9 weeks, I tried to pull him off the bed he had no permission to be on. He growled and snarled at me, and I was struck with fear that I had a dragon in the house I could not control. I called my dog trainer that day, and begged her to let us start early. He earned his first obedience title at six months, and his second not long afterward. It required retrieval and he did not really take to retrieving, but he obliged me because that was what he did.
This is not to say that he was a tamed creature, tied to my will. Quite the contrary. Moses did things because he knew he should, and when I asked him to do something that was wrong for both of us, he would flat out refuse. One night, in the dead of a Wisconsin winter, I had an emergency call about my elderly mother. It was well below zero, and I had to meet the ambulance at the hospital. Moses knew I was upset, and he saw his job as being with me no matter what. But of course, he couldn’t sit outside in the car for hours in sub-zero temperatures. He followed me out to the car, refusing to let me leave without him, and trying to climb onto my lap. My husband gently put his hand on Moses’s collar to pull him away, and Moses turned and very meaningfully put his teeth on my husband’s arm. He did not bite; he nevertheless expressed his feelings very clearly. Moses knew his duty, and he was not easily dissuaded from it. I had to drive away from him, knowing we both felt betrayed by the separation.
I felt so much pride having this magnificent animal walk beside me. Moses loved going to the Fourth of July parade. The parade begins every year with a long line of historic fire engines, followed by the latest and most innovative, as the proud company of volunteer firefighters marches along. Moses would sing with the fire engines, a long, lovely howl that made people turn and smile. He would sit upright and bark at the three gun signal that began the parade, and he would duly accept the admiration of anyone who stopped to see him. When the parade was over, we would walk with the crowds down the street toward the park, and people would reach out their hands to touch him as he walked by, like Aslan in the resurrection.
There was a fierceness about Moses that is not in my other dogs. It lay beneath the surface, but it was right here for anyone to see. People respected Moses. As he deserved.
While we were remodeling our house, a five man insulation team arrived one morning without notice. My husband and I were at work, and only the carpenter, who adored Moses, was there. The insulators opened the door and walked in. According to the carpenter, who laughed while telling the story, Moses chased all five of them “screaming like girls” into the powder room, where they all crowded in, slamming the door behind them.
They called their manager while Moses waited outside the door.
Moses had a passion for butter. When he was young, he would steal whole sticks of it from the plate on a high shelf next to the stove. After we broke that habit, he sang for his butter, his paws dancing as he looked from the butter dish to my face and back, carefully explaining what he wanted.
More than anything else, Moses loved the lake. He was the first of our dogs brought up to swim, and he took to it immediately. But it wasn’t swimming that was his passion; it was splashing. His jumps to catch the water we splashed at him were stupendous. He leapt out of the water like a mythical beast, and his yearning to splash was relentless. If I were lazy and lounging on the dock, he would swim around the edge to me and paddle his paws to splash me, hoping to start a game. If I ignored him, he would urge me with increasingly louder moans of protest and pleading, splashing harder. He was impossible to resist.
There’s a Christina Perry song from a silly vampire movie that I used to sing to Moses. I remember the last time we were at the lake, a few months before he died. The music came on, and I whispered it to him, holding him in my arms, tears rolling down my face.
I’ve loved you for a thousand years.
I’ll love you for a thousand more.
I see now that I knew at some level it would be the last time we splashed together. Somehow, some part of me knew he was dying.
He had been in pain from an injured back, and it was slowing him down. I took him for exams. I asked every medical professional we saw—and there were a few—to reassure me that he would be all right. He’s not going to die, is he? He’ll be okay, won’t he? They all, with varying degrees of patience and curiosity assured me. Why would I even think that? He was only 7 years old. His back hurt. That was all.
But they were wrong. Somehow, in the deep connection Moses and I had with one another, I sensed that something, but it was nothing that showed up on any tests. It was just arthritis pain from a back injury, nothing more, I was told. Of course he didn’t feel well if his back hurt. We did acupuncture, chiropractic, and laser therapy. I took him for swimming therapy. He had varying levels of pain meds.
But he didn’t look right. His eyes were glassy. His fur seemed without luster. And all the while, the tumor was growing unseen, waiting to break his heart, and mine.
What hurts me most is that I wasn’t there. We had slipped away for three precious days to spend Christmas with our new baby granddaughter. While we were away, Moses had an upset tummy, but, like so many German Shepherds, he often did. We used to joke about such a big scary dog having “princess tummy”. We also live in the woods, and the dogs tend to eat things that require periodic doses of antibiotics.
He was sad when we left. He knew what suitcases meant. But we were unconcerned because he would be in his own home with his brothers and someone who cared for him. Over the course of our trip I spoke with the dog sitter multiple times. She was kind and reassuring. He wasn’t sick, but he was moping. He wasn’t eating, but he was drinking a lot of water. I was more worried about reassuring her than I was about Moses. We’d dealt with these tummy troubles before. I called the vet and arranged to pick up some antibiotics on the way home from the airport. We didn’t know he would already be there, cooling on a metal table.
Our dog sitter, never imagining we would go to the vet first, waited at our house, dreading our return. She didn’t want to tell us on the phone.
The one obligation of a soulmate is to be present when you die. But I wasn’t there. Instead, while we were in the air, Moses lay down next to our dog sitter, put his paw on her arm, looked into her eyes, and let out a long sigh. Then he died.
I know it sounds overly-dramatic, but I will never forgive myself. People have tried to tell me that he knew he shouldn’t die in front of me. I don’t buy it. He felt abandoned. He didn’t know where I was. I let him down. I, who sang love songs to him, who loved and trusted him, for whom he would have laid down his life, wasn’t there when he needed me most, and he died not knowing whether I would ever come back.
Looking back on that last year, I almost did the best I could. I didn’t miss his cues. The mistake I made was believing everyone—good people who didn’t know him as I did— who told me he was okay. I should have trusted my own heart. He was telling me, and I didn’t take his word for it.
Grief is one thing that never dies. I will be haunted by his loss forever. My only hope is that those insipid rainbow bridge poems are true, and that someday he will run to me, and I will be able to kneel down, gather him into my arms, and whisper my love into those big fierce ears.
Yesterday was a spring day of transient weather, but during an episode of sunshine (and between chastising Eli for chasing the neighbor’s dog) I took photos of the wild flowers blooming: blood root, violets, bluebells, and trout lilies. Later before bed, I opened up the photos from one year ago, to see if there were any fun reminiscences of 14 month old Eli’s puppy antics, and there were photos of the same flowers, exactly on time, blooming one year ago. When we had a snow storm a week or so ago, I opened my photos to find the storms of years past. Same patterns, to the day.
My mornings are usually the same. I wake in the dark, pour myself coffee, and wander into either my office or our cozy library to write. My writing is usually more productive in my office, but my ability to observe the morning rituals of the woods is better in the library, and this is where I usually end up. As the dogs settle into their customary places, I drink coffee and write. I like seeing how the tilt of the earth changes the location of the sunrise behind the trees, and I gauge the time of year by its place along the long horizon visible from the ridge where our house sits. With the leaves not yet out, the sparkle of the lake down the hill forces me to move my chair so I can see, but in a week or so, the lake will have disappeared behind the foliage.
I can see the turkeys flying down from their roosts, the deer browsing, the plump raccoons waddling up their trees to bed. On a sullen morning like this, there is no burst of sunlight, only a gradual undarkening. On sunny days, the mists rise from the valley in a haze of purple. For the dogs, the scenes of life outside the windows are riveting, too. I like watching the rhythms of life, the interplay of the different creatures who wander in and out of one another’s paths, and the sameness of it—with only small variations to account for the seasons—is reassuring.
At this time of year, in a ritual I now understand, the turkeys are dividing themselves from the large winter flock into smaller family groups. The males parade up and down before the females in full regalia—spectacularly beautiful and with great pomp—making a mechanical thrumming sound like enormous insects—I think by vibrating a set of feathers that skim the ground like a 19th century train’s cow catcher. The females scurry back and forth, cackling, in some kind of hierarchical battle with one another. In the end, it is unclear to me who choses whom, but there will be five or six adults in each final group, and they will pair off to start families. Every morning there will be fewer and fewer remaining from the main flock, until they have melted into the woods for summer. We won’t see much of them again until fall, when they come together again. Finding a nesting hen is extremely difficult, but they nest on the ground, and stay in place from the moment the eggs are laid until they hatch, with no apparent help from the males—although I suspect they keep watch nearby in military readiness to fend off attackers. Turkeys are fierce.
The deer, who do their pairing in the late fall, are already heavily pregnant and browsing hungrily, as are the raccoons, whose cumbersome travels up and down very tall trees make me hold my breath in suspense. I recall one spring watching the antics of a raccoon family, as five or six babies, chirring excitedly, popped out from the hole in their hollow tree, while their mother frantically clung to the tree with her back legs and used her front paws to stuff them back in like someone trying to close a drawer filled with too many socks. No sooner would she get one in, than two or three more siblings would pop out from another hole further down and swarm the tree trunk. They would fall with quite terrifying thumps to the ground, and call wildly for their mother. Then, while she made a laborious trip down to take them by the scruff of the neck to carry back up, more would fall like hail from the den above, while the sound of their frightened and excited calls came from above and below. She would try to carry two at a time: bringing one up a few feet, leaving it to cling to the trunk, returning to the ground to retrieve another, like a relay, while the first one promptly fell past her head with another resonant thunk. The cycle of babies was unceasing as they continued popping out, swarming, and falling with more thunks as is if they were in a cartoon. Mama’s increasingly desperate attempts to gather them up and stuff them back in were as futile as they were comically pathetic. This went on for more than an hour, and I can only imagine how tiring it is to be a mother raccoon. It’s remarkable how much noise a baby raccoon can make when it falls, and even more remarkable that they seem utterly unfazed—which is more than I can say for their mother.
It pleases me to understand these patterns, perhaps because it makes me feel a part of the cycles of the earth. Later, less charming cycles will begin: the annual infestation of deer flies who torment dogs and humans equally with wicked bites, the mosquitoes, the unceasing battle against invasive garlic mustard and buckthorn plants, and one peculiar festival we have come to refer to as “personal fly season”, when a walk down the driveway invariably includes one—and no more—fly to accompany each individual, buzzing and landing on our heads. They don’t bite, but their relentlessness is exasperating, buzzing with a particular emphasis on entangling themselves in hair and crawling on ears. A hat is essential, and preferably a handheld electronic bug zapper, which sizzles satisfactorily when it encounters the enemy. Success makes no difference, since a new assistant ineluctably appears to take the place of its fried colleague.
It is usually at this moment that summer in the woods ceases to charm, and we gather everybody together and decamp to the lake. There, we will inevitably find a different cohort of creatures with their own summer patterns, and we will begin our own. It is a modest place, a rickety cottage with only the water as an amenity, but that is amenity enough. There will be the pleasures of a quiet summer morning on the dock, drinking coffee with a blanket tucked around our toes, of wet dogs and floating, of visits from friends and family, of cocktails at sunset.
There are also the millions of wet towels to drag home to wash, dishes and pans to wash in the tannic water, muddy feet from wet dogs, and the back and forth of various necessities from one household to the other. It’s joyful at the beginning, but by fall I will be tired of the discomfort and upheaval, and ready to settle in at home again. Even as I anticipate the joys of summer, I am already excited at the prospect of the beauties of fall, and its own patterns of renewal.
When we return to the woods, the deer, unmolested by barking dogs, will have browsed the hostas and lilies to the ground, the raccoon babies will have grown and wandered off on their own, the turkeys will be returning to gather their clans together for the winter. And the sun, whose slow track across the horizon will have continued unobserved by me, will be rising far to the south as the days continue to shorten.
My city friends wonder how I can live without the museums, theater, restaurants, and vibrancy of the city. But I wonder how anyone could live without this vibrant scene of the earth, the animals, and their own dramas.
I have lived in the city and felt my soul shriveling among the pressures of a life removed from nature. Here, I breathe, and my soul drifts out among those of the animals and trees, their calls and their battles, and I know I belong, too.
As I write, the horizon brightens, and I hear the last sleepy calls of the great horned owls conversing with one another. The dogs sit up, alert to the presence of the deer in the dark, the turkeys thrum and cackle, the sun hits the water of the lake, and I settle into myself, content, and glad to be alive.
I like silence. Perhaps it is a commentary on the state of my nerves, or maybe it’s because I’m a former musician and my brain is aurally focused, but I find unwanted noises distracting. I need silence to think and to write, and when I want sound, I prefer to choose whether it’s words or music. So I find the contemporary taste for household appliances that ping, beep, and play tunes extremely annoying.
If I seem cranky, it’s probably because I have been trying desperately to write a novel amidst continual interruption from household appliances.
I have a notion that devices should A) make your life easier and B) not require distraction from your thoughts, and, come to think of it, C) achieve their purposes in silence while leaving me alone.
In my quest to break my writing stalemate, I recently packed up and left home for the seclusion of the Island. The house I rent when I go away to write is a place I know well. I have been going there for years, and it’s like a second home. It’s a charming place: roomy, but cozy, with a wonderful property where I can walk in privacy with the dogs, and a lovely landlady who knows the precise formula of solitude and companionship to feed a writer. I have written parts of all my books there, and there’s something about the atmosphere that inspires productivity. My days there are a perfect pattern of writing and walking, and no one disturbs me unless I want to be disturbed. The house is not old, but my landlady had just replaced the range, the refrigerator, and the washer-dryer, all sparkling new and ready to be used. She is a generous woman, and likes to buy quality things.
Throughout my first day, unfortunately, I spent a great deal of time debating when to tell my host that there were red squirrels nesting in the roof. I knew it would upset her, and I also knew it would mean workmen disrupting my writing. The squirrels’ chirping and scratching was irregular but loud, and I feared they were doing damage. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I finally realized that it wasn’t squirrels, but the new refrigerator. I have no idea why a refrigerator should make a noise like red squirrels. Maybe someone thought it was cute. Or maybe no one ever spent any time in a room where it was running. I suppose it was companionable, in its way. I mean, at least the noise resembled living things.
The stove however, was much worse than squirrels. Writing can be both lonely and vaguely excruciating, and it is during these moments that I usually take a break to cook something nice for myself. Sometimes the food in my novels is actually something I’ve just made. Food, for me, is comfort, and when I’m alone, I look forward to meals as a way of permitting myself a break, and as a kind of companionship. In some ways, it’s as much about the cooking as it is about the eating. Cooking is a pleasant diversion, and creative, but as I’m chopping onions or browning beef, my mind is able to continue the intellectual rambling necessary for building a story.
So, having grown accustomed to the refrigerator squirrels, after a few hours of work and a long walk in lovely silence, I turned on the oven, and was jolted out of my plot-related reverie by a jaunty little tune. It wasn’t just a beep, but an actual musical phrase, only with tinky-tonk noises. When I set the timer it produced another tune, and like so many electronic devices, instead of one smooth dialing motion to set the temperature, I had to press it each time I added ten degrees, each time producing another beep. When the oven reached the temperature I had laboriously set, it sang yet another tune. Apparently each melody has a specified meaning, but I’m not interested in providing room in my head for determining which is which. I found myself missing my vintage stove at home, whose only noise is the satisfying “whomp” it makes when you light the oven with a match.
Then there was the new washing machine. I pack lightly when I go away to write. I mean to say: the car is full of stuff—much of it dog-related, and some of it bourbon—but I don’t bring a lot of clothes, so I’m happy to have a washer dryer in the house, and I often throw something into the washer while I’m writing. This new machine could be featured in a museum as The Loudest Washing Machine in the World, and it makes what I can only describe as a rhythmic mechanical gagging sound for the entire cycle. It’s some sort of water-saving design, which is, I guess, mandatory, but seems a little silly when you’re only steps away from—literally—a quadrillion gallons of water. I found the gagging somewhat less charming than the nesting squirrels. As if this were not enough, it beeps. Not once, for each time you choose a cycle, or once when it’s finished, but every 30 seconds after the cycle, until you interrupt the sentence you’re writing to get up and open the lid. I have had the care of less demanding puppies.
Thankfully, I was able to close the door to drown out the worst of the noises, but the beeping penetrated the walls. Not surprisingly, the matching dryer is also an electronic nag. But the thing is, if they make weird gurgling noises and show signs of nausea, how would you know until you got them home? I have a new washer and dryer at home, and they both have the options to turn off the signals. I made sure of that. Of course, I don’t live in the same room with them, either. So there’s that.
It used to be that appliances would sit silently and make themselves useful. Now, for reasons I do not understand, they seem to feel a need to call attention to themselves, as if, like electronic toddlers, they are announcing: Look at me! Look what I’ve done!
It strikes me as an indication of a deeply flawed society. What personal failings have led us to develop narcissistic appliances? Is it a reflection of modern life, the electronic equivalent of so-called influencers, who must announce their doings on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, or be forced to question the value of their own existences? Have we created appliances like ourselves? Is there anyone who likes this incessant mechanistic signaling? Or is there something about the electronic miasma in which we all exist that assimilates our nerves into a state of noise acquiescence? Is there some consumer movement I need to join to dissuade manufacturers from this evil path?
The last time I bought a microwave oven I asked the saleswoman which ones beeped only once and stopped. It was clear by her reaction that no one else had ever asked this question, but she dutifully investigated the beeping of each one, no doubt thinking bad words that I am grateful not to have heard. But each time I buy a new appliance, I find that the noise factor has intensified, as if this has become a signal—as it were—of improvement. I believe it is, instead, an instrument of consumer torture.
A few days after I got home and settled into a new appreciation of my quiet appliances, the brand new, very expensive water heater silently burst a valve and unobtrusively leaked water all over the basement floor.