If you are lucky, your life will include a dog.
I’ve had more than a few cross my path and I remember picking out each one. While maybe not up there with saying “I do” to your best friend on your wedding day, or watching your life change in the delivery room as your wife brings your child into the world, picking out a furry puppy from a lively litter – all vying for your attention – is a moment that will become a lasting memory as the years drift along. Life is made up of moments and the best of them include a dog – maybe not always in the center of the action, but certainly close by.
I grew up with a black poodle named Mimi. Dad was against getting a dog but relented when mom convinced him that poodles didn’t shed (and we convinced him that we would be responsible for taking care of her). Mimi kept her bargain by not shedding, but she ultimately became dad’s dog. When I left home to join the service I missed my dog but my life was soon filled with new adventures and the newfound freedom of being a young independent adult. I met Veloice after returning from Vietnam and we moved to Colorado to start our lives together. A year later we got married. College, work, and friends filled our days. Apartments grew in size as did our young family when Megan arrived just before my graduation in 1977. We relocated to Illinois for my first real job and four years later were transferred to Ohio where we bought our first home on Kibler Avenue. Within weeks of moving in and unpacking the boxes we decided to get our first dog and found a miniature black poodle that we creatively named Bucky (for the Buckeye state). Emily was born and we became a family of five – funny how a dog quickly becomes an equal part of the family, but they do. As I leaf through old photograph albums of our family’s early years, when the kids were small and we were taking snapshots of every mundane event, Bucky is somewhere in the shot.
After 6 years in Ohio we moved to California for a couple of years then relocated to Minnesota. Veloice got pregnant again and Kayla joined our family. Bucky was slowing down and starting to show his age. Veloice and I discussed how hard it would be to not have a dog if something happened to Bucky and we started to look for another dog. We found a female apricot poodle that was a little older and fell in love with her at first sight. We named her Chelsea and brought her home. While Bucky may have felt threatened at first, he sure got a second wind having a young lady in the house and began to thrive in our new family of seven. During those wonderful years our family of 3 kids (whose ages covered a 15 year spread) and 2 dogs under one roof filled the house with endless laughter.
Megan went off to college in 1995. Bucky’s health slowly deteriorated and we sadly decided the time had come. I simply couldn’t take him to the vet and watched as he left our driveway for the last time with Veloice and Emily. I still regret not being there. We bought a tree and planted it in the front yard. Bucky’s ashes were buried in the soil and his collar was hung on a branch of the spindly little Maple tree.
Emily headed off to college in 2000 and the house seemed so much emptier. My dad finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 2002 and several months later I noticed blood in Chelsea’s urine. I took her to the vet for tests and was informed that she was quite sick. Veloice rushed over to say goodbye and this time I stayed while Chelsea gently passed away in my arms as I cried and thanked her for being such a good dog. I wish my dad could have passed as easily as Chelsea – I sometimes wonder why we are kinder to our pets during this last stage of life than we are with our own family members. Chelsea was cremated and her ashes were also buried under the growing Maple tree. Her collar was hung on a branch next to Bucky’s.
For the first time in about 20 years we were suddenly without a dog. Veloice went online that night and searched for a chocolate brown poodle. She found a breeder south of the Twin Cities that had some older puppies for sale. We drove down the next day to take a look. There were dogs and puppies everywhere and we were directed to a pen with the group of puppies that were for sale. I watched each of the puppies – some more animated than others – and waited for that special connection to get made. Little noses poked through the chicken wire. Tongues licked. Bigger pups climbed over smaller ones to get a better look at the humans who could be their ticket out. My eyes kept going back to one who wasn’t trying quite as hard. She was a cute puppy with very good poodle traits and I think she was checking me out as much as I was checking her out. The connection was made, the transaction completed, and we walked out to the van with the newest member of our family. On the ride home we settled on the name “Hershey” for obvious reasons and I remember laying on the floor with her when we first got home and telling her “You don’t know it yet, but you just won the lottery!” Our home felt complete again.
Of course a new puppy quickly gets everyone’s attention and we were delighted when our oldest daughter, Megan, convinced Mike that they should get a puppy, too. Or maybe it was Mike who did the convincing? About a year later they went down to the same breeder and came home with another cute chocolate poodle named Bailey – and she happened to be related to Hershey which explained all the embarrassing sniffing and joyous barking when they first got together!
COLLARS IN A TREE
My hair has turned gray and the pages of the calendar seem to flutter to the ground like leaves in a stiff fall breeze. The spindly little Maple tree that we planted so many years ago is now a stately shade tree in our front yard. Its full leafy canopy is a colorful autumn tribute to Bucky and Chelsea – that broomstick of a tree was fertilized with love when we placed their ashes in its care. Every spring, when the snow finally gives way to a greening lawn, Hershey and I walk over to the tree and look for the two collars that still hang on their neighboring branches. Well, actually, the tree limbs have grown around the collars so only the buckles and tags remain visible today. But they are still there, and while Hershey sniffs around the trunk of the tree I spend a few minutes thinking about all the special moments that became enduring memories with our two family pups. Remembering always brings a smile, and usually a tear or two, when I recall their similarities and their differences, but mostly their unconditional love that got us through so many ups and downs over the years as furry companions and full-fledged family members. I’m afraid it won’t be too long before a third collar is placed in the tree and I feel a lump in my throat when I think of that day with knowing dread. For now, with Hershey at my side, we’ll keep looking for ways to make new memories while we still have time – the tree will just have to wait a little longer for that last collar.
The dull metallic thunk of the trailer tongue falling into place on top of the hitch ball, followed by the jangle of the chains securing the trailer to the Nissan, were familiar sounds that foretold the start of another day on the lake. I stopped for a moment and listened carefully. It didn’t take long before I heard the excited whimpering and sniffing on the other side of the door going from the garage into the kitchen. Hershey had lost much of her hearing these past couple of years, but the sounds of the trailer being hooked up were still registering and immediately put a youthful spring back into her step. I put my hand on the knob and turned it, opening the door slowly, but Hershey was already through the narrow opening and out into the garage – pacing back and forth along the length of the boat. Shaking with anticipation, she watched as I finished connecting the lights and threw the life preservers, towels, and the boat bag with water and snacks, into the back of the Nissan. Over the past few years, since the kids had all grown up and left home, it was usually just Hershey and me taking the boat over to Lake Minnetonka. She had become my boat buddy and I looked forward to our time on the lake together as much as she did. I picked her up and put her on the passenger seat, walked around the vehicle and got in, turned the ignition key, put it in drive, and slowly pulled out of the driveway.
It was a 20 minute drive over to Grays Bay and Hershey knew the boat launch routine by heart. Once the boat was off the trailer and tied up to the dock, we parked the vehicle and walked back to the boat. Hershey would stay by my side until we got close to the pier, then she would run ahead, straight to our boat (even if there were others tied up to the dock), hop onto a seat in the bow, and wait for me to get us underway. We would cruise slowly through Grays Bay, then make our way into Wayzata Bay, where – once past the “No Wake” buoys – I’d crack the throttle and yell “YeeHa!” With Hershey’s ears flying in the breeze, and her pink tongue visible in her happy dog grin, we were throwing a wake, jumping waves, and heading out into Main Bay at full tilt with the pirate flag on the stern snapping in the wind.
Our first stop was always the beach in Maxwell Bay because the overhanging branches offered some shade from the hot summer sun. Once the bow of the boat slid to a stop on the sandy shore, Hershey would jump from her perch in front and run up and down the shore – sometimes in the sand and other times in the shallow water. While not the water bug that our other dogs were, Hershey nevertheless loved being at the lake. Sometimes our lazy days would include floating in the tube together – soaking up the sun while enjoying the cool water. Once back in the boat we’d share a snack and she’d lap up some cold water from my Thermos.
I’d crank up tunes on the radio and we’d stretch out to relax while the boat gently rocked with the waves lapping up to the shore. Sometimes we’d spend time playing with any passengers who may have joined us for some time on the lake. Regardless of the day’s activities, it’s hard to not enjoy an afternoon on the boat with your dog.
There are times, of course, when Veloice and I have places to go – to the store, maybe a movie, or out for an evening with some friends. There have been times when I’ve taken off for a week or two on a motorcycle trip out west with Larry and Mike, or over to Oshkosh for a week of camping with my Vietnam buddies during the air show. And there are the normal days when Veloice is working her shift at the hospital. The reasons for being away may vary, but Hershey always knows when one of us (or both of us) are gone and her world is not right. There is a window to the right of our front door that has a view of the front yard and the road in front of our house. Hershey sits by the door looking out the window for hours on end if one of us is away. If we are coming home after dark I always make the turn and come up our street slowly. The small light in the foyer is usually on making Hershey’s silhouette in the window clearly visible. Once she recognizes our car you can see her get up quickly and run into the living room where she will sit, head cocked – listening – and watch the door to the garage with growing anticipation. Once we walk into the kitchen we are met with a loud and exuberant greeting as if we had been gone for years. There is no joy better for Hershey than knowing we are all home together and her world is right once again.