Izzy’s Dilemma

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Photo by Jim Thomason

This is Izzy, so-named because when people see a Dalmatian they often ask, “Is he deaf?”  So “is he” became Izzy and yes, he is totally deaf. When I tell people that, the immediate and predictable response is, “Oh, poor dog!” I am always quick to reply that Izzy has no idea that he should hear. He has no concept of sound, no clue that he is different from any other dog. Izzy is a happy, well-loved boy. Well, except for tonight. I think I made Izzy a tad crazy tonight.

You see, I opened the back door to let my herd of dogs inside. I noticed that our back porch had been overtaken by a good number of flies, one of the non-perks of country living. Not wanting to let them all buzz into the house, I gave Izzy, the straggler, his signal for the command “come.” Izzy has been trained with hand signals since he was just seven weeks old and responds very well to a number of gestures.

For Izzy, the signal for come is just what you might do to encourage someone who is out of earshot to come closer—elbow bent, palm facing in with your arm making a circling motion toward your chest. So, standing in the doorway, I signaled come and Izzy would take a few steps forward, but then immediately take several steps backwards.

Dang it Izzy! COME! And I would signal more emphatically, all the while trying to shoo the flies away from the open doorway. Again, Izzy would take a few steps forward and then a few steps back. What the heck?

Ok, I’m guessing you have figured this out faster than I apparently did. For every signal I gave Izzy to come inside, I was immediately waving outward to keep the flies at bay…a motion that happened to look exactly like Izzy’s signal for “off” or “move back.”

Realizing my error, I quickly motioned Izzy and about two dozen of his fly friends into the house.  My sweet, confused boy shot through the door and looked at me rather nervously. One giant hug and several cookies later, all was forgiven.

So tonight I either proved how very responsive and observant a deaf dog can be, or I successfully taught Izzy the canine version of the cha-cha. Either way I am reminded that sometimes I should worry a bit less about the little stuff—in this case a few flies—and focus a bit more on the big picture—in this case a dog trying his very best to do what I asked.  One thing I know for sure is that I have a really, really great dog. Good boy, Izzy.

My Mother’s Hands

ImageMy mother always said that she did not like her hands. “They are stubby,” she would say. “They are wrinkled.” She never wanted to wear any rings beyond her wedding ring because she did not want to draw attention to her hands.

I would always shake my head and disagree with her. My mother’s hands were dainty, capable, and strong. These were the hands I would run to as a small girl needing comfort.  They were the hands that would hold my tiny hand firmly because I had a tendency to wander in the grocery store.

I would sit by my mother’s chair in the evenings and her hands would reach down to absent-mindedly play with my hair while we all relaxed together. It was the best feeling…her hands stroking my hair.

My mother’s hands created wonderful meals. Her specialties—before we all knew to worry too much about fats and cholesterol—were fried chicken and fried okra. Her hands tolerated all of the little spatters of hot oil popping out of the heavy cast iron skillet as she prepared her family’s favorite meal.

My mother’s hands took care of our home, comforted us when we were sick, applauded our every success. Hers were the hands that so capably navigated our boat around the lake for hours on end while her teen-aged daughters took turns skiing.  My mother’s hands eventually helped me pack boxes and move out to build a life of my own. My mother’s hands were always ready to welcome me back to the nest when I needed reassurance.

In her later years, my sister Terry and I found our mother’s hand slipping in to take hold of our hands. We became her security through days when she felt confused and lost. And in the end, I held my mother’s hands to say goodbye. To wish her Godspeed to a world where her hands would no longer wring in confusion, but instead embrace what was surely her great reward.

Today I glanced down at my own hands. I don’t have attractive hands. My fingers are a bit short. The skin on my hands is weathered from years of working outside without gloves. My nails are constantly in need of attention, yet rarely receive it.

But, my hands are strong. They can haul a bale of hay, control an excited horse. My hands are gentle. They can sooth a frightened animal. They can cradle a newborn baby. My hands can coax a tiny orphaned squirrel to eat.

My hands are creative. They can turn a ball of yarn into a warm scarf. They allow my thoughts to pour from my mind and into my computer. My hands can manipulate a pencil on a piece of clean paper to create an image.

My hands love to my hold love ones’ hands, to reach out to give hugs, and to help wipe tears away. My hands tend to gesture a lot when I tell a story.

No, I don’t have smooth, graceful hands. But when I look at my hands, I see my mother’s hands. I feel my mother’s touch.

My hands, I think, are really quite beautiful.

What I learned in kindergarten and from turtles.

20120720_071059 (2)I have always been a self-proclaimed turtle rescuer. Every spring and summer these slow little dinosaurs make their way from point A to whatever they imagine as point B. Unfortunately, it seems there is often a busy road between the two points. When I see a turtle in the road, I am quick to offer assistance in getting it to safety.

One spring I was moving from one house to another. It was a Saturday and I had managed to enlist the aid of a few friends to help me move some of the smaller stuff. As I was making the drive to pick up another load of boxes from my old house, I noticed a turtle just outside of my new neighborhood on a fairly busy road. Now this particular turtle happened to be an alligator snapping turtle–not the friendliest or most docile turtles in the world. Rescuing these guys can be tricky, but a turtle is a turtle, so I grabbed a pair of gloves (not likely helpful at all in the event he succeeded in grabbing my finger) and hurried to his rescue.

On one side of the road there was a big empty field. The other side of the road had lots of trees, brush and a creek.That seemed, to me, to be a far more turtle-friendly place to go, so I moved him that direction. Mission accomplished, I hopped back in my car.

On the return trip I was completely dismayed to see the same darn turtle sitting in nearly the same darn spot in the middle of the road. “Don’t you know what’s good for you?” I scolded as I once again risked life and limb…or at least digit…to move him toward the creek a second time.

Mission accomplished again, I went  to the new house to unload my car. There I told my friends about the frustrating turtle who seemed determined to get smashed in the road. One friend laughed and said, “Nancy, what’s the first joke you ever learned?”

I thought for a moment and said, “Why did the chicken cross the road…”

Oh.

So I drove back through the neighborhood to the busy road where, yes, there sat the turtle once again. I got out, put on my placebo gloves, and, despite not seeing the appeal of a big empty field, moved the now testy snapping turtle to the other side of the road. I never saw him again.

Lessons learned? Don’t try to tell a snapping turtle that you know what’s best for him, and maybe, just maybe, I really did learn everything I need to know in kindergarten.

Life Lessons from Rudi

This is a story I wrote about my first Dalmatian, Rudi. It was written several years ago, but since this is my birthday month, I decided to remind myself of Rudi’s wisdom once again. 

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As I call Rudi to the house, I have to wonder if someday I’m also going to bring a small aircraft down for landing in my backyard.  You see, Rudi can’t hear me calling anymore.  The only way to get her to “come when called” is to go through a short aerobics routine during which I wave my arms wildly to catch her eye, followed by an exaggerated scooping motion to get her moving in my direction.  I think it actually amuses her to see me go through these gyrations—I know it amuses my neighbors.

Loss of hearing is but one of many “new features” Rudi, a Dalmatian, has bestowed upon our family.  She is aging…in fact she is old.  We are celebrating her 14th birthday.  But this is not a story of lost youth or of dreading the inevitable.  This story is a celebration of a dog that could teach the world how to not only survive the aging process, but how to capitalize on it.

It can’t be said that Rudi is aging gracefully.  I will say, however, that Rudi is aging with great flare.  There has not been one moment when I’ve looked at her and thought she seemed sad or that she mourned capabilities lost to aging joints, arthritis and weakened muscles.  Quite the opposite is true.  Rudi is making the most of her infirmities.  She seems to revel in her uniqueness—in fact, she actually seems flaunt it.

Sure, she can still manage to climb onto the couch nine times out of 10, but those times when her front and back ends don’t quite communicate and she crumbles to the floor, it’s no big deal to her.  She just flashes the pitiful look that only a 14-year-old dog with a stroke-inspired smirk can give, knowing that one of her humans will scoop her up and secure prime couch space for her, even if it means uprooting one of her younger housemates.

And so what if she can’t make the jump onto the bed anymore?  It’s far more fun to rely on the old stare-your-human-to-consciousness trick.  I have NO idea how she does this, but I do know that many a time I have awakened from a dead sleep only to find Rudi there, staring intently, but not making a sound.  It’s a gift–I daresay one of the great mysteries of the world, and she is the master.  Of course I’m up out of my comfortable slumber in a heartbeat, lifting her to her spot on the bed where she immediately hogs my pillow and takes away my covers.  All hail Princess Rudi.

Truth be told, we rarely fail to rush to her aid or to cater to her every whim.  And forgive me for anthropomorphizing, but I am quite sure she pulls many of her stunts on purpose and I’m equally sure I’ve seen the other dogs roll their eyes in complete disgust.

Don’t think for a moment, however, that Rudi’s advanced years have left her completely sedentary.  She loves nothing more than to wander our country acreage in a decidedly aimless fashion.  Go sniff this rock.  Amble over to that tree.  Dig for a bit in this hole.  Ignore the human carefully following your every move.

This dog truly understands how to enjoy the little things in life. She loves visiting our favorite doggy bakery where the proprietors kindly turn their heads as the old dog none-too-subtly sneaks a sampling from the biscuit barrel. And she always knows exactly when her personal sunbeam will shine warmly on her favorite cushion.

I love to watch her as she’s sleeping there, relaxed and content.  As she falls deeper into her dreams, her face relaxes and she looks more and more like the puppy I remember from so many years past.

In some bizarre role reversal, that puppy has now grown to be my mentor, a role model for the golden years in my future.  When I look at Rudi, I don’t see a tired old dog.  I see an ornery old woman, thrilled to use age as a convenient excuse for her eccentricities.  To me, she is the canine embodiment of the Jenny Joseph poem, “Warning-When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple.” Select lines of this wonderful poem can’t help but describe my perception of Rudi’s charm and outlook.

When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple

with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me

I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired

and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells

and run my stick along the public railings

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain

and pick the flowers in other people’s gardens…

Those passages tell the tale for me.  What Rudi is teaching me is that I should embrace every phase of my life, just as she has hers.  And in honor of her wisdom, for her 14th birthday I bought her a collar of the most delicious shade of purple—bright with rhinestones and bordering on garish.

As for me?  Well, the last lines of the poem make my mission perfectly clear…

…maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

So out we go to celebrate my dear girl’s birthday.  She is wearing her bright purple collar and I have donned a shade of lavender I wouldn’t normally wear.  As we make our way to the dog bakery to commit yet another forgiven dog bone felony, I can’t help but laugh out loud at our secret little joke—perhaps too loudly, some might think, for a woman walking in public with only a dog for company.

But, wait!  Did she just hear me giggle? Could it be that old ears have not quite accepted silence? For I swear I just saw Rudi smile her crooked smile as she glanced up to deliver an appreciative wink.

Author’s note:

I absolutely adore old dogs. I love those I’ve had the pleasure of watching through all phases of their lives and I love the seniors that have come to us through rescue to share their final time with us. Rudi stayed with us until she was 15 years, 22 days old. We were incredibly lucky to have that funny, spunky old gal with us for such a lovely long time.  Don’t pity the old dogs—cherish them. Don’t be afraid to adopt an older dog. Their time with you may be shorter, but they have so very much to give.

Excepts used from Warning-When I Am Old I Shall Wear Purple by Jenny Joseph

Buttons, Straws, & Dirty Jokes. All Precious To Me.

buttonsNot long ago I bought some new clothes. As I was hanging them up, I noticed a little packet of spare buttons attached to one blouse. Nothing unusual about that…but for me, time stood still for just a moment as I held those buttons and allowed myself to enjoy a flood of happy memories. This is a scene that is repeated every time I find the spare buttons on new clothes.

To anyone else, they are just buttons. Buttons that most of us probably set aside or misplace. But to me, they are a treasure. They bring back my mother. My mom. My mommy.

For as long as I can remember, and likely before I was even forming memories, my mom kept a button jar. Every time we got an outfit that had a packet of spare buttons, they went straight into the jar where we could find them if we ever needed them. I can’t remember one time when we actually went to that jar to find a specific button. It would have been quite a task to sift through them all to find the right one, but we always kept every button there. Just in case.

Finding a packet of spare buttons whisks me straight back to the kitchen of my childhood home. I can see mom cooking dinner (it’s always her famous fried chicken!) and I am sitting nearby, dumping buttons from the jar onto the floor to see what game they might inspire.

To five-year-old Nancy, that wasn’t a jar of buttons, it was a jar filled with rare and valuable coins. It was a bucket of food for my imaginary horses. It was a treasure chest of rare gems that I could thread into necklaces. It was a jar of shapes and color just waiting to be arranged into hundreds of different murals.

So now, spare buttons are all the more precious to me. When my mom passed away, the button jar was the one thing from her possessions that I really wanted–no, needed.  Now it is far more than a jar filled with buttons. It is a jar filled with sweet memories, with laughter, and with innocent joy. I have still yet to need one of those buttons and likely never will. But I will always cherish that jar beyond any treasure my mom could have left for me.

Other family members have given me similar gifts of memory. My grandfather bought me a fountain drink once when I was just a girl and when I removed the paper from the straw, he instructed me to blow through the straw before putting it in my drink. “You want to be sure there’s nothing in there you might choke on.” I smile every single time I open a straw and always blow into it before using it.

My grandmother gave me the gift of a very specific scent–her scent. I can only describe it as a cross between a yummy pie baking in the oven, cinnamon and mothballs. That may seem a weird combination, but it is the BEST smell and I run across it from time to time out of the blue. I know it’s just her saying hello.

My dad’s gift to me comes in the form of a good dirty joke. Odd as it may seem, when I was “at least 21 and weighed a hundred,” as Dad would say, he and I would compete to see who could tell the other the worst (and by worst I mean best) joke. Now anytime I hear a good/naughty joke, I just have to laugh and picture my dad chuckling right along with me. I thank him for giving me a good/bad sense of humor.

My dear sister Cindy gave me the gift of a specific time of day we dubbed drive-time. This was our time…my 30 minute weekday commute home from work and our time to share the day’s accomplishments, failures, frustrations, and triumphs. It was the best therapy in the world after a long day at work and I cherished drive-time, ending every call by saying, “You talked me all the way home again!” I still often use this time on the road to talk things over with my sister, and I know she still hears me.

These people I have loved and lost have left me a gift beyond compare in these special little memory triggers–not to bring back the sadness of their passing, but rather to remind me of the joy of our time together and their impact on my life. In reality, thanks to these memories, I guess I really haven’t lost them at all. They pop up all the time, gracing me with smiles and love from days gone by–reminding me to always stop and cherish every single spare button.

Ferris Muler’s Night Out.

ImageI was somewhat up and at ’em this morning. Well, as up and at ’em as I ever am for a non-morning person. Out the door at 6:40, headed to work on time and in good form. And this is the point where all of my plans for the day went awry.

At about the halfway point in our rather long driveway, I suddenly see our mule, Ferris Muler, coming in through my front gate at a rather brisk trot. Note the words “COMING IN.” He trotted past my Jeep, glanced at me rather sheepishly (a sheepish mule?) and proceeded around the side of the house toward our pasture. I now know what it feels like to be the parent of a teenager who is caught coming home well past curfew and I have no idea how my “teenager” got out in the first place.

Start your day with the best of intentions. Add one errant mule. Throw getting to work in a timely manner out the window and go round up said mule. Fun!

Ferris is a great mule. Ferris is also a very large mule and he is not a creature you can force to do anything he doesn’t particularly want to do. He does everything in his own sweet time. I have found that you can’t try to rush him or something that you think should take 10 minutes will easily turn into two hours of frustration. This is a creature that likes to think things through. Study a situation. Weigh his options.

So I walked right past Ferris, issuing nothing more than a nonchalant good morning. Reverse psychology at its finest. I headed straight into the barn and proceeded to feed the other horses in the pasture. This caught Mr. Always-up-for-a-meal’s attention and he came to within 20 feet of the barn, eyes locked on me and extra-large ears swiveling with my every move.

I continued to ignore him, but left the gate into his pasture open with an enticing bucket of feed within sight. After about five minutes of giving it some serious consideration–after all, the grass in this case is actually a good deal greener on the other side of the fence–Ferris opted for the bucket of sweet feed and passed unceremoniously through the gate.

At this point I am running 20 minutes late, I am slightly sweaty, my hair that was washed and smoothed is now frizzy, and my shoes and feet have been soaked by the heavy morning dew. I maKe the trek back to my Jeep to once again attempt to get to work. As I pulled the rest of the way up the driveway and out of my front gate, I couldn’t help but wonder where in the world Ferris spent his night out.

I may have a neighbor or two who could fill in some of the details, but I don’t think I’m going to ask around. That’s just inviting trouble, isn’t it? So Ferris Muler’s escapades will likely remain a mystery and I am once again taught that farm life often operates outside of all plans and schedules. You just take a deep breath, slap that frizzy hair in a pony tail, and go with the flow.

A note to Ferris: If you’re planning to go out again tonight, at least stop by the house and take me with you. If I’m going to be a mess at work again tomorrow, I’d like a good story to go with it. I can just hear it now…a mule and a gal with frizzy hair walk into a bar…