Sunday, July 17, 2011
Sometimes gifts come in unexpected packages. Nearly 16 years ago, when my son was twenty and a college student, he had one of those jobs that's an eye opener. All of us have taken a job like that while we work our way through school and launch ourselves into the adult world. His was as a truck driver and delivery person for one of those furniture rental places, where you pay stupid amounts of money for ugly furniture that you will never quite own.
One of the places that he frequently delivered to, and picked up from as well, was a trailer park. While taking furniture to and from various trailers, he noticed a puppy tied with a chain, outside one of the trailers. It spent most of it's time hiding as far under the trailer as possible, in the mud. And, over the weeks, he could see that it was getting thinner, weaker. So he made a decision that, ordinarily, I would not have supported. He stopped by the house to pick up my husband's chain cutter and, while delivering yet another sofa and chair set to another family in a trailer, he watched the one with the puppy cowering under the porch.
He found reasons to wait, looking under the hood of his truck, talking with neighbors, checking the tires of his truck...anything that he could think of to linger. Sure enough, the man who lived in the trailer came stumbling out, cussing and stopping to kick the puppy and then climbing into his beat up truck to drive away. As soon as the man had left the trailer court, my son jumped the broken fence, cut the chain and scooped up the puppy into his arms and drove towards home.
I knew something was up when he parked the truck in the driveway and burst into the house the way he did, like he used to when he was a kid. "Mom! MOM! I need some help." Nothing brings a Mother faster than those words. He'd been a man, living on his own, for a few years at that point, so I knew it was serious. I left paint brushes and a trail of turpentine across the floor of my studio, running upstairs to meet him.
"Mom. Come out here. I want to show you something." He took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eyes, smiling at me the way he always did when he really wanted to connect. " I need help with this but I can't do it without you. I can't have him at my apartment. I just stole him." Him? Stole him? Oh my...
He took me outside to the truck and opened the passenger side door for me. There on the seat was one of the sorriest looking puppies I'd ever seen. He was so weak he couldn't stand up. His coat was filthy and matted and he had scrapes and bruises on him with patches of fur missing. His ears were huge and his belly was swollen from malnutrition. The poor little guy was so frightened he tried to hide by putting his head under his front feet! He was too weak to try to get away from us.
I asked my son to, carefully, pick the puppy up and carry him inside for me. The poor little guy was just a sack of bones! While B held him, I washed him off with warm water and soap. I had to be able to see what was there under the crud before deciding whether he needed to go to the Vet's office. Taking care of strays was something we'd all been doing for years...more often cats than dogs, but sometimes snakes or turtles, birds that needed to grow a bit more before being on the their own, a prairie dog. Animals were always welcome with us.
Underneath all of the mud and crust was a beautiful golden coat and a pair of very clear brown eyes.
" I gave him a name. I'm calling him Newman." Well, no going back now. My son had stolen a dog and named him. Judging from the condition this dog was in, he did the right thing! I hugged him and said "He's perfect! He can be Gypsy's friend. I wanted another dog living here anyway." and that was that. I'd just condoned trespassing and theft in the name of love. If we were going to jail, we were going together because I had just accepted stolen property. It was one of the best things we've ever done and the beginning of a true friendship with B as an adult and all for the sake of a wiley coyote.
We started Newman out on chicken broth and a gruel of ground chicken, bones and whatever leftover vegetables I had in the refrigerator. His teeth were still baby teeth and some of them were gone (thank heavens the "person" B had stolen Newman from hadn't had him long enough to knock adult teeth out!). Newman spent most of his time in my studio, down in the walk out basement we had, hiding back behind the heater and hot water tank. I'd pick him up and take him outside several times a day to pee and poop and not once did he have an accident in the house...not once. I've never had another dog before or since who was so easy to housebreak.
When I was sure he was strong enough to ride in the car with me and strong enough to deal with the stress of going to the Vet's office, we took him in for his first exam. He was full of worms, but nothing that couldn't be fixed. And his hair coat was beginning to grow back, his eyes were clear and there were no other diseases to deal with. He had his first set of inoculations and home we went. He was so excited to leave, to get back to his house, that he stayed upstairs for the first time and explored the house with Gypsy. He wasn't just there to convalesce, he was home!
Over the weeks and months he began to grow. We guessed that he might be about Gypsy's age, not quite a year old. B came by every night to see Newman and we began to take him out for walks around the block. At first he was still so weak, his muscles were still so atrophied from being tied all the time, that he couldn't make it around the block. He had to be picked up and carried until he started to wiggle so he could get back down. That didn't last long though. He was young and recovering quickly. And he had a mate!... Gypsy!
I knew he was OK when he started to eat upstairs with Gypsy, mornings and evenings. But he also started to do something very strange. He would eat his meal and then, very solemnly, would come to me and sit right in front of me, waiting for me to acknowledge him. Then he would lean over and barf up a portion of his dinner! Eeeuw! Now what? I'd never had to deal with that kind of behavior. Then he would wag his tail, perk his ears at me and wait. What to do...what to do. He was so proud of what he was offering, I couldn't get angry. Instead, I wanted to learn more about him...about this behavior.
After talking with the Vet and being reassured that he was healthy, I talked with a friend of mine from the University, a wild life biologist. He came to visit and looked Newman over, asking questions about his history. He ran his hands over Newman, who was very curious about this new person, looked in Newman's ears and picked up his legs and feet to carefully examine. He looked at me and smiled and said "Congratulations! I think you have a coy-dog, a half coyote, half dog living with you." OH MY. Later that was confirmed by a Native American who walked through our neighborhood on his way to Haskell University. He saw me out with Gypsy and Newman, walking, and stopped me to tell me that Gypsy would be a good hunting dog, but Newman was a "junk dog", a killer of chickens and an egg sucker. I needed to get rid of him! Of course, he was seeing the coyote in Newman, not the dog.
When Newman was able to walk and run, to keep up with Gypsy, we started to take both of them up to the campus at KU, to Potter's Lake, where several other "dog" people took their dogs to let them run and play off leash, to swim in the pond and to learn how to socialize with other dogs. At first Newman was overwhelmed. He wouldn't go far from me or B and always stuck close to Gypsy. It was just a bit too much for one little coyote to take.
But the second time we went back, the real Newman began to emerge. He began to discover his legs. Newman could run! We're not talking here about the normal lope that you see a dog do, but a full out RUN! B told me that once, when he wasn't able to find Newman and had been out looking for him for a few hours, when he did find him, Newman ran alongside B's jeep and B clocked him at almost 40 mph! Newman could run so fast in his youth that no dog could keep up with him.
He would run up to the other dogs at the park and tease them into trying to chase him, and then he would turn up the speed and leave them eating dust every single time. He flew! He was a beautiful, golden streak who's feet never touched the ground. He could dart to one side, flip up in the air and do a 180 turn and come down running so fast that other dogs would end up standing there looking around for him in bewilderment. "What happened? Where did he go?" When Newman discovered the freedom of being able to move like that completely unfettered, Newman discovered his smile. In all his years, his smile never again left his face. He was rescued. He was safe. He was home. He was free!
Living with a coyote has been adventure, to say the least.He could jump onto the table tops and the counters like a goat with springs in his feet. He loved the full moon and would howl at it, sitting in the middle of my Grandmother's dining room table. My solution to that? I put layers of table cloths on the table. There are still a few scratches on the top of the table and I treasure them! Who else can say that a coyote used to sit in the middle of their Grandmother's dining room table and howl at the full moon? What an awesome history to add to our Thanksgiving dinners, when we always talk about families and our past.
Every year he would capture one of my feather pillows and rend it end from end, using the feathers to make a nest for Gypsy, usually back behind a bed or the rocking chair and, once when the closet door had been left open, in the back of my closet! I would come home and find him sitting in the door of the room where his nest for Gypsy was, wagging his tail and waiting for my approval. I would follow him to wherever that year's nest was and find Gypsy there, curled up in the middle of it. I'd say " Oh my. This is the best nest, the best den, I've ever seen"...which was true because I'd never seen any other nest! And then they would jump up out of the middle of it, running off down the hallway leaving a whirl of feathers flying through the air after them.
So many stories to tell, living with a magical creature like Newman. There's the day he ate a birthday cake that I'd left sitting back as far as possible on the kitchen counter to cool, so I could ice it. I came back upstairs after folding some laundry and there he was, laying back under the kitchen table as far as he could go, curled up in a teeny, tiny "you can't see me" ball. That was always his guilty body language. When I stopped to look around to see what he had done, I saw the cake on the counter with the whole center eaten out. There was a perfect circle of air in the middle of my cake and crumbs all over Newman's face! All these years later I'm still laughing about that one!
After we'd moved out of town, out to our little bit of Paradise, the adventures continued but with the ante upped. Newman faced off with wild coyotes, making sure they knew this was his territory. Sometimes the howling and growling was fierce, but he always won. And there was the day he and Gypsy had disappeared for hours. They'd, all three of them, lived out here for years with no fences, leashes or collars. I never worried about them because this really was a dog's paradise. There wasn't anyplace to go to that was any better than this. But I do admit that I was worried by the time I saw them, coming down the path I keep mowed through the East pasture. Newman was dragging a partial deer carcass, Joe running alongside and Gypsy riding on top! All three of them were so rank that it took three baths on three days afterwards to get the horrible smells off of them, but until they had all laid out in the front of the house, chewing on body parts and rolling on the skin for hours.
At the end, Newman was crippled with terrible arthritis, the curse of all runners who've worn their joints out with joy. He ate his dinner with his bowl placed on top of a pile of books and a dictionary so he could keep his balance. He couldn't lean over anymore to eat from his bowl on the ground without falling over. We decided to call him the only literary coyote in Kansas!
He's gone now. Four days ago Newman slipped out of his beautiful, golden skin and left this Earth behind. His legs no longer worked. We had to help him up just to get him out the door. He was completely incontinent at the end too, something that was mortifying for him. He never dirtied up his den in all the years he lived with us. He died in my arms, looking out towards the horizon. He left this world laying out under his favorite cedar, outside our front door. The flowers and grass were deep enough there for him to hide, something that he always did once he came to live with us out here on our preserve. Over the years his wild side became more and more prevalent. He didn't cuddle. He was too adult for that. He had a job and he did it, right up to the end.
When the Vet's truck drove up our long drive, Newman dragged himself up onto his front legs and he barked, to let us know someone was here, invading our territory.
He died here in the evening, laying in his yard doing his job. At the end, just before he died, he at last laid his head into my lap and looked at me with his ever present smile. It was the first and last time he ever did that. I was the alpha female and, in his world, you never did that with the alpha. He was gone. He had, at last, run right out of his skin to run under the full moon we had that evening. His end was perfectly Newman, just exactly the way it was supposed to be. He died without a collar on. I hadn't used a leash to walk with him for almost ten years. Out here he was free, no chains ever again for our coyote. That was our gift to him.
The energy in the house has changed. Somehow it's too quiet, even with Joe and Miniver here. He was an important presence that, until he was gone, we had not realized was so much a part of our new/ now old life on our small ranch. Now he's in the Earth that he loved to run over and an apple tree grows out of his heart.
I'll miss you, Newman. It's been a privilege to have a real "junk dog" live with us, including us in his pack. I love you!
I am, always yours, Nancy...remembering
Monday, July 4, 2011
Sometimes I just plain, flat out get overwhelmed with life. Too many pots on the stove top...too many irons in the fire, too many things on my to-do list! But the Fourth of July is a place where I always stop to catch my breath and remember. It's in the middle of Summer, the middle of the year and the weather is white hot, slow and breathless.
We've had a whole month of hundred degree days with occasional breaks of "just" 95 with thunderstorms and more tornado warnings than I can count. I can't say that's classic weather, but it is Kansas weather. We're a place of extremes, so every year is different. After more than a few years of it, you just kind of learn to roll with the punches. I did turn on the AC about half way through the month. I usually can make it into July, but this year the heat was exhausting, so we've been cooking some energy, sooner than we'd planned .
I had a lot of profound things to say here, but decided instead to talk about everyday heroes. I'm not much interested in politicians. As a lot, I find nearly all of them very disappointing. And I'm not going to talk about soldiers or war either, or not much anyway. I'm going to acknowledge the quiet hero...the everyday hero that we never hear about.
He's (that's the grammatically correct 'he') the one who pays the bills, goes to work everyday, cleans the bathrooms and sweeps the carpet, mows the lawns and loves his children without complaint. He keeps the world going in a quiet way, behind the scenes, tying shoes and putting bandages on scraped knees, walks the dog and rubs your shoulders when you have a kink in your back.
She's (and that's also the grammatically correct 'she') the one who makes sure the tank is full in the car, the oil is changed on time, the horses are let out early in the morning and the stalls are cleaned everyday. She's the one who makes dinner, stretching the budget and being creative with eggs and spinach at the end of the week while you try to make it to payday. She laughs at the same old stories and calls every weekend to see how your life is going.
They (one more time, always grammatically and every other way correct) bring you bags of organic lettuce and sugar snap peas from their garden to share, pick up your mail for you when you're out of town and check to make sure the doors are still locked and mow the lawn so you can deal with the crisis that needs your attention without the mundane to distract you.
Here's to the everyday American. I salute you. And I thank you for the offer to help in small ways. "Could I carry that for you Mam?" or "Do you need help? Are you OK?" when I pull off the road to answer my cell phone. Here's to the "people down the road" who never judge me for being a renter instead of an owner...who accept us without reference to our religious or political affiliations, who're just there to be friendly and to help when there's a stray horse in the yard who's owner we're trying to find.
And here's to old red trucks and the old guy that lives up the road that stopped by one evening just to say " I just wanted to tell you how much the Missus and I bin enjoying yor floowrs you got growin' everywhar round here. (shifting his tobacco chaw from one side of his mouth to the other) You got just about the prittiest yard round these parts." and a nice, hard hand shake and off he goes, hand waving backwards out the window of his truck!
Here's to the possibility that things can get better, that the ideals I used to believe in are still possible. Here's to the everyday man in his everyday life. Thank you America! Happy Birthday!
About our beautiful flag : It's a funeral flag from World War Two, in memory of a young soldier named Matha Dalton. We found it at an antique show years ago in Lawrence. I'd walked around the corner of one booth and saw it laying across a chair with the end falling onto the floor. No matter what country you come from, the flag of any country should never touch the floor. It stands for all the people who've given up their lives to defend the idea of the place they live in.
I bought it from the person who had the booth along with the box it had come in, without the comments I wanted to make to the person who had left it out where it could touch the floor. When we got home, I found under the flap of the box a letter that had been written to the family of Matha Dalton after his death at the end of the War in the Pacific. The address was in Golden, Missouri.
A few weeks later we drove to Golden and stopped by the local library, which was also the local post office and sheriff's office. It was a very small, rural community. I asked if the librarian knew the family of Matha Dalton. I told her about the flag we had, that we wanted to return it if they were still in the area. As all local librarians do, she did know of a living relative. And she made the call too.
We waited for about 45 minutes, walking around the tiny town square and stopping to visit in the local cafe and hardware store. By then the whole town knew why were there and people were beginning to show up to see what would happen when we met with Granny Dalton.
Granny Dalton owned several thousand acres of farm land that she still farmed with the help of her Grandsons and some of the local teenagers. She drove up in a clean but very old and faded Ford Truck, getting out still dressed in her daily overalls and muck boots but with her hair combed and her purse on her arm.
She walked right up to me, introducing herself first to me, then to my husband and, in her blunt Missouri accent, she said "I'm Granny Dalton. I here you've got something of mine. You want to tell me the story of how you came by it?" I liked her right away. She was lean, tough and leathery with big hands and a no nonsense way about her.
We walked over to sit on the bench under a tree in front of the local cafe with a small crowd gathered up around us to hear about why we were there. It was like being inside a Clint Eastwood movie. All we needed was the right kind of music to set the stage.
After I told her how we came to have the flag, I gave her the letter. She carefully opened it up and read it out loud so everyone could hear her. Then she paused, taking a moment to wipe her eyes with her hanky, and turned to me and said " I was supposed to marry Matha when he came back from the War. We fell in love when I was fifteen and he was seventeen. Instead, he died. When they sent us his things along with this flag from the Philippines, all we got were some scorched coins they found next to him. He was burned to death."
She paused here to wipe her eyes again. She was crying and so were most of the rest of us listening. "I married his brother instead. He was a good man and I don't regret any of my life with him. We've had four good sons and two good daughters together. My oldest son was named Matha too."
"My Father in Law died in my arms of a broken heart, out in a corn field, just weeks after we got this letter from the War Department. Neither he or my Mother in Law ever recovered from the grief of loosing Matha that way. "
"You keep that flag. You've got more respect for it than his sister's ever did. They're the ones who sold it in an auction after Mom Dalton died last year. I don't speak to them no more. They sold all of Matha's things...a whole trunk of them, without saying anything to any of the rest of us. If you give it to me, I'll just die and they'll do the same again. All my kids moved away from here. Those sisters would just take it along with what I have before my children could stop 'em."
And here she paused again, looking out towards the place she'd driven from. Everyone around us sighed, waiting to hear the end of her story. Then she turned to me and said " I thank you from the bottom of my heart for caring so much that you drove all this way to bring my memories back to me. I can see you and your husband are good people, that you love each other. Do you have children?" ... an important question to ask when you've grown up in a farming community where large families are still a part of running a farm.
I told her we did, two sons, and that they were the core of our lives. She smiled, gave me a hug (drawing a sigh from the group of people around us. Granny Dalton was not one to express herself openly.), and said " Well, you go home and tell them about us and Matha. You be our memory. And you love those boys every single day like it was the only one you have." And then she got up, tucking her hanky back into her purse, walked to her truck and left without a backward glance.
Before we left, I asked the Librarian if she knew if the Dalton family was descended from the Dalton Gang, a notorious gang of robbers from the years after the Civil War. She said " Well, we don't talk about that much around here. It's a part of our history we ain't too proud of. " and left it at that.
So I have one more salute...to Matha Dalton and all of the young men and women who've given so much so that the rest of us can hold onto our dreams. Thank you, Matha. And thank you Granny Dalton, for taking the time to tell us about your life.
HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!