On a Wintery Christmas morning when the snow layered itself like frosting along the roof line of our old house; when my kids were still kids, when their hearts still pumped with excitement as they stood at the top of the stairs all hunched together in their new PJs, waiting for permission to come down and see what Santa had delivered; on that particular Christmas morning my sister Libby carried her gift to our kids in a basket or a stocking or some-such delightful holiday wrapping. I don't exactly recall how it was delivered. I do recall my reaction to the gift itself; an interesting juxtaposition of emotions: the joyful thrill of watching my kids exult while at the same time dealing with the shock of how my own life was going to change from this moment forward.
Indeed the gift was a living breathing kind of treasure. Four little paws, a smirk of a mouth under a wet little snout, and a pair of long floppy ears like a shawl draped over her little head. Oh, and she had a pedigree. Her pedigree declared her as a purebred Basset Hound, and she certainly looked the part. The pedigree also said her name was Loretta Lynn, though the fellow who had owned her had called her Sally for a full year before he decided to sell her. Her sister showed better, he said, so he let this one go.
Libby had decided my kids needed a dog. She's like mother #2 to them, so it was not really out of place for her to decide that. It's just that I'm not such the dog person. I was bit in the eye by my brother's Afghan hound when I was seven, and ever since I've had a rather innate fear of dogs and other creatures. This aspect of my character has felt shameful to me my whole life. I try to fake that I like animals. Try to talk in that baby talk way people do when they meet a new creature: "Ohhh, what a cute puppy. Here darlin', let me scratch behind your ears. Good girl! Good girl!" I am confessing, since this is the holy season, that this is a lie and I am faking it as much as I faked respect for my son's 9th grade English teacher who decided spelling should be 1/4 of their English grade. (Seriously? In 9th grade? With spell check? I refuse to let my children get away with using easy safe words when they write just because they might not know how to spell the more appropriate word! But I digress...)
Libby's heart throbbed with the kids' when she delivered Sally. She loves animals, dogs especially. Cats make her itch. My heart really was softened watching her stroke the soft folds in Sally's ears. If you stretched them out on your legs, they looked like elephant ears. We shoulda named her Dumbo In Libby's defense, she was only replacing the Bassett we had rescued from the pound earlier that year. A mistake. That's what Burva was. Burva Dawn. Burv was an attempt to fill a place for our little Kate. Burva slept with Kate. But she left trails of dog-ness all over the house, and I'm not talking sweet little doggie toys. Burva had to go back from whence she came. I was perfectly content to have only four children to take care of. But the spark had been struck and Libby could not resist.
Loretta Lynn Sally was cute as could be, seriously! But it pretty much ended at looks. She had been kenneled as a show dog for her first year of life. It surprised me that she was a show dog because, at least from what I saw on Best of Show, show dogs could obey commands. Sal just looked at you with those droopy brown eyes when you called to her. Throw a stick and you simply had a stick out in the yard, and a cute little dog sitting staring at you. It was apparent that this darling little one was not going to sleep with Kate. We had to change her sheets the first two nights she tried that. Sally ended up in the yard. We got a dog house and a long chain because she liked to wander into the street and sort of flop down there, basking in the sun, oblivious to cars. But she was cute!
Sal made friends with Cheyenne, Bullard's dog next door. Cheyenne, a well trained but mischievous puppy, was not chained. So she'd come visit Sally. They'd giggle and roll in that puppy sort of way, then Cheyenne would take off and Sal would try to follow, until she ran out of chain. Then her stubby little legs would end up over her head, the folds of her abundant flesh gathered around her collar. She didn't even seem to mind any of that. She wasn't the sharpest tack in the cupboard. But she was cute!
We were in the process of building our current house when Sal arrived. My guilt over not being a dog person led us to build the world's most expensive dog world. We put a wrought iron fence around the perimeter of our yard, nearly an acre, so she would have room to run and run without a chain. We cut a hole in the back of the house and attached a dog house to our own house, even bricked it to match ours. The hole in the wall led directly into a large kennel where she could sleep and eat. We heated the floor of the garage so she would be warm in the winter. The kids would occasionally try to take Sally for a walk. Sarah attempted to take her running. Inevitably I'd have to get in the car and go searching for them. More often that not I found them, the back of one of my girls hunched over a lump on the side of the road, pulling on the leash, bawling or yelling: "Come ON, Sally! Get up! Let's go! Get up NOW Sally!" But once Sal decided to sit, that was it. You were where you were and that's where you were. I'd pull up in the van and attempt to diffuse the frustration. It took both of us to literally lift her stubborn bulk of doggedness into the car. As she aged she got heavier, (it happens to the best of us) and her bones more lumbering when she walked. Slow and stubborn did not begin to describe her. That is unless she found the door from the family room to the back deck open. Then she perked right up, shooting like a wound-up rubber band in through the french doors. She scurried about the house, her nails clicking against our Hickory wood floors, her ears flying like liquid pendulums as she ran, slobber whipping from her jowls onto the couch, the walls, the roman shades, the cupboards. I could hear her from my laundry room, or from the kitchen. A call to the forces rose up whenever anyone discovered she had "entered the realm." Like city slicker cowboys we rounded her up, shooing her back out through the French doors or into the garage where we could open the kennel door. She always had this sort of smirk as she ran. My little grand-daughter Ruby has that same smirk, come to think of it!
There was a period of time when we started to get a bunch of mail for Sally Connors. I figure John had used her name when registering for something once when he was in high school. Colleges looking for Sally to apply. Banks wanting to give her a credit card. We considered posing Sally and snapping some pictures: Sal goes to college. Sal opens a savings account. Sally in her first investment seminar. If we could have lifted her and expected her to cooperate we might have done that. But that would also mean we would have to bathe her, which was not a pleasant task. She had a bi-annual visit to the groomer whether she needed it or not. Oh, poor Sal! Like I said, I am not a dog person. Shame, shame, shame.
A full dozen winters we spent with Sally the Slobber Dog. Our back yard is multi- dimensional, with cement curbing dividing terraced grass and outlining flower beds.Sally, even with her sore old hips from her low lying belly, would tunnel through the yard,balancing on that little balance beam of curbing all the way down to the lower forty and back up to her red brick house. We called it Sally's Luge. If you looked down on it from one of the upper bedrooms in the winter, it looked like a virgin ant farm below. When the snow was extra deep she would disappear altogether, the only evidence of her position being the tiny crooked tip of a tail waving like a truce flag as she shimmied through the trail of snowy ditches.
One winter we noticed Sal drank an inordinate amount of water. “Maybe she’s getting diabetes,” I said, as I refilled her watering trough. The next day I went out onto the deck to retrieve the Christmas ham Dave’s law firm had given us. Our fridge was already full of holiday fare, so we had this habit of using the table on the back deck and calling it “God’s fridge”. Of course the ham was gone. Plain disappeared out of its box. We found the ham bone picked clean in the snow outside Sally’s red brick house.
Sal was a survivor. She lived to be a little more than 13 years old. I'm not sure what that is in dog years. I am not a dog person. Nonetheless I thought my chest would sink into my back, straight through my lungs, crushing my heart on the day we drove down to Doc White's. “I think she’s done living,” he told us gently. We took her for one last pretty grooming the day before her last trip to the Vet. She always looked so incongruous when they put a bow on her after her grooming. We stroked and purred and wept as they laid her down.
“I’m not sure what you did to her, or how you did it, but this is the oldest Basset I’ve ever seen. Must have been a happy little puppy for a long time. Took good care of her, didn’t you?”
Mmmm. Well, in our own sort of way. Loved, yes. David had hand fed her the special puppy chow the vet recommended for the last three years of her life. And we gave her a pretty spectacular dog run. She seemed happy enough. Never complained. And she thrived in spite of chomping down box after box of Cheez Nibs, tossed regularly from Gram’s car window through the fence. She was strengthened in suffering: having her tail shut in the car door and ingesting a whole roll of masking tape (Lib discovered that one and retrieved it a week later. I’ll spare you the details.) Sal lived life on her terms, mostly because she would not live it on ours. So we changed ours and lived peaceably together for well past the average Basset life span.
This past winter the snow laid undisturbed in our yard. The red brick dog house, which for years bore a December strand of colored Christmas lights on its roof, looking a lot like Snoopy’s dog house, stood cold and dark. The grass is starting to grow under the Hornbeam tree next to the fence. Evidence is gradually disappearing.
But we who lived it keep her tucked in our memories, chuckling when we think of her; aching a bit when we see someone trying to walk a Basset hound on some anonymous sidewalk.
Even up to the end, when her face was sagged beyond saggy, and her hair was beyond gray, she was cute. Cute, and funny, smelly and slobbery. She held a pedigree, for goodness sakes!
Sal the Slobber Dog. Rest in peace, dear old girl.