Almost seven hours in the air, we arrive at Shannon, eager to stretch our legs. The airport is small, established in 1945. At that time, planes carrying supplies and such across the Atlantic did not have fuel capacity to reach mainland Europe. They – seaplanes – landed in the Shannon River. Charles Lindbergh found the original site for the Shannon Airport!
If you have ever watched Corgis run, they’re surprisingly fast. They stretch out and come together like a very elastic rubberband. Sometimes, when they are excited or very happy, there is an extra bounce in each stride. It’s fun to watch them – most of the time.
Now, Memphis, my male Corgi, preferred to conserve energy. He was not big on chasing anything – balls, squeaky toys, or other animals in the yard. He was curious, and may canter a few steps in the direction of a squirrel or chipmunk, but his heart was never in the chase. That was the case until one summer evening around twilight time.
Ralph and I had just walked the dogs, and we were standing on the front porch, ready to go inside. I unleashed Memphis just before I opened the front door….a big mistake….HUGE. Somehow in the waning light, Memphis spotted a rabbit and was off the porch and after it like Superdog. I shouted. But I was completely ignored, so I started sprinting after him. “Ralph, put the girls inside and get a flashlight and some doggy biscuits!” I shouted as I followed Memphis into the backyard.
He zigzagged from our yard to the neighbor’s backyard, hot on the heels of the terrified bunny. Finally, the rabbit disappeared into Sandy Run Park behind our house, and so did Memphis! I charged right through a bed of poison ivy, but when I stepped into the tree line, it was darker and Memphis was not in view. I kept screaming his name, not knowing whether to turn right or left. Ralph appeared and we started walking down the path, continually coaxing, “Memphis, come here, boy! Don’t you want a ‘cookie’?”
My heart was in my throat. Memphis was almost all black and would be hard to spot back here. We didn’t walk in the woods because of ticks and poison ivy, so he was not familiar with the trails. We turned back towards home. “Let’s try the other way,” I whispered to Ralph. I could hardly talk now, fighting back hot tears. We had retraced our steps to the place where our house was in view when we heard something in the undergrowth. There was Memphis! We called to him, my heart singing with joy!
Memphis dashed right past us like we were perfect strangers or trees of the forest. He had a wild look in his eyes and was headed for home. We ran after him, and when we arrived on the front porch, Memphis was standing at the door. He would not look at us until he was inside the house. I think he either encountered a creature much bigger than him or when he stopped running, he realized Ralph, the girls and I were not right behind him!
I learned my lesson. No more unleashing before we get inside the house. As much as you think you know your dog, there are some things he may reveal when you least expect it. Faster than a speeding bullet….
Memphis was a wonderful Corgi. When he was a puppy, his ears needed to be taped to train them to stand up. But Memphis was always shaking his head, so I removed the tape – thus, I had a Corgi with one ear up and one ear down. I didn’t care! It gave him personality, and he wasn’t ever going to be a show dog. He was tri-colored, with big paws and a broad chest. Memphis had such a coat that even when he was shedding, he still had more coat than most Corgis. He was the best pet and companion – and I treasured the almost 15 years I had him.
Memphis was a delight as a puppy, but never learned to fetch or play tug-of-war. He simply wasn’t interested. I’d throw a toy or a ball, and he’d watch me do it. Then he’d look at me through all my encouragement to “Go fetch!” as if to say, “You threw it; you go get it!” He loved to cuddle best of all, and often would leap into the laps of guests. He particularly was fond of my friend Letty. He also loved my goddaughters.
Memphis loved to walk in new places, but once the walk was routine he quickly lost interest. He’d simply plant his feet and refuse to go forward. Sometimes, he’d actually lie down in protest. But he was a “meet and greet” dog. He enjoyed making new friends, and he wanted to say hello to dogs of all sizes. When I was out walking and the kids would be walking to the corner for the school bus or walking home, Memphis was happy to let them pet him and make a fuss.
But if he heard a murmur of thunder, Memphis would turn around and head for the house, practically dragging me behind him. That dog never moved so fast as when he heard thunder. He hated storms. Thunder drove him behind the couch to hide. His favorite place was the small bathroom off the front hallway. Memphis would disappear into the bathroom and wedge himself between the wall and the back of the toilet. He gained some weight as he got older, and I was afraid he was going to actually get stuck back there.
Riding in the car was one of his favorite things to do. He preferred the front passenger seat. I believe he actually would have preferred to drive if that was possible. One night we left Carol Braunstein’s home with Rhonda, a three-year old Corgi that was going to keep Memphis company while Carol took Merri to dog shows. It was dark, and I rode in the back seat of the Rav. The other half was lowered so the crate could fit facing forward. Memphis climbed on the console and peered into the crate as Ralph was driving. He looked, cocked his head, looked again. Then he looked at me with a rather frantic look, and then he stared at Ralph, my husband, who was driving the car. He leaned forward to look into the crate again. Rhonda was silent. Then he looked at me again. I could read his mind. “You are bringing home the WRONG dog! You left Merri behind!”
Memphis never really warmed up to Rhonda who became our third dog. But the girls respected him. Memphis was king. They allowed him to lie in their dog beds whenever he chose to occupy them, but they would never sleep in his bed. Merri especially was fond of him. When Memphis became sick and died at the vet’s, Merri moped around the house. That night she crawled inside his bed, closed her eyes, and went to sleep. It brought tears to my eyes. She knew he wasn’t coming back, and she missed him, too.
Every spring the grackles return to our backyard. Not just one or two – an entire flock. They seem to arrive earlier every year – this year it was early March when I first noticed them. They stay through end June, and sometimes well into the summer months.
I must admit I am not very fond of them. They devour all the feed in my feeders. The poor cardinals are shy and wait until almost dusk to return to the backyard to try to get a spot on a feeder. The smaller birds such as the chickadees and the finches steer clear of them. Then the grackles have babies in the woods right behind our property that backs up to Sandy Run Park and more than double their number!
They are mostly black in color with deep blue-black heads and yellow eyes. Often, they are found where starlings and blackbirds roost as well. We have red-winged blackbirds that arrive at about the same time. Although omnivorous, the grackle population in Dresher seems to enjoy the seed, and particularly, the peanut feeders. I think they have grown too lazy to worry about catching insects!
A few years back, I heard this cry – one I had never heard before. There was a baby grackle on the patio. It was obvious he was calling for his mother, so I left the family room in hopes that she would land on the patio and urge the baby to fly. Hours later, the baby bird was still there. When dusk fell, I went outside to chase him into the bushes. Our neighbor’s cat roams the neighborhood in search of mice, birds, and anything she can hunt. I was afraid for the bird, but I didn’t know what I could do.
The next morning, there he was, curled up in the grass asleep and in plain view. That afternoon after I left school, I visited Betty, the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited. Betty advised me to call the woman who lived nearby on Mondauk, a retired science teacher from Cheltenham who nursed birds back to health and set them free. I was relieved when I called her and she said to scoop the baby grackle into a large paperbag and bring him to her.
It was pretty easy to get the baby bird who had returned to the patio to scream for his mother. I figured it had been almost two days and the mother was not going to return. I followed the baby around for awhile, and then I placed the bag over him and gently used my hand to push him back while I turned the bag upright. Closing part of the bag by folding the top but leaving an air space, I drove over to “White Feathers.”
The retired science teacher had lots of birds. I leaned over an open cage to look at a pair of crows. “Stand back!” she ordered. “Don’t speak to them! Don’t make eye contact! Crows bond very quickly with people. I do not want them to get attached to humans. I am going to release them soon into the wild!” I immediately followed her orders. Who would dare to disobey her?!
She looked at the young grackle. “He is just fine. I will release him when he is old enough to fly. He’ll probably end up back at your house,” she chuckled. I looked at the science teacher and looked at the grackle. I was relieved. He was going to be okay.
Looking back, this is what I have done. I save things – cards, gifts from school children, Christmas poinsettias, and mostly animals. To date, I have saved countless spiders, bees, a mole, two little raccoons, a mouse, a rat, and even a snake. It is just who I am. This baby grackle was one of many.
My grandfather tried hard to please my grandma in every way possible. He never made a major decision without consulting her first. He loved everything she cooked for him, and he shared in the clean-up responsibility, either washing or drying the dishes. He even would get a towel, some lotion, and let Grandma stretch out on the couch and proceed to massage her feet, something she really enjoyed. In all the years I watched my grandfather massage my grandma’s feet, I never saw her return the favor. My grandfather treated my grandmother as if she was royalty!
There was, however, this one occasion that my grandfather brought my grandma to anger – and that was because he dearly loved his three granddaughters and wanted to make them happy. Such was the case this one Easter that my grandfather brought home three chicks that had been dyed blue, red, and pink (But don’t ask me why anyone would do that!). When he opened the box and lifted out the three beauties, we all oooohed and aaaahed!
Everyone, that is, except for my grandmother. Her face turned crimson and she swirled around, dramatically marching to the kitchen where she began to clean up. Pots and pans clanged and banged, and my grandfather could not get a word out of her. “Now, Dottie, I’m going to build a chicken coop out back,” he began in a hushed tone. But that just led to more banging of pots and pans. Yup. My grandfather was getting the silent treatment.
He left us to tend to the chicks while he hurried to the basement to gather tools and building supplies: a saw, a level, bolts and nuts, screwdrivers, and stray pieces of wood. From the trunk of his car he lifted a roll of chicken wire. His plan was to use the doghouse as the henhouse and build a little run around it. Pixie, our faithful dog, really never used the doghouse anyway. She slept on the kitchen floor or curled up at the base of my bed when I was up for the weekend or the summer.
We named our chicks Bluey, Reddy, and Pinky (very original) and taught them how to follow us around like dogs. They even would hop up a small stepladder and flutter to the ground when we clapped our hands. My grandmother never grew any fonder of them, but she didn’t have the heart to tell us we had to give them up. She didn’t have to. As they grew older, they started fighting with each other almost constantly. And it was then that we realized our three little chicks had grown up to be three quite aggressive and spirited roosters.
My grandfather came home one day and called us into the living room. He solemnly told us we were going to have to give up our prize chickens to a farmer up the road who had told my grandfather that he would take them. So we rode, silent and teary-eyed, to Clarence’s farm in the Lehigh Valley. I wasn’t sure, but I thought my grandma was trying to fight back a big smile as she stood in the driveway and waved goodbye to my grandfather, her three grandkids, and the three Banty roosters!
Big Mama loved to jump! She always knew exactly what she was doing, and I have to say, I never saw her refuse a fence (not jump it). She could pace herself and find the “just right” spot to rock back on her hind legs and spring into the air. She made it look easy.
But Big Mama on the hunt field was a different matter. It was all about staying with the pack and not letting the first several horses get too far in front of her. On the hunt field, Big Mama was completely in control; her rider, just a passenger. Even though we fitted her in a rubber Pelham bit, two reins to this bridle with a curb chain under her chin, the rider had little hope of having the upper hand.
Thanksgiving Day was always a big deal. Riders from horse farms in the Montgomery County area gathered at the big field in Gwynedd Valley off of Gypsy Hill Road for a drag hunt. In other words, someone (almost always Jack Trainor’s nephew Roger) went on ahead on a very sensible horse and had a long lead with some sort of bag that had the scent of fox. Roger dragged this scent before the foxhounds were unleashed and the hunt began. We never hunted live fox here, although they still do in Unionville, Pennsylvania, and I would imagine, in many places like Virginia and England.
The horses were always perfectly turned out, often braided for this event. The riders looked handsome in their riding coats, canary yellow vests, breeches, and shiny high boots made from the softest leather. Old timers and novices joined a crowd of more than fifty for this event followed by a breakfast (really brunch) at All Around Farm. Our riders were close enough to ride to the field where this hunt started and ride back to the stable after it was finished.
On one particular Thanksgiving hunt, Richard Fennelly (the stable manager and very Irish) needed a horse. So I offered Big Mama. Off they went, Richard with his stirrup leathers adjusted higher than normal for him because he was so tall and Mama was a little horse (“Big” came from her width, not her height!). There must have been more than a dozen riders from All Around. It was grand to see them jog off. We drove down the road and saw the start. Jack, wearing a bright red coat as the huntmaster, tooting a horn and leading the way.
When our riders returned to the stable, they were all laughing and chattering. “What’s so funny?” I queried.
“Ask Richard!” Jennifer said in spurts of giggles.
“It seems that Big Mama has a mind of her own. I tried to get her to slow down,” he said in his Irish accent, “but she was exhausting me. So I stopped pulling on the reins, and I realized that she only went a wee bit faster and my arms could relax.”
“Tell her the rest,” Jen said with a funny look on her face.
“Yes,” Jessie sputtered. “Tell Dormouse about how you broke the rule about everyone following single file when we jump a fence.”
“W-e-l-l, you see we were riding to a coop and Mama decided she wanted to canter alongside this beautiful grey gelding. I couldn’t get her to slow down. So I tipped my hat to the lady riding the big grey and said ‘It looks like we’re going to be jumping the next fence together, Ma’am.’ She looked as white as a ghost. I’m not sure she understood what was going to happen. But she jumped the coop and Mama and I sailed over the three-rail fence. We were in the air at exactly the same time and landed together. Then Mama picked up a little speed to catch up with the horses in the very front.”
I just shook my head. Big Mama had a mind of her own! She was like a little freight train on the hunt field. Maybe Richard was right. Just throw the reins at her, lean a little forward, grab mane, and go!”
Big Mama was extraordinary – smart, athletic, dutiful, and spirited. She was quite an unexpected find. Richard went with me and we made our way to a property in the Lancaster-Lebannon area of Pennsylvania. The man who was selling a horse brought out a very furry, little bay mare. She must have been about 15.1 hands at best, wide and sturdy, with an abundance of black mane and black tail. She had four black stockings and sturdy, healthy hooves. I stared into her soft brown eyes and was instantly hooked.
After watching her jog to make sure she was sound, we loaded her into the small horse van. Her sides bulged and touched the dividers of the stall sections as we backed her in. “She is a big mama!” Richard remarked. And the name stuck. We called her Big Mama.
Mama’s best friend in the pasture was a flashy pony named Farnley Chimes. Chimey had been green pony hunter champion in Virginia, but along the way he decided he didn’t like riders telling him what to do, so he started planting his feet at the base of a jump and refusing. That’s how we ended up with him as a lesson pony. He tolerated the short stirrup riders, kids he felt he had to take care of – and he did. But he had a mind of his own as did Big Mama, and they became fast friends. Whenever you looked out into the field, the pair of them could be seen sharing a pile of hay nose to nose or drinking from the trough (a bathtub) together.
Mama continued to amaze me. She would carry a beginner around the ring with a slow, steady trot. When it came time to learn how to canter, I could attach her bridle to a lunge line and say the words, “Canter, Mama.” Then she would immediately break into her rhythmical lope in a small circle around me. Students felt confident and at ease, learning how to keep their balance and move with the horse.
It was jumping a course where Mama actually was at her best. This little mare loved to jump, jerking her knees tightly while arching her neck and rounding her back slightly. Mama’s ears were always pricked forward, eager for the next obstacle. She could jump a 3’ 6’’ course, but we didn’t often test her at that height. If she had been prettier, she would have made a great show horse, but her head had little refinement and her small size was against her. To me, she was the most beautiful horse in the world!
One day I was teaching a lesson. Mama was carrying a beginner. Some of the riders in the group were ready to practice jumping, so I had set a small course of three jumps about two feet high on one side of the ring – a single to an in-and-out. The riders who were not jumping were told to ride to the inside of that line of jumps. Mama dutifully trotted by two times. On the third try, she could not stand it anymore, and pulled the rider to the jumps. The young woman, a girlfriend of one of my adult riders, screamed. I told her to grab some mane and lean forward. I knew Mama was like a missile on target, both ears pricked forward, her stride lengthening. The girl made it through the course, but I decided to keep Mama in the center of the ring with me until everyone had finished jumping.
Honestly, Mama looked very proud of herself. Dave’s girlfriend finished the lesson, but that was the last time I saw her! That horse just loved to jump the fences in the ring or cross country. She was good at it, and she knew it!
Home. What a small word with so much meaning! Home was a two-story brick house on Durham Street. It was not quite a row house – every two homes were attached with a breezeway between that led to a small backyard. Our home had a large enough kitchen for a table and chairs, so we ate most of our meals there. A dining room for special occasions or sometimes for dinner, a spacious living room that contained, among other things, the piano where my mother played beautiful songs like “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago, and a finished basement crowded with my father’s boxes filled with papers.
My bedroom was upstairs in the middle of the hallway. My sisters shared the larger back bedroom. I was most envious of the three windows as I only had one. My bed was a double bed because I always seemed to roll out of bed, and my mother thought a single bed would mean a nightly occurrence of hitting the floor. Stuffed animals sat on top of the bed, and my guitar case was tucked under the bed. The same desk my mother had as a child was the desk I sat at to do homework or write a poem. The hall bathroom was a place for bubble baths, and our parents’ room was a safe haven when we had a bad dream or developed a stomach ache.
I loved every inch of that house, but home was coming home to Sheba and later to Abigail, our faithful dogs. It was Mom reading stories to us or teaching us songs to sing. Home was Dad arriving in the evening with thinly sliced corn beef, coleslaw, kosher dill pickles right from the barrel, Gulden’s mustard, fresh bagels, and bottles of Coca Cola. It was a ritual every Friday night, and Dad did all the prep work. We just waited for our sandwiches, pickle, and soda – and if we were lucky – some potato chips, too.
Home was where I felt safe. Even when Mom and Dad were fighting – I loved coming home to 1207 Durham Street.
When you go on a walk, a special walk to take one last look at everything before you have to leave it, your heart is open to all the memories you will embrace today. You are ready with sharp eyes and ears, like a young wolf pup trying to learn everything that “Grandfather Wolf” can share. Your grandfather is dressed in a red-and-black lumber jacket and hiking boots. His strong hand grasps yours as you walk the mountain paths worn by deer and lake vacationers to spot leafy queens and prickly kings. Your grandfather knows the way up and down the mountain as well as anybody. You are safe with him.
He knows the names of all the trees. He knows the songs of the birds, too, and calls back to them. You laugh. Your grandfather would not make a good bird – he would never get off the ground! He pretends to look stern, but you see the corners of his mouth crinkle because he likes the joke you have made. You listen, smell, and taste everything – even pausing to touch the rough barks of the giants that sweep the clouds from the skies or the soft carpet of pine needles that muffle your footsteps. You look up, up, up. When you are small, the trees are so high – touching the blue edge of the world.
Standing tall on the ridge, a row of firs with trunks, bare and brown, line up uniformly and erect – soldiers against September’s sky. Green shadows lengthen over the path as you walk among the conifers, grassy steeples in this natural cathedral. Soon they will be the only thing that remains green – an emerald constancy throughout the seasons. No two trees are exactly alike, and you look at each one, trying to memorize each face. You turn to walk down the path towards the lake, but you feel eyes upon you, and you pivot on one heel, twisting your body to look back. The trees are all bending to the side, leaning out to get one last look at you. “Come along, Pocono Princess,” your Grandfather says with smiling eyes as green as the pines. Goodbye, Trees! Goodbye!