Life With Horace

poetry & essays

BH in the field


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the letter writer

Does anyone remember letters the way I do? Seeing the envelope come through the slot, or waiting in one’s cubby or the mailbox, and knowing something wonderful might be inside? Opening it up and sitting down with a sigh of pleasure to read the latest news?

My Uncle Bruce was the best letter writer I’ve ever known. He was an archaeologist, a gifted artist, collector, linguist, traveler and observer of life. He never married, but doted on his seven nieces and nephews and their clans. When not off to teach, on a dig, or visiting friends in far flung places, he lived in the middle of 23 acres near the ocean. The natural world was a major force in his life, and he wrote about it often.

Several years ago the family began to clean up and clear out our house in Rhode Island. Decades of Bruce’s letters to and from family, friends and colleagues emerged. What a capacity for friendship he had. He was warm, thoughtful, gentle, courteous in conversation and generous in his relationships. But he gave so much of himself in a letter. Once past the hurdle of deciphering his handwriting, the contents were yours to savor: detailed, insightful, humor-filled news from wherever he was, reports of family doings and foibles, the natural world outside his door, wonderful sketches, his take on politics, human behavior, books he had read, movies seen, music listened to, and clippings he had saved just for you.

Away at school at 13 I loved his letters because they were long, interesting, often snarky, and best of all, frequent.

It wasn’t until much later that I recognized how loving they were, how much family glue he slipped into them, along with gentle admonishments and guidance, and the fruits of his considerable intellect. While he hated confrontation, he did not shrink from the truth as he saw it, and he never hesitated to express his opinions in a letter, as he did when he wrote:

“In my 9th decade of life on this orb I have grown to appreciate and respect and crave long letters more and more and more as I come to realize that such mirrors of life and doings and… human gregarious activity… are all too rare and getting rarer… e-mail, faxes and the despicable, lazy, vaporous telephone life are… very poor substitutes for a family’s lore and tellings… the stuff of one’s decency and character and outlook on the world, what helps get us through the rat-race! Honestly, I savor and need such letters to make up for not being on the jittery-dithering-frantic mainstream of family telephoning and so-called ‘news’.”

To hold a piece of his chrome yellow paper is to bring him back, if only for an instant. In my mind’s eye these letters and the memory of his presence glow warmly in the hearts of all of us, bright evidence of a remarkable man’s great capacity for friendship, connection and love.


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aggie raises a puppy, or how to layer a dog

A little over a year ago I came home with an eight week old lab puppy called Horace and introduced him to Aggie, our wonderful Newfie, outside on the lawn under the apple tree. That first afternoon she bounded over to sniff and say hello. He took one look at the incoming black behemoth and ki-yiyed his heart out. Aggie was nonplussed and backed off right away. Gretchen Pinckel, Horrie’s wonderful breeder, had cautioned about rough play with Aggie while he was little. Just keep an eye on them, she said, nothing major, and so we did.

That afternoon and evening were pretty calm compared to one doggie merger I experienced 30 years ago. Standing on the family room sofa hugging my two children saying “it’s going to be fine, you’ll see” with two snarling and blood spattered dogs going at it below us. Of course it sounds worse than it was. We’d started outside calmly, but once inside Sherlock, our yellow lab, wasn’t thrilled that Kio, (a shepherd, lab husky mix) was there. Kio stood up for herself and nicked his ear (hence the spatters). After that first go-round of sorting things out they settled down and became devoted canine companions.

Back to our bit of heaven a year ago, and the puppy. That first week was a slam dunk, because once Aggie realized Horrie wasn’t leaving, she ignored him. Of course by then he wasn’t scared any more, in fact just the opposite. She certainly wasn’t mommy, but she was awfully cozy looking on her dog nest, or just snoozing in a cool corner. It took a week for him to be allowed to stretch out along side her on the flagstone platform out back. On the very edge. Lying exactly the way she was.

After that he wiggled his way closer, in every way possible. Aggie sat with him in his front yard pen. She did head play with him. He followed her everywhere. If she sat calmly outside, so did he. Out on walks he was right on her flank.

Pretty smooth sailing those first weeks, but not always. On Horrie’s first trip to the wetlands with Aggie and me, he followed her down the side of the earthen dam right into shoulder high mud before I could grab him. Aggs looked up at me as if to say “kids, they get into everything!” leaving it to me to toss my camera into the bushes, and slide down into the mud to pluck him out. This was pretty much her walk, her time with me and she kept pushing him into the deep road puddles just to prove it.

Since those early days though, Aggie has been wonderful with him, has been his nana dog. She has put up with his puppy wrestling, his stealth attacks out on walks, his curling up beside her whenever possible, his tugging and chewing when they play. And, she has taught him how a Newfie behaves. I look out the kitchen door to see them sitting together, quietly surveying the hill below to the drive and our woods. In the car too, she looks out calmly at the world, and so does he. We’re not talking a complete Newfie lobotomy, more like a Lab with a Newf veneer. He has learned to take many aspects of doggie life as they come, a real gift.

At 15 months, Horrie is pretty independent from Aggs out on our walks. He does his own Hound of the Baskervilles imitation if he thinks there are creatures in our woods that shouldn’t be there, taking that duty over from Aggie once his bark dropped. He does all the usual Labbish things: finding and eating the most revolting things possible (the worst was a partially rotted frog out on a hike last year), retrieving for as long as he can get us to throw for him, giving that wonderful Lab snuffle of delight, settling at my feet under the table as I write, keeping me company. He is a very smart boy, eager to learn, eager to work.

As he grew this first year, Horrie gave Aggie a gift too. He became her work. I didn’t realize until recently what this did for her. She came from a breeder where she was one of several Newfies, with lots of other dogs around, and while she seemed happy, quiet with us at times, playful at others, it wasn’t clear to me how much she had let go of. Now it seems obvious that she was lonely for day to day dog companionship, being part of a pack again.

These days she romps and plays with Horrie and with us. She is the first one out the door for squirrel patrol in the mornings, often first to the oak tree as the gray squirrels scramble up beyond reach. At the pond, she is swimming more aggressively (an early fall into deep water left her hesitant to strike out on her own) and one day amazed me by going out with Horrie after his water toy. So she gets her own tosses, not so far out that she is in deep water, but out she does go. Sort of like watching the Queen Mary pull away from the dock, very stately and steady.

This fall, Horrie will continue his obedience training with three other dogs, for show competition. Early days yet, but it’s obvious that this is his work, what he loves to do. And Aggie? She has been going with Geoff to work on Saturdays, an unofficial therapy dog along on wheel chair hikes with a client who loves having her along, holding her leash, and doesn’t mind Newfie drool. I hope to expand this to proper Therapy Dog training as soon as she gets her CGC. That should be a snap after taking on Horace, right? We’ll see.


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a walk to the brown house

The dogs are stretched out at my feet as I sit with a view out the kitchen door. Evening rush hour is in full swing at the feeders, and the sounds the birds make are familiar and comforting. Even though I don’t count on the natural world to be consistent, my connection to it is.

Being outdoors refills my soul. It took me a long time to understand and accept this. Standing in the sun under our apple tree, I am aware of a mantle of joy that lands like a whisper on my shoulders. Out in the wetlands with the dogs, my bones hum from the rich life cycles being played out all around us. Even in winter the connection is still there, while the water world lies dormant, waiting for the days to lengthen. At times of profound spiritual need I have stood, arms and heart open to the skies and have never been disappointed.

Today I simply felt empty and depleted after a family gathering this weekend that asked much of us all. The urge to be outside and walk through the woods with the dogs was overpowering. So I drove to the start of a long-unused road, and took it over an arm of Gap Mountain, toward Fitzwilliam. This road is still traveled by hunters, bears, deer and the occasional wood poacher who comes by truck.

The dogs and I have walked this road many times, occasionally all the way over and back and always in solitude. It has its landmarks: the cross-over for the Gap Mountain trail, lots of old stone walls, a dark and cool Hemlock grove growing in the moisture of converging mountain run-offs. There is also a house. It is an old brown shingled cape, sitting below the arm’s crest at the top of a rough-mowed field. There is a rusted pump out front. It has electricity, which comes in along a summer road that ends there. It has a nice small barn, with glassless window’s eyes looking out through the woods at anyone approaching from the back, the direction we come from.

This place never looks lived in, but it is not falling apart either. It feels quite benign, not lonely, as if it knows what its place is in the scheme of things out there. I stopped in sight of the barn to give us all a drink before turning around and then Aggie went on alert with a woof. There were people there! How thrilling to know the house is indeed alive. I peeped around the trees and saw the storms propped open for fresh air. There was a gleam of blue metal, a car. The dogs and I simply turned around and padded back up the hill, into the quiet woods and the way home. Goodbye house, until next time.


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getting here from there

On my way home the penny dropped. It was one of those early fall days with a vivid blue sky, the kind that surrounds me with color and sensation, my brain revving up from the joy of it all.

Passing Fitzwilliam Road, glancing at the road sign, I thought no kidding, really? Let’s see now. Driving home, our road is Mountain Road and I’m headed toward Mt. Monadnock. Coming up from Troy, Monadnock Street ends at Mountain Road with a perfect view of the mountain behind our house.

Hmmm, folks from Marlborough call our road Jaffrey Road, because of course, that’s how you get to Jaffrey from there.

And that was it. I was in. I had hacked the country road code. Road signs mean what they say around here, for the most part, anyway.

There is, I’ll admit, a Road Number Four which meanders from Route 12 past a beautiful marsh, woods with streams, some interesting old houses and a farm stand before ending at Templeton Turnpike. So, not all the time.

Chalk that one up to a misguided flatlander. Which I’m not anymore. At least not a flatlander, and I’m fairly certain about the other.

Living up here has been a heart’s wish for a long time. It is obvious to me now that I followed the right signs, one at a time, to end up at the foot of this mountain.

Back in 2005, the one thing I was certain of was the need to leave the city, the house we were in, the life we led, to a simpler place, to be near family. My husband Mike was not well, was not going to get better, so we migrated north.

It was wonderful for both of us to be closer to nature, in a town where offseason rush hours emptied the streets by 6. Better, but I never felt truly at home. It just wasn’t simple enough, wild enough, but I’d accomplished what I set out to do with the move. It was okay.

Fourteen months later life took a drastic turn, when Mike died very suddenly and unexpectedly. He had been sick a long time, and the man I knew had been gone a long time as well, taken by the effects of Parkinson’s and dementia. The long goodbye on a road with no signs.

By the second month anniversary of his death I saw quite clearly that I could either fall apart on the 19th of each month, or use it as a celebration of what was positive in my life, a mile marker of achievement, something to applaud.

So I did just that, each month celebrating the milestones, letting Mike know, as I touched the sign on the memorial bench outside our community center. Hey, Mike, guess what?

And so it went, mile marker by mile marker, to dating for the first time in almost 40 years, online no less. Meeting the man I would marry four years later, moving to New Hampshire in 2009.

Living first in a charming old school house in Peterborough, nice enough but it was temporary. Aggie, our Newfie puppy, came along.

The next spring we found and bought a wonderful old house, built in 1796, next to an iconic pond with the mountain right behind it. The woods full of owls, deer, coyotes, birds, smaller creatures.

A year ago, after much searching, the road led to Horace, my dream lab pup. He is my joy and Aggie’s boon companion.

So here we all are. At the intersection of two roads leading to the mountain. And that’s how I got here, by reading the signs.