Rev. Valerie's Reveries

This blog contains personal reflections from Unitarian Universalist minister Valerie Mapstone Ackerman.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"How to Name Your Farm"

As promised, here is the reading I did at the Memoir Project kick-off at The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY on 5/11/09
This essay also won first prize in 2005 from the Friends of the Tulsa Library.
And it was published in an anthology: In Time of Need, published by Meadville/Lombard Theological School

I wrote it to mourn my dog, and maybe some other things. I really miss my Oklahoma home when I re-visit it.

“How to Name Your Farm”
by Valerie Mapstone Ackerman

The big red dog is gone. He sat in the sun near me all day that final Monday, basking in the warmth, checking in with an occasional lick to my ear and then settling back into the turf. Young red dog Lydia scampered in the next field challenging the cattle to a dance in which they had no interest. If I had known it would be our last day together, I would have dropped the pecan gathering to spend the afternoon stroking Big Guy’s ears and scratching his chest just the way he liked.

As the sun set and the chill wind rattled the branches, I decided to pack up and head inside. Along the way I filled the dog bowls with cheap food and checked the water. If I had known this would be his last meal, I would have taken a moment to break an egg on top of Big Guy’s bowl. Makes a dog’s fur shine, I hear.

But I didn’t know. How could I know that his front porch straw-padded house would be empty the next morning? How could I know that I would spend Tuesday walking the fields then driving up and down the back-country roads searching for his familiar tail and baritone bark. “Maybe,” I thought, “He’s gone off to his previous home just down the road.” No sign of him there. Perhaps he was insulted and indignant after being teased with several nights spent indoors when the temperature plunged only to be locked out onto the front porch for the warming trend.

My husband assured me that he was fine. “He can take care of himself. He was a stray when he moved in. He probably went off with a pack of dogs to hunt,” Bill insisted.

It was true. There were packs of dogs roaming the hills. I’d seen them skirt the edges of the fields. Once a tangle of them tumbled into the front yard—beautiful white shaggy types and sleek yellow dogs with curled tails and black and tan mongrels. Big Guy and Lydia welcomed them, sharing favorite chew toys (empty soda bottles mostly). One white dog seemed especially tame. Tail wagging, almost grinning, he approached me near the farm gate. Out of nowhere Big Guy barreled in growling, shoulder fur standing up. He nipped lightly at the white dog’s front paws. “It’s OK Big Guy. He’s a sweet little fellow,” I said, patting Big Guy’s head. But that was it. Big Guy had established the parameters for further visits: play with my comrade, play with the toys, but no touching my human.

A couple of times that week I spotted wild dogs in packs. My heart skipped a beat as I recognized Big Guy trailing with one pack, but as I slowed my chili pepper red Jeep and looked again, I found that the tail wasn’t right. Too curly. And what would I do exactly if it WAS Big Guy? I already knew he wouldn’t get into the Jeep. How many times I had tried to lure him in, shove him in, cajole, sweet-talk, or entice him with treats? He was too big and too independent to be forced. Usually I could reason with him, but never about the Jeep. Didn’t I know moving vehicles were the enemy? One shouts at them, occasionally chases them, definitely sprinkles the tires, but NEVER does one ride inside.

Many times I sat Big Guy down to have a discussion about his health and well-being. “See, if we put this purple flea collar on, you’ll scratch less.” Nothing doing. No sooner did I get it on than he ran away across the fields and stayed away the whole afternoon. He came back at dusk sans flea collar. OK, so no flea collar. Next I tried to talk him into spray-on treatment. He won that struggle by rubbing it all off on the grass in a frenzied wriggle. How about the veterinarian-recommended skin penetrating treatment for fleas and ticks? I won that battle the old-fashioned way—I made my husband do it.

When we brought Lydia home last Memorial Day Big Guy established his dominance with one big growl. Not that there was any question about top-dog status. We picked Lydia as an act of kindness; drove all the way to Poteau then up into a rutted holler road to find the breeder. Sleek champion-bred five month-old redbone coonhounds strutted and romped all over the yard. The lone little girl dog trembled slightly, holding back. I came there with no pre-conceived idea of which dog to pick. I didn’t even know if I wanted a male or female. But this little dog needed us. Her big brothers dominated her, pushed her around, cut her off from meeting the new humans. Having grown up the lone girl with five brothers, I immediately felt an affinity. Besides, no way was this frightened puppy ever going to be a good hunting dog. Clearly she needed to be our pampered pet. The ride home confirmed her delicate nature. She drooled and peed and even threw up for good measure. By the time we got home she had a name that came from my desire for an elegant historic name combined with Bill’s love of puns. “Lydia” for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife and “Lid-ea” for the fact that Bill first spotted her carrying a lid from an ice cream bucket.

Without a doubt Big Guy was top dog. Not just the boss-- he was Lydia’s teacher too and her disciplinarian. When I’d scold Lydia for pulling clothes off the laundry line, or chewing the porch furniture, Big Guy would rush in, put her down by the neck and bark ferociously. As long as Big Guy was around to reinforce the message, Lydia quickly learned the family rules. Sometimes we would translate Big Guy’s barks. “Hey you silly mutt, we’ve got a good thing going here, don’t blow it!” or “How many times does she need to tell you this?!” or “Listen bitch. Do NOT EAT the furniture!”

Big Guy came with the farm. He had moved in when the previous owners’ Weimaraner bitch had gone into heat. They told us that the folks down the way had begun feeding him about 5 years ago and then last fall he made his opportunistic relocation. Mr. Gray said he’d surely try to shoo him off if we liked, but by then I was already in love. And it was mutual. Big Guy and I bonded from the first moment our eyes met--maybe not quite the first moment. He always barked fiercely at any vehicle entering the property and he did intimidate me the first time our realtor brought us by to look at the land and house. Later, in the spring after the sale was set up and I came by to visit before the final exchange, Big Guy and I had a moment of mutual understanding in which I gave him permission to stay and he gave me permission to move in.

As bossy and scary as Big Guy might seem, he was also the most gentle and intelligent dog I have ever met. When our equally bossy and scary super-intelligent 6 year-old granddaughter came to visit for the whole summer, Big Guy sensed he had met his match. He both protected Keegan and gave her a wide berth. He even allowed Keegan to give him a special name: Clifford The Big Red Dog. She called him Clifford, or Red, or Big Guy. It didn’t matter. He would come when called and sit on command and let Keegan, whom he outweighed by at least 20 pounds, hug his neck and scratch his belly. Though she probably earned it a hundred times, never once did Big Guy growl or raise his hackles at her.

And now he’s gone. Just gone-- as though he never existed. Since he wouldn’t wear one I can’t take his smelly collar and tuck it away in a box like some sentimental fool. I can’t bury his broken body with prayers and readings, singing and a special marker. He didn’t die of illness or old age. He didn’t just run away, I know it. Somewhere in these hills or valleys he intruded upon the wrong people, spooked the wrong livestock. How could they know his bark was (mostly) a big attitude earned the hard way? How could they know his dog-soul held secrets of love and affection.

I have my memories and a few snapshots. Lydia is still here, as sweet and graceful as ever and adjusting well to Molly the Manic Black Lab we adopted from a shelter on New Year’s Eve. Lydia showed us that she needed a companion by ripping off the front screen door then breaking into the house the night after Big Guy had disappeared. Bill can’t bring himself to admit Red (as he called Big Guy) is really gone. Our FedEx lady and I cried together the last time she came by, ready to hand out dog treats for Christmas.

For months we’ve been trying to figure out what to call our farm. A while ago Bill suggested “Red Dog Farm.” I thought it was just silly. Now though, that name feels fitting, like the memorial I never got to have. Red Dog Farm it is—for Big Guy.

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  • At May 25, 2009 2:29 PM, Blogger Lu Ann Sieber said…

    This writing is so very moving! It made me mourn our "Big Guy", an Akita who we lost in 2005. You always did have the knack for writing! Val, this is Lu Ann M., now living in SC. It has been 8 years since you married us, and it just keeps getting better!
    I didn't know how to contact you so I found this website and decided to say HI! My daughter is getting married next May (22, 2010). Would you again do us the honor of marrying her in Greensburg?
    Contact my parents, they are still in Manor, and they can give you my info. Hope to hear from you.

  • At August 05, 2009 11:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  • At October 08, 2009 8:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    thanks, valerie, very nice homage


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