Halloween dawned gray, warm and humid. Slim studied the forecast with a practiced eye. He consulted the experts at the Capital Weather Gang. Stepping outside, he remarked ominously, “Feels like tornado weather.” But then, with a flippant wave of his elegantly bony hand, “I tend to exaggerate. We’ll be fine.” Much like my dear late father, whom he adored, Slim believes firmly in keeping on the sunny side of life.
Yet with rain most certainly on the way, he summoned the pack for their annual Halloween joyride a bit earlier than usual. “Let’s get a move on for a morning ride, friends! And Kiko, old man, how bout you drive? I wanna sit up high and feel the wind in my face!” Kiko obliged and settled into the driver’s seat, where he typically feels most comfortable.
But Slim had to go back inside to search for his ball cap. “Wish it were a red Nats cap!,” he mused. Having stayed up late the previous night to watch the historic World Series win by the Nationals, he was in a particularly buoyant mood. Seated in the back of the VW, he remarked, “Hey look, we’re in the championship parade! I’m Rendon! No, I’m Strasburg! No, I’m Kendrick!” The pack looked up admiringly, delighted to bask in Slim’s glory. Golly, they all felt like champions. Slim has that effect on those around him. That’s one reason we all love him so. And why he reminds me of my father.
But after our morning walk, Kiko was a tired champion. He was already asleep.
Of course, there’s no raining on Slim’s parade. There would be a Halloween joyride. And it would be exhilarating.
May your Halloween be merry and bright, come rain or come shine!
Another thing about the early-morning bus traffic outside our windows: it has become a source of extreme anxiety for Kiko. The school buses in our neighborhood have a white flashing strobe light on top. I’m not sure if the light is new this fall, or if Kiko’s fear of it is new. Whatever the case, the bright intermittent glare slices through the darkness, looking very much like lightning. Kiko takes it as a sign that a monster storm is coming.
Toward the end of the last school year, he typically snoozed soundly until well after full daylight. It took a while to rouse him for the morning walk. He tended to resist my various entreaties until I rattled my keys and told him, “OK. You stay. I’ll go on without you.” It was only the threat of being left behind that prompted him to relinquish the warmth of his bed, stretch and amble slowly toward the stairs.
So it surprised me, this September, to see my little dog wide awake in the pre-dawn darkness, alarmed and panting, in extreme go-time mode. He’d pace rapidly on my bed, leap off to circle the room, stand on his back legs to peer between the curtains at the window. Then he’d hop back atop my bed and attempt to settle in among the pillows. During a storm, real or imagined, his usual place toward the foot of the bed offers no comfort; he has to be up near the headboard. But even this offers no comfort, and he starts the entire process again. Once I realized that he was seeing the lightning that presaged a powerful storm, I understood.
At the start of the school year, Kiko’s trepidation began with the approach of the first bus and its flashes of light. He’s come to anticipate the threat well in advance. By 5:45 at the latest, he’s up and on the move, much the way he begins to fear a thunderstorm on a vaguely cloudy afternoon. On weekends, when no buses are running, he’s making his anxious rounds well before 6 AM.
It’s notable that Kiko has no fear at all of the school buses themselves. On the contrary, he seeks them out. For many years, our morning and afternoon walks began with time spent at the bus stop with my daughter, neighbors, and their dogs. Still today, if given the opportunity, he settles in for a period of rest and observation near her old stop. He seems to enjoy watching the bus doors open and the kids exit. Many of the neighborhood children have come to expect to find Kiko waiting to be acknowledged and adored. He’d sit directly in the path of the bus if I’d let him. He has no dread of the thing that can actually harm him.
I find it sad that my twelve-year old dog is discovering new causes for anxiety. Shouldn’t he be growing wiser with age and experience? As I considered this question, I found myself contemplating various scenarios in my life and that of my family: what if this happens? Or that? Or, more ominously yet realistically, what will I do when this or that happens?
And just like that, I knew the feeling. My dog has outgrown the false invincibility of youth. He’s grown into the vulnerability of age. And so, I realized, have I. A wave of pessimism swept over me. Kiko is lucky, at least, I thought, in his faith that if he keeps searching, he can find a place of absolute safety. He need never face the stark truth that there’s no hiding from many of life’s storms.
In the last week or so, though, it seems Kiko has been a bit less worried in the mornings. He continues to leave his spot near the foot of my bed well before daylight, whether it’s a school day or not. But the pacing and jumping have lessened. This morning, I awoke to feel his warm little form nestled in the curve behind my knees. From my perspective, he was an image of perfect, cozy tranquility, curled up like a fox. Maybe his fear has vanished, I hoped. Then suddenly, as the first bus of the day rounded the corner, the room was suffused with white flashes. Kiko sprang to his feet, bounded off the bed and galloped from the room.
But he didn’t rush back in. When I got up a while later, he was lying at the top of the stairs. He didn’t appear to be alarmed. He ran past me back into my room, where he found an overlooked mini-treat from the night before. He gobbled it up, then looked at me expectantly, as if to say, “Got any more?” He ran back to the top of the stairs in the way he does when he’s happy and frisky, anticipating the upcoming walk.
At least today, my silent little dog, the four-legged reflection of my hopes, dreams and fears, is not gripped by terror of an unknown Apocalypse. He’s just excited about the promise of a new day. Suddenly, I felt the same way. And from the window, I glimpsed a beautiful sunrise.
Over Memorial Day weekend we visited my husband’s family in New York state. Early on Saturday morning, when we woke up in Spencerport, a picturesque village on the Eerie Canal, Kiko and I headed out for our first walk. My little dog was even more headstrong than usual. If I attempted to turn left, he was determined to go right. When I preferred right, he insisted on left. Occasionally his obstinance resulted in a dead stop, as he splayed his legs and I tugged, to no avail, on the leash. Our progress was slow and laborious. The constant battle of wills made it difficult to properly appreciate the gracious old homes of Spencerport. I was annoyed with Kiko, who clearly cares nothing for architecture, or for beauty in general. How disappointing. I tend, however irrationally, to expect more from him. And because I’d given in to his choices, we were heading in a direction that I didn’t intend. But up ahead, on South Union Street, I began to see the entrance to Fairfield Cemetery. We’d passed it yesterday driving in. To me, it looked inviting. Kiko evidently felt the same way. For the first time that morning, we were in agreement.
Except for the exuberant chirping of a great variety of birds, all was quiet. No sounds of mowing, cutting or leaf-blowing disturbed the serenity.
Many of the graves were marked with small American flags. I realized, with some chagrin, that I’d almost forgotten, at least momentarily, the significance of the long holiday weekend.
As Kiko and I wandered the shaded, grassy pathways between the rows of gravestones, I noticed that we now walked together in easy step. My stubborn dog had managed to bring me here, against my will, to this peaceful spot, to contemplate the cost of peace. I thought of the old poem of achingly sad remembrance, of poppies waving in Flanders fields, between the crosses, row on row. And of the vast and ever-growing expanse of white markers in Arlington Cemetery. Not long ago, passing by that hallowed ground on the way to Reagan Airport, we saw the solemn spectacle of a horse-drawn caisson bearing a flag-draped coffin.
Memorial Day reminds us to remember and honor the many lives lost in service to our country. Consider the teenagers, who, like my Uncle Bill, traded the drudgery of 1940s farm work for the unknown adventure of World War II. My Uncle returned from the war. Too many others did not. Think of the young people who drew a final breath in the swampy fields of Vietnam. Be grateful to those whose civic duty cost them their lives in the Gulf War, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in exotic locales most Americans would be hard-pressed to pronounce or locate on a map. Acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died fighting a shape-shifting, ill-defined enemy in our war on terror.
And may we give some thought to those who managed to evade death on far-flung battlefields, only to return home to find the challenge of readapting to civilian life unsurmountable. The deep wounds of war, mental, emotional, and physical, are near-impossible to comprehend for those who haven’t served. Some who fought in Vietnam returned to a society that seemed to regard them as the enemy. Let’s pray for those who survived the war but could not survive the trials of day-to-day life in the very towns they had once called home.
As Kiko and I walked back from the cemetery, we were reminded that the service and the sacrifice continue today. Along Union Street, every lamp post was decorated with a banner bearing the image and name of a current member of our armed forces. Let us not forget the dedication and bravery of such hometown heroes, whether we know them personally, or not. Every day, our brothers and sisters risk their lives in harsh conditions so that we may enjoy the day-to-day comforts of home and the fundamental, essential freedoms we often take for granted. May we recognize the human cost of war and elect representatives who truly comprehend it, as well. May our military men and women feel strongly supported during their deployment.
That morning, I imagined the military men and women of Spencerport engaged in difficult, dangerous, uncomfortable work in a hostile environment. I wondered if their families would gather soon in nearby back yards on this holiday weekend, keenly missing a son, a daughter, a father, mother, brother or sister. I pray that our hometown heroes will be warmly welcomed back again in the near future, by a country that respects their service and provides the restorative care they need. May we honor in memory those who paid the ultimate price in battle, and may we treat with compassion and dignity our soldiers who make it home.
. . . Long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
—America, words: Samuel F. Smith, 1832; Music: Thesaurus Musicus, 1744
Among my list of life’s greatest luxuries is this: a stormy day with no appointments, no commitments, a bad-weather day that offers the chance for an extended snuggle with my sweet, sleeping dog. The rain arrived last night, just as predicted. After a short morning walk and a largely futile attempt to dry his wet fur, Kiko was curled on our favorite sofa, heading off contentedly to doggie dreamland.
Before long, I crawled in, around and sort of under him. Carefully, so as not to disturb. As I’ve said before, Kiko, by nature, is more aloof than affectionate. No lap dog, this stately Prince of Cool, he’s reserved and prefers his own space. Unless there is thunder, or the suggestion of it. Then he can’t get close enough. See here. But as he’s aged, he’s become increasingly amenable to human contact. More and more frequently, he tolerates, and occasionally even seems to enjoy, my close presence as he sleeps. Sometimes he even rests his head on my leg. I consider this gesture to be his highest compliment. Despite today’s rain, Kiko doesn’t seem anxious about the possibility of thunder. Yet he very nearly welcomes me. He does love me. On this rainy day, I’m sure of it. What a comfort it is to join my little dog in dreamland for a while. What sweet spot for shelter in the storm.
This February here in Northern Virginia has conformed to its traditional designation as the month of snow. Unfortunately, if appropriately, the full February super Snow Moon on the 19th was just a lighter smudge in the snow-making clouds. On Wednesday, as predicted, the white stuff began falling steadily in the pre-dawn hours and continued throughout the day.
However, it also snowed in Charlottesville. Snowfall rarely prompts The University of Virginia to cancel classes, but it happened this week. Wild Trumpet Vine has never before featured photos of the gracious old UVA grounds covered in snow. That’s now possible thanks to my student contact. So, from my daughter, who assured me that she wouldn’t miss a moment of study time for her thermodynamics test, here are some images of the Rotunda and the Lawn.
Three days ago we had more snow in Northern Virginia. We were treated to the Bichon Frise of snowfalls: pretty, petite, very fluffy, and generally non-threatening.
It frosted tree branches and fence railings with crystals of sparkly white.
Accumulation was minimal, only about two inches, so clearing walkways was an easy task. No snow blowers required.
At my mother’s house, the fluffy white of the tree branches anticipates the cherry blossoms that should bloom in a few months.
When I walked Kiko on Tuesday evening, the snow had ceased and the temperature remained pleasantly frosty.
But the bitter cold was on its way. The polar vortex, which has relentlessly gripped the middle of the country in its icy iron fists, has extended its reach to the east coast. On Wednesday, temperatures were falling. The TV weather people talked breathlessly about the extreme “feels like” temperatures we were to expect, due to wind chill. And sure enough, the wind was soon rattling the windows of our old house and making ghost-like moans, such as can be heard in Scooby-Doo episodes. As Kiko and I walked that afternoon, the wind caught up the fine dry snow and tossed it along the road, looking like white sand whipping across a Florida Panhandle boardwalk before a thunderstorm.
Even on grassy areas, the snow looked like beach sand carved by a fierce wind.
Kiko glanced up anxiously each time a car passed, slowly negotiating the frozen surface. The sounds made by tires shattering glass-like ice chunks were improbably loud, akin to fireworks or gunshots. The sweet little Bichon that appeared on Tuesday is turning mean. Seeking revenge for being left out in the cold, maybe?
Wednesday morning, when we walked around 8 AM, the wind had died down, but the temperature was 3. Of course, that’s balmy compared to the sub-zero deep freeze that the mid-west has been experiencing. (No need here yet to set the train tracks on fire as they’ve been doing in Chicago.) I wore my dog-walking layers and several creatively tied wool scarves. (My hair actively rebels against every cold-weather hat I’ve ever tried.) Kiko’s lush, cashmere-like undercoat has grown back after his summer molt. This year my senior dog has become content with a shorter walk when the weather is less comfortable. On days like today I’m grateful that he is no longer compelled to traverse the entire neighborhood on frigid mornings. Until recently, we put in at least a couple of miles no matter what the weather. (See Baby, It’s Cold Outside! from January 7, 2014.)
This morning, a light snow is falling again. The temperature has warmed up considerably, to 17. I let Kiko persuade me to venture out of our immediate neighborhood to the stretch of old country road where we begin our usual walks with the pack in decent weather (when schools aren’t delayed or canceled, as they’ve been much of this week.) The roads didn’t look particularly threatening, and there would be less traffic with no school. But before long, I realized our error. Kiko slipped on an icy patch hidden by new snow. He recovered quickly and didn’t appear to be hurt. His preference is to walk in the street, and it’s always a struggle to keep him safely on the grassy shoulder. Today it was an absolute necessity. Several times I almost went down. Kiko knows what it means when I yell “Slow! Slow!” in my most authoritative pack leader voice. He doesn’t like it, but he understands, and he even obeys. He lives in the moment, so I kept up the commands each time we were forced to cross a street or driveway. Under great emotional duress, we made it to Kiko’s favorite nearby park and back without physical mishap. It was, to say the least, not an enjoyable outing for either of us. It’s also an understatement to say that I had dressed far too warmly.
A reminder to everyone this winter: beware the worst threat of the cold: ice lurking beneath fresh powder. The lesson of the Bichon Frise of snows is this: enjoy its congenial, lap-dog charm. Bask in its pure white fluffiness. But don’t be surprised when, a few days later, it turns nasty. It will still look beautiful and easy-going. You’ll think it’s your old familiar friend. But without warning, it may have unleashed the ice-veined coyote-hyena hybrid that dwells within.
Our first big snow of the new year arrived like a polite and thoughtful visitor: with plenty of advance notice and on a weekend, allowing time to prepare. We even managed, for the first time ever, to put two cars in the garage. Here in Northern Virginia, it was a modest, unobtrusive snowfall; the flakes were often so fine as to be barely visible. But it was persistent, steadfast. By Sunday morning, about seven inches had accumulated. That afternoon, there was a brief lull, prompting my husband to break out the snow blower too soon. Well into the evening, the flakes floated down, tiny and delicate. Our final total was ten inches. A perfect amount, it turns out, for Kiko to romp through with ease and zest.
After our cool, wet spring, the drenching, unrelenting rains of a warm fall, followed by an arctic blast and snow in early November, it was refreshingly odd to experience a taste of weather that actually suited the current season. A deep but manageable snow in mid-January! How quaint! How so last century! And how very pleasant!
It was the perfect snow. The only thing less than ideal was that our daughter, who appreciates frozen precipitation in every form, couldn’t be here to enjoy it with us. She was home for nearly a month, but the winter break had drawn to a close, too quickly. On Saturday morning, well before the first snowflake appeared, she was on her way back to Charlottesville to begin the second semester of her second year.
I’m thankful that my furry child completed his formal education years ago (a few weeks of puppy training, which had a negligible effect on his behavior) and remains home to keep me company.
The look and feel of fall has been slow to arrive in Northern Virginia this year. The brilliant hues of autumn, in skies and foliage, have been largely absent. Thanks to persistent and soaking rains, the landscape is washed in the dullest of grays and browns, like those of an old trench coat. Like the one that hangs in my closet, ugly but utilitarian. And during these frequent fall downpours, too often worn. It’s only within the last week or so, now that many trees have lost their leaves, that others are finally beginning to show some color.
When the sun does emerge from the clouds and lend its brightness for a while, we’re not accustomed. Above, Kiko appears bewildered by the glowing golden vision ahead. Below, a few images of fall’s all too rare and fleeting glory.
Yesterday Kiko enjoyed the unusual luxury of morning sunshine on my mother’s deck. Today the rain is back, and a winter-worthy chill is headed our way for the weekend. Gather ye sunbeams while ye may. And hold on to that old coat, or pass it along to someone who needs it more than you.
Things have a way of working out swimmingly for our skeleton friend Slim, especially on Halloween. Merrily and swiftly, he piloted his pack to Charlottesville without incident, arriving at UVA with plenty of time for trick-or-treating on the Lawn. In a costume-wearing crowd, the unadorned authenticity of the group stood out. Slim was greeted as a celebrity (as he typically is, wherever he goes). Our daughter, who was there with friends, soon spotted her old buddy, the center of attention in a multitude of admirers.
D was dressed as Barf the Dog from the movie Spaceballs. She wore my 1980s Banana Republic khaki jumpsuit, furry ears and the appropriate make-up. Slim approved, as he’s an avid Mel Brooks fan, and the pack welcomed her as one of their own.
Kiko rapidly got his fill of the festivities and the press of the throng. He retreated to the shelter of a stately column and resumed his nap. And as for costumes, he says no. Since submitting reluctantly to an ill-fitting red fleece vest (made by my mother without access to any actual measurements) for his first Christmas card photo, he wears only his own fur. Should he encounter a costume-wearing canine, more than a trace of condescension is evident as he sniffs a greeting.
Slim, ever the people person, could have mixed and mingled until the wee hours, but he honors his commitments. Just as his faithful lead dog, Fluffy, was about to point out the time, Slim began to say his goodbyes. The Crew was needed back in Northern Virginia. They would not disappoint. I’ve learned not to doubt my friend’s word. His integrity is beyond reproach. Plus, he seems to be able to bend time according to his whim. Just as I was putting the tea lights in our jack-o-lantern votives, the car zipped up the driveway.
The gang hopped out and assumed their places. They’re good at freezing in position, so as not to frighten the unsuspecting. Kiko looked out the storm door to assess the situation, sighed and retired to the sofa. The night was only just beginning for Slim and the Crew. But Kiko can only take so much Halloween.
Halloween season is in full swing, as is our Skeleton Crew of merry mirth-makers. In early October, Slim and the pups emerged from eleven months of quiet repose and restorative rumination in the shadowy comfort of my mother’s basement.
For the past few weeks, they’ve enjoyed roaming from our house to hers, snacking, lounging, soaking up sunshine as well as rain. They savor weather in all its forms. Slim, widely renowned as a scintillating conversationalist and acute observer of the human condition, has considerable wisdom to impart.
With the tiniest bit of coaxing (or sometimes none at all), he delves into his endless cache of beguiling tales and truly ripping yarns. As my father would say, that skinny guy “really can talk.”
When the month is winding down, the gang is gearing up. They’re more than ready to let loose their insouciant charm and plunge full-throttle into fall festivity. High-jinks ensue.
While Kiko enjoys smallish doses of the company of his furless friends, their boundless enthusiasm tends to grate on his nerves. In the very top photo, he has sought out an isolated patch of sun by the garage. Before long, though, the pack is upon him again.
These puppies will never grow up, he sighs. How tedious it is to be the object of so much unbridled adoration. What’s a senior dog to do?
Perhaps with an absence of encouragement, they’ll lose interest.
And then Slim suggests a spin in his favorite vehicle. Top down, of course. Gotta feel the cool autumn breeze in one’s silky locks. With a knowing look he turns to Kiko and asks: Why not head down to Charlottesville and check in with your sister, old man? We’ll be back before the trick-or-treaters arrive.
The college kids love Slim. Plus, he’s an architecture buff. And a tad vain. The Lawn and Rotunda, dressed in fall foliage, will serve as a striking backdrop for photographing his good looks. Also, he and Mr. Jefferson were kids together, back in the day.
Kiko needs no further nudging. He’s stirring and stretching, preparing for a full-body shake. He remembers why he loves this garrulous guy after all, and why it bodes well to tolerate his pack of yippy beasts. Halloween joyride!
At last, the top dog can finally get some serious shuteye.
Happy Halloween, everyone!
For previous Skeleton Crew posts from years past, see here.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.