I wouldn’t want to write a dog story if there wasn’t a pretty message at the end. And there’s always an end isn’t there? I think the 90s and early 2000s was the golden-era for those heart wrenching, eye-socket flooding, emotional deluging dog movies, weren’t they? I mean, Old Yeller was way ahead of its time but even still everyone knew the story and how it ended, terribly. Growing up on a pseudo-farmhouse, the kind that are put to use, certainly—chickens, horses, or the turkeys that mom would refer to as her neighbors; the kind that are always seen as a hobbiest’s farm, there was plenty of animal life and plenty of stories that needed to find there way home.
One of my favorite animal stories is the story of Elsa, the farm dog. Elsa wasn’t a terribly active dog, at least by the time I was living with her in Western New York. For months, day-after-day, my grandfather asked if I could walk her. As Bonnie, one of the caretakers in the house, would say in that cheery but blunt manner and sticking her finger in Elsa’s face, “you need to lose weight don’t cha? Yeeah, and if you don’t the vet says you’ll keel over dead!” Of course, then Bonnie would look up from the dog, sink back into her comfy chair and exhale, “oh brother” and proceed to go on some endless or aimless rant about who knows what. Elsa, on the other hand, would scan the room with her eyes, her body still collapsed on the floor much like a puddle, and would look around as if waiting for someone to say, “well, looky here, Bonnie. This dog has worked her ass off all her life and now she can sit on that damn floor if she wants too—she deserves it!” Of course this wasn’t true, Elsa for the most part was, indeed, a loafish character around the house and always had been. But the way she looked up made her look like she had those sad puppy dog eyes. At this point Elsa was eleven, though I was told nine. At this point I would come to Elsa’s rescue and affirm how great of a dog she is to have around. I would kneel down to pet her, she would roll over in delight, and proceed to fall asleep midway during my attention.
I remember when Pop, my grandfather, first got Elsa. I was in high school about to graduate and visiting Western New York in full sun that summer. It was rare for our family to visit in the summer time, when the weather was eager and refreshing and Western New Yorkers weren’t pale as ghosts or drifting off in their depression. But being the summer, there was a lot to do around the farm. My mom, brother and I all pitched in with baling hay, make our hands raw from the bailing twin and needles and razors of the grass, searched through the gardens pulling every weed and deadheading every peony and beebalm flower in Bamis’ old garden. Of course, that was when Margaret was around, before we lost her to dementia, before we really lost her that time she ran away screaming bloody murder (oh, that’s a story), and before she went off elsewhere. I hate to make life sound like a visit but isn’t it, for a time anyways?
Margaret was my step-grandmother and a fierce Irish woman. I know it’s a little out of vogue to refer to someone by their ethnic background, like “oh, he was picking dandelions in the front yard and eating them? Ugh, he must be an Italian” but in Western New York that sorting, borderlining discrimination, still seems to be an active sport. In which case, Margaret was all of her Catholic Irish background. The word hiss comes to mind when I think of her temperament. And on a good day she would tell you fascinating stories of the news, local or worldwide. Impressed by how much she seemed to retain from the newspaper, I asked my aunt about Margaret’s affinity to reporting and journalism. My Aunt Barb then informed me that “she used to work for many years at NPR.” My Aunt Barb searched for a commorative plaque that honored all her dedication and work and then added, “Oh, and she made sure everyone’s life hell.”
Margaret seemed proud of this fact and seemed to smile at it. Well, one day she turned around in her wooden chair to face me mid-sentence in a conversation with my grandfather and proceeded to interrupt me by saying, “Elias, will you please take the dog for a walk?” she smiled. It was rare that she would smile, but I didn’t think anything of it what with being a bit fatigued from my boredom and daydreaming at that point in the day. I happily took the job. “Well, okay!” I replied, maybe all too eagerly.
Even now I still tell people that in seventh grade I ran two to four miles every day in the summer to try out for cross-country (of which, I became too shy and nervous to try out thus putting that summer to no use at all). It wasn’t a sport that I absolutely loved but a sport that seemed, in a way, easy enough to at least try. By the end of the summer I didn’t have much an opinion about running anymore—I neither loved it nor loathed it, and in spite of the obvious heat of a Tennessee summer, I was still was curious as to why so many people got up at four in the morning to job. It made more sense to me why so many more people in Tennessee didn’t hardly walk. Eventually I became enthusiastic about biking and would hardly refrain from rolling eyes at anyone who walked from their air-conditioned car into the air-conditioned store and say “Well, my stars [(because people in Middle Tennessee actually speak like that still to this day)]. I thought I was gonna die out there, it’s so hot!”
All of that conditioning was not relevant anymore as it had been years since I had dutifully ran much more than a mile. In her younger years, Elsa must have been some deranged killer of rabbits, a rampant child of chicken chasing. It was hard to tell as Pop and Margaret would so often keep Elsa inside, but I wondered if there was a reason to that confinement. I mean, it was only a guess, but surely there had been a reason she was kept inside most all day. Her energy was astonishing, a one or maybe two-year old German Shepard not only pulling me but dragging me partway down the drive way and into the road heading to South Creek. When I got back, in a frantic sweat, Margaret turned around creaking in her wooden chair and gave me a smile. I think what she meant by that smile was “thank you,” but what came off was “That’s right. How does the pain feel?”
Elsa’s days of house imprisonment took a toll on her body. As I made my visits to Pop’s house year-after-year, Elsa went from her puppy phase, to her dutiful dog phase, and on into her under-the-coffee-table phase (which mostly resulted in urine stains and dog fur encrusted floor spots). Elsa, like my grandfather at this point, like the television, the houseplants, or those plastic, solar-powered dancing figurines that Bonnie had littered the windowsills with, had become another fixture in the house. At least she maintained her position as a dutiful dog, a protective guard, it was just different. She kept the place safe much like a garden gnome would, or a gargoyle, or those animatronic owls that storefronts will put on their awnings to keep the pigeons from shitting everywhere.
Still, in spite of her lethargy she had occasional moments of astonishing athleticism. Pop, being 92 at the time (he’s still alive, but the story is of course in reference now), would have frequent hospital visits and health scares. For a time, the whole family would uproot and be deployed like some sort of military platoon: someone is sweeping the floor, someone is pulling up the van, someone is finding Pop’s jacket, and hope to god someone is putting Elsa on the outdoor tether. Well, often Elsa was left on the lower priority of things during those mobilizing periods of panic. Later, after much experience of torn up furniture and diarreah splayed about the entire house, it became known of the potential of Elsa’s doings. Elsa became one of the first matters to every medical evacuation.
It’s impressive to learn how much mischief or destruction a dog, with an energy level no more active than a potato, is capable of doing. Once, as my mom recalls, Elsa was found on the roof of the house—somehow pushing her way through two doors and a closed window. Another time, Elsa had broke the tether attached to the front yard pear tree and was later brought back via ATV by the neighbor with one hand—great guy, just a little awkward when it comes to shaking hands: firm grip though.
It had not been long since I left Western New York—which in of itself was a hard decision and a quiet and mute, somber day—before I had got a phone call from my mom. Yes, my mom told me. Pop was back in the hospital. No, not sure when he’ll be allowed to leave. Yes, he seems alright at the moment. “But, Elias, there is something I should tell you. Well,” my mom started with a choking unsteady voice. In her chocked voice I feared the worst: did Pop pass? But through her stuttering and sputtering swollen voice she told me, after collecting herself and breathing deeply, that Elsa had passed. Mom told me that Bonnie had just drove back from the hospital to check on the house, Pop was back in the ER for some reason or another, and found Elsa just outside the house, by the cellar door, crawling, as if trying so desperately to come to Pop’s aid. Mom’s voice began to crack again as she recalled something a client at her work told her, “Y’know something, Karen,” Sweet lady Suzanne would tell her at my mom’s work. “everyone needs their guide to get to heaven. And that dog, Elsa, well, she’s just doing her duty and making a path ready for when it’s your father’s time to go, too.” I don’t know what was harder—to believe this beautiful perspective of an animal acting in some half-frightened state, trying, as sometimes we all do, so desperately to make sense of an uncertain world? Or to the thought that this would be a slowly accelerating period of time and that my grandfather’s time was coming close too. It was hard to think about for a couple months. Out of a deep need, I flew back to Buffalo in December.
“You’s know something,” Bonnie shared with me in her South Buffalo accent, Pop’s kitchen, in front of the cool light coming off of a muted television screen. It felt like everyone leaned in to listen: me, the African violets on the shelf, and even those annoying dancing figurines Bonnie loves so much. “I don’t know why I even thought to check upstairs. But sure enough, I went around the corner to open the door and there at the top the window screen was busted through. You know, if you’s asked me, she must have got so worried that she ran out onto the roof—she did this before with Margaret, remember? Except that time we drove up with Elsa just standing there looking stranded. But this time she must have gone after him. She jumped down and must have crawled for a while but the fall, as best as we could figure, must a severed her spine. Oh,” in her wide grin, “I remember coming back from the hospital calling for her. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something and knew it was Elsa, you know sometimes she just picks a spot and just sits on down there. I remember calling her back. Well, I got darn tired. Grabbed a broom and shouted her name again after she didn’t move. That’s when it hit me. She was locked in. How did she get out? Oh God.” She stopped. “How are we gonna explain this one to the big guy?” Bonnie said as she rolled her eyes remembering Pop’s reaction to the news. “Yeaaah,” Bonnie sighed. “Your Pops sure was heartbroken for a long time. Things are pretty quiet here right now. That’s why it’s nice to have you’s guys come visit from time to time you know?” Bonnie made a stern look at me as if to say, “So get your damn ass back to New York!”
This is a story that I don’t know how to finish. I suppose it’s because to me the whole thing is both very matter-of-fact: a dog got scared and jumped off the roof—strange but I suppose it happens—and shrouded in a wonderful, though very likely imaginative narrative. But that seems to be the entire story of my mom’s family: a sad quiet tale stitched together in this magical experience: the housecat that used the toilet, the pig that lived in the house like a family member, the horse that my grandfather, Pop, brought back to life, the horrible and tragic passing of one of my aunts, the supposed witch or the hermit down the creek, Pop’s eyes changing blue like Bamis’ in the hospital, the deception and money abuse of a farmhand here at the farm, or the launching of a dog into an angel. It gets to a point where we begin to end belief in one reality and accept to understand the world in another reality. It seems like when the floorboards moan in this house of my grandfather’s there is a voice there under the nails.
I suppose I could say this to finish: Elsa, wherever you are, though you were on a dog in this life, you were a teacher of some magic I don’t want to lose in this lifetime. Once consciousness is opened it cannot be closed; likewise, once I felt something so deeply woesome or fascinating I cannot forget that sensation—I cannot forget you, your loaf-like being, your gentle and content presence. I wish dogs would become saints or angels or guardians—whose to say that this isn’t already true? Somewhere out there is a dog leading, or maybe like a dog’s young years, dragging souls in need to where they need to be going. Somewhere out there are the guardian angels I was told about all my childhood. Never would I have guessed they could come in such humble forms.