Idyll Wanderings

Driving along Route 518. Penelope’s singing in the backseat. Late afternoon sun flirting like a coquette behind clouds and trees. I’m thinking about The Wizard of Oz which was on TV the other night. When I was a kid I could never get through that movie. Every time those damn flying monkeys erupted on screen I’d panic: “Turn it off! Turn it off!”  This time as I watched the Scarecrow singing about not having a brain, or the Tin Man about his missing heart or the Lion lacking his nerve, I realized that not one of them has a penis. I suppose that’s something you don’t sing about, but if you were going to ask the Wizard for something, don’t ya think . . . ? Then again, I guess there weren’t a lot of enticing women there in OZ besides Glenda the Good Witch and Dorothy . . . . Guessing those Munchkin women could do some pretty acrobatic things. . . . . I noticed that the flying monkeys didn’t seem to have anything down there either . . . . then I started wondering what the hell was the matter with me and changed the channel.

Umm . . . where was I? Oh yes, driving along 518 with Penelope in the back seat singing along to “Down the Road Apiece” for the 33,652nd time. I decided to shortcut through the abandoned “Village of Epileptics” in Skillman. Built in the early 1900s, the 256-acre village is a smattering of red-brick buildings and white clapboard houses that once was a self-contained town of hospitals, farms, schools, a theater and a landfill. I hope the village’s slogan was “Where Things Are Always Shaking.” I cruise past boarded up buildings which once teemed with activity, meandering along roads reminiscent of black licorice whipped across a meadow. A cracked pavement spits me out onto a busy county road across from Montgomery High School. A jogging teenager with a face that looks like it just popped out of a lobster pot puffs along a shoulder littered with the green glass of last Saturday night’s drunken revelry.

Seeing the school makes me wonder what Penelope will be like and how she will look when older. But just as quickly I put those feelings aside. I find myself these days, when dreamily lost in thought, trying to freeze particular moments in my heart. Not necessarily snapshotting an image of her in the backseat with the early May sun sliding across her face, but freezing the feeling: the simple bliss and carefree joy of an otherwise commonplace day.

The road weaves alongside Rock Brook ascending into the Sourland Mountains. I contemplate resuming my kitchen experiment which I call “Everything Tastes Good With Hershey’s Syrup On It.” Last time the results were: whipped cream — big yes; banana — big yes; kiwi — yes; Penelope’s animal crackers — big yes; saltine — OK; green bean — tolerably OK; portabella mushrooms… OK, time to put away the Hershey’s syrup.

I’m floating along following the swaying yellow lines of the road. Penelope’s other favorite song — the Jayhawks version of the Grand Funk Railroad classic “Bad Time” — fades into the rushing waters of Rock Creek. She’s playing with a bracelet of string that’s decorating her left wrist. The other day Bernadette went for a hot stone massage, and she’s been advocating I do the same. At first I was surprised until I realized my creative hearing incorrectly heard ‘get stoned with a hottie and get a massage.’ She swears, “you’ve never had a massage like this before. It’s unforgettable.” I told her I could have had an unforgettable massage in China.

Darn, where was I again? Does it matter? Not really. Today, I’m just enjoying the ride. The little calm just before the jolt of surprise that would come at dinner time. But that’s all part of being a parent. For now, I’m enjoying the first honest hints of warm weather, the rush of water slapping the rocks of the brook and my daughter’s singing along to classic rock. Freezing the moment; freezing the feeling.



Dog Heaven Can Wait

I should never have refused to read “Dog Heaven” to Penelope. This book is supposed to help children — and adults, I suppose — cope with the death of a pet. It features big cartoon drawings of dogs sleeping on fluffy clouds and chasing geese in a park in heaven.  The book is one of Penelope’s favorites.

Bernadette’s childhood friend Stephanie gave her the book to console her after our Golden Retriever, Bailey, and elder Beagle, Hannah, passed away only four days apart almost three years ago. Bern deeply appreciates the book’s comforting message. I think the book is beautiful, but it makes me sad. So, one day when Penelope was choosing her bedtime reading and grabbed three books including “Dog Heaven” I told her no.

“This book makes Papa sad,” I explained. “You don’t want to make Papa sad, do you?”

She thought about this. I could tell because she tapped her index finger on her forehead and said, “Think, think, think.” (She gets that from “Winnie the Pooh” on TV.) She returned the book to the shelf and selected another.

However, the next evening, when I asked her to pick a book, an impish grin spread across her face. She ran to the bookshelf, grabbed “Dog Heaven” and waved it in front of me: “How about this one?” I again tell her how the book makes Papa sad, and back on the shelf it goes. This becomes a ritual with a different twist each night. One evening, Penelope hides “Dog Heaven” between other books. Next time its behind her back or under the covers. One night she slipped the cover of another book around “Dog Heaven.”

Finally one night I figure, “What the heck?” It’s just a story. Maybe if I read it, it’ll actually help me better handle the loss of a pet, something I’m lousy at. Back in the late 1960s, shortly after my grandfather died, my parents inherited his cocker spaniel. The dog’s name was Teddy (for Theodore Roosevelt).  When a four-year-old boy gets a dog, he thinks it’s perfect. He throws a squeaky toy around for the dog, pets it, chases it around the backyard. At least, that’s my image of Teddy.

For my parents, the dog was something entirely different. You see the dog was raised and trained by my grandfather: A cranky old man with a splinter’s talent for getting under someone’s skin. At least that’s how my father described him. Teddy mirrored my grandfather’s personality. If the dog only smoked cigars, the resemblance would have been eerie.

The dog ran away every chance it got. Take him outside and he wouldn’t go to the bathroom; bring him inside and he would immediately poop on the nearest bed. My parents eventually lost their patience and returned the dog to my grandmother, but told me it ran away. I spent much of that day looking for that dog. About two years later, my quixotic seven-year-old brain saw a dog with a slight resemblance to Teddy (the dog was actually a labrador retriever), and I — missing him still — chased him for a half mile.

I guess I haven’t changed much over the years: It’s three years later and not a day goes by that I don’t remember – sometimes fondly, sometimes sadly, often both – Bailey and Hannah.

So, I took a deep breath, tightened my jaw, screwed up my nerve, told myself I was being a total idiot . . . and promptly went to pieces. Damn book! At about this point I could feel my voice quivering: “When dogs go to Heaven, they don’t need wings because God knows that dogs love running best.” I paused, took another breath, and plowed through the last few pages.

“Sorry Pop Tart, but I am never reading that book to you again. Sorry.”

Then something happened I will always remember. Penelope took the book from my hands, looked at it, then looked at me.

“Papa, you sad. Let’s read another book. You’ll be happy. Let’s read the Grinch. I’ll get it.” Penelope clambered off the bed, and grabbed “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” from a pile on her dresser. She handed me the Grinch book, and looked at “Dog Heaven” in her other hand.

“I’ll hide this. You won’t be sad then,” she said. She took the book and slid it behind her toy barn. “See. Gone.” She spread her arms wide. She climbed back in bed, settling under the covers. The she hugged me.

She curled up next to me as I began reading the Grinch. Just as a smiling Grinch raised his carving knife to the roast beast, I could hear Penelope’s breathing deepen.

And the next morning, I was just waking up when I heard Penelope reading “Dog Heaven” to Sammi and Rudy, current Beagles in Residence, as they lay snuggling in their bed. Which, by the way, is in our room.

Perhaps she thought the story might comfort them.