Poppy’s story is one I’ve needed to tell for years, and it was not easy. Still, having finally completed it, and based on some of the reactions, I feel confident that I did succeed in sharing some of what made her special. Still, I’m a storyteller, and in telling Poppy’s story I had to leave out certain elements because they are, strictly speaking, not part of Poppy’s story. Some of those elements are important. One of them is Fennel.
Fennel was abandoned, found by my brother on the side of the road in early October of ’98, two months before Poppy and I moved down to NC. Brian sent me two Polaroids (back when people still did such things) of his wife, Bliss, sitting on the couch with this adorable, pudgy, black and white pup. In the first, looking about 8 weeks old and slightly bewildered, he sits in that awkward, tilting, puppy way, next to but not touching Bliss. In the second, clearly startled by the flash of the first, his eyes are huge, his look terrified, and he is pressing himself into Bliss in an effort to hide. Needless to say, I was smitten.
Fennel is a sweet dog, with a bull terrier chest and head, lab tail and paws, and pointer markings. He has enough love for the whole world twice over, and not an aggressive bone in his body. He and Poppy got along beautifully. Still, there was little doubt that Poppy was number one, Fennel was always fighting for attention, and that neediness tended to make him a little annoying.
As a puppy, he was a chewer (which Poppy had never really been) and he went through remotes, shoes, table and chair legs, and the like, before he finally grew out of it. That was a little exasperating. He also reacted to being left alone for long periods of time by climbing on counters and generally getting into mischief. Poppy would never have done that.
When it came time to train/discipline Fennel I used my best, stern voice (what I called “beating him with my words”), but he seemed to hardly notice. Poppy, on the other hand, would drop her ears and slink over to her bed, as though she had displeased me terribly. Eventually I learned to separate them before I did any training or discipline. In other words, my dogs trained me.
I note with some amusement that for years I assumed that any mischief created while my attention was diverted or I was away was always attributable to Fennel, and he always received whatever meager discipline I meted out. That is, until the Day of the Flour.
I love to bake, and when I was a teacher I would periodically bake cookies for my classes. Because I taught three blocks with average class sizes in the low 30s, that meant baking a bunch of cookies. One day, while preparing to bake, I realized I didn’t have enough butter. I ran to the store, leaving a 5 pound bag of flour on the shelf, thinking “Fennel won’t have any interest in that.” When I returned, I was not all that surprised to find flour all over the house. But I did find something surprising.
Picture a dark, hardwood floor, and white powder everywhere. Off to the side, looking a little startled, sits Fennel. Smack in the middle of the greatest concentration of white powder sits a figure that might be a dog. She is completely covered in white powder. Some of it, especially around her snout, seems caked on, and in that sea of white the only things that stand out are her two brown eyes, sheepishly blinking her guilt.
I never blamed Fennel again.
After Poppy’s death, Fennel went through an amazing transformation. No longer preoccupied with trying to get attention, he mellowed. Being more relaxed, he behaved better, obeyed commands, and generally turned into a wonderful dog. He still is, but I have now relocated to New York. For a while, my aunt lived in my house and took care of him, but that was only a temporary fix while I determined if I would be in New York long-term. Recently I determined that I will be, and the decision was made to send Fennel to live with my brother, his two young sons, and his two, lumbering, two-year-old female lab mixes.
On my last visit down south I packed up Fennel’s things, bundled up his bed, and moved him to my brother’s. When I came back to my North Carolina house that night, for the first time in almost 14 years, I walked into my home to find no dog waiting for me. No home has ever felt so empty. That was when I learned the answer to the questions I asked when Poppy died.
Our lives, no matter how full we make them, are equally full of little spaces that can only be filled by something special. For some people that special thing is another person, a child, or maybe fire-bellied toad. For me, that special thing is a dog. As much as the emptiness that Poppy left behind broke my heart, all the tiny little spaces she filled for all those years went almost unnoticed. Now, with her long gone, Fennel moved away, and me living in New York, I am once again noticing those little spaces.
I live now in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. My next door neighbor has a Jack Russell Terrier named Sammy who holds court on the front lawn all day long. Recently, when leaving for work in the morning or coming home at night, I’ve taken to stopping and spending a little time with Sammy. I scratch his ears and rub his belly, and he nuzzles his silly little snout against my leg. I doubt I would ever choose a Jack, but when I spend time with Sammy I can feel those little spaces filling up again, and it feels very good.
I’m thinking maybe it’s time.