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Before my Garden – A Dog Story

There was an Orvis Company advertisement that stated how the dogs of our lives (or any special pet for that matter) can carve a place in our hearts. They become so much a part of us that even after they’re gone, that part of our history is defined by their all-too short life.

This is certainly the case with Bill and me.  I wrote this tribute to our little dog Shag in 1983.  As it ends up, it’s also a tribute to Samuel, who was, to us, the most special of canines.  He was with us before we gardened and when we started our first garden.

He will be in our hearts always.

If you’re not a long-time reader of TMG and don’t already know the story of how I started to garden and the reason we moved to the area from Baltimore with only $80 to our name, a truck that belonged to the bank in Baltimore, and a little dog named Shag, you can read it here.

The following account is from the time we moved to this area until just after we started our first garden.  It is very much a part of who we are.

****************

Bill and I adapted to country living quickly, but it took Shag a while.  When we arrived in the Northern Neck of Virginia, December 1, 1978, it was obvious that Shag was strictly “city”.

She loved going for walks, but always made sure to stay to the dirt road and out of the weeds and fields.  When we walked the beach, she made sure not to get her feet wet.  Finally, she got use to the cornfields not having sidewalks and after a year would even run through the water where the river met the sand; all of an inch deep.

She was completely deaf, but it didn’t bother her a bit!  She obeyed hand commands perfectly and responded to our every move, just as if she could hear.  Being deaf made her sleep soundly. We would tap her to wake her up… but then look out!  She was ready to go!

We had known for some time that her sight was bad.  She would literally feel her way up and down stairs.  Coming home late one night, we realized that she was totally blind in darkness:

Bill had parked the truck about 10 feet from the house.  We had let Shag out and were making our way to the house.  When I realized Shag was missing, and I turned to go back.  The brightness of two little eyes reflected the light of my flashlight.  Even within a foot of her, she didn’t know I was there and jumped, startled, when I touched her.  She had been waiting patiently to be found and was very delighted to “see” me.

The first of December of the following year was a culmination of all the hardships we had had and although we didn’t realize it … the beginning of better times.  The man who owned the home in which we were living, sold it suddenly.  A week before we had to move, we still had no place to go and no money with which to get a place.  Our truck payments were five payments behind and the bank was going to repossess. In addition we had spent the winter without heat.  Shag had been through it all with us and although the truck payments and moving didn’t affect her, the cold did.

It was bad enough when we were without food, which was often, but worse when the day came that we had no food for Shag.  There was only one person to ask for food for Shag, and that was Ruth, a lady who lived down the lane. She was our only friend in what seemed a world of strangers.  Believe it or not, I didn’t want to go to her and ask for something for Shag, when the time came.  I had to force myself to walk to her home and knock on the door.

By the end of December, that was behind us and we moved into a little cottage about 20 miles west of where we had been.

First things being first, Bill made Shag a bed beside our bed and another in the dining room, since it was there that we would be working and spending most of our time.  Shag loved the place and when the owners of the home, the Eubanks, came back from Florida that spring, Shag was not ready to give up occupancy.  There was an old place on a bordering property that we would be able to use, but Shag was fully determined that she was not going to give up rugs and “nice living” for a smelly old house. She headed for the Eubank’s every time.

Fortunately for us and for Shag, we were able to rent (in exchange for various work that needed to be done on the property) a tiny cottage close by (called Pine Patch) for the summer.( Although small it met the needs of a kitchen, bath, and a place to rest when we were not at the old place we called the “Studio.” We would return to the Eubank’s home again when they went to Florida in late fall.

The first winter we spent at the Eubanks was a cold one and the river “froze-up” December 20th the day we moved in.  A committee of one came to welcome us, a big black lab whom I called “Big Dog”.

He impressed us right away because of his gentle nature and I always looked forward to his brief visits with us.  Sometimes he wouldn’t come for a day or so.  We never fed him, so I imagined there was no incentive for him to visit.

Nonetheless, I missed seeing him and at times would yell out into the blackness of the winter night –BIGGGGG DOGGGGG! In the distance I would hear the clacking of animal feet over the hardtop road and suddenly see two amber eyes coming down the long drive.  I’d welcome him and sit down on the steps to pat him.  After about five minutes, I couldn’t stand the cold and went inside.  Big Dog went home, wherever that was.

About two or three months later we learned that Big Dog belonged to our neighbors down the road and always made the rounds of our little peninsula, making friends of anyone who wanted to be friends.  His name was Samuel. He was about one year old and could be seen anywhere people were, escorting them on a hike or stopping by to say hello.

As months went by, Samuel would come and sleep under the bush by the door on bitter cold nights.  At times we would find him there when we came home late.  Shag would have nothing to do with him, although he always made friendly advances and wanted to play.

In the spring when we moved to Pine Patch we showed Samuel the way.  It was only about one-half mile by road from the studio.

Eventually, Samuel took up roaming, much to the dismay of his owners and to me.  He would be gone as long as 3 days, and then show up at Pine Patch — thin, exhausted and covered with ticks.  Since we never fed him we supposed that he went to his owners home to eat.

Many wonderful things happened to cement our relationship with the big lab.

We left on a business trip to Pennsylvania in October of that year.  We missed Samuel and I was anxious to get home and see him again.  We returned about 10 days later one night about 10 P.M.  I called Samuel literally all night.  The next day, I traveled the roads looking for him, knowing that if he heard our truck he would follow.

Finally, in desperation, I went to his owners.  We learned that he had been gone for more than ten days.  Evidently, he had waited at Pine Patch for 3 days and when we didn’t return he left.  I was horrified!  I realized then that Samuel thought we had left him!

On a rainy night three days later, we drove from Pine Patch to the Studio still looking for Samuel.  Suddenly we saw a shadow running beside the truck.  In an instant, the door was open and Bill and I were hugging a big, black, wet dog.

Soon after we moved back to the Eubank’s home.  By now we realized how much we loved Samuel and how much he loved us.  But Samuel was NOT our dog.

The situation was so emotionally strained by mid-December that Bill and I decided to go to our neighbors and get the problem resolved.  After about a half hour conversation we told his owners that Samuel had become a big problem for us.  We loved him and wanted to do for him, but would not, because the fact remained that he was their dog.  We didn’t try to keep him at our house he just chose to stay.

As my heart broke in half I asked them to please keep Samuel at home.  They said they had tried even to the point of tying him.  He always stayed tied until our truck went by at which time he broke whatever rope was holding him.  As Bill and I looked at our neighbor he said ” Nobody can do anything with him, but you.  Take him and treat him like he’s yours.”

After that Samuel came inside and quickly adapted to family life.

Shag had been going down hill, but when Samuel moved in, it gave her new life!  We’d go for a walk and instead of moping along, she’d look for Samuel, and make every effort to keep up with him.  By February we could see that Shag was in bad shape, but the thing that kept us from the decision that had to be made was the fact that she was so happy in spite of all her problems.

Finally, we made the decision  and would carry it through the next day.  That morning showed us we had made the right one.  When I let her out to go to the bathroom, she was unable to go.  Her back legs after almost a year of tell tale signs had finally given way.

The four of us drove to the vets in silence.  The vet came out to the truck and Shag died in my arms.

We miss her more instead of less.  She stayed with us through the best times and the worst.  She was never any trouble and everyone loved her.  Our life is richer for having had her a part of it.

copyright by Theresa Martz

18 comments to Before my Garden – A Dog Story

  • I always swear I will not invite any more animals to live with me, because the pain of losing them is so bad. I have never been able to keep that promise, and so the pain continues, balanced by the joy they bring into my life. Giving my guys an extra cuddle this morning in memory of Shag and Samuel.

  • Virginia Gardner

    We lost our baby Dal this winter (he was 10). It was sudden (for us), it was cancer, and it broke everyone’s heart, from our eldest Dal to the 2 feral kittens we adopted in Ocracoke a year and a half ago. Until Brunello died, we had no idea how bad the health (arthritis, hearing) of the elder Dal had become. We found and adopted a 5 1/2 yr old female black lab immediately, who I’m still not used to after 2 months. But the difference in our Vino Nobile, the eldest Dal, was immediate, so she is a welcome addition. One of the kitties, Sophia, was the most affected by Bru’s death; she loved that dog so much, would spoon with him. I hurt just thinking about Brunello. And I hurt still thinking about Tanqueray and Chardonany, the Dals who went before him. They were all so brave, so devoted, such joys. Did you re-post this today because you just lost Samuel, but, no, that can’t be… I’m glad to have read your story.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this story AND for providing the link to the original one. It filled in the blanks for me and I love Bill’s paintings! You two were very brave and persistent and I am happy for your successes!

  • Toni Brock

    Oh my gosh Theresa! I am sitting in my vehicle getting ready for work, reading your story and crying like a baby. The tears just streaming down my face. What a wonderful person you are. What wonderful dogs. Thank you for posting this story.

  • Straight to the heart! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Theresa

    Kate, thanks for the extra cuddle to your guys this AM in memory of Shag and Samuel. Almost made me cry.

    Virginia, sorry to hear you lost your baby Dal.
    Isn’t it strange how animals like Sophie and Bru hit it off? Bill and I always say that if Samuel had been around when we had Loupy (our cat) they would have been fast friends! Oh, I miss them sooooo much!

    I relate to your pain and know how you feel. It’s been almost 40 years since Loupy (our cat) died and I still miss him and can imagine holding him and him snuzzling me. He slept between Bill’s legs his entire life.

    As silly as it sounds, I wish he were buried here instead of in Baltimore.

    Samuel’s been gone about 30 years and I long for him still. If you haven’t been through that with an animal, you just can’t relate.

    No human siblings in my youth, just my two dogs. Irish Setters. Loved them to death. They were my “brother and sister” so to speak. I know folks who have not experienced it just can’t understand.

    Betty, you make me really glad I thought to post the link to the story about how we came to this area. The story about our dogs makes more sense when you know why we came, etc.

    Toni, I received an email from another reader that has a summer home in our area. She had already read the story some months ago and she wrote today and said, “I read your story about Shag and Big Dog this morning and cried in my coffee – the same as I did the first time that I read it.  :>) Love that story………”

    I can hardly keep from crying myself when I think of that night Samuel finally showed up and “Bill and I were hugging a big, black, wet dog.” He was a great dog!

    Glad you enjoyed the story Farming Bear.

    Thank you dear friends for sharing.

    Theresa

  • Sandra

    I read this earlier, but had to come back to comment because I too was bawling over this post. I will give my two dogs an extra ‘snuzzle’ (love that word you used, Theresa) while I still have the pleasure of their fine company. Thank you for sharing this story, it comes as no surprise that you and Bill are animal lovers. Most of the kindest people I know have had hearts that reach out to animal friends. I think your writing style here is different than your usual informative writing, and I loved ‘hearing’ your slightly different ‘voice’ come through – if that makes any sense.

  • Theresa

    Loupy taught us all about snuzzling, Sandra. Sometimes he’d snuzzle so hard it would hurt our noses! He was something special. Loved to be patted while he ate. Never wanted to eat unless we first patted him while he got started eating. And that “motor” was running a mile a minute and so loud you could hear it in the other room.

    I have lots of animal stories that are great, but I hesitate to share this kind of story on a garden site. Figured I could do this one about Shag and Samuel since it was just about the time of my first garden.

    I don’t come across to most folks as loving animals, because I just don’t want to get attached to any of them anymore.

    That’s interesting that you noticed the different “voice.” Guess that’s due to two things. #1 – It’s heart felt writing rather than information writing. #2. I wrote it in 1983. I’ve learned more about writing and am hopefully, better at it.

    Sure appreciate your telling me how you felt. Didn’t mean to make you cry, but animals really tug at heart strings.
    Thanks Sandra.
    Theresa

  • Here’s the thing – it’s your site and you get to write whatever the hell you feel like writing!! We don’t pay you to read here, we LIKE it. And if someone does not want to read about pets, they can click on to the next post (the same way I click through any post about soil testing and refuse to read it ).

  • Theresa

    Thank you Kate! If I get a lot more comments like this, I just might write another animal story from time to time. Appreciate your taking time to let me know how you feel about it.
    Theresa

  • annieg

    Keeping it short & sweet. Crying. Beautiful piece. I love your site & the previous comment…. this is your site. My condolences….just lost my 2nd cat in 10 days & another 18 year old 2 years ago the day after Mother’s Day after taking him home for a week on comfort measures.By Mother Day it was clear what had to be done.

    Oh the bonds we have with these beautiful & amazing animals. It’s devastating to lose these beloved companions. I’m alone for the first time ever and boy it’s not easy.

  • Pat

    Theresa, we are cat people. I had dogs growing up and love them, but we haven’t had space for dogs. And cats don’t seem as needy – although our orange tabby is a social eater, like your Loupy. I often wonder if he would starve if we weren’t around to keep him company at the food bowl!

    We have had our share of stray cats, and often huge vet bills with each one we take in. Two of them who came to live with us didn’t last long because they were already in progressive stages of their respective diseases. It didn’t take long for us to become attached, so letting them go was very hard.

    I appreciate your sharing this side of you! Now I feel an even deeper comradery! 😀

  • Theresa

    Your comment really made me smile, Pat. That is what I wondered about Loupy as well. (Whether or not he would starve if we weren’t there to “love” him at the food bowl.)

    That time period that I shared was indeed a well-remembered part of our life and very much a part of who we are. Glad you enjoyed the sharing of it.
    Theresa

  • Rita

    I know of the closeness you two felt for your canine friend. I have been there as I was always a dog person from the time I was little. Whenever I went to my uncle’s farm when I was growing they always said I belonged on a farm. Having an animal share your life and home with you is about the purest form of love.

  • Theresa

    And I’ll bet when you were at your uncle’s farm your were wishing you lived on a farm! Right? I know I did. I used to beg my parents to move to a farm. They never did of course, but I asked and asked for years when I was little.
    Thanks for commenting Rita.
    Theresa

  • Karen Wintman

    OK, you are my genius garden/soil guru but I never read your dog story until today! Now you are my family even though I will probably never meet you.
    Love,
    Your sister in dogs and gardening,
    Karen

  • Theresa

    Made me smile Karen. 🙂 Really nice thoughts. Thanks for letting me know.
    Theresa

  • Kelly

    Oh. I love this story!

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