An alluring spring dawn had announced itself through the slats in the window blinds long before we raised our heads from the pillows simultaneously and locked eyes.  No words were exchanged, but the message was clear.  Keats would have observed us as two souls with but a single thought:  It was too early to get up.

I’m not sure which of us dropped our head back to the pillow first.  It might have been the dog, it might have been me.  I didn’t wait to see if she would close her eyes again, because I knew that if I did, she would follow suit.  Whenever possible, we prefer to linger prone on the soft surfaces—separate ones, mind you, we don’t share–in the early hours.  We are not morning people.

We have been together a decade now, Madeline Basset* and I, that span representing the longest relationship I’ve sustained with someone who lives here, other than the time I raised my daughter.  Our relationship has mellowed, as all enduring ones do, into a tapestry of shared joys balanced with loving tolerance and the occasional negotiated outright frustration.  This many years in, I expend much less energy resolving the latter, often giving in in ways uncharacteristic of my general policy.  Blatant misbehavior cannot be allowed, of course, but so many things are right on the edge, and after all, is compromise not the road to world peace? And like all good partnerships, there are ways in which we work just alike, and ways in which we balance each other out as opposites.


We love socializing, most of all with family but also with neighbors and friends, but we do not suffer lightly fools who misbehave, especially right in our faces.  At such times, we have been known to bark in disapproval.  We frequently disregard those who tell us what to do, even though we may appear to capitulate in the short term.  We appreciate recognition, but are content not to be the center of attention.  We love groups but also need our quiet time.  We don’t like thunderstorms.  Ever.

And yet the opposites reinforce the twosome.  Overdrive is my default mode, unfortunately, while supreme relaxation and Zen-like repose are hers.  A basset might be nature’s antidote for the restless and overwrought.  Her exceptional talent in this regard once drew the loving sarcasm of my late father, who loved animals in his own way.  Observing her curled up and snoring soundly on a corner of the couch during a loud family party, the house full of people, he whispered in my ear: “I’m worried about Madeline.”  Oh, no!  I said, failing to notice the glint in his eye.  What’s wrong?  “She’s exhibiting signs of a stress disorder,” he cracked.

Much has been written about the bond between humans and the canines who join their lives to ours.  I don’t pretend to understand the biology of it, but never doubt the intriguing facts that come along now and then.  I once mentioned to a friend that that Madeline clearly knows who is at the door before they enter—the unidentifiable outsider gaining the deep guard-dog bark, the cherished friends and family naught but a wag of the tail and lick on the ankles.  She had read they can hear human heartbeats, and perhaps that is an identifier?

Hounds, of course, possess discernment of scent that is far beyond human comprehension.  Taking a walk requires one of those compromises I mentioned earlier; the nose drives all perceptions and actions, and some olfactory evidence, most of it at ground level, must be lingered over and  studied. It seemed prudent to cease opposing this necessity long ago, so I christened our slow but steady forward progress The Hound Dog Shuffle.  Often other dog owners walking the boundaries of our neighborhood will lap us, the quick ones more than once.  The occasional passer-by, in the company of a canine of average height and a nose that is pointed forward instead of down, will observe this pattern with a smile and ask, “What is she doing?”  My response:  reading the day’s news.


Kind friends laugh away my acknowledgments of the old saw, that joke that we are naturally drawn to dogs that look like us.  They might be too indulging to openly admit that a funny-looking dog with red hair, freckles, and remarkably short legs resemble any pal of theirs.  Of the fact that I was nicknamed Stump by a rough-edged boss at my college part-time job, I say very little.

Looks aside, there can be no question that females who have achieved middle age and beyond soldier other challenges in common.  We have bad knees, and don’t care much for steps anymore.  Our ears require constant maintenance, hers for obvious reasons, mine to navigate my marked, inherited hearing impairment.  Our bladders demand relief way more often than is convenient.  The number of pill bottles in the cupboard is increasing.

Who knows what dogs understand about their lot in life?  Probably more than we imagine.  I hope she never wonders, as I so often do, how much more time we’ll have together.  As the months roll inexorably on, we cope, we adjust, we change, we accommodate, staying close to the things we love most, managing everything else the best we can.  I guess that’s what growing older is all about.  We’re walking that path side-by-side, making it a little easier for each other as we go.


++I am often asked why I named a basset Madeline.  She is the namesake of a young female character in the stories of legendary British humorist P.G. Wodehouse.  The Madeline Bassett of Wodehouse fame was a soft-spoken, romance-babbling airhead who frightened practical-thinking men and was always getting entangled in the wrong relationship.

At six and four, Buddy and Sis are old enough now to enjoy the occasional overnight visit at my house.  These visits linger in memory with certain central “themes”.  Oh, yes, I might think, looking back, that’s the time we made peanut butter cookies the first time.  Or, that was the time Buddy first dove under water at the pool, I might say, answering a friend who inquired how I entertained the children over the weekend.

A recent visit, on the other end of the spectrum, gets indexed for history under Injury, Pain, and Bloodshed.

A nervous Nellie by nature, I prattle precautions at the children constantly.  They appear predestined to demonstrate the futility of such intentions.  A child’s natural instinct to over-extend, to probe, to try—these two seem endowed with extra helpings of all those, and the inevitable aftermath will be the order of the days.  I may as well buckle in and muscle up for it.  Perhaps EMT training for grandparents is out there somewhere; at this rate, I’ll be able to teach it myself, before long.

The recent Festival of Agony opened with Sis.  Unable to contain her standard exuberance while she waited to roll the cookie dough into oven-sized morsels, she commenced to wiggle her bottom vigorously, a sort of Cookie Dance, throwing her weight from port to starboard and back.  This motion destabilized the stool that elevated her position at the kitchen counter, sending the stool sailing out from under while gravity dropped her straight down and caught her chin a hard lick on the edge of the granite countertop.  I watched this unfold from behind, too far away, of course, to intervene in time.  Amazingly, given the decibel level of the shrieking that followed, no teeth were displaced, no lip split, and the allure of the cookie dough took precedence over the pain with alacrity.

About half an hour later, the oven performing its office on the cookies and the aroma filling the house with a false sense of security, Buddy rounded the end of the dining room table in sock feet while in rapid pursuit of his sister.  When he lost his balance on the curve, he executed a Major League-style slide into a chair leg that forced two of his toes to merge right, and the other three to merge left.  Owwwww rose in my throat, at the same time it emerged from Buddy’s mouth. We examined the tender redness carefully, with an offer quickly made to ice the area against certain bruising.  Apparently the pursuit of justice may demand certain sacrifice, as he declined the ice, shook his foot hard a few times and rose to resume chase.

The evening’s Injury Trifecta played itself out near dusk, when the day’s rain finally subsided and a fresh-air strategy was pursued with an eye toward burning energy before bedtime.  We took the dog out for a walk, and a kindly neighbor stopped to meet the children and exchange pleasantries.  When she complimented Sis’ eye-catching pink rain boots, Sis attempted to demonstrate, Gene Kelly-style, a few dance steps in a puddle.  Sadly, these boots were not made for dancing.  She caught one foot behind the other and took a rapid swan dive face down on the rough aggregate sidewalk.

This time I knew we were for it, and I dove down to scoop up the screaming child with my heart in my throat.  She clung to me with unusual ferocity.  Let me see, I said over and over, let me see your face, but she wouldn’t raise her head from my chest while she screamed.

As I returned her grip for reassurance and lowered her feet down onto a nearby bench, hoping to wrest her loose and survey the damage, I was suddenly transported away to another time and place, as though I had stepped into a time machine.

Thirty years earlier, in our tiny stone house on a shady street in Lexington, Kentucky, Sis’ mom took her first face-down swan drive on the hardwood floor of the little ranch’s narrow, central hallway.  I saw her so clearly there—she had a short, bowl-style haircut and was wearing a blue print smock with a white Peter Pan collar and red corduroy pants.  The ensemble was completed with the little white leather laced booties that were obligatory for toddlers in those days, and my daughter came running for something, catching a toe somehow in those stiff little shoes.  She sprung back to her feet with a shriek, blood spurting from her lower lip, and before I could gather my wits I shouted frantically for my husband.  I distinctly remember reaching for my own lip, as though it must surely be bleeding simultaneously, so painful was the reaction of a young mother to the child’s first little accident.  She’s fine, she’s fine, her father said calmly, here’s a cold wash cloth, she’s fine.  But facial cuts are always so bloody, often so much worse in appearance that in fact, that the maternal instinct can hardly avoid overdrive.  Then, or now.  Hence the sharp, cinematically accurate memory of that little scene.

Meanwhile, present time drew me back when another concerned neighbor approached with a peppy little dog.  Sis continued to cling like a poultice and my nurturing was insufficient to loosen her vice grip, but the sight of the curious little dog did the trick, and she stepped back to reach down for a pat.  A first view of her pearl-skinned face revealed a cut lip, along with scrapes to the chin and cheek in several spots that left bloodstains all over my sweatshirt.  But the pressure of her face buried in my shoulder had served to stop most of the dripping blood by the time she let go and stooped down.

And so, the dog having administered distraction and the spell of tragedy broken, the evening wore on to its conclusion.  When I was her age, perennially feeling (unjustifiably) ignored in a large family, I would have milked such injuries for all I could get, but Sis had little to say about the episode later.  I dreaded having to explain to her parents, though, of course, they deal with this all the time.  When my son-in-law appeared to retrieve the children the next morning, the first thing he said to Sis was, “What happened to your face?”

“I falled down,” she said with an easy shrug, indicating it was really nothing.  And illustrating another timeless truth:  the children always recover long before the adults.