Frank Richman taught for 25 years in three different high schools in Waterloo county, taking early retirement in 1989 to follow a dream of becoming a writer, a promise he made while still teaching.  He lives in Kitchener, Ontario with his wife, Eleanor.

Ginger Was Like That

Genre:  Memoir
Word Count:  3081 
Status:  Posted intact and unedited

I stood her on the steel table while the vet was preparing to examine her. I had phoned ahead and they were waiting. She had had minor problems but somehow I knew this was serious. As she stood there, frightened and shaking I kept my arms around her to comfort her as best I could. I kept hoping and praying. “Will she pull out of this?”—“Is this as bad as it seems?”—“Can she make it just one more time?”—“Stay strong, Ginger, stay strong for me!”

Thoughts carried me back to the beginning of our life with Ginger as part of our family. Still beautiful, even in old age, she had come into our lives fourteen years earlier, winning our hearts as a puppy, our admiration as she matured. She had been a wise and wonderful companion.

The vet, friend and curling partner had recommended Shadywell Kennels in Schomburg, run by the MacDonalds when we started looking for a dog.

“Even if you don’t buy from them you’ll be impressed with their facilities,” he’d said, and we were.

The place was immaculate from the drive in from the highway to the rolling lawns to the small barn-like structure used to house the animals. This was no puppy factory. Breeders of long standing of Golden Retrievers, they deserved the reputation bestowed on them by everyone for the high standards they set. They were the kind of people you like instinctively on first meeting.

As we toured the facilities, we noted with pleasure the neatness and order which prevailed. Even the dogs were mostly quiet and contented as we made our way among them. Each female had a separate stall where she and her pups could be in private away from the other dogs. The mother of the puppy we would eventually choose stood on her hind feet in her stall, her front feet hooked over the top of the low door, woofing happily at us, her tail wagging in anticipation. To quiet her Mrs. MacDonald put her hand around her muzzle and spoke softly to her. It was like magic.

We met ‘Ambassador of Davern’, ‘Danny’ for short, a magnificent male imported from England for their breeding program. I thought I detected the faint suggestion of a smile as we met. He circled me and sat at my left side and peered into my eyes as if to say “What would you like?” I instinctively stroked his head. His tail wagged. In addition to Danny, there were three other dogs, young adults roaming free outside. All were quiet; all were busy in robust play, and taking turns carrying bits of wood, vying playfully for possession. No barking. No howling. Just quiet amiability.

In a second area of the lawn were two cement slabs enclosed with heavy wire fencing. These were exercise areas for the pups. They would be placed in there in groups to get fresh air, to play and sleep. In the corner of one of these pens was a furry mound. On closer examination it was a group of seven puppies sound asleep, lying all over one another. It may have been the need to touch to satisfy their tactile needs or simply to keep warm but since it was a hot July afternoon, I suspect it was the former. El crouched next to the enclosure. She poked a finger through the wire fencing to touch them. They were five and a half weeks old, pudgy, fuzzy and far too young to be taken from their mother.

“They’re so soft!” she whispered as she melted on the spot.

The five pups that were soon to be available were brought out on the lawn for us to see, touch, even hold, all under the close supervision of Mrs. MacDonald. They were very winsome. I was attracted to the paler one of the group. I had been advised by the vet that Goldens tend to darken as they mature. El, however, felt we should take the one that kept coming to us. It was a good choice. CMD 31D was to be ours in two and a half weeks. She would be called ‘Shadywell Crystal Ginger II’, ‘Ginger’ for short. It was the beginning of a fourteen year association with a wonderful animal.

A week later we drove to Schomburg to see Ginger once again. We visited about an hour talking about dogs and why we wanted one. Mrs. MacDonald drew her husband aside for a few minutes of serious discussion. She asked us if we would like to take Ginger that very day. Although it was not their custom to let pups go at such an early age, they had decided we looked like stable people ready for the responsibility of having a puppy enter our lives. We were elated. A serious discussion ensued about the feeding and care of Goldens for the next hour. It was important we do the right things since a puppy of six and a half weeks is just beginning to learn about the world around it. The next few weeks are critical in their lives.

The drive home was a delight. We should have had a box for her but we had come unprepared. Placing her in the box for the ride home would have given her a sense of security as she left her familiar surroundings behind. The next best was to hold her quietly on the lap during the drive and not to jiggle her too much. If they get carsick they will never be good travelers. Ginger for her part was marvelous, never getting sick once even though she shook with fright at all the new events entering her young life. She was stoic about it.

“She’s stopped shaking.” El said as I stopped for a light in Guelph.

She raised her head for the first time to peer out at this strange new world. She was comfortable with us . . . and now, unafraid. I stopped at a plaza close to home. We needed supplies. El wanted to hold her while I went in the store. I argued it was my turn. El acquiesced.

Arriving at home, I took Ginger out to the backyard, sure that her tiny bladder would be full. I put her down on the grass. She sat on my feet. After a short while she sat between them. Emboldened, she circled one leg then the other weaving in and out, finally entering from behind to sit between my feet once again. This became a great source of amusement as she matured into a full size animal. Many times she nearly buckled my knees as she pushed her way through my legs from behind to be in her favorite position, sitting between my feet. We might have suppressed this behavior but it was accepted as uniquely Ginger’s way.  As I sat on the grass with her she licked then played with then bit my fingers. Her teeth were like needles. I got up to walk to the back door. She followed. She was forming a bond and I was delighted.

She was playful and quick to learn, using body language to let us know when she needed out, which seemed to be often. It wasn’t long before her breeding began to show, carrying objects around the house. I have a picture of her carrying a cane she managed to pick up. She was growing rapidly. Her tail, which had been the size of your finger, lengthened into a ropy appendage. Her nose and her legs lengthened. She became quite gawky as she passed through the puppy-into-dog stages. Even through all this she always had those beautiful eyes; dark and brown.

One morning I heard a growl while I was shaving. I stepped out of the bathroom to see what the commotion was all about. She was standing in the guard position looking in my direction. She’d heard me and didn’t know what those strange noises were. What followed was a scene which has unfolded in my mind many times. It was the first time she smiled. She looked silly. Her head went down, her eyes went squinty, her nose wrinkled up and she displayed all her baby teeth in fine array. She was snuffing as if she were about to sneeze. She was wagging her tail madly and walking toward me feeling, I’m quite sure, rather embarrassed. It was not the last time she would smile so broadly. It became, in fact, one of her trademarks.

As she grew, it became clear I must build a place for her in the unfinished basement. It consisted of a wooden floor about 4 X 4, enclosed by a wooden frame and covered in chicken wire. Later I added on another 4 X 4 section, this one with no floor. I assumed she would sleep on the wood. She surprised me, choosing the cement for a bed. She surprised me still more when she was so happy in her ‘house’. There were no feelings of confinement as I anticipated, instead she identified with it, freely going in and out. It was her place. She was teaching us much about dogs.

All too soon it was time to decide whether she should have a litter or be spayed. El and I liked the idea of her having pups and the kids on the street were ready to line up for one but we realized it was a twenty-four hour a day job and not to be taken lightly. I took her to the vet, the same man who was to oversee her final moment’s years later. He was a skillful surgeon so I felt confident that things would go well. We were to pick her up in four days. In the mean time, I needed something to do so I converted the basement into a finished rec. room. The first thing that had to go was her house.

At the appointed hour we arrived at the vets’ to bring her home. She was healthy with no complications. She made me more than a little nervous, however. Jumping up and down is something you just don’t do four days after surgery. I was sure she would hurt herself. One lady in the waiting room was moved to comment.

“They love to go home don’t they?”

At the car, I put her in the back seat as usual. The first thing she did was to pick up one of her toys. The next was to crawl into the front with us where she sat between us, her toy in her mouth, crying softly. She laid her head on my shoulder as I drove home. Many times, over the years, as I drove around town, she would sit beside me with her head on my shoulder. As soon as we got in the house she tore down the steps to the basement and ran to the very spot where her ‘house’ used to be. She stood there looking quite bewildered wondering what had happened. I had made a mistake. I had taken her house away.

As all dogs can be, she was a great comfort on those days when things didn’t go right. On those occasions, she would sit or lie quietly listening to my complaints as if she understood every word. She never argued, never complained, never criticized. She simply listened then wagged her tail when I was finished. I sometimes wondered how she could be so understanding. I believe she felt more like a people than a dog.

Walking her was good for both of us. Twice a day we would go around the block, rain or shine. On rainy days I made a coat out of a plastic bag. On snowy days we didn’t need a coat. If the snow happened to be powdery, it would cling to the fine hair on her legs called angel hair. On some of those days the snow would build up so she looked as if she were wearing pantaloons. It was amusing but made for a small problem when we got home. You couldn’t pull it off. You had to let it melt. Then you had wet dog hair for the next three hours. I always took her lead on those walks. Not that she needed restraining. She simply had to have something to carry on the way home. On one occasion, I had forgotten the lead. She kept flipping my hand until I gave her my glove to carry. She was perfectly happy with this new arrangement.

As the years passed she began to show signs of aging; white hair on her face, walking and playing with less vigour, a little slower getting up. I worried about how much longer she would last. One day she refused to come down the stairs. I coaxed her until she tried. Her legs crumpled under her at the third step and she slid uncontrollably the rest of the way. Deep inside me, I knew this was the beginning of the end for her. She couldn’t handle the stairs going up or down but if I stayed quite close she would try. First her front legs, then her back legs, hitching them up sideways one step at a time. Reaching the top, her breathing would be laboured. It was clear I would be carrying her up and down stairs from then on.

The very snow she once reveled in now became a problem. We came across a drift on our return trip one day. It wasn’t big as drifts go, about a foot deep and eight feet across. It was packed hard by the wind. Close by, was a bus stop where several children were waiting. Ginger got half way across and couldn’t move. I looked back to see her smiling in her embarrassment, her eyes, full of trust, pleading for help.

“Can’t make it old thing?” I asked. “I’ll come and get you.”

A young man stood watching the whole scene. I swept Ginger up in my arms, grieving in my heart for her. The young man’s eyes met mine. Not a word was said but a message was there: compassion, understanding. I carried her across the drift and put her down. She looked up at me and wagged her tail. The young man’s eyes followed us as we walked away. Perhaps he was thinking ‘Two old things growing old together’ or ‘A man and his aging companion’ maybe simply ‘A man and his faithful dog’. I’m sure that scene will be engraved in his memory forever.

Each day became a bonus day to be relished and considered precious. I dreaded the inevitable. She was now close to fourteen. She never complained. Every day she offered her unconditional loyalty and her smiling countenance. How would I handle it when she had to go? Would I be an emotional wreck? Would I be stoic and self contained? I tried to steel myself. Little did I realize that day was rapidly approaching? But the bonus days kept coming and going . . . . and I worried.

At the office one day, I got a call from the cleaning lady. Ginger couldn’t get up and her eyes were all funny. I suggested she leave her where she was and I would check on her when I got home. Ginger met me at the door with a toy in her mouth, wagging her tail joyously. I was greatly relieved. More days passed. Then it happened.

As I let myself in she was lying in the hall unable to get up. She had been terribly sick through the day. Her eyes gyrated wildly.  I don’t think she could even see me at that moment. My heart sank as I surveyed the scene. I could have wept when, despite her terrible condition, she managed a smile as she recognized my voice. It was to be the second last time I would see that smile. I helped her to her feet but she couldn’t walk. I tried to get her to lie down and she couldn’t manage that either.

“This is it!” I remembered saying to myself. The vet was sure what it was by my description and I was to bring her in immediately. They would be waiting. She stood on the examination table, afraid, her tail between her legs, frightened by the tricks her mind was playing on her. It was canine vestibular syndrome, similar in ways to stroke in humans, simply a problem of old age. The prognosis was 50-50 for a recovery. Sometimes it clears up after the first attack, never after the second. It’s only a matter of time until the second. Then I remembered the phone call. That had been the first attack.

I phoned each day to see if there was any progress. There was none. She was surviving but her condition would not improve. There was too much damage. I couldn’t inflict this on her. I had to consider the quality of life she would have; in a perpetual state of seasickness, not knowing up from down, her mind in a constant whirl trying to cope with a world in which everything was moving.  I struggled to utter the words I had dreaded so long.

My voice quaked with emotion. “Would you put her down . . . .? please?”

The vet, I’m convinced, had grown to love her too. He felt badly.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I heard him say as I hung up the phone.

I wanted to thank him for all the gentle and loving care he had given her but I could speak no more. I buried my face in my hands. The tears were warm on my cheeks. I was thankful I was alone in the office right then.

Some three or four weeks later, I saw Ginger again. It was like a dream or a visitation. It was so real I felt I could have reached out and stroked her head. It was over in a moment. She simply appeared before me, sitting there looking deeply into my eyes. She was perky and healthy. It was as if she had come back to tell me she knew, she understood, it was O.K., she was in canine heaven and everything was all right. She smiled. She was beautiful. But then, Ginger was like that.

Frank’s Thoughts On Writing  …

Writing began as letters to people. I decided most times I could write that letter in a much better way. After this practice era, I decided to try my hand at short stories. And so, it began. Write, edit, rewrite, edit again and again until it sounded right. The short stories began to pile up.

Next, came the foray into writing a novel. I read book after book, picking up on methods and techniques of story telling. The first effort was not good. I had much to learn. It was neither a short story, too long nor a novel, too short. I didn’t even like the story. It hit the trash can.

I went back to reading other people’s stuff, taking more notice of structure, length and other things writers do. I began to think about one writer who was a good story teller. Mackie Spillane did it differently. He wrote his stories backwards. That’s right, he wrote backwards. I could see benefits from this; continuity, smoothness in the movement of the characters to name two things. I adopted this technique.

I think of it this way. To put people in conflict you have to have them simultaneously moving parallel, opposite or across each others paths. O.K., how do you get them there so they meet? You weave the tale in such a way that they do meet, they do have their conflicts, and they may even resolve their conflicts. They may part good friends, lovers or bitter enemies. That can lead to several more chapters. Other characters can be introduced and the story expands.