Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hubbub Pillsbury Pinard

By the time most kids reach ten years old, they are pretty excited if they have ridden on a train or plane and visited Disneyland for a few nights. When Sara was ten years old, her dad and mom packed up the family and moved them all to the African country of Cameroon. 

Sara and I worked together on a photo shoot for an advertising campaign surrounding the grand opening of St. Anthony Hospital.  This ad campaign was a big deal, you know, with ‘all eyes’ watching the development of our creative approach.  And so, our project had us working together closely throughout several days of shooting.

Over lunch one day, looking out onto Gig Harbor bay from our perch inside picturesque Tides Tavern, we exchanged the pleasantries typical when coworkers share a meal together.  We just finished the “what-do-you-do-when-you’re-not-at-work” question, to which I’d told her about my ‘Too Perfect’ collection of ‘dog stories’ as I called them by this point.  We then moved to the ‘where-are-you-from’ part of those polite getting-to-know-you conversations.

“Well, I have an animal story,” she said.  “But it’s not about a dog.  It was a goat,” she explained.  “She was a Cameroonian Goat,” Sara said with not just a little laugh in her voice, probably because of the look of amazement on my face and that of our photographer, Tom. “My mom gave her to me because we lived there for a year when I was ten and she thought I could use my own special friend.”

Those sorts ‘openers’ as I call them silence a room.  Even the air, it seems, holds its breath anticipating the rest of the story. 

“My dad was a doctor and part of a six-person family practice group from our hometown in Snohomish,” she began.   “But there were just enough patients for five physicians at the time.  So once every six years we would take a one-year sabbatical and when I was ten, my dad and mom picked Cameroon.” 

She and her family settled into a community of hard-working and earnest people, all eager to help them adjust to their way of life.  As Sara explained it, her mom was keenly aware that Sara was gangly and seemingly comprised entirely of arms and legs that stood out a bit among the other children her age in the village. 

As a result, her mother decided her daughter needed something to connect with and care for who didn’t mind a hoot what she looked like.  Looking among the suitable animals at hand, Sara’s mom picked out a weaned female goat that was part of the village herd. 

This selection was met with not just a small amount of hilarity among the locals.  A female goat, for heaven’s sakes, was meant to be fed, raised, bred, milked and then slaughtered for sustenance.  It wasn’t raised to become the over-loved plaything of an awkward little girl from America.  To add to the nonsense, Sara’s mom suggested that everyone in the household take part in naming the goat. 

“So among my choices included my sister’s suggestion, which was ‘Hubbub’, for all the hubbub around that goat,” Sara explained.  “Then, the cook suggested ‘Pillsbury’ for the cake mix-in-a-box that my mom packed among the precious cargo of our belongings so she could make a cake for each of the kids for our birthdays while we were in Cameroon.

And so where did ‘Pinard’ come from? I wondered aloud. 

“Well, the gardener suggested Pinard, and said to me ‘Pinard, because you are like the pinards who traveled across the sea when it was thought to just be flat to find a new world.’”  Obviously, he meant pilgrim, but the word was lost-in-translation.  

Then Sara, with all the pomp-and-circumstance a ten-year-old can muster, took these and other suggestions and laid them on her bed to decide the very best name for her Cameroonian goat.  And, she couldn’t pick just one.  So it was formally Hubbub Pillsbury Pinard and when the occasion called for it, ‘Hubbub’ worked just fine. 

It was a love, too perfect, from the very start.  It was not unlike that little nursery rhyme, remember Mary Had a Little Lamb?  Well, Sara had a little goat and Hubbub was its name.  And everywhere that Sara went the goat went just the same.  When the two very best friends were apart, such as during the school day, Hubbub Pillsbury Pinard waited patiently around the yard.  I can just imagine her claiming a perch of her own and standing watch until the appointed time.

“I would walk down the path from the school and call out “Hubbuuuuuub!”  Sara said cupping her hands and letting her mind wander back to that special time after school each day.  “And Hubbub would answer back in a loud bleeting that sounded like ‘I’m so glad you’re home.’  My mom was right.  Hubbub was a perfect match for me.” 

As love stories go, this one had its own ending.  A Cameroonian goat belongs, quite rightly, in Cameroon.  And, at the closing of their year in country, Sara’s mom helped her understand that and also to ease their parting with the promise that Hubbub would be well cared for in the village. 

“I heard from them that they let her have a kid, and raise it until it was full grown.  I know later Hubbub became sustenance,” Sara said in a matter-of-fact way.  “But she was special and everyone knew that.” 

Sara loved Hubbub and Hubbub loved Sara right back.  Everyone in the village knew it and while they may have joked about it, their actions were to revere that relationship.  Maybe they did so in honor of their rapport with Sara’s parents and the healing medicine her father practiced in their community? 

“My dad was one of the last, great country doctors,” Sara says proudly, whose father recently retired from his Snohomish practice.  “He listened to his patients and took as much time with them as they and he needed to ensure he diagnosed and treated them properly. It’s not like today where doctors can only spend a few minutes with a patient depending on the type of illness and the time allotted by insurance reimbursements.” 

He understood about using his gifts and education and giving back to those who needed his attention, such as the families living in and around that village in Cameroon.  Can you imagine the numbers of children who received immunizations and the countless others treated for minor ailments and injuries who otherwise would not have received such care? 

His wife, a partner in the truest sense of the word, supported and enhanced that commitment by ensuring he could bring his family wherever he practiced medicine.  She passed along invaluable lessons of love, commitment and friendship to her children and everyone around her.  I’ve often heard love is best used as a verb, and Sara’s mom knew how to put love into action. 

Sara herself is now a mother, with a beautiful daughter who is just as precocious as Sara was as a child.  The other day, as Sara explained it, she asked her daughter to say ‘the magic word’ in order to get dessert.  Without missing a beat, she answered with “Abracadabra!”

Sara’s daughter is bright, inquisitive and holds the promise of becoming a gangly youth full of arms and legs and pre-teen awkwardness someday.  Given the lessons passed along from her own mother, Sara is well-equipped to usher her daughter through the many changes and stages that life brings her.  Its love, in action, any way you look at it.  And, just too perfect

Sunday, September 18, 2011


So, it was a Sunday.  In fact, the exact week before Easter; Palm Sunday.  And, quite unusually, I’m forced to travel this early morning.  I have to commend my former day-job employer in that the days I must travel on the weekend are few and far between.  However, on that very Sunday I’m up before dawn and boarding a flight to Atlanta.

It’s important to note that our department’s administrative assistant loaded all our personal preferences into the travel agency’s database long before my flight. Things like frequent flier numbers and the like help her to know that I want to sit forward in the aircraft (though, of course, not First Class; I certainly didn’t rate that).  So, despite being assigned seat 10C during ticketing, even though I arrived two hours early, I’m still reassigned to 31D.  Trudging with my small stack of Hollywood gossip magazines, I slide back into my slice of the sardine-can-style space we call an airplane seat in Delta’s Coach Section.  Squeezing in place, I prepare myself for the long flight ahead. 

As I’ve learned since Chelsea came blissfully, serendipitously into my life, there are no mistakes or random events where love is concerned.  Armed with this truth, to learn that my seat was reassigned gave me pause enough to open my eyes and look around.  Maybe in the roulette wheel that is the seat-assignment software program, I simply got shuffled to the back for some reason I will never know?  Maybe not.  I place the magazines in the seat pocket in front of me and settle in, pausing long enough to listen for a moment to the world around me.  Hmmm.  I count to myself…one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand. 

I stare into the seat pocket in front of me and my mind wanders far away from the Hollywood gossip magazine I brought to keep me company on the flight.   I rouse myself from my musings long enough to notice that the woman now sitting on my left is also perusing her own Hollywood gossip magazine.  And, in fact, she has a copy of the one that I didn’t purchase.  We women understand the unwritten rule that one Hollywood rag is a communal item to be shared once we, of course, have finished it cover to cover.  It’s like spreading good karma.

This woman sitting next to me offers a smile and I give one back.  Hi I’m Jacquie, I’m Shannon, and we exchanged polite, brief conversation, each not trying to intrude on the other’s space.  I found out she has children; young, like mine, and gradually we enjoyed swapping stories of juggling motherhood with new jobs.  We both laughed at how we were going to try to enjoy our trip, though it was so hard to leave home on a Sunday. 

 I tell her that I’m just a little worried leaving my son behind because he was sick when I left, and I’m worried about my dog who is also taking medicine.  And, really I’m not sure who I’m more concerned for, the dog or my kid. 

“Yeah,” she agrees.  “Between kids and dogs, it’s a toss up.”

“Oh, do you have a dog, too?”  I ask, making more polite conversation. 

“Well, I have two dogs, but I also own a horse.”

Somewhere in my mind comes the phrase Shut the front door!  Get outta town.  I can’t believe it.  Of course, making polite conversation, I say none of these things. 

“You are the mother of an eighteen month old and a three year old,” I do manage to say with not just the least bit astonishment.  “How do you have time for a horse?”

“Oh, I’m just in love with her,” she blushes back.  “I’m a nut and I know it.  When we moved to Washington State, I brought her with us. She was shipped in one of those horse moving vans.”

“Wow,” I say honestly. I wondered, probably out loud, something along the lines of purebred something-or-other, National Velvet, competitive rider, blah, blah, blah, to which she replied;

“Oh, no, she’s a rescue horse, but I think she rescued me.”

 There was my answer.  It was too perfect. 

The guardian angels let me know that this was to be a story about that magic kismet that happens when we give way to the love in our heart and the compassion to care for and be cared about with reckless abandon. 

Of course, for the next hour I’m entranced by the story she tells me. 

On a beautiful Mother’s day Shannon and her husband took their oldest son, then just a baby, out to a petting farm.  It was their way of introducing him to the farm animals that he was learning about in all the baby books.  As a mom myself, I think that’s a great idea.  I mean, what better way to understand the sound a lamb makes than to hear it first hand?

As they walked around the farm, they saw lots of horses, along with the regular cast of characters that you find in the barn.  The farm, North Wind, is also the home of the Horse Rescue, Relief and Retirement Fund, an organization dedicated to ending the slaughter and abuse of horses.  (

The founder of HRRRF and owner of North Wind Farm, Cheryl Flanagan, showed everyone around the farm as their tour guide and introduced Shannon to Inca.  This was a tiny foal, splotched brown and white, standing there in a stall without a mother by her side.  As Cheryl explained, in the horse racing industry there are nurse mare farms.  Mares, and in particular draft horse mares, are bred specifically for the purpose of fostering a race horse foal so the race horse mare can either return to racing, be bred again, or, as high strung as some race horses are, there are times a racing mare will reject her foal.  So, nurse mares, as they are called, are bred and then their foals are taken away and, literally, dumped. 

Inca was the offspring of a draft horse mare and thoroughbred stallion, also known as a warm blood because of the cross breeding between a draft horse and riding horse.  Inca was immediately discarded after she was delivered and did not receive the essential colostrum, or first milk that a mother gives to her offspring in the initial feedings after birth.  That made her particularly vulnerable to infection and greatly increased her risk of death in those crucial first few weeks.  Cheryl pointed out to Shannon she thought that the wobbly little filly might not make it. 

“Well, that was it,” Shannon told me as she rolled her eyes, smiling.  “I made excuses to stop by a few times to feed her and sit with her in her stall. Being a new mom myself, it bothered me so much that Inca didn’t have her own mother with her.”

Shannon just happened to “drop by” over and over again during the following weeks. Finally, this new mom who was now pregnant with her second baby dropped the bomb.    Shannon got up the nerve to say what she really wanted and she wanted that filly.  The problem was that now Inca was healthy and had just been adopted from HRRRF’s list of available horses.  The new owner was coming to pick her up in a couple of weeks. 

“I started crying and told Cheryl that I wanted Inca,” Shannon described, while making small waving gestures to express that foment of drama surrounding her in the moment. 

And Cheryl Flanagan made a call and the adoption of Inca went to Shannon. 

You just can’t keep a relationship that was meant to be, like Inca’s and Shannon’s, from their happily-ever-after beginning. It just took Shannon some time to get to that point. 

If you are one who is owned by your animal, you understand that at some point you stop yourself from doing what you should do and do what your heart is aching to do.  Your house will always be too (small, no yard, on a busy street), your life is too (full, crazy, obligated).  Or, simply put, you just can’t afford it. 

Whether its motherhood, marriage or one brown and white pinto-coated filly, your heart will tell you long before your head agrees, that there is always room for love. 

I can only imagine what the conversation must have been like back home, though I’m sure it went something along the lines of:  I know we have a baby and another on the way, but I love that foal. And Shannon’s husband, who now ranks somewhere near sainthood-status with me (even though we’ve never met), told her to follow her heart. 

So, Shannon made sure that Inca grew up from a beautiful filly into a well-mannered and capable riding horse.  She’s healthy and happy and loves her “mommy.”  With two kids, two dogs, and one very wonderful husband, Shannon gets up early every Saturday and goes on a trail ride with Inca.  It’s just their time, no one else.  During one summer, Shannon and a small group of women took a few days to ride the forest trails at the base of Mount Rainier here in Washington State.  It is a perfect, picturesque setting for a perfectly suited pair. 


Over time, I've lost track of Shannon and Inca, though I've kept in touch with Cheryl Flannigan and the happenins' @ North Wind Farm.  Cheryl and I played phone tag all summer as she's busy hauling horses and taking care of all the big and small animals at the farm. Right now, she's in the midst of readying for the winter months with her October 22nd "Hay Day" event at the farm, to raise money for feed to ensure her rescue animals are well-fed throughout the winter. As it says on her facebook page..."Carry your ass on over and donate a bale of hay!" I LOVE that!

Just like our Darla Clark, who runs Strawberry Mountain Mustangs rescue in Oregon, Cheryl is dedicated to the rescue and rehab of abused equines, as well as the sucessful retirement of working equines. Learn more about her work at as well as her facebook page of the same name. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Christmas Lamb

Most people don’t have lamb at Christmas, and besides, it isn’t really that kind of story. Christmas has always been a special time of year for me.  When I was a little girl it was the time of year when my dad, who kept an apartment in Chicago and traveled constantly, would come home and spend up to two weeks with our family spanning Christmas to New Year. 

After I moved on from my first marriage and created a life of my own, Christmas took on a new meaning.  It was a time to celebrate the love and camaraderie created in my own home.  When Chelsea died and Nic came into my life, it also became a time to honor her final gift to me by celebrating Nic’s birthday.  Each year, I fill his stocking with toys and treats and, of course, give him a special white chocolate-covered dog bone in honor of the day, which also happens to be his birthday.

I feel closer to Chelsea on that day, like she dips down from heaven and the veil thins between her world and mine.  I sometimes imagine her sniffing around the living room after Santa visits on that late Christmas Eve night.  During the night, I have heard creaking of the floorboards outside the bedroom, where Chelsea used to curl up.  It startled me at first, though now I just accept it as her settling in for the night to keep her post on that very holy night of the year.

If you also believe that miraculous things happen during this blessed season, then you will understand the serendipitous joy of the Christmas lamb and receiving a gift one never expected.  These stories, as you know, come to me in the most unusual of places and this one is no exception.  And, while working for the phone company, representing us to the communities we serve throughout rural Washington and Oregon, I often attended local events and celebrations that we sponsor.  Here is where the Christmas lamb and her story came to join this collection. 

Each spring, I traveled to Eastern Washington for an annual livestock show organized by the Junior Livestock association of Spokane.  Kids that are members of 4-H and Future Farmer of America (FFA), in this case raising cattle, lambs, goats or pigs as projects, bring them to the “Junior Show” as it’s called for some friendly competition.  These students learn tips from those that are judging the quality and care they put into their livestock and then they sell these animals to help defray costs of raising them as well as to save for their education after high school graduation.

In H. Jackson Browne’s “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” lesson #20 calls for us to attend 4-H and FFA competitions to restore our faith in young people.  I completely agree.  The life lessons these students learn in caring for their animals and the camaraderie of doing so as a team fundamentally transforms them into confident, compassionate and goal-oriented young adults. 

Treva Norris’ Grandson, Robert, is no exception. 

I know Treva because for many years she served as the executive director of this great organization, making sure that all of us sponsors are engaged in a myriad of ways to support the student-participants of Junior Show.  So, on this one particular Friday night as we stood together during the fitting and showing competition, I noticed that she was just about walking on pins and needles.

“Treva,” I say.  “What’s going on tonight? Is there something special coming?”

She smiled affectionately, and explained that her grandson, Robert, would soon be showing his lamb that he raised for this competition. 

“Oh, is this his first year participating?”  I ask, thinking that’s why she’s so ebullient. 

“No, this is his miracle, this lamb.  You see, we didn’t know that he’d make it, that he’d live, or walk again after the accident last year.  Robert being here tonight is a miracle, because of this lamb.”

Ah, there it was, a too perfect story about a lamb and a young man inspired to overcome great odds.  So, in the time we waited for his round in the competition, Treva Norris granted a moment of grace to share her story about this miraculous Christmas Lamb. 

Treva’s son, daughter and their two kids, including their oldest, Robert, celebrated Thanksgiving that year by vacationing on the Washington Coast.  They drove from Spokane, nearly 600 miles round trip and were on the last leg of their return, about 30 miles from home, late on a Sunday evening.  The weather, true to Murphy’s Law that things happen at inopportune times like holiday weekends, was horrible and a snow storm nearly blinded the path ahead of them. 

As Treva’s son crested a hill on interstate 90, a huge Super cab F350 Ford truck lost its traction on the ice, crossed the center line and broadsided the family car at top speed.  Robert sat in the front passenger seat and was by far the most injured in the wreck.  At the scene, it was moment-to-moment whether he would survive.  While his father, mother and sister were transported by ambulance with their substantial injuries, Robert was whisked away via a rescue helicopter life flight in order to save precious time.

As a mother now, I can easily imagine the sheer panic and worry Robert’s mother must have felt at that moment.  Even though she suffered from her own injuries, and knowing those of her daughter and husband, to wonder if that was the last time she would see her son must have brought an overwhelming sense of helplessness when his rescue helicopter lifted away.

However, we people of faith understand that God has his own timing.  And, with that understanding, it was not time for Robert to die. 

The first sign of hope for Robert came with the delivery of his FFA jacket to his hospital room.  People throughout Eastern Washington understand the pride and commitment students have as members of their FFA club.  Their jackets sport patches and ribbons similar to a high school lettermen’s sweater.  Somehow Robert’s jacket remained unscathed in the wreck that totaled their family vehicle and the oncoming truck.  The paramedics found it and kept it safe until they could personally deliver it to its owner.  How that happened amazed everyone, even Robert. He took it as a sign of hope.

From his hospital bed, he assured everyone that he would recover.  Moreover, he insisted that he would be entering a lamb in the upcoming year’s junior show, which was his senior year of high school and last as a member of FFA.  These were bold statements. 

While in the hospital every doctor assured him it would be a tremendous accomplishment to ever walk again, and if he could, Robert would most surely remain in a wheelchair for at least the next six months.  Again, where miracles are concerned, never underestimate the power of inspiration and the determination of the human spirit. 

“We didn’t want to discourage him,” explained Treva.  “But Robert’s injuries were so severe and the odds were not in his favor.  His grandfather and I kept saying ‘honey, we’d love you to show, but you may not be recovered yet.’”

Moreover, she explained to Robert that they didn’t breed their ewes to deliver lambs in time for the show in mid-spring.  “We bred late that year,” she explained.  “But Robert never wavered in his assurance that he would be ready and would take a lamb to that Junior Show the first weekend in May.”

Everyone was out of the hospital by mid-December, including Robert though he was the last to be released.  The severity of everyone’s injuries, by necessity, sent the entire family to Treva and her husband Frank’s home for their long-term recovery.  Robert, who was confined to bed, was set up in the sun room, a converted porch that overlooked the pasture. From his perch, Robert could keep an eye on the hundred or so ewes that comprised his grandparent’s flock of sheep. 

He kept vigil, waiting for his lamb to arrive.  Treva kept apologizing for not having bred any of the ewes sooner.  But of course, the livestock angels had another plan and on the 23rd of December, out of nearly eight dozen ewes, one of them gave birth to a lamb. 

“Well, it was just nothing short of a miracle,” Treva explained with her arms outstretched in exclamation.  “From that day forward Robert continually improved.  It was simply amazing to watch. By February, less than three months after the accident, he was out of his wheelchair and able to attend some classes at school.”

Of course with his injuries, Robert could not last an entire day there.  So, to help him complete his senior year of high school, all of his teachers pitched in.  Often teaching and tutoring him from his hospital bed overlooking the field where his Christmas lamb grew and played.  As he felt better, Robert would feed and care for the lamb, gentling it and preparing it for show ring competition. 

Along with his studies, his Christmas lamb gave him purpose and focus and an ultimate goal to strive for on his road to wellness and recovery.  By that first weekend in May, as I stood with Treva, seeing tears in her eyes and those of her daughter’s, I knew was truly fortunate to witness what I saw.  It was a magical moment, with angel dust sparkling the air around that barn.  There, before us, stood Robert, helped by his younger sister in the show ring.  It was the culmination of a miracle along with determination and hard work on the part of this earnest young man. 

“The recovery he made after that lamb was born was just dramatic,” said Treva. “Robert went from a person who could not even stand – who needed full-time care – to a recovering, walking person.” 

Robert is still healing from his injuries, though doing infinitely better than on the interstate that night. “He’s still not one hundred percent,” Treva explained.  “But we’re hoping that he’ll be back to normal.” 
I often ponder if there is such a thing as “normal” in life.  In one of my all-time favorite movies, Tombstone, Val Kilmer’s character, Doc Holiday, said to his friend Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, “There is no normal life Wyatt.  There’s just life.  You get on with it.”  And so is Robert after the inspiration of his Christmas lamb. 

Robert’s plans include attending a gunsmith school along with his father.  After the accident, Robert’s dad, a long-haul trucker, decided that life is too precious to be away from those he loves the most.  They will eventually go into business together, in order for this father and son to spend their days with one another. 

“This experience filled us with love, hope and the knowing that there is a higher power inspiring us all,” said Treva. 

“In this case it’s through our animals,” she observed thoughtfully.  “The angels knew we needed this very special Christmas lamb.”

I caught up with Treva just before publishing her story…Here’s what she had to tell me:

We are doing well. I am still very active as you know with Spokane Interstate Fair. My husband and I [still] have a small farm with sheep, and we also own a convenience store/cafe which keeps us way too busy for a couple of old folks. I work part time with WSU teaching nutrition to kids in 3 area schools. (Just have to stay involved with kids!)

My grandson still has many problems which were a result of the auto accident… but helps us out with the sheep and other odd jobs. The rest of the family recovered almost fully. We count our blessings!!

Sincerely, Treva

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Until this chapter of the book there has been nary a word written about C-A-T-S, and you might ask ‘why’ gentle reader?   Given that this book was inspired as a tribute to my dear Chelsea, I seemed to uncover dog stories at first.  Then, when I stumbled across horses, Jamie’s penguin and other animals, I realized that this book should include a tribute to cats, as well.  As such this story would not be complete without telling you about my Snowflake, the first ‘Too Perfect’ animal I owned (or, rather who owned me).

Well, actually we had a dog, too.  Her name was Angel.  Yes, and by the description, both animals were white.  My mom, whom I lived with almost exclusively my entire childhood, my sister and I used to talk about our white animals; that it meant we were surrounded by real angels.  Whether her presence was angelic or not, Snowflake was there for me, especially, and what we shared helped me get through my childhood.  I needed all the divine intervention I could muster back then. 

Looking back, I wonder often how my mother suffered.  Some days for her were good, others were not so good.  I could tell in the morning which it would be.  My father, whose business was in supplying products to the road construction industry, was as busy as could be during the early 70’s.  He traveled extensively and when he was in town, he was at the office.  He sometimes took my sister and me with him there to give my mom a break and those days are the ones I choose to remember.  I’m sure we were a handful but I’m not sure who appreciated the ‘break’ more, my mother or my sister and I.

After several years of an emotional roller coaster, my dad convinced my mom that living 1000 miles apart would actually be good for their marriage and she moved my sister and I to Washington State, raising us in what was her own childhood home.  My father visited every two weeks, arriving on a Friday afternoon or evening and leaving before dawn on Monday morning.  He was as you might say the first super commuter. 

On Fridays, we would sometimes meet him at the ferry dock or the little airport a few miles from our house.  After regularly waiting over an hour for my mom to pull it together to pick him up, he finally started driving a rental car to and from the airport.  This ensured he made a clean getaway on Monday mornings; I’m sure, because by Sunday nights my mom was screaming and throwing the dinner dishes at him. 

My younger sister wanted nothing to do with either parent and she found two friends at whose homes she often spent entire weekends when dad was visiting (as I called it because he didn’t live there, no matter what my parents said).  So, she disappeared and I was left trying to find an inconspicuous place to exist and not become a target of mom’s wrath.  Which happened after my father left on Mondays, as anyone that angry is really just a heat-seeking missile looking for the closest, most vulnerable target. 

Snowflake came to our lives amid all this chaos as one of the litter of kittens from Blossom, who was also as white as a puffy cloud.  Blossom was the ultimate mom-cat and adored Snowflake.  We gave away the other kittens but kept ‘Flakey’ as we sometimes called her.  My sister was claimed by Blossom and so, luckily, Snowflake sized me up and picked me. 

When we were young, Snowflake let us dress her up and be pushed around in a baby carriage.  What cat does that?  We didn’t really understand her divine generosity back then but just had so much fun playing with her.  I remember her waiting patiently in the carriage for us to retrieve something from the house.  I peeked out our bedroom window, and there she was, bonnet and all, cleaning her paws or just contemplating the day. 

When she wasn’t playing a “Cabbage Patch” doll, Snowflake had many pursuits to keep her occupied and keep me laughing.  During the summer season when the tide went w-a-a-a-ay out, she was on the beach digging up a bullhead (a type of fish that lives under rocks when the tide goes out).  She then brought it up on the lawn and ate that danged thing from the tail up, while it was still alive!  It was so gross but we kids were fascinated with exploits from The Wild Kingdom.  Obviously on those nights she turned her nose up at cat chow. 

In the winter, especially if we had a rare snow, our Great White Hunter would go absolutely bonkers.  She loved burying herself in the snow and pouncing out at us.  I could almost hear her laugh and say something dramatic like “Muahahaha, foiled you again.”  When she decided she had ‘enough’ of the snow and wanted to warm up, Snowflake then balanced herself on the back porch railing and crunched snow beneath her paws as she paced back and forth calling for us to open the kitchen door. 

But later, as she matured, Snowflake became much more than a playmate.  She was my comfort and even my protector.  My mom was known as the Wooden Spoon Queen.  When punishment was to be doled out, that was her weapon of choice.  When things got out of hand as they often did when mom got really angry, Snowflake growled and paced the room.  Finally, she jumped up on my mom’s chest, batted her with her paws, then hopped down and walked slowly away, with her tail straight up in the air.  Her message was clearly “I dare you to do something more about that.”  Later when my mom was ready to punish us, as she called what she did, she had to put Snowflake away or the cat would intervene. 

As kids do, my sister and I grew bigger and sometime around age 12 my mom couldn’t use corporal punishment anymore.  Besides, as our worlds grew to involve friends beyond just the neighborhood kids, she behaved much differently in ‘public’ as I grew to understand it.  My mother’s public persona was a vast divide from the person she was at home.  On the outside looking in, you would think we were a ‘Hallmark family’.  My parents both had their college educations; my father had his master’s degree from Stanford, for heaven’s sakes.  How could there be anything wrong in such an upper middle class family?  Despite that, I know some people caught on right away.  My mom didn’t socialize with those kinds of folks for long. 

But even though I got older, it seemed like Snowflake stayed in place.  She was always there when I got home from school or cheerleading practice or from my part-time job at the pharmacy.  In my quiet times, she was there helping me recharge my batteries so I could keep up the charade of the perfect girl when I went out into the world.  She kept me company while I did my homework or talked on the phone.  Later, long after she stopped growling at my mom, she began growling at my boyfriends. 

College was my escape, though by that time I was so fully engaged in keeping the family secrets that I had a tough time being on campus.  When my dad visited, as was his near twenty-year habit by that time, I was pressured to be home those weekends and to serve as referee between the two of them.  Of course, Snowflake was there to keep me company when I came home.  Looking back, I just feel like I abandoned her.  I was so focused on getting away to college, balancing the family dynamic, doing my homework, working part-time and getting to and from school, that I didn’t think about what her life was like.  Snowflake was just ‘there’ every time I came back home.

When I finally left for good, so did Snowflake.  My mom was the one left to take her in to the veterinarian and have her put down.  It bothered me so much when I found out she died.  I knew that I should have been there but with my life fully consumed by that pendulum swing of either serving as referee or running away from my parents at home, I just couldn’t. 

So, when it came time for Chelsea to go, I knew, as deeply as I know anything else in my life that I needed to be there with her to say goodbye and help ease her passing.  After Chelsea died and I was granted a moment of grace from heaven in dreaming of her, I dreamt about Snowflake.  Well, actually, I met an angel and asked “Is Snowflake here, is she alright?”  It’s a question that remains unanswered, even today.  I know that I did the best I could with what I had to give back then.  She gave me so much, and I know she never expected anything more.  As a result, I learned such a valuable lesson. 

There is a vast difference between those who society says ‘should’ be there for you, such as your blood relatives, and those who have really demonstrated love toward you.  In many people’s lives, such as my own, those who have loved me unconditionally are not exclusively of the human species.  In my life, they have included the canine, equine, and feline variety.  Their love makes any difficult situation bearable.  And, my dear Great White Hunter, Snowflake, was indeed too perfect. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011


The Ridgeless Ridgeback

I just sort of closed my eyes and leapt into my career as a public relations professional.  Each time I moved from place to place, I miraculously found a perfect job for me.  And, with each of those positions somewhere out in the communities I lived, almost without exception, there was a crusty, old military retiree as my boss.  I often learned that those ‘great opportunities’ were because my strong-minded, sometimes stubborn-like-a-mule and ALWAYS hard-working-to-a-fault-boss had run off the previous tenderfoot in my position.

Not to worry, these veterans of world wars, unpopular police actions and true warriors for our country, were woefully misunderstood.  Grateful was I for the chance to salute now and then, say a few ‘yes sirs’ and agree with indignation in just the right moments for these matches, made in heaven. 

And, just about the most indignant (and heartfelt) of these was Don Kirchoffner.  He could get so worked up over things that he would reduce mere mortals to tears, sending not-just-a-few drama queens marching right into the human resources office to complain about him.  Finally, one day, I just smiled and said something to the effect of “Honey Bee, Honey Bee, if you keep getting that upset you’re going to hurt yourself,” and after he wiped the tears of laughter from his face, we got down to some serious fun in the ensuing time we worked together.  I learned so much from him that I will be eternally grateful for his lessons in professionalism, creativity and hudspa.  Don has all those qualities, in spades. 

Don taught me so many things, but one of the greatest gifts we gave each other was the gift of laughter.  Together we learned to lighten up about taking ourselves and our situations too seriously.  Not the least of those was a good laugh now and then over his dog Duchess.  When things got quiet or when there was little to laugh about, I would say “So, how’s the ridgeless ridgeback doing nowadays,” or, he would say, “Well, the ridgeless ridgeback got into it again,” and he would be off some cockamamie story, and we’d all be laughing about that fifty-dollar dog, whom Don said he bought for the kids, but that he really loved for himself. 

When Duchess passed away, Don wrote a heartfelt eulogy to his beloved royal friend.  I am grateful to him that he allows me to print it here, as he writes it better than I could have ever done so….


"Duchess Louise” an Azriel brown Rhodesian ridgeback, went gentle into that good night at 3:30 am September 12, 2001 after a sudden debilitating illness.   She went quietly, sadly, and she had a beautiful yet mournful look on her face.  Those who attended her during her final hours were filled with deep grief and sorrow at their sudden loss.  The grief was sorely compounded because of those who loved her even more dearly; Matthew, Jill and Megan were not able to be in attendance.

Duchess was affectionately known as Dutch, Rown Brown and Rown Brown Bear and various other peculiar names by those who loved her.  She was born September 24, 1991.

Duchess came to the Kirchoffner household based on a promise that the elder Kirchoffner's finally kept with their children.  That promise was thus stated "When we get a house with a backyard, you can have a dog."  On a cold November day, Mrs. Kirchoffner and her son went in search of said dog and happened upon the proud owner of Rhodesian Ridgebacks.  A peculiar breed of dog, powerful, beautiful, devoted to protecting children, noted for hunting Puma and Lion, possessing great speed with the unique identifying mark of a reverse ridge of hair running the length of their backs.

Only those dogs born with the reverse ridge were deemed worthy and others such as Duchess would be put to sleep unless new owners agreed to ensure that the dog would undergo an operation to ensure that it would not have a litter of its own.

But that is how it came to pass that Duchess was brought to the household of the Kirchoffner family, "a ridgeless ridgeback" purchased for the paltry fee of $50 with a signed oath to ensure that said operation would insure that Duchess never bore children of her own.  Mrs. Kirchoffner nursed her for three nights with hot water bottle and alarm clock to attempt to replicate the missing mother.  Duchess grew fast and big, but even faster was the love that developed between her and the children. While she sought many places to call her spot and her turf (to include on that rare occasion Mrs. Kirchoffner's furniture) she could be most often found at the floor or foot of the bed of her self-proclaimed Master Matt Kirchoffner (which led to Matt’s claim that she was “his” dog).  But in his absence she would often find refuge with the daughters Jill and Megan who also laid claim to affection from Duchess.

She was a gentle dog, not given to chasing the defenseless or barking out threats. Only when the doorbell would ring or something seemed amiss would she let instinct take over to protect and mother her masters. She was trim and well muscled, weighing about 90 pounds most of her adult life but was for some reason fearful or had not time for other small dogs and animals.

Her favorite pastime was the romp in the back yard.  Not once in all the years was she caught by any of the masters.  Other peculiar tricks that only she was capable of performing were the blanket over the head, and the protective crouch with the blanket between her paws.  She was also quite adept as chasing and pushing a soccer ball around the back yard at speeds that were truly amazing.

Probably the greatest joy that Duchess brought the younger Kirchoffner's was the profound love she would express to them when they would return to the household after extended absences.  Jumping, pawing, licking, and circling with intense love for the three and the Mr. and Mrs. Kirchoffner.  Her eyes literally sparkled with the love she had for them and that same love was reflected in their eyes.
Her food needs were simple but she was also quite capable of foraging on her own for hamburgers, butter dishes and other dishes left unattended. Wherever she went, humans, adult and child alike, were drawn to her.  Though she took no particular interest in their attention, she was always intrigued with their activities.

The Kirchoffners were no less intrigued by Duchess' compulsive and neurotic behavior to only leave droppings in her own back yard.  Other neurotic behavior was displayed by Duchess when on occasion (or so it was rumored) Mrs. Kirchoffner would leave the gate open hoping that Duchess might try to experience some newfound freedom.  But about as far as Dutch would venture would be from the back yard to the front and on only one occasion did she stray across the street which caused a massive and uncalled for manhunt…but those were the early years before the family became well conditioned that Duchess was not going anywhere.

Because Duchess always seemed to take the full measure of life offered to her it was all the more agonizing to watch her suffering. During this sudden crisis, which lasted less than two days, we were desperate for answers that were not forthcoming.  Her deterioration progressed rapidly and the vet did not have the divine power to restore her to the vibrant dog she had been. The elder Kirchoffner's anguished over her total lack of mobility and their inability to help.  And while Duchess too was confused she seemed to understand what was happening to her…and consequently she fought all the way.  It was most apparent in her eyes and the quiet calls she sent throughout that final night.   During those last hours we spent together she was sending her love to her masters, Jill, Matthew, Megan and the Mr. and Mrs.  

Duchess did not go gently into that good night.  At three-thirty in the morning she knew that God was calling and called for Master Kirchoffner one last time.  I went to her and looked into her eyes and said its ok and lay down beside her.  Very shortly after she passed on.  She stayed true to the end, a loving and loyal companion.  She wanted someone there with her in her final minutes, someone who could tell the younger Kirchoffners that she did not go without saying goodbye….and that she will be waiting for us on the other side.

We will miss you Duchess......

I keep in touch with my good friend, Don, and his family via Facebook.  Since then, he and his wife, Elaine, have welcomed sons-and-daughters-in-law, grandkids and, yes, even dogs into their lives.  He and Elaine have moved a couple of times and Don has stared down cancer with the courage of the warrior and patriot that I know he is.  I’m grateful to be friends with the Kirchoffners and to hear their stories…It’s too perfect.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Life with Mikey

Mikey has a big crush on Jamie.  Or at the very least he likes her a lot.  The only wrinkle in the story of these two star-crossed lovers is the fact that Mikey is a three-feet tall, big, beautiful King penguin and Jamie is a five-and-a-half-foot tall human. 

But the story of their relationship starts long before they actually fell in love…when Jamie was in high school.  Jamie’s mom raised her all on her own.  Jamie talks almost reverently, in hushed tones, about how she made such a great life possible for them despite being a single mom.  As a single mom now myself, I know it isn’t easy to provide such a wonderful life as Jamie describes what her mom gave her. 

In order to accomplish it all, there were sacrifices to be made.  With this in mind, they went lots of places and had a lot of fun, and this dynamic duo was a frugal pair.  Jamie proudly told me about it in bits and pieces as we worked together spreading good karma for the phone company and finally, the power behind she and Mikey’s love story came tumbling out while we enjoyed a too-perfect day together whale-watching.    

We motored out of Roche Harbor, in the heart of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago that straddles Washington and British Columbia.  A breeze fingered through our hair on this picturesque summer afternoon while we trolled for orca whales.  This warm season brings orca together for a clan gathering of sorts. Fishing for salmon and hunting for seals is good around the islands this time of year.  Whale babies are born in the shelter of coves and bays, and lots of love is shared among the pods of orcas as they join up to make one super pod, eat to their hearts content (on good years), broaden their gene pools and further the future of their species. 

As a result of this massive orca family reunion, tourists like me, and Jamie and thousands of others flocked like sheep in order to witness this annual love-fest. During college, I remembered that Jamie worked at Sea World in San Antonio, TX.  Armed with her knowledge of orca I knew that she could teach me a few things that weren’t on the regular tour about whales as well as enjoying the sea and sights around us. 

Everything Jamie learned in four years of working at Sea World was condensed, organized and card-catalogued efficiently into her brain.  Not surprisingly, Jamie has a teacher’s soul.  As you know, with teachers, everything has a place and must be in place, properly, thank you.  

Jamie often laughs with us, her colleagues, about the fact that no matter what the event, Jamie is always on top of the last detail.  We march to her orders like a dutiful classroom of kids.  On more than one occasion I’ve given her the all-too-plentiful advice that she should change professions and get paid to boss small children around, preferably in second or third grade.  She is a perfect benevolent dictator. 

To which she replies often that teachers do not get paid enough to earn a proper living, and so she chose the marketing profession.  I am one of those free-spirited, creative types.  I think that we are to become whatever our mission is, to connect with our soul and learn what that mission actually is.  However, Jamie decided that teaching wasn’t for her, so she chose to apply her great attention to detail, organization and logical sequence in the marketing department of our phone company.  We were kindly blessed with Jamie at our organization. 

So on a warm-breeze summer afternoon, Jamie and I sat amid all this splendor spying yachts in the harbor and letting our eyes drink in the incredible beauty of the Pacific Northwest.  It was one of those kind of days where trying to describe the sound of gray-blue water lapping against a boat or the exhale of Orca blow holes close by was woefully inadequate to the emotions raising the plum line in my soul.  Simply put, I was full of joy and wonder at the grace of life around me.

At the time we were slathering mayo onto bread poised perfectly atop our laps while making assembly-line turkey and cheese sandwiches.  On this whale-watching trip lunch didn’t come with the package even though the trip crossed lunch hour.  So we improvised, purchasing sandwich fixins’ at the market. 

Bending over to my task, I dutifully slather the bread with mayonnaise and, next on the conveyor belt Jamie is applying the turkey slices.   We took a break in the action and ponder the direction of true North and then returned to the task at hand, when Jamie opened the door to her world to tell me about herself.  I pause, looking for fairy dust and sparkles, holding my breath because I know this is a glimpse into the sacred, special part of what makes her, “Jamie.”  

She began rather benignly by pointing out parts of the Orca anatomy and their coloring that make them unique to one another. The “saddle” is a grey patch between the dorsal fin and the tail that is different for every whale.  Marine biologists use this patch as well as the whale’s dorsal fin, which is also unique to each whale, to identify specific members of a pod, as a whale family is called. 

As she got comfortable in her teacher’s role I only wanted to learn more.  Her gift of teaching was played out as she relayed to me everything she’d learned as a summer camp counselor at Sea World.  By this time, we’re now enjoying our sandwiches and Jamie carefully chooses her words and explained that growing up outside Saint Louis, MO, of course Jamie and her mom visited Sea World. 

Something about that place must have moved her, inspired her.  Seeing sea mammals in a land-locked place, listening to the sounds they make when they breach for air or just simply because they can, feeling water spray down as part of the hundreds of gallons displaced whenever whales splash back into their domain.  It’s hard to pin-point any one thing.  Jamie still holds that magical moment close to her chest.  That is her personal joy. 

Finally, though, that inspiration found a calling. “I kept surfing the Internet, not really sure what I was looking for and then I found a Sea World summer camp in San Antonio, Texas.”

After that, Jamie was bitten by the Sea World bug.  Throughout college, she spent every summer there playing camp counselor-big-sister-teacher to kids staying overnight as well as day-trippers.  While she joined the many others who were awestruck by Orca whales, Jamie’s heart was taken by the penguins.  And, in particular, Jamie loved the King penguins.  It seemed that one of them returned her admiration. 

All penguins are playful and attached to their zookeepers.  I didn’t know that when Jamie told me.  I thought they hung around for food and then turned their attentions back to one another.  However, I was woefully wrong and she patiently explained that they consider humans part of their flock and will become very attached to one or more of those taking care of them.  Over the four years that Jamie was a camp counselor, she regularly brought children in for ‘hands-on’ time with penguins.  As a result, she got to know almost all of “her” penguins by name and could recognize them as they could her. 

At Sea World in Saint Louis, they boasted a healthy and robust family of King penguins. They are aptly named. They grow to about three feet tall and weigh an average ranging from 50 to near 100 pounds.  With this size comes quite a bit of gumption and they are particularly engaging. 

Jamie laughs when she tells me about how the birds use their wings (which look like flippers and are actually used like them) when they walk up behind people and administer a healthy “whack” behind their knees, causing their legs to buckle.  Those and other antics can only be described as higher thought.  Jamie explains that she felt like the penguins actually laughed whenever a zookeeper was brought to his or her knees.  That’s just funny stuff, you know.  “The stooges,” a.k.a. Larry, Curly, Moe and Shep would be proud. Physical humor ranks just above body noises in hilarity.

So, Jamie, like anyone, had her favorites among the penguins.  Mikey was a pretty great penguin as they go, but Jamie abided by the rules of never getting too close, as they are pretty skittish and are not meant to be someone’s pet.  So, one day, Jamie was seated in the exhibit, with her small group of children sitting in a crescent-moon shape across from her.  Jamie, looking at the children, didn’t notice Mikey addling up next to her, but the kids could see him.  She talked, he inched closer.  She talked some more, he got up and scooted within a few webbed footfalls.  The kids started pointing and guffawing.

“I thought they might be laughing at a couple of the penguins showing off, but no, they were amazed at how Mikey was trying to get as close as possible,” Jamie explains.  “So I told him it was okay, he could come closer, and he did.”

Mikey sided right up next to her, and wheedled himself alongside her.  Then, he leaned against her with his head actually resting gently on her shoulder.  I can just imagine him gazing lovingly up at her!  By this time all the kids were laughing.  I’m sure if Jamie and Mikey were both penguins, the penguins in the flock would have been calling out in sing-song voices:  two little love birds sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.  Or, if Jamie had been a fellow camper and Mikey was human, the kids would have sung the same.

And so Jamie, the ever-practical, the efficient-Mary-Poppins in so many ways was completely, unabashedly undone by Mikey’s display of affection.  He touched her heart, inspired her, igniting a well-spring of joy on that day.  Fireworks exploded so brightly that even more than a decade later Jamie still beams as she tells the story. 

On that summer sunny day, with the tourist boat bobbing and the orcas blow-holing and the people beaming from it all, we enjoyed a quiet time after her story.  It seemed poignant to me, how far away she was from her work at Sea World that brought her so much joy and a sense of purpose. 

Two weeks later, while driving down to a phone company event in Sweet Home, Oregon, one of my colleagues called me on my cell phone.  I’m always grateful for the calls, as they break up the monotony of a long drive.  At the time our phone company spanned 38,000 square-miles in Washington and Oregon, some of the most remote communities in the contiguous U.S.  Despite being fully awake and using a hands-free cell phone, I almost drove off the road when my colleague blurted out, “Jamie just sent an email and she’s resigned from her position.”

“Jamie has a new job?  Where is she going?” I amaze myself at being able to choke out a discernable sentence.

“She’s got a job at a hospital conglomerate where she will coordinate marketing events and community education.” 

Ah, bliss.  I thought.  Not quite back to Sea World, but definitely close to her teacher’s soul.  Someday, maybe, she’ll find her way “upstream” just like steelhead spawning and return to Sea World.  In the meantime, she’s on her way there.  Life is a journey, not a sprint, and we are the sum total of the experiences we gain along the road.  Someday, that blessed, blissful someday, she’ll have a lot to share with the penguins. 

However, if Sea World is interested now, then I can arrange an informational interview.  Jamie and her King penguin family need to get back together again sooner than later. 

I caught up with Jamie recently.  It’s been a couple years since we spoke last and much has changed in her world.  As a new mother, she and her husband are celebrating milestones like the baby’s first smile.  She’s also moved on from hospital marketing and education.  If you can believe it, she’s now working for a pet food company, marketing their specialty veterinary line of foods!  It’s awesome! I cracked up!  It really is too perfect!