Mother said that she would never forget the day that the animal came limping up the dusty, dirt road to our house. It was the middle of a very hot August for Aroostook County, Maine and Mother had risen at her usual five to feed Dad and get him off to work. She had gotten the three oldest children out of the house to walk the two miles up the dirt road to the Old South School and her day was already long.
Looking at the horizon across the Aroostook River towards the Garfield side of the county, she shielded her brown eyes from the glare of the sun and searched from east to west for a sign of a storm cloud to no avail. Shaking her head in disgust at no rain in sight, she reached into her overflowing basket and grabbed the next item to hang on the already sagging, nearly-filled clothes line.
"Guess I'll have to leave the rest of them till the first ones have dried," she thought to herself as she turned to go around the corner of the front porch and into the house. It was when she turned on the top step to have one last look at the horizon that she saw the animal limping along with its head hung low and its tongue hanging even lower.
Ever the animal lover, Mother's heart leapt at the sight and she had a hard time catching her breath. The thin animal's dark coat was covered with a dusting of road dirt and it looked as though it had traveled a great distance. "I wonder whose dog it is?" Mother thought to herself as she waited to see what the creature would do. "I guess it wouldn't do any harm to give it some water," and she turned and hurried into the house to get a bowl.
Quickly pouring the water out of one of the metal pails that always sat on one end of the kitchen counter; she carried the bowl out to the porch and walked down the steps into the yard. The animal was lying by the side of the road at the edge of our driveway and it looked as though it wouldn't last too long. Mother, walked slowly to where the animal lay panting in the hot sun and knelt down to offer it some water. The dog, hearing Mother's approach, lifted its head and Mother was shocked to see that its eyes were the same color as her own. Mother knelt and placed the bowl of water as close to the dog as she dared and quickly backed away.
As she walked back to the house, she turned once to see what was happening and was relieved to see that the animal had crawled over to the bowl and was quickly lapping the water. When the dog had lapped up all the water, it slowly drew itself up and walked unsteadily up the dirt driveway till it reached the shade of the porch. Then, as though knowing that it wouldn't be harmed there, it drug itself up the three steps onto the porch floor where it found a shaded part of the porch and lay down with its head on its two front paws and closed its eyes.
Mother, surprised tha the dog had ventured onto the porch, kept eyeing the clock because her three oldest children would be coming down the dirt road from school pretty soon and she was a little afraid that the dog might attack them. So, she picked up her broom just in case she might need a weapon, opened the screen door and stepped out onto the porch. The dog, hearing her footsteps, lifted its tired head and looked at her then it laid its head back down and went back to sleep.
Hearing yelling and laughter coming from the road, Mother quickly stepped off the porch and walked up the road to meet her kids and warn them about the dog. She told them that the dog might be sick and that they'd have to stay away from it till Dad got home and then we'd see. Elaine, being the oldest, grabbed Mother's hand and waited for her to walk back home but Walt and Jake, curious about the animal, took off on a run or home to see the dog for themselves.
Mother hurried after them, all the while calling out to them to wait for her but they didn't listen. By the time she and Elaine made it to the porch steps, she could see that she really had nothing to worry about. The boys were down on their knees on the unpainted floor, stroking and touching the dog. The dog had lifted its head and was licking their grubby hands. Surprised at the dog's reaction to the excitable boys, she had to laugh to herself that she didn't know if the dog might give the boys an infection or if the boys might give the dog an infection.
Relieved that the dog wasn't vicious, Mother told the boys to go change their clothes and to take a pail down to the pump to get some more water. For once in their lives, they didn't complain about lugging water from the pump and they changed into their play clothes in record time and it wasn't too long before they were flying down the path to the pump to get Mother and the dog some fresh water.
Mother's favorite expression was "We may be poor but we're clean!" and being clean was something she took great pride in. It wasn't too long before Mother had heated some clean water on the stove, poured some shampoo into it and took the pail out to the far end of the porch where the dog and kids were. She set the pail down on the floor near the dog and then she began washing off the animal just like it was a newborn baby. She was shocked to see that as she scrubbed gently on its coat, some of the hair came off too. "Poor puppy," Mother said to the dog, "somebody didn't deserve you did they?" And the dog raised its head and licked the side of her arm.
By the time Dad had pulled up into our yard, the dog looked like a different creature. Its horrible smell had somewhat dissipated and it looked like it might live after all. Seeing Dad pull up, the boys rushed out to meet him and tell him the news. "Dad!" "Dad!" Walt yelled up at him trying to beat Jake in telling about the dog. Dad, used to having a lot of commotion when you have a lot of kids, simply patted one dark haired boy on the head with one hand and a red headed one with the other, and walked slowly up the steps only to see Mother down on her knees grooming the dog with an old brush.
Dad looked from Mother to the dog and with a light in his tired blue eyes, asked where the creature had come from. After telling him the story, Dad handed Walt his dented lunch pail and told him to take it into the kitchen. Walt, happy about being given the honor of carrying Dad's lunch bucket, took off for the screen door with Jake right behind him.
Dad, rid of the clamoring of the boys for a couple of minutes, knelt down beside Mother and held out his hand for the dog to sniff. After it had wagged its tail and licked his hand a couple of times, Dad agreed that it couldn't be very old and it didn't seem to be vicious. Then Mother put the "heart" hold on him by saying, "Oh Bill, do you think we could keep it? You know how long I've wanted a dog to keep me company. You know it gets lonely out here on this God-for-saken back road and it would be a nice pet for the kids too." Dad looked around at the one pair of green eyes, a pair of brown and two sets of blue and knew full-well that he was about to lose this argument so he looked at her and said, "Well Mother," he hedged. "If nobody comes to claim it by the weekend, I guess we can keep it but the boys have to take care of it and keep it clean and fed. Is that a deal?" He asked and the boys nodded their heads in unison.
With that part of the deal taken care of, Dad gently lifted the dog's rear end and sure enough it was a girl. Dad shifted his blue eyes to Mother and said, "You know Mum, it's a bitch and that presents a different kind of problem you know."
"Well," Mother replied, "We'll cross that ditch when we get to it," and with that she turned on her heel to dish up supper for her husband and five children.
Supper was a hurried affair that evening and the boys couldn't wait to be done so that they could go out and sit with the dog on the porch. All thru supper they argued about what to call the dog and Walt being the oldest, decided that he should be the one to name the dog. He liked the names Duke and Buddy but Jake didn't like those names at all so the argument continued till Dad told them to go outside and think about it some more.
Finally, after looking at the dog for a while, they saw the only spot of white on the otherwise black dog. She had a small tip of white on the very tip of her tail and then they found her name too. It was "Tippy." They rushed into the house to tell Dad only to find him sound asleep in his chair in the living room. Mother shushed them and told them that they could tell Dad in the morning and she sent them to wash up and get ready for bed. Just before going to bed too, Mother took down one of Dad's old work jackets and took it out to the porch where she lay it down on the floor next to the dog.
Seeing who had come outside, the dog tried to rise but it was still too weak to stand and Mother knelt down and stroked the head a couple of times. "You stay right where you are Tippy. Here's a bed for you and I'll see you in the morning." With that, she reached into her apron pocket and withdrew a couple of biscuits and gave them to the dog. She watched as the dog quickly ate them and then she smiled to herself. "If it loves my biscuits, it's got to be a dog with good taste," she joked to herself and she went off to bed too.
Mother and the boys waited as the days drug slowly by and by the second day of regular feedings and water, the dog had ventured off the porch to relieve itself in the grass and by the third day she had taken to following Mother down to the pump and back and she followed the boys around the yard as they played. She seemed to have taken to her new name too and when the boys rushed to greet her after school, her ears would perk up and she'd wag her tail at the sight of them as they came running down the dirt road to greet her. And by the weekend Dad agreed that she was our dog now.
Tippy was an excellent pet but she really belonged to Mother if the truth be known since it was really Mother who fed her each day and saw to it that her needs were taken care of. As she grew older and had matured, Mother worried every time she came into heat and she'd keep a sharp eye out for any stray male dogs that might be in the neighborhood. If she even spotted a male dog hanging around, Mother would keep Tippy confined to the porch and she'd go out and chase the male dog away with a few well-aimed rocks from the dirt road. Seeing her devotion to the dog, Dad would laugh and accuse her of spoiling Tippy's fun to which Mother would eye him sternly and say she just didn't want to be the one to have to drown a batch of unwanted puppies.
As the years slid by and our family grew, the one thing that remained the same was Tippy. She went everywhere we kids went too. If we were down in Uncle Hal's woods chopping down trees to build a log cabin or fishing up to the old Chub Hole or walking along the Bangor & Aroostook railroad tracks down behind Mr. Beaulier's farm, Tippy was there right along with us. If Mother had a yen for some fresh strawberries or fiddleheads, off we'd go with Tippy trailing right along behind us, a clump of happy kids and an equally happy dog.
Then, one by one, as we Stevens's kids grew, graduated and began leaving home to begin making a home of their own and before we knew it, Tippy had grown old too. Then, one morning, Mother turned to Dad and said, "Bill, I think there's something wrong with Tippy. She didn't eat her supper last night and she doesn't seem to want to drink this morning either." Seeing the concern in Mother's dark eyes, Dad slid out of his chair and walked to the screen door to have a look at the dog. Tippy was lying in a puddle of sunshine and she did look like something was wrong. She was lying on her side and every now and then a shadow of pain or discomfort would slide across her face and she'd try to shift her body into a more comfortable position.
Dad quietly eased the screen door open and walked softly across the porch floor to where Tippy lay. Sensing that someone was approaching, she lifted her dark head and looked up at Dad. Dad knelt down and stroked her head and was amazed to see all the gray hair that had grown into her dark coat. "Where had the time gone?" he thought to himself and he stroked the soft fur across her belly and he was shocked and saddened when he felt a hard mass there. "There, there girl, you stay where you are and rest." And he gave her a final pat and went back inside to face Mother.
"You don't think she got into any of that rat poison I put under the porch do you Bill?" Mother asked anxiously. "Don't know Mum but I doubt it. She'd be a lot more uncomfortable if she had. I hadn't thought about it but she's getting old and maybe it's just time for her to go." Hearing the dreaded news, Mother began to cry and Dad reached out and held her close. "Now, now, Mum, you knew that this day would come someday didn't you?" Yes, I know," Mother replied "But somehow I thought it would be a long time from now." "Well, let's give her a couple of days and if she isn't better, then you know what we have to do." Dad looked at her with his blue eyes and Mother nodded her head. She knew what he'd have to do but she wasn't going to like it, not one little bit!
The tortuous days slid slowly by and the writing was on the wall, Tippy wasn't going to make it. She refused to eat no matter what concoction Mother made to entice her and it was Dad who finally made the decision. After sending the kids off to bed, he bit the bullet and turned to Mother and said, "Mum, I've never been one to let an animal suffer and I can't just stand by and let Tippy suffer either. If she isn't feeling better by tomorrow night, I'll have to put her down." Mother nodded her head at the thought and turned her face away, lost in memories about the day Tippy had crawled up onto our porch. "Why her kids had been little then too, Elaine had been about nine, Walt seven, Jake five and a half and Toots had been four and since then they'd added Bub, Helen, Shirley and Norma. Tippy was a very old dog alright.
All that day, Mother tried to prepare the kids for the loss of Tippy and she dreaded seeing Dad pull up in our driveway that evening. It was a very sad and subdued family who sat down to supper that night. The subject of Tippy and her illness was on everybody's mind and nobody wanted to bring the subject up so it was Dad who finally broke the silence when he quietly said, "I doubt that Tippy will make it through the night but if she does, I've asked the game warden to come and get her and he will put her down." That was all we needed to hear and the sounds of crying was all he heard till he finally fell asleep with a heavy heart too.
It was raining the next morning and Tippy could barely open her eyes but she still wagged her tail when Dad went out to get her. He covered her with an old blanket, picked her up and carried her out to his pickup and gently placed her on the worn-out seat. Mother was crying right along with the rest of us as Dad slowly backed the pickup out into the dirt road. We all waved goodbye as Dad drove away, knowing that we'd never see our beloved pet again.
Dad later told us that he'd driven over to Garfield and met the game warden and had given him our dog. Dad said that Tippy would be buried up along the Reality Road by the warden and when he found out exactly where, he'd take us there to say goodbye to her some day. We were all saddened by the loss of our wonderful dog but most sad was Mother. She found herself constantly going to the screen door to check on Tippy only to find that she was no longer there. Dad knew that it wouldn't be too long before she'd have another dog and he set about asking the workers at the potato house if anyone knew of some dog that was expecting pups.
It was Saturday night and like so many other families of that time and era, Mother and Dad had a ritual that never changed unless it was something drastic. Every Saturday night, Mother would give Dad a nice bath in our big, old aluminum bath tub in the kitchen and then they'd take themselves off into Ashland where Dad would stop off at Michaud's Restaurant and down a few brews while Mother went to Michaud's Grocery Store to do the shopping for the week.
After all their drinking and shopping was done, they'd come home and put everything away and go to bed. The moon was bright that night and there was a soft wind soughing in the tree across the road. Dad went out to the porch, went to the outdoor toilet at the end of the shed and came back inside to go to bed. Mother, looked up and said she was going to bed. Dad asked her if he should close the kitchen door and Mother told him to leave it open, the night was still warm and there wasn't any rain expected. Dad turned off the porch light and they went to bed.
Dad, always a light sleeper, fell asleep right away and along about three o'clock, something in the wind or a sound brought him to an upright sitting position in the bed. He turned his head and listened and he heard it again, a kind of soft whining followed by a scratching sound. Dad, a born hunter had been in the woods all of his life and had heard many kinds of wild animal sounds but this sound made his hair stand up on his arms. He threw the covers back and slid out of bed in one fluid move and made for the kitchen. He walked quickly across the linoleum floor and looked at the screen in front of him and seeing what he hadn't expected to see, he had to sit down. He pulled out a kitchen chair and fell into it and sat there just looking at the creature on the other side of the door.
The creature, recognizing him, whined and scratched at the door to be let in. Dad opened the door and folded the dirty, skinny dog into his arms and held her close to his chest. "She's come home!" "I can't believe it, she's come home!"
"Tippy's come home!" Dad yelled for Mother and she came running only to stand shocked and stock still in the middle of the kitchen floor when she recognized what Dad was holding.
Dad motioned for Mother to turn on the light and then he saw the blood on her head where the warden's bullet had creased her head. Mother grabbed a dishtowel, dumped some water on it and handed it to Dad to clean the wound and then she too had to sit down. "Bill, I thought you said that the warden was taking her up in the woods and was going to put her down." "That's what he told me Mum but you know animals have a mind of her own and here she is!" Dad couldn't believe it either.
Dad made a bed for the tired dog next to the old Glenwood stove in the kitchen and he covered her with one of his work shirts. They never went back to bed and morning came soon. We were shocked and amazed to see the old dog lying on the kitchen floor that morning but she only lasted a few more days and then she was really gone for good.
Dad asked the warden what had happened and he told Dad that he'd driven her way up into the Reality Road a good fifty miles and he'd shot at her and thought he'd hit her but when he went to get her body to bury her, she was gone. He and Dad agreed that that old, wounded dog must have walked through the woods until she'd reached the Garfield side of the Aroostook River and then she'd swum across the river until she'd reached our side and walked or crawled the rest of the way home. It took her a good three days but she'd made it. She had come home to die.
We buried her down on the top of the hill across from Uncle Hal's gravel pit beneath the old pine tree where we'd picked strawberries and had picnics. And when we buried that wonderful old dog, we buried a part of our innocence and childhood right along with her.
Autobiography of a Simple Soul
Memories, Another Place - Another Time
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All works by Martha Stevens-David published at Magic City Morning Star News are her copyright property and may not be reproduced without her permission.