A HEARTLAND HOUND
A farmer pulled up in his pick-up truck with a smirk on his face and a blonde in the back seat. He opened his dusty door, and rested his work boots caked in mud on the crackly gravel. I shook his sooty, callused hand and inhaled the burnt charcoal of his flannel shirt. I had spent the weekend at my friend’s farmhouse in Ohio, and this farmer, Gerry, would drive me to the airport.
He pulled back the front seat, and my eyes locked with his passenger while she nervously scratched her ear. The blonde had buckeye-brown eyes, golden mascara, and a button nose. She was petite and I towered over her like a weeping willow to a dandelion.
“She’s all yours,” said Gerry.
She wagged her tail and licked me.
Like that, I became a doggie mother again. In my arms, I held a three-month-old Labrador who smelled like turpentine and chicken feed. Even though I’d done this before, I still had The New Mother Jitters.
As her twenty pounds sank into my arms, I felt different than I had with my first dog, Brie. She had given me my first shot at parenthood. She went from center stage to sitting in the audience once our kids were born and she was demoted to the sidelines as she watched them grow up. She learned to tiptoe over their Lego towers and share their birthday cake. She was their older sister. Losing her when my children were aged 8 and 10, I reluctantly closed a door on a chapter of early motherhood that I would miss.
I have also missed the silliness and sloppiness a dog brings to a household. I wanted a dog around again to slow us down, and to make us feel complete again as a family. I wanted a dog again not only to keep me company but also to steer my kids away from their screens, to lure them outside, and to assume responsibility for someone other than each other.
I could have found a dog closer to our home in California, land of designer dogs that cost as much as a one-bedroom rental in San Francisco.
But, a year ago, something happened when I was visiting dear friends in Ohio where I met a dog named Flora. She belonged to my friend’s neighbor, and we had to feed her one afternoon while her owner was away. Four of us walked into Flora’s house, and this blonde Labrador with fur as soft as a Persian-silk carpet wiggled furiously at my feet, a pestering firefly eager for me to see the light.
I got the message: I had to take home one of her sisters or a cousin from her breeder, the farmer named Gerry, who lived down the road.
I found his number through Flora’s owner, called him the next day, and insisted he keep me in mind for any of his future litters. This past February, the call arrived: his Labrador was expecting puppies on Valentine’s Day. I immediately bought a plane ticket for an unborn puppy and myself. I asked Gerry how much he thought the puppy might weigh when I would fly her home to San Francisco in May.
“Not much bigger than a loaf of bread and a pound of sugar,” he said.
Despite the fact that I have lived overseas for twenty years, of which eight were in Rome, I couldn’t help but think as I flew into Columbus that, with the discovery of this dog, all roads lead to Ohio. I spent four wonderful years at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. There, my values were echoed in the friends I made and the professors who taught me. Returning to the small liberal arts college always grounds me, and reminds of those formative years, which, ultimately, launched me to Italy. Since I graduated, I’ve returned frequently to Gambier as dear friends live in the college town. To pick up a Heartland hound that comes from my college town felt like going home with a Ph.D.
My husband embraced the dog’s provenance knowing how special Ohio is to me. He even wanted to call her Buckeye, the symbol of her birthplace. But we settled on Zabaglione, as she is as sweet and delicious as the Italian dessert of her namesake, with fur the color of it, too. We nicknamed her Zaby.
I felt guilty yanking Zaby from her birth mother and siblings whom she had been sleeping next to and on top of since the day she was born, under the stars, outside, with a chicken coop and a charcoal pit as her playpen. She slept on a bed of dandelions, played catch with dried corn-on-the-cob, and mealtime at the kibble troth was always with family. City life in San Francisco would be a shock for her.
The seatbelts in Gerry’s Ford didn’t work. The hum of the pickup’s motor lured Zaby to sleep in my arms. As we drove on dirt roads, I took in the silos and cornrows of the Heartland that had been the backdrop of my late teens, and loved thinking that Zaby and I would share in common the same love of this landscape’s flatlands. I couldn’t remember the last time I rode in the front seat of a car without a seatbelt, and it made me feel young again.
Gerry and I hugged goodbye at the airport even though we had only just met -- but passing over the care of an animal unites strangers in the parenthood of trust.
As I made my way through two airports and two flights, from Columbus to Chicago to San Francisco, I made friends with the traveling animal lovers I have missed.
One was a missionary on her way to Somalia, and she took my hand and prayed out loud for Zaby asking that I be given the prayer of “favor” as we flew to her new home. Another traveler asked if she could sit next to Zaby onboard to caress her soft ears.
“It’s better than therapy,” she said.
Zaby slept the whole way on my feet, and I knew then she would quickly become the keystone to our family.
In San Francisco, the moment my 11-year-old son laid eyes on Zaby, he grew quiet. He later confessed that he was taken aback by the sudden love he felt for her – the same he had felt when we had lost Brie. My nine-year-old daughter asked me instantly if Zaby was excited or scared to be with us.
“A little bit of both,” I told her. “Just like us.”