Fred, Herbie, Greta, Boji, Nisse. Five names. Five dogs that have written stories in the chapters of my life.
A story might be one of the greatest gifts one can be given. It doesn’t need to be handwritten, it can simply be experienced, heard, and felt. Dogs are wonderful authors. They are observant, empathetic, and reflective.
Today, as I sit on the floor of my foyer and the light streams in from the south facing windows, I am experiencing the writing desk of our dear dog, Nisse. This was her home base, her watch tower, her sleeping spot. The sunshine would warm her just as it is doing for me this first day of December. This first day that she isn’t here. The stories that my five dogs have written for me are spilling out.
Fred is the first dog I remember from my childhood on the farm. He was a medium-sized mutt (in the best sense of the word) with short brown hair and big brown eyes. He took his farm watchdog role seriously. If you are a reader of the “Hank the Cowdog” book series by John R. Erickson (which I highly recommend), he was our Hank. I’m not sure why we named him Fred but that name wrote one of my favorite stories.
We were remodeling our farmhouse kitchen and decided to sell the old cabinets. A member of the local Methodist congregation came out to consider purchasing them for his church. My dad, not one to fawn over our dog, never hesitated to bark orders at him, especially if he was underfoot. The fine gentleman from the church was standing in the garage visiting with my dad and looking at the cabinets. Our dog must have gotten a little too curious and my dad yelled, “Get out of here, Fred!” —in that voice he used for herding ornery cattle. Well, the fine Methodist gentleman was mortified—turned out his name was Fred. Not sure how my dad back peddled out of that one. It was a small victory and an endearing story for our dog Fred.
Herbie followed Fred as head of farm security. He was a black and white mix of collie and sheep dog and liked to herd us around. My memory paints him in the background of bigger stories of my high school years, specifically my mom’s cancer journey. Not needing the limelight, he was readily available in the garage or front stoop for petting and conversation from a scared and confused teenage girl. My brother Paul recalls that Herbie would always follow cars and farm machinery down our long gravel lane. In his words, “He never learned to stay home and that was his demise, I suppose.” Herbie met his fate on the oil road following my dad and brother to a field a mile from our farm. The irony of tragically being hit by a Volkswagen Beetle is the stuff of Disney movies. He lived up to his name—Herbie, the Love Bug.
Greta, the golden retriever, was the first dog of my married life. She captured all the dreams of a young couple desiring to care for something that wasn’t as demanding as a baby. If you’ve had the delight of having a golden retriever as part of your family, you know that they are an empath with a capital E. I think she spent most of her life just moving from Dan to me and to our children Ian, Julia, and Elliot with that look in her eye that said, “how can I love you today?” Our world was blessed with Greta for 14 years. She didn’t write drama-filled books, she just sent daily thank you notes.
Boji was a different story. Our desire to have a dog that didn’t shed led us to a less common breed at the time, an Airedale Terrier. She was born on the shores of Lake Okoboji in Iowa. Her mother was a show dog with the lovely name of Iris. Boji would literally dig up any story she could—just ask my husband who had to fill the holes in our yard. There was that time she killed the neighbor’s chickens while the neighborhood children, gathered for an afternoon of fun, watched in horror. Boji was prone to wander and somehow broke through the security gate at the local power company three miles away on busy Rice Street. I think it was that episode that led us to implant a tracking chip in her arm. That didn’t prevent her from sneaking up to the ski slope at Terry Peak one Christmas break. As our kids waited in the chairlift line, they looked over and said, “Is that Boji tied up to the chairlift shed?” She always liked a big audience.
Her best story was written on stage at the local high school theater. She was cast as “Sandy” in the musical Annie. We let her hair grow out so she would be sufficiently fuzzy. Annie led her around the stage on a short rope, which probably wasn’t needed, or maybe it was. She pranced out with Annie for a final bow at the end of each show wearing a big red Christmas bow. It wasn’t too many months later that she died suddenly in this very foyer, likely from a stroke. Her timing was impeccable—it was 10:30 am on a Saturday morning and eight parents were scheduled to come and pick up their daughters from Julia’s sleepover. It was a split second decision as the first mom approached the front door. I decided to just let it appear that she was sleeping. No one will say anything, I thought. It worked for a few of the moms and then the fourth one said, “Oh, what a pretty dog.” I honestly responded, “Thank you, she’s dead.” Boji wrote her last comedy-drama that day.
That brings me to Nisse. Soft-coated Wheaten Terriers are not considered a working dog by the American Kennel Club, but she certainly had her work cut out for her as she joined this active family of six in 2006. She was a dog of contrasts as one minute she was bouncing outside of the door like a Jack-in-the-Box, the next minute she was lying on the tile in the foyer looking like a throw rug. From her home base in the foyer, she greeted each of us numerous times a day while we lived our revolving door life. She learned the sad sound of Dan and my roller bags as we headed out of the house to the airport. Somehow, when the whole family was getting packed up she knew that she might get to come along, too. Nisse was a snuggly road warrior and clocked numerous miles to the Black Hills to see Grandpa and Grandma. Rolling in the snow was a favorite past time and a nod to her Norwegian name that means “Santa.”
The house has been quiet during the pandemic, yet more rhythmic. We could set the clock by Nisse heading to our bedroom at 9 pm to curl up on the floor on Dan’s side of the bed. In the morning she would hear us turn on the coffee maker and she’d show up for her coffee “treat.”
Her racing around the yard gradually slowed to a stroll and then to a shuffle. One more road trip was in order this past weekend—over the river and through the woods to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. No rolling in the snow. Refreshing tastes of the cold, white flakes were preferred over any food or water. Her story led to other stories as Grandpa shared all of his dog stories at the Thanksgiving table . . .Skipper, Coco . . .good dogs, too.
Back home on Sunday night we took turns lying by her in the foyer. She was ready to write her last story. Monday morning, it seemed she chose a movie script as Josh Groban’s song, “Believe,” came blasting from the radio on our way to the vet’s office. This old, fluffy, white dog, beloved by children and named after Santa, seemed to write a final lesson for these two sad and bewildered humans:
Believe in what your heart is saying
Hear the melody that’s playing
There’s no time to waste
There’s so much to celebrate
Believe in what you feel inside
And give your dreams the wings to fly
You have everything you need
If you just believe
Good dog, Nisse. Say hello to Fred, Herbie, Greta, Boji, Skipper and Coco.