Wednesday’s Word/Nonfiction: An Unexpected Summer Crush

I fell in love today with a stranger. I don’t have a clue where this one came from or the life history. I’m not sure why I looked over my balcony railing and there appeared a gorgeous vision that captivated me at once. But sometimes these things happen even to me, an older woman well over the rocky pinnacles and swampy lows of random, entrancing romance quite some time ago. I don’t go looking about. But this experience occurred, anyway. That is, the creature looked up when I let a sigh escape. The noble head raised and ice-water blue eyes flicked to mine–then resumed studying the treed, ivy-strewn slope, engaged by more interesting happenings than a human gazing downward. I was more than happily surprised by my new neighbor, a Siberian husky. My favorite dog in the world, more or less.

There is at least one human who moved in with the dog. In fact, she strode out once to check on him/her and then disappeared. And when I got my camera out–I had to shoot a quick one for my kids, who understand these things about their mother. But I forgot that it was still on the timer mode, so it beeped and beeped then took multiple pictures, beep beep beep beep click click click click. ( I must turn off that shutter noise, too!) Of course, the dog finally looked up again and I heard the woman come out. A bit panicked, I stepped back from my balcony’s edge. I didn’t know if I should give a shout out or not… This will likely not endear me to the new woman–somebody taking furtive pictures of her canine companion.

I wasn’t even wondering about a new resident this morning. I was reading, then looking about the trees, sitting at the table. Then got up, stood at the balcony railing and had a casual glance downward.

Now I really only think of her dog. It was taken inside or it was hungry or bored. When will it be let out again?

The small apartment below us has been empty a couple of weeks. I have heard the trucks and the hammering and whirring, sometimes smelled their supplies’ signature odors (one of which about knocked us over as they repainted a tub just below our first floor bathroom). The workers have about renovated the entire thing but I half-expected it to go on, like blurred background noise on the radio or television of an old neighbor to the north of us. I didn’t give one thought to a new neighbor. The last tenant lived there a couple of years, recently moved to Arizona, per another neighbor. She was very young and usually gone; I waved if we crossed paths. (As it is with most people here: we’re at work indoors or went back to the office or are again avoiding contact due to the pandemic’s unpredictable, unsafe trajectory.) I live in my own world, I suppose, too–frequent family engagements, I write or read a great deal, take daily hikes or walks, make a bit of art and do lots of photography, listen to music, do random things like a crossword puzzle or writing real letters. And always the usual tedious household business. Oh, I have a husband. So I am fairly busy.

Others appear to be, as well. But I do see them get out with their dogs, some urging them to finish their business, some leisurely walking and enjoying their company. Oregon is a big dog place and Portland may have more dogs than people, a joke but perhaps not really. To know your neighbors is to know their dogs–sometimes the latter first and better. One of the few people I know by name (besides one across the front entryway who sneaks in and out with few words; another who never acknowledges people and walks his dog like they’re both training for a marathon) is quite a bit older and very interesting. She has given me glimpses of her smart, energetic personality topped by a good if subdued sense of humor, talk laced with a slightly cynical view. She has had several different professional lives that intrigue, moved from California (as many do). She has marvelous skin and gleaming white hair. That’s it-what I know now. She’s not very open so we briefly catch up–though I shared that our granddaughter passed away as she happened to catch me in shock and tearful; a few weeks later she told me she was looking forward to sharing old photos with her own granddaughter when she visited and that was okay– when she walks her Pomeranian, Cocoa. Cocoa likes me fine and vice versa. The way they are together, I suspect they will be warmly connected until the end.

Anyway, here we are generally congenial, sociable strangers. A wave and a smile, an inquiry occasionally. So–another person gone, another moving in, that’s all. It’s not cheap to live here and people leave in summer; some of us stay a long while. And some have dogs that I hear and pleasantly note as I live my life amid mountains, hills, trees and water; stories; Stravinsky with dashes of Marian McPartland and her jazz piano. FedEx deliveries too often for my own good. Just lessen that hammering and shut off the leaf blowers, it’s summer! Then the movers come and it’s a new person with another dog below. Will it bark or be cool and calm as when it glanced up at me, unperturbed by a lowly human being?

I just got up to look over the balcony edge once more. The gorgeous animal is still not laying there. Maybe tonight we’ll both be listening to crickets in twilight. Will he/she know I am up here? Will I peek down to seek at its furry outline? Will it be agitated if I make noise? I often sit outside at night, listening, watching, smelling the night air. Marc is to bed early as a working man still, so it is moon and stars and me and any “singers” beyond.

It might help to explain my fascination with dogs if I tell you I didn’t grow up around them or other animals. Well, the cats. My older sister had a penchant for cats, had a small number. I was under age ten and had only the right to watch her play with them and occasionally pet them. I was surprised we had any. My mother didn’t like animals in the house–she grew up on a farm so four legged and other nonhuman creatures belonged outdoors, perfectly fine in the wilds of nature–otherwise, they had to work for their food. (She was interested in insects and birds, however– outside.)

Cats lived outside and were great mousers, was what she said. Thus, when the first ones arrived I knew my sister Allanya was the favored one, as she got what was forbidden.–I mainly recall her cats died a lot–we lived on a busy street–but she’d get another one until it was hit on the road, too.. Her abundantly loud weeping got me; I couldn’t comfort her adequately. I liked her cats but they were hers so did not cry much. When she left for Michigan State University, no more cats. But I must have pleaded for my turn as I got two goldfish; they swam happily but too briefly in a bowl with a floor of colored stones, a perfect tiny castle and a couple of seashells. I loved decorating but overfed them. I got two blue bright parakeets who likely didn’t like being in a cage–they died in a couple months. I didn’t appreciate cleaning the cage so was not that dismayed. After that, I was done. I left the care of animals to others.

But what of dogs? It wasn’t even a topic that came up. No one secretly professed a desire for a dog. My father certainly never had interest in pets, and no time. He was home an hour or two, then gone most days of his long and productive career. Mom simply created time for things other than daily work, in or out of the house. But she decreed there would be no more pets, not even one camping in the back yard (a turtle, it died, too). As she noted, we had a yard full of nature’s critters. I loved the ants that had little sandy hill homes; they scurried back and forth along our walkway out back. I studied their industrious goings-on for long periods. The slinky worms that magically rose from the ground when it rained hard. Graceful butterflies and chorusing, chattering birds that alighted all around. But as for pets–I had access to various sorts at friends’ houses, and was fascinated by the dogs and cats, hamsters, a horse, a couple of canaries, a snake, an iguana and salamander and so on. Those dogs would often be in the middle of the fray, racing, leaping, romping along with us, and also interfering.

But my favorites were at Julie’s house: huskies.

Julie was one of my best friends and lived on my street several blocks down; she went to Eastlawn Elementary as did I. I believe she also went to the Methodist Chinch and it would be natural we’d become friendly there, too. We didn’t share studying classical music but she liked to read as much as I did. We didn’t have in common a passion for ice skating, swimming or foot races; she had polio as a baby so walked rather slowly with crutches that clamped around her forearms. I found it curious, perhaps sad but irrelevant to our easy play and good talks. No doubt we enjoyed playing with dolls, made up scenarios for them, and played board games and hung out on the front and back porches. She was a smart one, warm hearted, readily amused. I can still see her standing in her yard, crutches just an extension of her arms and legs in a way, very useful–short strawberry blond hair tossed back as she laughed at something silly.

But perhaps another reason we got on was that her parents had huskies. And I came to adore them. I believe they bred, trained and sold them; there were always a couple around and new puppies from time to time. The house was big but every room seemed defined by the presence of a big dog, its fur and toys.

They were playful, yes, but seriously trained in obedient behaviors. If one jumped up on me–and I felt it like a wooly body slam with often muddy paws–there was a strict command and correction issued by Julie or her parents. But I was not fearful of them, and they were not suspicious of me. Their dogs sat with big feet planted and head at ease as I petted and hugged them a bit, and got a drippy lick on the chin in response, those blue eyes bright and perceptive. Their size and the dense coats and captivating eyes and intelligence–everything about them grabbed my attention. I had never been around dogs so big, fast and agile, smart and good natured–yet also capable of peacefulness. I knew they got out of hand, at times and witnessed antics wherein objects, especially shoes and purses, were but sad, chewed remains. And I heard they loved to chase down cats…not good.

It was efficacious that Julie’s house was large, the yards larger and fenced. And that they were gentle with her, as she moved with an awkward gait, clutching her crutches, from space to space. A few times I watched a husky pull Julie in a wagon or on a sled in winter–they were sure footed, enthusiastic, strong.

When they moved to another city, huskies and all, I felt the losses keenly. Whenever I thought of Julie, I thought of her warmth, good cheer, our easy friendship. And those luxurious Siberian huskies that could knock me over–did a few times–but always welcomed me. I wondered if they had been meant to protect her, too. Because they did, being always at her side or nearby, ready to come to her.

It occurs for the first time as I write that this may be when I fell in love with huskies. As a kid on Ashman Street, playing at Julie’s house. How could I not have seen it?

I always stop when I see one, openly stare. Pat and talk to one if allowed. Their power and grace in motion, peaceful alertness at rest: these are premium four-legged creatures. Proud, dignified and very playful. They work hard, especially in North country in winter as they pull their massive sleds with cargo and driver across frozen land for many miles. Heroic, that’s how they seem to me. Maybe, too, because they likely did look after Julie and she did, them, in all the ways she could.

Since I do admire dogs, in general, I think of getting one, but there are reasons why I have not for many years invited any to stay forever. It has to do with loss, in part, and also with practical circumstances. I feel dogs are healthier and happier in roomy houses and outdoors, in yards, like children–and I don’t know that I’ll ever have a house again. But maybe that is not altogether true; perhaps they can be happy in smaller spaces and on leashed walks, after all. Still, I worry that as I get older my health matters may someday interfere with caring well for a beloved dog. I read about the different breeds. recall ones met and liked out there. I enjoy them from afar–and can play with a friend’s dog when I see them.

In the meantime, there is the new four-legged neighbor. I wonder if it is a male of female, what the name is, how it behaves, who takes care of its needs and wants. I will have to content myself with a small yearning to know this new creature from my balcony. It will be hard to not give it a shout out and a big wave, or to go knock on the new person’s door so I can get a closer look.

“Welcome to our lovely neighborhood–and, oh my, you have a husky!”

She might hopefully offer a smile–but then step back and say,”Hey, wait–were you taking pictures of my dog when I moved in?”

“Ah…guilty, so sorry…You see, I had a special friend as a kid and she had beautiful huskies…”

I need to be patient, time things right so she knows I am friendly toward dogs and also decidedly not a dog nabber. A distant adoration of her Siberian husky will just have to do for now. Then I might suggest she walk the area’s miles of trails with me sometimes–with her dog, of course. My secret doggy crush will come to light soon.