Darkness at 4:30 p.m., sheet-of-ice driveway, and the woodstove’s flickering glow is a necessity, not an option. All say “January” but the calendar still says November. November is hard up here on Bramley. I make and sell handmade jewelry and November is a busy but hopeful month, with the anticipation of good sales paying for dog food through the winter. November is hunting season and that means crazy deer and crazy humans and crazy coyotes are all right here, on the property and sometimes right on the driveway when we step outside in the 6 a.m. darkness. And November into December carries the expectation of family time, with all the joys, sorrows, memories, and logistical challenges family gatherings entail.
In the midst of all this, I am mourning not only Lily’s passing, but the other good dogs whose ashes we scattered on this hill last year or the year before. With the old guard (Iske, Mica, and Lily) gone, the pack changed. With Hawkitt, Peeka, and now Brody here, the pack has changed again. Not gonna lie – I miss the old days when Cinder squabbling with Mica was my biggest problem. Cinder, at 65 lbs, was a huge female… until I met Hawkitt. Now huge has a new face.
This fall has not been easy. We have survived dog fights and endless rain. My close friend and beloved hiking companion had surgery on her shoulder, sidelining her for the time being. We all miss sweet Lily. Winter weather came early and I try to hide my worry that it will last well into April again this year. Will 5 cords be enough?
The freezers are getting filled as farmers and hunters share the remains of their livestock and deer harvest with me. I am elated to receive the texts: “do you need a carcass?” and I can’t help but wonder who I have become. This wasn’t quite the life I imagined when I was choosing to come back to New York from India, or Nicaragua, back in the 1980s. Not much in my life has unfolded as a result of a specific and conscious choice, but I did choose several times, on purpose, aiming for something called home and family. I had no idea where those choices would take me.
Home has no central heating. I handle our heat multiple times – rolling the rounds into place, splitting, stacking, carrying, restacking indoors, feeding the stove, and then dumping the ashes (ok, Tom handles that task). There is an intimacy in embracing wood heat from start to finish. We cut down trees on our property and my friend came over the help me cut them up. She worked the chain saw while I split the lengths by hand. Now I feed the stove, remembering that day with Christine. Turning a thermostat dial just doesn’t carry memories. People love to say that wood heat warms you twice, but between the tasks and the memories I find I am warmed many more times.
Home is where the dogs are. I rented a crummy little cape, then bought a slightly less crummy village house back in my one dog days. The contractors taught me the word “basura” (garbage) as they removed rotten timbers that sure looked load-bearing to me. The house didn’t collapse, but there were days when I thought I might. Single parenting is not for the faint of heart, joint custody notwithstanding. Iske and Maya and I celebrated Thanksgiving, just the three of us, eating Cornish game hens in the living room on a table set with name tags handcrafted by ten year old Maya. I never finished painting the hallway or the kitchen. When I met Tom and realized we would be leaving our little basura house, Maya and I mourned. It was hard for an outsider to see, perhaps, why we loved it so much, but we did. It was home.
My father died when I was five years old. Holidays underscored his absence and our family’s smallness. Often we were allowed to spend holidays with friends or later boyfriends. As a young adult I realized I wanted a family. It was a desire strong enough to make me choose to stop traveling, and to turn my back on the romance and intensity of a life that beckoned.
Recently a new friend asked me “why do you have so many dogs?” While every dog came with a tale of woe and a passel of needs that I convinced myself I alone could meet, the truth is that choice I made all those decades ago to come back to New York to have a home and a family has finally come to fruition. The family is canine; it’s more of a pack than a human family but it works for me. It fills that need. The relationships we forge — me with Tom, me and Tom with the dogs, and the dogs with each other – create that abstract thing I call family. I may have stumbled into it, dog by dog, but isn’t that how lots of families get made too?
I never meant to be here, but here I am. Home and family. For me, it’s what Thanksgiving is all about.