• Susannah Colt

Chapter 2 - Amber Discovers the Abundance of Farm Life

I keep a daily journal as a writing exercise and memory saver. Having bad memory seems to be genetic. Whenever I used to ask my mother about something in the past, she’d always say, “I don’t remember, I have a bad memory.” I think that is why I’ve always journaled. Plus, my legal background may have inspired journaling as well. I figured if I were ever sued for anything, I’d be able to corroborate my bad memory with my contemporaneous journaling. Similarly, if I was ever charged with a crime, I’d be able to provide an alibi through my journal.

In order to tell the unvarnished story of Amber, I’ve been relying on my journal to jog my memory. Turns out she was a frequent character in my journal entries. One entry that struck me was written shortly after she came into my life, when I noted, “I’m no longer lonely.” I do remember that it felt like a revelation after years of loneliness. That is the kind of feeling you don’t forget, even if you do have a bad memory.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had wonderful pets in my past, but the level of companionship they offered in my youth was different. Perhaps it was because they were cats, who tend to need less affection and care. Squeaky, my wonderful Maine Coon Cat, was my first pet. He was born in the linen closet when I was about 5 years old. He was all mine until I left for college, leaving him with my recently retired father. They bonded and every summer morning when my father made his rounds dead-heading his day lilies, Squeaky followed his every move until one day he never came home, breaking both my father’s and my heart. He was nearing 16 years old and probably went deep into the woods to die.

I found this picture of my father and Squeaky at the archives of the Dayton Art Institute, where my father worked at its director from 1957-1975. I’m guessing it was taken in 1977. My father is sitting on the stoop of our Dayton home with his signature cigar in his left hand and Squeaky being less than photogenic. I have no idea who took the photograph and why it was in the archives, but I broke down in tears when I found it in May of 2019.

My second pet came to me as a 6 month-old kitten just as I’d moved into my first studio apartment after college. Over the course of the next 20 years, Asher lived in 16 different homes in six different states until she finally ran out of gas. She was affectionate to a point. I remember she’d curl up with me under the covers spooning her body into my chest. Apparently, as soon as I fell asleep she left to do whatever her nocturnal character compelled.

It wasn’t until I met and fell in love with Kris that I suddenly became a dog person to her two dogs, Dave and Rusty. They taught me a lot about domestic canines. I eventually became one of those anomalies: a cat AND a dog person.

Amber is my first dog as a single parent. I’d taken care of other people’s dogs but it was not the same as having the sole responsibility of your own dog. Because Amber had been one of those dogs that I took care of for her former owner, I had a good idea of what kind of dog I was adopting. She was the perfect combination of independent and needy and came into my life at just the right time when I needed a warm-blooded creature to love me unconditionally. We needed each other equally and immediately fell into a comfortable relationship.

I knew we would be compatible because she was not the kind of dog that ran the show; she followed my lead naturally. She waited for me to wake up before she began to stir. Of course, I think it helped that I woke up at the same time every day. My radio alarm was set so that I would wake up to the 7:00 NPR news. I’d get out of bed when the top-of-the-hour news was over. Amber waited patiently because she knew her reward was breakfast.

Living where I worked was also quite beneficial for Amber because she got to hang out with me inside and outside and wherever my work took me for the day. We became an inseparable duo.

The morning routine started with jumping in the car to go down the quarter-mile hill to the mailbox to pick up the Concord Monitor. We would deliver the paper to the old folks in the main house to make sure they were alive and kicking. They were usually sitting at the dining room table eating breakfast and Amber would undertake her vacuuming of the crumbs off the floor. She’d invariably circle around the old ladies’ legs before checking around the counters. The touch of dog to leg became a comfort to the old lady as she began her down-hill trek toward death, reaching her destination a year later.

Our main job in the summer and fall was mowing the approximately 20 acres of fields and yards. After her initial concern about the loud mowers, she fell in lockstep with me as I marched behind the 36” Ferris Hydro-cut mower for hours on end. Eventually she learned that following me around and around in the large former horse pastures was a bit like work and she’d end up standing or sitting sentry on a rock or at the entrance to the field, just in case we were visited by outsiders (which we never were).

When I took a water break, she ran over to me and I’d give her a handful or two of water. Occasionally she was rewarded when my mower rustled a mole out of the thick grass and Amber gave chase often succeeding in procuring a small snack while on duty. She’d leave the bulk of the carcass to role on during our daily walks. She always knew where she left her prize.

Yes, even after walking all day behind a mower, we’d always take our daily walks to check the perimeter for fallen fence boards or to root out unsuspecting squirrels or chipmunks. One animal Amber was not acquainted with before she arrived on the farm was the porcupine. The first time she encountered one, she was surprised at how painful those quills were when she tried to bite its rear end. I recognized the yelp-like bark when it happened and went to find her with her tail between her legs, pawing at her mouth and nose to try to dislodge the pointy painful barbs. Fortunately, I’d had quite a lot of experience with de-quilling a dog’s nose and mouth. I got a leash, towel and needle-nose plyers and within a few minutes dispatched the nasty quills. The secret to successful de-quilling is patience and making sure the dog doesn’t see the plyers coming, thus the need for the towel to cover their eyes.

After that porcupine encounter the question was whether Amber was a smart dog who had learned her lesson. There were plenty of porcupines on the farm. We began to see them fairly regularly. They never ran away. I nearly stepped on one walking in the woods one day. Amber fortunately learned their smell and steered clear of them after her first encounter. She passed the smart dog test. It was very heartening to see her stop dead in her tracks when she happened upon one and give it a wide berth in respect of its defensive capabilities. She was the rare one-time-and-done kind of dog.

Amber’s first year on the farm was free of most worries. She was not a picky eater and appeared to have a stomach of steel as evidence by the number of live animals she consumed, including moles, chipmunks, squirrels and crawfish. There was a ¾ acre pond on the farm, which she loved wading in the shallows hunting for crawfish to eat. She steered clear of the tadpoles and frogs, probably because they left a bitter taste in her mouth. But the crawfish was like heaven.

Despite her regular snacks, she reduced her weight by about ten pounds after she moved to the farm. Being able to run free was just what the doctor ordered when he said she needed to lose her suburban-trapped-in-a-small-house weight.

One morning in August of 2013, I woke up as usual to NPR news. When I rolled out of bed, Amber didn’t. When I told her it was time to go to work, she wouldn’t move. I immediately knew there was something terribly wrong with her. I wracked my brain to try to remember if she’d gotten into something that might not have agreed with her stomach, but came up empty. I went down and got the paper, delivered it to the old folks who asked where Amber was. I told them I was worried about her because she wouldn’t get out of bed. I hoped she would be standing by the door when I returned, but she wasn’t. She was exactly where I’d left her.

I waited until the vet’s office opened at 8 a.m. and called to make an appointment. The vet was on vacation, so I needed to take her to the emergency vet in Concord called CAVEs. I carried her to the car and drove to Concord with my heart beating furiously in my chest. I was worried I was losing her. By the time we got there, Amber was able to walk into the hospital. After explaining the symptoms, they did blood work, x-rayed her stomach and gave her an injection of subcutaneous fluids, penicillin, and anti-nausea medicine. She was diagnosed with "gastrointestinal complication of unknown origin" and I was given some meds and told to keep her quiet, monitor her eating, drinking and output.

I prepared rice and boiled chicken for her next few meals and we stayed home for the rest of day. When the grandson of the old folks drove up the driveway, all Amber could muster was a little growling. Normally, she’d run to the window and bark in her furious tom-tom manner. She consumed some dinner, produced some output, and we eventually went to bed. I hoped this would all turn out to be just a nightmare.

The next morning, Amber bounded out of bed ready for her breakfast and the day to begin, as if yesterday never happened (and I hadn't spent a fortune at CAVEs). It was just a nightmare; a 24-hour nightmare. When we delivered the newspaper that morning, everyone was relieved to see the old Amber back. I happened to notice a white object on the floor just under the refrigerator. Upon investigation, I discovered it was one of the old ladies’ pain meds. It made me wonder if Amber’s problem may have been the consumption of one of her pills during her regular vacuuming sweeps. Was my dog becoming a druggie or had she just eaten a rotten carcass. I’ll never know because a dog never tells.

Coming soon: Chapter 3 – Amber’s Obsessions

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