“When you get a puppy, nobody tells you about that day,” my daughter said, petting her beloved English Shepherd, as we reminisced about the dog that had “raised” my girls.
Almost sixteen years before, our tri-color puppy flew from Arkansas to our farm in Virginia. Unbeknownst to kindergartner Julia and second grader Christine, our airport run was a puppy pickup. But when we arrived, I was alarmed to learn the surprise package was not on the plane, necessitating my rather desperate phone call to the airlines. A very southern woman drawled her reply. “Ma’am your dog is in a lot better shape than you are right now.” When we finally opened her crate, my two girls couldn’t wait to hold their new friend.
Arriving back at Skye Moor farm after the warm June rainstorm, our doe-eyed pup sat at the end of the rainbow, a prophetic pot of gold. And yet, like any teething puppy, she left her mark on the piano bench legs, window ledges, and one apple tree in the front yard that she continually threatened to unearth. And yet, the biggest mark she left was on our hearts.
She lived up to her name, Bonnie, meaning “fair and good.” Due to her calm disposition, she played Sandy in Annie, and Toto in Wizard of Oz, though nothing like the traditional tiny black terrier Her director wanted an authentic sheepdog. Onstage, Bonnie even perked up when the farmhand would say, “Why don't you try counting sheep? and barked in time to “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” while munchkins danced around her, nearly stepping on her paws. Bonnie wore her sneaky Winkie cape costume well as she was chased by the witch with special effects that could scare any other less tolerant Toto. Dorothy’s sweet voice singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was the perfect accompaniment to Bonnie’s endearing onstage presence.
Twice during her run of performances, she snuck into the audience for some love and attention. Though I might have been a stage mom, Bonnie was no spoiled diva. In the final scene and curtain call, she pulled stage left where Uncle Henry (aka my husband) awaited. She, too, believed, “There’s no place like home.”
Home on the farm suited her far better than the stage. When our sheep strayed onto the gravel road beyond our fence line, Bonnie would hop in the car. We’d drive down the road so she could jump out and streak toward the errant ewes until they ducked back under the electric fencing. Then she’d slowly turn, strutting back, her head held high. And yet she was extraordinarily gentle with the baby lambs.
With her white ruff, thick black coat and brown eyebrows and highlights, she was such a pretty girl. One of Julia’s photos of her even made made the English Shepherd calendar. Bonnie Girl was the perfect playmate for our two daughters who dressed and undressed her plenty in hats for every season. And in the winter, she loved the snow, playing catch with the “ball” and digging in the snow to find it. She went with us to pick our annual Christmas tree and she even tried sledding down the pasture with us (once).
At age three, Bonnie gave birth to eight puppies. My then third-grade daughter Julia exclaimed, “This is way better than Disney World!” What fun to have a whelping pen in the basement, the constant play with her pups, and the perfect show and tell at the girls’ elementary school. Then when prospective puppy owners arrived, Bonnie greeted them sweetly, selling her pooches before the strangers came in the door.
She enjoyed every opportunity to meet and greet. Christine always wondered how Bonnie knew just when to welcome her home after school. Until one day looking out the bus window from across the fields, Christine saw Bonnie suddenly get up and run to the edge of our driveway to prepare for Christine’s return. Bonnie’s presence was always a source of reassurance and encouragement. Before Christine could open the acceptance/rejection letter from her favorite university, Christine called Bonnie to her side, needing her encouragement and potential comfort in case the news was bad. Which it wasn’t, except maybe for Bonnie.
We cried when Christine had to tell her dog good bye, the car packed, Christine all grown up, leaving home. Bonnie would return to Christine’s bedroom and wait for her. I secretly and selfishly hoped Bonnie lived through Christine’s four years of Nursing School so her education would be uninterrupted. Thankfully, Bonnie’s picture graced the balloon my daughter carried at her UVA graduation. Then Julia, too, packed her car and said “good bye” to Bonnie.
Christine and Julia grew up with Bonnie, and she grew old. Bonnie still loved laying in the sun, her feet in the air, but she spent less time herding and running, and more time sleeping. She slowly repositioned herself at various sites throughout the day, observing all that was happening on the farm. Jumping in the car or climbing upstairs became an impossibility. With her loss of hearing, gunshots, fireworks, thunder, and the lawnmower no longer alarmed her. As her sight dimmed, her sense of smell and taste took over, finding the cat food and English muffins wherever they were hiding. Arthritic limbs made getting up and down a struggle for her; and deciphering her barks became more difficult for my husband and me. And still she kept smiling.
Seeing her age made me realize my own mortality and I wondered how much I would one day struggle getting up the steps or running freely. It made me hope that I would be likewise as adored and forgiven for the things I could no longer do. It made me realize the importance of being someone who is fair and good. It made me understand how appreciated is a sweet spirit.
When “that day” arrived, I didn’t realize I could weep so hard but that I could share that grief, through Bonnie, connect with my family in a new and deeper way.
I’ve named a dog in my next novel Bonnie. And we will plant a tree in memory for her in the middle of the sheep corral, though we need no physical reminder of her. After all, she has infiltrated every room in our house and property with memories that will make us smile in thankful remembrance.
Bonnie had a good life on Skye Moor Farm, but we were truly the lucky ones blessed by her presence. Now somewhere over the rainbow, is a fair and good English Shepherd. She watches and waits at the end of the driveway for our arrival home.