You Can Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

What We Keep


My mother found her postal career in her forties when my brothers and I no longer needed her full-time care. Mom loved her job as a postal clerk, and would often work more than sixty hours per week. The job often demanded she work holidays and she would rise well before the sun to make a 4 am shift. She was often tired and stressed, but enjoyed the camaraderie and her paycheck.


My father, who had taken an early telephone company retirement, and I would often commiserate about the demands of her postal job and talk about the days of her retirement. There was always the promise of time spent together in her later years. She hemmed and hawed about retirement worried about the financial impact, lack of structure to her days and then finally took the leap. She was sixty-three. One day I was rinsing vegetables in the kitchen when I got the daily afternoon call from my mother. I tucked the phone under my chin while I continued rinsing. Her doctor had found something she didn’t like, and mom was headed for more tests. Surely it was nothing I told her, but I had stopped rinsing the vegetables.


All the dreams I held of my mother in her later years began crumbling that day. More testing led to surgery, chemotherapy, doctor’s visits, and a brief remission. One August day as I was picking berries near my home a thought, unbidden, pushed its way into my head. My mother will be gone soon, it said. Her cancer was resistant to additional chemotherapy, and after a brief hospital stay we brought her home in hospice’s care. For thirteen days I sat beside her and listened to her breath until one beautiful September day there was none. My mother had just turned sixty-five. What amazed me the most that day when she drew her final breath was the sound of cars that continued to drive by and of birds that continued their songs. Did they not know I wondered?


My mother was a pioneer woman, and we marked the seasons of our childhood picking berries that she baked into pies. She gardened, canned and pickled anything she could get her hands on when most of her friends were embracing the modern day convenience of prepared foods. She sewed, crafted and wallpapered with a cup of instant coffee in one hand and a cigarette in another. We mixed wallpaper paste by hand on her dining room table in a huge white bowl with a wooden spoon, and I was her wallpapering assistant cutting and pasting my way into adulthood. When I had my own daughters she would come to visit toting her sewing machine and a basket of fabric, and she would spend days with my daughters making blouses or bags. One of my favorite pictures is of her and all her granddaughters modeling blouses that they had each just finished sewing. Sometime in her thirties she gave up cigarettes for a different addition; running. She ran in pouring rain, blizzards and after climbing four-thousand foot mountains. In her forties and fifties she ran in marathons often taking home trophies and prizes, but she would always say it was easy to win in her “women over the hill” category.


My mother was a woman fueled by kindness and compassion, and one of her favorite sayings was that if you had nothing good to say then you shouldn’t open your mouth. She lived by that saying, and when she was angry with someone we would often try in vain to goad her into saying something negative about that person. She had the uncanny ability to find some good in everyone she knew. When my brothers and I were grown and gone, and she stopped liking what her baking was doing to her figure she continued to bake sharing her goods with friends at the post office. Any vegetables she grew that didn’t get eaten by her family or the groundhogs were put out on the well in a basket by the road with a sign that read “free”. When someone finally took her basket she started putting her vegetables on paper plates. I asked her one day why she didn’t try to sell her vegetables, and she told me that Clarence down the road made his living as a farmer. She didn’t need the money she said, but his family did.

In the last year or two of her life as she struggled through the chemotherapy and came to terms with her cancer she worked on two new projects. She learned how to hook rugs cutting old woolen clothing into strips that she hooked into rugs. She would design patterns using pictures of the horses, sheep and the barn from our farm to create beautiful primitive hooked rugs. Her second project which we discovered when we brought her home with hospice was a large collection of family photos that she had spent months carefully assembling in chronological order into photo albums. These photos were a visual journey through her life; depicting the people and the family that she loved so much.


I spend much of my time dwelling in a house of numbers so I tally the days, months and years since she’s been gone, and I walk through life trying to carry a basket full of things she’s left behind. It’s a basket full of tolerance, kindness and compassion with no room for things like grudges and spite. It’s not always an easy basket to carry. A few years ago I lost my office manager in the middle of a busy tax season, and I found myself stressed and yelling at one my daughters when she needed my help. And so I work on forgiveness of myself and others since it’s one of those things that I carry in my basket. Last year, six years after my mother’s death, my father married a beautiful sweet woman with only one flaw; she isn’t my mother. My basket of kindness tipped precariously as I struggled to accept this woman in my father’s life.  


I often meet with clients beginning to think about retirement. They hem and haw as they try to decide whether to retire or work a few more years. They’d like more time to spend with family and grandkids, time to travel and see the world but are confident in their belief that they will have plenty of time. We work through their numbers while the quiet voice in my head says, “how much time?” Sometimes I will be out shopping or out to dinner, and I will see a woman that reminds me of my mother. I will stare or follow for a few moments unabashedly trying to picture my mother as she would have been in her seventies and eighties. Recently we spent the weekend with my father and his wife at his cabin in the mountains and one morning early when I woke I heard her voice downstairs as she spoke to my grandson. Her voice was remarkably like my mother’s voice, and I was content to lay there for a few moments feigning sleep holding on to what sounded like my mother’s voice. Just last week as I woke my grandson from a nap, he yawned, stretched and then smiled, and in that unguarded moment of sweet innocent sleep he smiled a smile reminiscent of my mother’s smile. Our youngest daughter recently bought a house not too far from our own that bears an uncanny resemblance to my mother’s house, and just a few weeks ago she called to ask if I would help her make pickles with the abundance of cucumbers from her garden. I grabbed my canner, some jars and headed over. In her kitchen we peeled, sliced, laughed and made pickles just like the pickles I used to make with my mom. And that, my friends, is what we keep.
Lilly, nickname Doodle, came to us a little over nine years ago from a breeder in upstate New York. She’s a black and white border collie with a little snippet of brown, and she spent her first day at home laying on my feet in the kitchen while I cut and sliced strawberries for jam.

Within a few weeks amid trips to the vet for her first round of shots we discovered that Lil did not travel in the car well. Almost every car ride ended up with her drooling, shaking and vomiting. Not a fun mess to clean up. Still we tried to include her on trips to the cabin in New Hampshire and other adventures. On one such trip I developed a plan. I decided that if we skipped her morning food her stomach would be empty for the truck ride to New Hampshire. Doodle, we discovered, had other plans. As we rode to New Hampshire Lilly reclined on my lap, a plastic bag ready to aim her head into just in case she lost her stomach. When she did lose her stomach we were all gagging and holding our noses. Evidently, she had spent her day grazing on manure from the horse stalls, one of her favorite snacks. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the foul smell of warm horse manure vomited by a dog in a hot truck.

We decided that Lilly wasn’t meant for travel which suited her just fine. She loves life on the farm. She doesn’t have much in the way of herding skills, but she’s always been great at protecting the animals that make their home on the farm. One morning I was upstairs doing yoga when I looked out the window and glimpsed Lil making a beeline for the house. Directly behind her in hot pursuit were three coyotes. I ran down the stairs and threw the front door open. Lilly ran through the door and straight up the stairs obviously grateful for a way out of her predicament. As a farm dog, Lilly patrols our property, our neighbor’s property and our oldest daughter’s home; to her it’s all one big farm. It’s a lot of work for one small dog keeping track of numerous people and animals. Occasionally she takes time out for some fun, though, and she’s been caught more than once swinging on the horse’s tails as my daughter tries to walk the horses out to their pasture in the morning. Early on Lil bonded with our neighbor, Bruce, and they became the best of friends. Bruce’s retirement meant that Lil had a constant companion outside, and every morning as soon as we let her out she would make the trip next door to see if Bruce was out and about. One day I happened to look out an upstairs window and was surprised to see a well-worn trail from our front door to Bruce’s garage. Hanging on the walls in Bruce’s house are framed pictures of him and Lil. One unfortunate day as Bruce drove down the driveway one of his truck tires bit Doodle’s nose (tire chasing is one of her bad habits). Lilly didn’t speak to Bruce for over a year, and he was heartbroken. Every day he inched closer and closer trying to win back her affections, but for two years she held that grudge until she finally let him back into her heart. She has always spent her days roaming between the houses looking for someone to throw a rock, a ball or a fresh pile of manure to douse herself in. A few years ago she took a stroll down our long laneway and disappeared. My husband and I were away for the weekend and our daughters and niece searched frantically for her hoping to recover her before we returned. As a last ditch attempt my niece decided to check Craigslist. Someone had found our Doodle and kindly listed her on Craigslist: One lost border collie a bit dirty with manure in her coat. We were happy to get her home.

Much of what I’ve learned over the years has come from the animals on our farm, and recently Lilly has shown us a few tricks of her own. Lilly and I are very close to the same age. For the record she’s a few years older. Over the last year or so she’s started to slow down a bit, and I’ve noticed a few gray hairs in her coat. She no longer jumps as high as she used to or runs quite as fast, and I think she’s gotten a little more cautious in her coyote hunting. She’s also reduced the perimeter of her patrol area spending most of her time on our farm. My husband and I spend most summer weekends on our old boat slowly motoring from port to port, and a few months ago while we packed the truck to leave Lil jumped into the truck. She seemed intent to tag along. Remembering her horrible experiences with travel sickness we were confident that the ride to the boatyard, and a weekend on a rocking boat was not the place for a dog with a weak stomach. We removed her from the truck and told her we’d be back in a few days. We told each other that if she did it again we’d have to give her a chance on the boat. Sure enough the following weekend Lil lodged herself into the back of the truck again. A bit apprehensively we packed some extra dog food, her leash and headed off. Remarkably Lilly made it through the truck ride, the dinghy ride and the entire weekend on the boat without once losing her stomach. Over the next month or so Lilly made many more trips on the boat. She has become a pro at riding on the bow of the dinghy enjoying the ocean air. She loves parading through Newport and other harbor towns soaking up attention from strangers that stop to pet her. It seems that the boat is a place that Lilly, away from the responsibilities of her farm, can finally relax. There have been a few hiccups. At first Lil wasn’t familiar with things like cars, traffic, pavement, or even walking on a leash. The first couple trips she couldn’t bring herself to do her business on the leash. So we look for parks and grassy places that remind Lil of the grass on her farm.

A few months ago I was contacted by a woman in her mid-seventies. Married for almost fifty years, she had always let her husband assume full responsibility for all of their finances and tax filings. It was time for a change she told me. Her husband was getting older his eyesight was failing, and she wanted to lighten his load. As a young woman she had been fascinated by numbers and spent some time doing some bookkeeping. She asked me to show her how to collect the forms needed for their tax preparation. We talked about some online bill payment options, and a basic bookkeeping system. She was excited to take over their finances, and we’ve met a few times since our initial meeting. In the last few months she’s done a QuickBooks class, started paying all of their bills online, and found areas in their finances that she’s improved upon. She enjoys the challenge of managing their finances, and her husband is thrilled with the changes she’s made. Recently I met with another new client that had not filed her taxes for quite a few years. Her previous accountant had made the experience so unpleasant that her and her husband simply stopped filing their returns. The stress and financial complications involved with not filing their returns had started taking a toll, and they were looking for an easier way to complete their tax filings. Unfortunately, not all such stories have happy endings. Many years ago a long-term client passed away after a brief bout with cancer. Both his wife and I were shocked to discover that although he had been filing his tax returns every year he had not made any payments towards the tax. As a result his wife was left to struggle with a tax debt that exceeded several hundred thousand dollars. He had gone to great lengths hiding his tax debt from everyone, and I can only imagine the impact this must have had on his health. It’s never too late to take an interest in or start learning about your financial situation, and it’s never safe to assume that someone else is securing your financial future.

As for me, I started piano lessons three years ago, and as much as I love playing I know that I will probably never be a concert pianist. It was, however, something that always fascinated and intrigued me, and learning something new feels great. And Lilly’s about to learn a few more tricks of her own too. Tonight we are heading off on a road trip to Florida, and she’s coming along for the ride. Hopefully, she can hold her stomach for the long trip, and there will be a host of new things for her to experience when we get there. She might be an old dog, but I think she’s still up to learning a few new tricks.

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