My Dad Was the Best. Hope Yours Was Too!

Father’s Day is fast approaching, an annual celebration of the paternal and the sad anniversary of my own father passing. While memories of him cross my mind several times a day, at this time of year I find myself digging in my mind for some forgotten memory, thinking perhaps I have some tucked away like a forgotten sweater in a cedar chest, an old favorite that simply has not seen the light of day for many years.

I have used my father as the topic of previous blogs (https://nerpribyl.wordpress.com/2014/06/16/dad-gone-a-quarter-century & https://nerpribyl.wordpress.com/2016/11/04/my-roots-lead-back-to-november-fifth) and his humor and life lessens dot the landscape of other musings in my posts as well. While my mind is percolating on him as a subject, I will share some more.

My dad (just like my best friend’s father, another amazing man) was an electrician by trade, as was my grandfather. Though he worked on many job sites through the years, some of the more memorable ones included the construction of the Thunderbird Hotel, The IDS Tower, The Registry Hotel and the story I’m about to embark on  from his work on the MSP Airport.

My dad started work early each morning, usually packing a lunch and carrying a thermos of coffee. As a union man he also had “coffee breaks” during the day and while working on the airport runways a silver truck would stop out to his work site that offered hot coffee, sandwiches and pastries for sale. I imagine his first break took place about 8 am. An affable man, my father built a rapport with the truck driver during his daily rounds. When dad became aware that his work at the airport was winding down and his company was preparing to assign him to a new job he hatched a plan.

When the silver truck headed out to my dad’s location, on what was scheduled to be his last day, there sat my dad at a card table (with two chairs) covered with a white table cloth, an electric frying pan had been used to prepare bacon and eggs, he pushed the button down on the toaster and invited the driver to join him for breakfast, right there on the airport runway. Juice was poured and there the two sat and enjoyed a final conversation, the table complete with a milk-glass vase with two red plastic roses (that had come free with a bottle of dish soap). It was a funny and kind gesture of his appreciation. “Memorable”, that is a word that aptly describes my father. I imagine the driver never forgot that special breakfast or the man who prepared it for him.

My dad loved animals and they loved him. Unfortunately, his allergies could make his being around them a less than pleasant experience for him. While growing up we had rabbits, I had a parakeet, we had tropical fish, my brother acquired the rat from his elementary classroom “Milk vs. Soda” nutrition lessen.  We also had the cutest dalmatian puppy who in reality was the worst dog I have ever known. At some point in the late ’70s (sometime after a divorce) my aunt was moving with her youngest from her house to an apartment, a pet-free destination. For many years the family had had a beautiful long haired calico cat that they all loved, named Mama. Despite his allergies (and the fact he was not that fond of cats) my dad was very fond of his high-school classmate and the mother of his nieces and nephews. That is how Mama came to live out her final years with my parents. Meanwhile my uncle moved on, got a new wife, got a new puppy and eventually got another divorce. The Whippet/Collie mix was not going to work with either of their new housing arrangements, so Tara came to live with my folks (and Mama) where she slept on the floor next to my father’s side of the bed. My father loved that dog but when my uncle retired, my dad insisted that Tara move with him to the cabin. My dad was accommodating, compassionate and fair. In both instances it was not that he “wanted” a new responsibility at his house but that he didn’t want to see someone he cared about suffer any more than they already were due to their present circumstances. He gracefully made these situations appear to be nothing and just used his ever-present handkerchief with greater frequency. I bet you’d already forgotten about his allergies, that’s exactly how he wanted it.

My dad wasn’t into gender stereotypes, he grocery shopped, did the laundry, gave his kids baths, read bedtime stories and even took on the role of “room mother” one year when I was in junior high. In many cases, if something needed to be done, he would just do it. He could work a full day, come home and make dinner and still remain engaged in what you were learning in school. When he went to bed we assumed he snored so loudly simply because he was tired, not because Sleep Apnea was just another medical malady stealing time from him. In other cases, if something needed to be done, it simply waited. Taxes were something he loathed doing and I think at some point he delayed filing for five years. Red Owl Grocery sacks filled with receipts and medical bills all waiting to be collated and submitted. He wasn’t avoiding paying taxes, he was delinquent in filing for money owed to him by the IRS. In retrospect I think he knew his time was precious and he would rather spend it occupied with people than with paper.

My dad was strict but you knew what was expected. I vividly remember arriving home five minutes late one summer evening and after listening to what my excuse was he simply said “I didn’t tell you that you couldn’t be early.” So I credit him with the fact that I am slightly early or prompt at nearly every appointment I have, as a general courtesy.

Growing up, my brothers and I didn’t get an allowance but Dad gave us our lunch money weekly and we were allowed to pack our own lunches and use the allotted money however we chose. That taught responsibility, decision making and flexibility. He also allowed me to pack a lunch for my brother and have him pay me a portion of his own lunch money.

My father had more interests than could be explored in a lifetime, he loved concepts, new ideas and possibilities. He was fascinated with black holes and could wrap his mind around things I never could. While his mind was sharp he was not impressed with phonies and would make time to chat with a loner or buy a guy a beer. I remember that he joked loudly to my mother as they were leaving one of her class reunions (perhaps her 20th) “Hurry Dorothy, we have to get the rental car back.” to mock some of the blowhards who had spent the evening trying to one-up each other.  He both literally and figuratively just didn’t have time for that.

Though this blog comes to an end and he is no longer among us, his story is far from over. I like to think that I have fostered in my own children some of his curiosity, his ability to learn something from everyone, his sense of fairness coupled with compassion and an ample dose of his humor. His greatest teachings were never in the form of lectures, they were in his actions, small gestures, mundane tasks that were eventually completed, behind the scenes maneuvers that brightened someones day, lightened someones load or simply made somebody laugh. His legacy lives on in that laughter.





She Epitomized “Puppy Love”

Lily Bee

There are few moments in life that are happier than the day when a new family member arrives. Conversely, the loss of someone who positively influenced us has an equally emotionally-jarring impact. For those who have an appreciation of pet ownership, that experience of joy at arrival and painful grief at the departure of our furry family member is no different, perhaps the emotions run even deeper. Unlike friends or family, though exasperating at times and with annoying habits (much like people) our pets don’t talk back, never disagree with our politics or criticize our shortcomings. Typically they are excited to see us, snuggle with us as we read or watch TV, appreciate us for feeding them and love us unconditionally. For some they even keep  secrets and are considered confidantes. Though the term “therapy animal” is relatively new, the service provided is as old as the first time a human brought an animal into the family fold and received affection in return.

This week my family suffered a loss. Not a family member or a pet but the loss of someone who brought our family a lot of joy, despite never setting foot in our home. Rather it was a woman who placed eight paws into our household over the years.

I’m not even certain how I originally interacted with Lisa O’Connor. My best bet is it was via the River Bottom Beagles website in late November of 2002, a year or so after we’d settled into our house in Bloomington; my husband, my daughter, my son and our Black Lab/Redbone Coonhound. It was the year that my daughter asked for a puppy for Christmas. Despite already having 109-pounds of furry mayhem in our lives, I reasoned with my husband that if she were to ever have a dog of her own, it made little sense to wait until she was sixteen and nearly out of the house.

Deeply disappointed on Christmas morning when it became apparent that there was no puppy under the tree, she reluctantly opened the very last gift. It was a book on how to care for a dog, with all sorts of age-appropriate insights and a certificate she could redeem in the spring for a puppy at River Bottom Beagles. For months she shared facts about how to name a dog, train a dog and care for a dog that she had gleaned from the book and other sources.

Lisa O’Connor let us know when the litter was born, Easter Sunday, 2003. Then the waiting and preparations began; puppy proofing the house, getting a small crate, looking at the website for a glimpse of who might be coming to live at our house.

At last the magical long-awaited Saturday in May arrived and we loaded into the minivan and our trek to Litchfield Minnesota began. My daughter was relieved to be getting the last puppy from the litter, since she didn’t have to choose. Things work out as they are intended to, it was love at first sight (pictured above) between our daughter and Lily. Our daughter still thinks of her as the best gift she has ever received.

Not only did we meet our new dog that day, we finally met Lisa. She was soft-spoken, sweet and showed us the facility, answered our questions and promised to remain a resource as needed. I continued to return to the website and see new litters as they arrived and look at pictures of other happy owners and their tri-colored family members. We returned to Litchfield for a Beagle Reunion that was a festive summer potluck of beagle owners, pets in tow.

Lily settled into life at our house as a bright alpha-dog, in charge of her older, much larger and not as smart canine step-sibling, whom she adored! She was traumatized at age two when her “big brother” had to be put down. I returned from the vet with his collar which she carried with her everywhere. She cried and was inconsolable each time I returned home without him. I contacted Lisa and explained our predicament and our need for a new dog. She understood, was compassionate and six weeks later I was in the car with my kids and Lily on our way to Litchfield to pick up the runt of a litter that was born on Mother’s Day. Camilla Barker Howls (Millie) shared a father with Lily and their mothers were sisters. Where Lily was sturdy, Millie was delicate, one had coarse fur, the other a silky coat, Lily had the boxier head of a show dog and Millie was pointy featured. We loved them both and they loved each other. Once Lily had someone to be in charge of, she quit carrying her brother’s collar everywhere.

We returned once more for a Beagle Reunion where Lily frolicked and enjoyed off-leash time with siblings and cousins and where Millie was panicky and spent most of her time on my shoulder, trying to get even higher on me. Lisa introduced us to other attendees with personal anecdotes “This families son grew his hair to raise money for cancer research. They have great kids.”is what she said about us. I was impressed by her capacity to retain details!

Facebook made keeping up with each other easier. It was fun to watch her embrace her role as a grandmother and dote upon her granddaughters. She posted adorable pictures of the girls with puppies. She gave updates about her health challenges and remained positive even when her prognosis seemed bleak. During particularly difficult times her posts would begin “This is Tom…” and her husband would lovingly update her status.

I would send Lisa our Christmas card, featuring our kids, each holding a dog. I contacted her the spring of my daughter’s freshman year of college to let her know that after a sudden decline in quality of life she had made the difficult pet-owner decision to put Lily down. As always, Lisa was sympathetic.

The last time I saw Lisa was at the Minnesota State Fair. I was working in the Pet building on the far end of the Fair grounds selling Dog Bandanas. She wheeled in on an electric scooter, a twinkle in her eye and a smile on her face. She was optimistic regarding her health. She asked about my kids and my dog. I was amazed by her capacity once again to remember so many people, so many families, so many dogs. She gave me a few business cards. It was great (as always) to see her!

The other day there was a post that began “This is Tom…” that went on to explain that Lisa had died in her sleep the previous night. His wife of 32 years gone at age 51. I told my kids and my husband and we each expressed a genuine sadness. We had lost someone who had brought us moments of joy that cumulatively became years of memories for our family. Her Facebook page became filled with picture after picture of beagles and personal accounts of families who share their homes with River Bottom Beagles. For someone whose own life was complicated with medical challenges, what an awesome legacy to have made such a positive impact on so many!

Thanks Lisa for your generous spirit, your brave attitude and most of all for enhancing so many lives with healthy puppies to love. When I hear a beagle howl at night, I will forever be reminded of you.





Being Trained by Your Dog Without Really Trying

A Dozen Beagles...I thought you said A Dozen Bagels!

A dozen beagles and a tub of cream cheese please.

It’s 4:30 pm on a Monday, my husband busies himself at the stove with the clattering of a spatula against a fry pan. I set the microwave timer for 15 seconds and proceed to clanking bowls together before noisily retrieving utensils from the drawer. Sounds like someone is making dinner? Actually, we are trying to head out the door for an early burger night at our neighborhood Applebee’s. You would realize this when you saw no food in the pan, the knobs on the stove all off and would quickly notice there was no aroma. We are not actors, simply pathetic pet owners who are attempting to lure our beagle in from a cold spring rain so we can beat the rush. Millie is a nine year old beagle and to be honest she owns us.

For the first seven years of her life she simply did what her older and wiser sister Lily did; eating, sleeping and even playtime was typically scheduled based on Lily, who had been the Alpha even when she arrived at our home as a puppy and took charge of our 109 pound Lab/Coon Hound named Angus. He was big but shy, cute but dumb and seemed pretty comfortable succumbing to this chubby bundle of fur that upon arrival was smaller than his own head. All three of the dogs we have had during our marriage have been at least partially hound, which basically means that if a squirrel or rabbit was in the area in the last month and they have access to an open door or gate they will follow that scent and act as though their name is some foreign word they are not familiar with. My biggest fear with an un-streetwise dog on the loose is them being hit by a car and even though I love my dogs dearly it is the driver that I feel for in those imagined scenarios. Angus could eventually be coaxed home with a slice of American cheese. I used to have a minivan with the automated side door and to an onlooker it must have appeared that the Lab with the howl of a wolf had called for a cab. I would pull up, open the door, flash the golden square of cheese and he would hop right in. Why? Because that is what he had trained me to do.

Millie eventually came in on burger night, most likely because she didn’t enjoy the rain and not because of our acting. Since dogs noses are so much greater than peoples we actually could see her snout snorting in air trying to figure out what was being cooked. We were only fooling ourselves. Other acts of ours include loudly talking (our son Eddie is the actor, mom and dad not so much) “lets go downstairs and watch Wheel of Fortune.”, ringing the side doorbell which actually was a pretty good routine for awhile and the “wanna go on a walk?” complete with leash which just makes you feel like a guilty and cruel human being. More embarrassing is when a neighbor is watching her for a day or two and she refuses to come in, somehow thinking it will force us to return home. We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood where we know each others pets, will care for them and assist when one makes the great escape. There have been some summers where the neighborhood dogs ate more of our cheese than we did.

Most of Millie’s quirks have surfaced since we put Lily down, two years ago this spring. We have a large yard and as a result never walked our dogs when we owned two. They got plenty of exercise by playing and chasing each other. Taking two dogs on walks for us was a tangle of leashes and Angus was incredibly strong. Lily was a dog that really needed to be part of a duo, the six weeks after Angus did not return from a trip to the vet until the rainy day we took her to her own birthplace (River Bottom Beagles) and picked up Millie were the saddest weeks I’ve known as a pet owner. Lily carried Angus’s collar with her, cried each time I came through the door without him and gained weight because she had nobody to chase in the yard. Millie gave Lily her life back, a renewed sense of purpose, another creature to be in charge of, a companion. When Lily needed to be put down we braced ourselves for a similar reaction and even briefly had another dog stay in our home, which Millie sort of ignored. To prevent the weight gain my husband began the ritual of the evening walk. He arrives home from work, she is fed, he changes, she pretends she does not want to get into her harness, they take their walk and she is released in our backyard. It is almost like a pendulum swinging it has become so routine. Occasionally; weather, illness or actual human plans will interrupt the routine. This infraction results in her putting her snout behind the basement door and looking at the hook with the leash on it. If that does not achieve the desired result then the “beagle collapse” is utilized, which means releasing all tension in the body and dropping to the rug in a pathetic sigh. The eyes of a beagle look sad to begin with but deny them part of their routine and you know that if she could access a phone that a representative from the Humane Society would be doing a background check on you.

Millie is a diva. Since she doesn’t “need” a companion in the way that Angus enjoyed or Lily required we have decided to let her live out her life as an only dog, at which time we will get two puppies from the same litter. There is an ease in having two dogs and as much as we love the interaction of two dogs in the house we also want to be respectful of Millie’s needs. Yep, we have become those people. When our kids were little and dogs were just part of our family there was less time to meet their every need or acknowledge each nuance of their personality. Our kids are both away at college now and Millie is well aware that for nine months out of the year she is the center of our universe.

During the warmer months in Minnesota I join in on the evening walks, recently we had some postcards to drop at specific homes on our route and we had to change how we walked and correct our positioning to ensure that Millie was to the left because the desires of a 22 pound dog outweigh those of two full grown adults. None of our dogs have liked when one of us is away. Jeff discovered this years ago when I was gone on a business trip and when  he rolled over in the night and his hand hit my pillow which was soaking wet. Angus would not eat in my absence and apparently tried to comfort himself by licking every inch of my pillow case.  Millie’s greatest pleasure is when all of us are home and as Jeff and I get up in the morning after her breakfast she can resume sleeping with Betsy and eventually when she is up make her way in for a snuggle with Eddie. Rough life.

Three dogs, three distinctly different personalities. Each one affectionate in their own way and each with individually amusing traits. Lily carried herself like a little tank, she would use her forehead to try to get into Betsy’s room in the mornings, if the door was latched she would scratch it once with her paw, if that did not open the door she would bark once and someone would open it for her. She was smart, methodical and funny but not in a way that would make you laugh at her because you honestly felt like you were hurting her feelings. Angus was such a dope, when we had him neutered the vet warned that he was likely to feel punky and should rest. Oddly we think he never actually noticed, ran around happy and swollen. He loved ice cubes and preferred not to drink from a dish, we turned on the bath tub a couple of times a day and he drank from the tap. He never got his “sea legs” in an automobile and typically fell over whenever we turned a corner. Millie loves the idea of going in the car but quickly  turns into a spastic shaking maniac. She will occasionally engage with dog guests but is not a hostess in the way that Lily was (she often would put her head in larger dogs mouths just to let them know she was not going to harm them) and will eventually ask to go in the house or be let into our room. The exception to this is her pug friend Leroy who is less than half her age but loves to come visit or stay, she tolerates all of his affections.

Having a dog is a big commitment, they need to be fed and let out. They want your attention and have quirks that need to be addressed. They are not intended to be tolerated and pushed outside but rather embraced as a family member. Just like the people in our lives, they have annoying habits and endearing qualities. You are amused by their antics and your stomach is knotted when they are sick and you are waiting for test results. When it is time for them to leave us they leave a hole in our hearts that is theirs, a space that can’t be filled by another pet because no two are the same. A hole that reminds you that the time, the energy (yes, even the money) and the necessary devotion is all worth allowing yourself to be trained by another dog.