A Stroll through the Best Parts of Springfield

Walking has always been a ritual in our house. A day without one throws the whole household out of whack. Most days, we walk twice. In the mornings, we go four miles on the Springfield greenway, and it’s all about exercise. But during the afternoons, we stroll. And that stroll is all about the best parts of my small southern community.

History

Springfield was settled in 1796, and some of the buildings in the historic district date back to the early 1800’s. During the afternoons, we meander past antebellum mansions, like the Cheatham or Beecher House. These 200-year-old homes stand three floors high with fluted pillars and sweeping porches. They look like Scarlett O’Hara could step outside with a glass of sweet tea at any second.

We pass a red brick church built in 1838. It was used as a stable during the Civil War, and it’s rumored that hoof prints indent the wood floor. Around the block, we circle a late nineteenth-century mansion named Maybelle. It still has a cast-iron hitching post topped with a carved horsehead outside the front door. Concrete steps sit next to it, so the ladies and gentleman could easily step into their carriages. In the summer, when the chirping cicadas make the humidity pulse and the scent of wild honeysuckle fills the air, it feels like we traveled back in time.

We stroll past the courthouse with its clock tower, an old blacksmith’s shop, and our bank, where we’ve been known to walk through the drive-thru with our dogs. I don’t even have to give a command and our dogs sit on the blacktop, all four lined in a row. They know if they wait outside the teller’s window long enough, then a treat will pop out. And Miss Jean and Miss Susan always give treats to our dogs.

Southern Hospitality

Another trademark of our afternoon walks is that southern hospitality. Folks wave or call out greetings when we pass the accountant’s office, the printer’s shop, and the guitar store. We often chat with Mary, owner of Our Serenity Shop, about CBD oil, and Michael, a retired factory worker, about the weekly weather report. If we see Junior, who runs a mowing business, he reliably provides an update on any construction. When we run into Scott, an IT technician, we talk about local politics because he’s probably the only other democrat in town.

And the neighborhood dogs are just as friendly as the people. Over the years we’ve become buds with Bo, a heeler mix, Knox, a hound dog, and Thunder, a graying black lab. We know Duchess, a teacup Maltese who can’t weigh as much as my phone and Coco and Puff, two poodles with matching haircuts. They bounce like jumping beans inside their glass door when they see us. Gus and June, collie mixes, live inside an invisible fence and howl until we pet their heads.

And of course, there’s King Frank, our favorite. Frank spends most days hanging out on his porch, which is enclosed with a four-foot wall. Frank, a giant slobbery mutt, could easily leap over it, but he never does. When he sees us, he wags his tail so hard it hits the wall and makes a drumming sound that builds as we get closer.

For a girl who was born and raised in the Northeast, I’ll admit that I had some growing pains when I first moved to the rural South. But there are two things about my southern home I’ve come to love, its history and hospitality. And our afternoon walks we get the best of both.

 

Mental Health During the Coronavirus: Get Out and Walk

Hey there. If you’ve been reading this blog long enough, then you’ll know I suffer from clinical depression. I’ve only had three major episodes in twenty years, each one worse than the last, but still that’s a pretty good track record. Especially since the first time I had no idea what was happening to me until it was too late, until my serotonin levels were too low to come up on their own.

The reason I’ve been pretty successful at handling my mental health is because I’m anal about managing it. It takes discipline. I take a daily antidepressant, eat healthy, smoke pot if needed, sleep eight hours a night, reach out when I feel vulnerable, and walk.

Walking is so important, not only for my dogs but for me too. The other day I read that the mental health hotline is up 891%. That’s a staggering number but I get it. There’s nothing worse for a depressed person than to be locked away with all those negative thoughts.

My best advice is to walk. Research from the Mayo Clinic proves that even moderate exercise releases cannabis-like chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) in the brain. These chemicals give you a natural high. Walking also helps with sleep patterns because it expends energy and wears you out.

Maybe most importantly, the act of walking breaks unhealthy thought patterns. If left alone, these destructive ideas can have a snowball effect. They just keep growing with every turn until it feels like your suffocating under them.

I know they aren’t making walking easy right now. Our parks in Robertson County have been shutdown for weeks. But sidewalks aren’t closed. So walk. Get outside, get out of your head, and walk. I promise it’ll help.

 

Coming Soon: A Stroll through Springfield’s Historic District

 

What the Heart Wants: Second Foster Failure

Our first foster failure was Meadow, and that decision had everything to do with my husband Mason. But, our second failure was Adriana and that one was all about me.

I met Adriana six years ago when she was a week old. She was living under a bramble patch with seven littermates in one of Springfield, TN’s poorest communities. Her mother, a stray, took care of her pups the best she could. But, she couldn’t protect them from flea infestations, wild animals, and wicked southern thunderstorms. So, when the pups were two weeks old, all eight moved to the Farnival.

The same summer we fostered those eight puppies, I lost Miss Annie, my 15-year-old Yorkshire terrier. Miss Annie was the love of my life, my soul mate, and I was crushed. I was also scared. Losing Miss Annie hurt so much, I was afraid to love like that again. I honestly didn’t think I was capable of it. Then, on a hot August afternoon, things changed. And I learned exactly what Emily Dickinson meant when she said, “The heart wants what the heart wants…”

Laurie Fulsome walked up our gravel driveway with her baby tucked under her arm in the same careless but confident way an athlete carries a ball. During those first couple of seconds, I summed Laurie up as self-assured and athletic, both positive traits for anyone adopting a dog. Adriana and her litter had just turned six weeks old. They wouldn’t leave our care for two more weeks, but initial introductions were underway.

Mason leaned against the railing on our deck, looking completely at ease. As relaxed as he looked, I knew he was logging details from under the brim of his baseball cap. Those brief meetings with potential adopters required making life-changing decisions in a short amount of time. An extra set of discerning eyes always helped. Mason offered Laurie a chair, but she declined, sat on the deck, and plopped her baby down.

“Do you know which puppy you’re thinking about adopting?” I asked. The puppies were snoozing on a dog bed in the living room. All eight of them only took up a quarter of the oblong pillow.

“I’m really in love with that white one I saw on the blog a few days ago,” Laurie said. “Was her name Adriana?”

I heard what she said, but it took me a second to understand. I had to replay her words. Once the meaning settled, panic set in. Adriana. She was talking about Adriana. I knew the photo well. Adriana is sitting in the yard, but the grass is out of focus, a green cloud framing her tiny silhouette. When I first saw the picture, my breath caught. But, I didn’t think my reaction signified anything besides an acknowledgement of her cuteness. I didn’t think it meant I had feelings about her.

At that point, Miss Annie had only been gone for a month. I didn’t want to care about anyone again, especially not a dog. Loving a dog means accepting that one day we’ll lose them. There was no way in hell I was making that kind of commitment again. Right?

Overcome with turmoil, I excused myself and hurried inside. Without considering my actions, I scooped up Adriana, raced down the hallway, and plunked her in their crate. I closed our office door behind me. If Laurie saw Adriana, she would adopt her, and that couldn’t happen. But, I liked Laurie, didn’t I? The very few bits of logic I had left all said that my actions didn’t have anything to do with Laurie. They had everything to do with Adriana. What was I doing?

Forcing myself to move slower, to calm down, I gathered a different puppy named Angie from the pile in the living room and walked outside. For a stranger who only knew them through pictures, the one visible difference between Adriana and Angie was the latter had light brown splotches on her back.

“Here’s Adriana. They one you were asking about.”

“I love her spots,” Laurie said. “You couldn’t see them in the picture.”

“No. You couldn’t,” I answered.

My heart rate slowed after five minutes. After ten, I was confident my little subterfuge would go unnoticed. I’d figure out my feelings later. Maybe, I’d learn to like Laurie so much by the time the pups were ready to leave, I’d change my mind. But not now, because now, when I thought about someone else holding Adriana or feeding her or training her or walking her, I felt nausea.

I wish I could explain why I felt such a special connection with Adriana, but the only word that comes to mind is recognition. I recognized Ade from the moment I saw her, even if I wasn’t ready to admit it.

As though the universe conspired against me, things suddenly got more complicated. Laurie asked if she could go inside to breastfeed her baby. That meant she’d be thirty feet away from Adriana. I didn’t want Laurie any closer to her than she already was, but I couldn’t say no to a nursing mother. With great angst, I showed her into the living room. She situated herself on our couch. The puppies, minus one, slept a few feet away.

My heart was beating so loudly, it took a few minutes to hear Adriana’s cries. Once I heard them, I couldn’t hear anything else. Who could blame her? I had ripped Adriana away from a warm mound of slumbering bliss and locked her alone in our office. Her tiny whimpers sailed through the hallway and into our living room. They were so clear it was like a speaker hung over our heads.

Laurie looked at me with a puzzled expression. I responded with a shrug, hoping Ade would stop before I had to lie. But she didn’t. Instead, her whines only got stronger, each piercing cry evidence of my ruse.

“One of the pups doesn’t feel well,” I said. Sitting on that couch, lying through my teeth, I rationalized my anxiety about Laurie like this: she was raising a baby. She wouldn’t have the time or energy for a puppy. Yet, some part of me knew if she wanted to adopt any other one, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes.

Mason walked into the living room. “Who is screaming?”

“Angie doesn’t feel good,” I said.

“Angie is right-“ He started, but I cut him off with a single look. A moment passed between us, a moment of understanding that only happens between people who intimately know each other’s body language. Mason understood long before I did that I had fallen in love with Adriana.

“Huh,” he said, a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. “She seemed fine a few minutes ago.

“She must have gotten hold of something,” I said.

“Must have,” he said.

It took two more weeks to admit what my heart wanted. But once I did, we adopted Adriana. She became our second foster failure.

Bath Time with Meadow

Every month as close to the 15thas possible, I bathe all four mutts. They hate bath time. They hate it so much they remember it and scatter the second I pull the blue leash and my flip flips out of the closet. Everybody runs to a different room and hides behind a different piece of furniture. Meadow is the worst of all. Meadow, the proverbial A-student the one who always behaves, becomes a completely different dog during bath time.

Meadow’s hiding spot (which is always the same) is behind the kitchen table. She crouches in the corner and tries to make her 70-pound body as small as possible. When I slip the leash over her neck, she stares at me with amber-colored eyes that beg for mercy. I gently tug the leash. She follows but hunkers low. She moves so slow she acts like I’m leading her to the dungeon.

I bathe the dogs in the basement’s cinderblock shower. The original owner built it for cleaning up after hunting. After we moved in, Mason had attached a hose to the shower head and it became the perfect spot for bathing dogs. Once down the stairs, Meadow finally accepts the worst is about to happen and sprints the last few feet. She jumps into the shower and sits in the corner. She shivers as she waits for the torture to commence.

I spend twice as long showering Meadow as anyone else. Her long blond coat is as absorbent as a sponge. It takes gallons of water to wet it enough for lathering shampoo. And her fur doesn’t dry for hours. When I say hours, I mean twelve. No joke. The odor of wet dog hair mixed with lavender shampoo fills the house for an entire day after Meadow gets a bath.

Showering four mutts who range in size from 35 to 70 pounds isn’t exactly an easy chore, so I once asked Mason to help. That lasted for two months before I asked him to stop because I missed doing it so much. I realized that for me those baths are a form of communication.

Since my dogs can’t talk, I can only gauge their health through observation. But, bath time gives me the perfect opportunity to do a thorough check-up. Monthly, I inspect their ears, trim their nails, brush their teeth, and investigate their skin for hotspots or fleabites. I feel their joints for swelling and run my fingers through their fur to search for any cuts, lumps, or changes in consistency. Bath time is when I make sure that my dogs are as healthy as possible.

The very second the water stops, Meadow leaps from the shower like she just escaped the guillotine within seconds of her life. Her demeanor from moments ago is gone. In its place is one happy dog who twirls and leaps and cartwheels across the basement, soaking everything within twenty feet.

Dogs During Quarantine

What would I do without my dogs during this whole quarantine? I love my husband but since we’re pretty much together 24/7 right now, every once in a while he drives me nuts. And I’m sure I do the same to him. Regularly.

I never feel that way about my dogs. Over their lives, I’ve wished a thousand times they would start talking. But right now, I appreciate their quietness more than ever. Dogs are so unaffected by all this chaos that being with them makes cutting out all the clatter easy.

When we’re hanging out, we’re not talking about the coronavirus, the ones who died, or the fact that like millions of people across the country we don’t have jobs right now. Instead, we’re worrying about the important stuff, like long, meandering walks, afternoon naps on the porch, eating healthy food, and getting eight hours of sleep a night.

I’ve talked before about how much dogs teach us, and right now, during this quarantine, there is no better mentor.

A Princess in a Trash Pile: Meadow

On the weekend we met Meadow, our friends Jason and Nora were visiting from Charlotte. We were supposed to be listening to live music at honky-tonks on 2nd Avenue in Nashville. Instead, we were driving through rural Tennessee to pick up our next foster dog.

Even with our change of plans, the mood in Jason’s Jeep was light-hearted. We laughed about drinking too much wine the night before and eating pizza bites at midnight. None of us knew what we were about to see.

Mason and I had independently rescued dogs for ten years before we decided to make our work official. We started volunteering for a local non-profit during the fall of 2013. I had told the nonprofit’s head honcho Joan* we could only foster one dog at a time on the day we signed up. I wouldn’t budge on that.

A fine line exists between helping animals and hoarding them. At that point, if Mason and I had kept every abused and abandoned dog we found on the roadside, we’d have 32 dogs living at the Farnival. An ironic but inescapable fact about humanitarian work: it requires emotional limits.

The sky was gray, wind keen for early October. A cold front had descended late the night before. The mood in the Jeep quieted when we turned down a dirt road running through a trailer park. The degree of wear was the only difference between mobile homes. A fence surrounded some but most didn’t have one. Every trailer had at least two, sometimes three dogs lounging by their porch steps. I guessed that none were spayed or neutered.

We pulled into the driveway of a singlewide trailer with a mowed yard and two impossibly bright purple mums potted next to the front door. Joan, seventy-something with short white hair and a musical southern accent, was talking to a neighbor.

The neighbor had been feeding the two dogs across the street for a week because the landlord had evicted the family, an eighteen-year-old mother, her boyfriend, and their three toddlers. The family loaded up everything they could fit in their truck and left everything else behind, including their dogs. She said they weren’t cruel, just poor.

Over the next couple of years I’d hear the same story over and over. The details were different, but poverty was always the theme. In most cases, people wanted to take care of their animals, but they couldn’t afford it. Even getting animals fixed at a low-cost clinic would break monthly budgets. So, in these rural communities, places where leash and fence laws aren’t enforced, dogs just keep breeding, creating more and more unwanted mutts who nobody can afford.

We all decided Mason and I would foster one dog. Joan would buy the neighbor food so she could feed the other until space opened up with another foster family. We walked down a gravel driveway leading to a beat-down mobile home that overlooked piles and piles of junk.

The trailer sat tilted on cinderblocks and looked like someone had tipped it over and emptied it. Ductwork, insulation, empty Marlboro cartons, Big K plastic bottles, children’s toys, high-heeled shoes, kitchen utensils, and a mattress were just a few of the things littering the property. A chainlink fence surrounded all of it.

A red and black rooster suddenly appeared at the fence’s corner. For several seconds, I couldn’t take my eyes off the bird. I had the bizarre thought he shouldn’t be there because he might dig at the insulation. The dogs noticed the chicken too because they moved, and that’s when we saw them.

I gasped. I heard Nora gasp behind me. We weren’t shocked because the dogs were abused or emaciated. We gasped because they were so beautiful that they looked completely out of place, like a queen and a princess from a different era, or maybe a different planet, who accidentally ended up in a trash pile in a rural trailer park.

The neighbor said the Great Pyrenees was the smaller one’s mother. The Pyrenees wore long hair that looked impossibly white in that mud pit. She had a square jaw, regal stance, swooping tail. She stood four-feet high, weighed maybe 80 pounds. The younger dog had her mother’s long hair but it was shaded blond and tan. She weighed ten pounds less, stood a foot shorter, and wore a German’s shepherd’s signature snout.

The neighbor had pushed plywood and bricks against a busted gate so the dogs didn’t run away. Mason and Jason wormed their way through it. The animals definitely weren’t aggressive but they were timid and ran away. Finally, the guys cornered the younger one. Mason lifted her into his arms and carried her to a crate in Joan’s van. She didn’t fight but she trembled the whole way. Mason just held her tighter.

Nora, Joan, and I stayed rooted, staring at the mother, who had no interest in the three strangers outside the gate. Instead, she fixated on my husband’s receding form. Suddenly, she threw back her snout and howled. She only cried once, but loss filled every second of it. In some ways, hearing her cry was harder than seeing an abused dog. It was such clear proof of her feelings. And at that moment her heart was breaking.

I thought about our one-foster-dog-at-a-time rule. I really did. But, I’d be lying if I said logic mattered after I heard that dog’s howl.

“She can sleep in the basement, right? I mean we have an entire basement,” I said. Was I was trying to convince Joan or myself?

Joan smiled, but caught my eye. “So much for one dog at a time.”

Of course Joan was happy the Great Pyrenees had a foster home, but she didn’t forget to remind me about my boundaries either. Careful, Melissa. Careful.

As we drove out of that trailer park, I looked behind me. Two, three, then four dogs ran into the dusty road and watched us drive away.

6 months later

We named the Pyrenees Carmela and her daughter Meadow. Both were adopted within a month. Carmela moved to a Nashville suburb and spent most of her days lounging in a king-size bed. Meadow also moved into a beautiful home with another kind family, but things didn’t work out so well.

When Meadow had lived with us, she acted like a great dog. That wasn’t the case in her new home. She chewed up shoes, furniture, and toys. She panted excessively, pooling drool all over their carpet. Every time she rode in their car, she puked on the seats. The family tried to work with Meadow for six months, but she never got any better.

In retrospect, I realize Meadow’s anxious behavior was her way of saying she wanted to live at the Farnival. When the family tearfully returned her to us, Mason said he couldn’t give her up a second time. After all, he was the one who carried that princess out of a trash pile.

 

 

*Many times when rescue organizations get too much publicity, they also get tons of calls for help. So in order to alleviate this concern, I changed Joan’s name.