Visiting a client for the first time often provides plenty of new experiences. But on rare occasions, those visits revive vivid memories of familiar people and surroundings, as if I were walking back in time. New, yet familiar.
Sandy, a big, loving woman with a voice that announces her Philadelphia roots with every sentence—in volume, cadence, word choice and accent—met me at the door and made a valiant effort to contain all three dogs. She failed miserably and they spilled out into the courtyard. Maisy, a weighty yellow lab, barreled her way through Sandy’s legs. Benny, a sandy-colored Brussels Griffon/Wheaton Terrier/Beagle mix lamely followed her lead. And Sophie, a lithe Basenji, wove her way between dog and human legs to make her escape.
As I stepped over the threshold, I was transported back to my mother’s home in Springfield, Ohio. Sandy’s house had a familiar feel and order about it. Papers strewn here and there on the Pergo floors, clutter invading the living spaces. Cleaning and straightening, as my mother used to call it, wasn’t a priority. But there was an unmistakable feeling of love that hugged the rooms, like there were more important things to do than keep a spotless house.
We corralled Maisy and Sophie in the kitchen so we could get started working with Benny. Benny had ruptured his cranial cruciate ligament (similar to a human’s ACL) and I was there to take a cast molding of his leg for a knee brace. To prepare the casting tape, I need to soak it in water for a few seconds to start the chemical reaction that results in the hardening of the cast. I grab my orange rectangular container and ask if I can fill it with water.
Sandy directs me through a small den to the bathroom on the left. I can smell my mother the split second I walk in the den. I stop in my tracks. Suddenly I am standing in the doorway to the bathroom just outside Mom’s bedroom. Nothing about the layout of the room is similar, but the smell of Dial soap and a warm, floral scent are overwhelming to my memory. It’s Ariane perfume, an Avon product my mother loved. It’s a classic bouquet of jasmine, carnation, orchid, rose and lily of the valley with undertones of sandalwood, cinnamon and musk. Sweet and spicy, a lot like Mom.
I floated to the sink still intoxicated by the smell and reached for the cold water handle. My hand froze. The drain and the handles were the same as those in Mom’s bathroom. White levers, with black reminders. Cold. Hot. A half-covered drain. The familiar sound of the water circling the drain before making its descent. My nostrils flared as I drew in one last intake of memory-inducing air and strode back to Benny and Sandy.
I wouldn’t call Benny a willing participant in the casting but Sandy bear-hugged him long enough for me to finish the cast and cut it off. By this point the other two dogs had had enough of being banished from the action and stormed the living room, Maisy by ground and Sophie by air.
Basenjis by nature are reserved with strangers and Sandy was surprised to see Sophie take such an interest in me. As I sat on the low chair, Sophie ran to my side and inhaled the scents of the others dogs I’d worked with that day and many days before. Then she patted me with her paw, tapping my leg like a little kid who had something to say. I turned to her and stroked under her chin and the side of her face. Her tightly curled tail wagged quickly and earnestly.
Like a languid dancer, she put her front feet on my thigh and drew herself up to eye level. And that’s when I saw the spark of recognition. She was looking at me through those dark, almond-shaped eyes, telling me how excited she was to see me again. She was trying to tell me a story. Her body was still except for the base of that curly tail that twitched back and forth. I trusted her. She couldn’t take her eyes off of mine. And I felt a love for her that was so strong and like nothing I’ve felt for a client’s dog. This was different. I smiled and soaked up her affection. This was comfortable, easy, like I’d felt this before. I was ready to take her home at the least suggestion that things weren’t working out in the current environment.
I finished the casting and the measurements, said my good-byes and headed home. I didn’t think much about it until I was talking with Kathy about the olfactory trip down memory lane. When I mention Sophie’s reaction and my reaction to her, she said “Was that Gin?” I was floored. How could I have missed it?! Of course it was.
Virginia, Gin for short, was my mother’s dog. Ok, she was my dog first, but really became attached to Mom after I left for college. Gin was right there with Mom through Dad’s strokes, prolonged illness and eventual passing. Gin went everywhere with Mom. She rode in the front seat and was an excellent guard while Mom did her quick errands, fast-food dinner runs and trips to Grandma’s. In fact, she spent so much time riding in the car with Mom, that after Gin passed away, Mom had her cremated and carried her ashes in the car with her until Mom herself passed away a few years later.
I loved Gin and she was a terrific companion. While I was home during the summer, I would often go on training runs with her. She knew the headphones and Walkman meant she was going with me. Her excitement was palpable. Growing up with Saint Bernards, I’d never had a dog to run with. She was fantastic.
I always look forward to fitting a new brace for a dog. It means safer, more comfortable mobility and a chance to get back to being a dog, doing dog stuff. But in this case, I also can’t wait to see Sophie again. And this time, I’ll recognize her as the long, lost companion I’ve missed all these years.