Writer writes about Haven memories

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Dear Editor:

This essay was written by Lindsay Hutton who was reared in Shell Knob, attended Shell Knob School and graduated from Cassville High School in 1998. Lindsay achieved her master's degree in creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi and is now a Ph.D candidate at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas. She is my granddaughter and I am very proud of her.

Volunteer at Large

I no longer live in Missouri, but it's still home. During holiday breaks and summer months I fly or drive back. I don't know if I'll ever feel these brief trips are anything less than moving between different worlds, different lives.

My graduate school routine is not at all the daily life that absorbs me once I've crossed the state lines of Texas, Oklahoma and finally into Missouri. I want to tell you about what waits for me in Missouri, tucked into rolling hills, down roads that all have the same first name - Farm Road - and sometimes aren't paved.

There is, first of all, my mother's home in Billings. This is where I unload my bags and park the truck for the night. In the morning my stepfather whips up a savory omelet, brews coffee laced with cinnamon. On lucky trips home, my mother bakes a coffee cake. Their three dogs, Maddie (the lab), Scope (the Corgie mix) and Hilary (the Heeler mix) join us for breakfast. They each get some toast and when they're lucky, bacon. Vitamin B, my stepfather calls it. Exactly what the dogs would fix for themselves in the wild, of course. They're in what I would call dog paradise. If I knew that I could die and come back as a dog, I'd want to make my reservation for the Billings hotel of dreams well in advance.

After breakfast we talk too much, and it makes me late. I get to the Haven of the Ozarks around 10 a.m.

"Must be noon," Mike says, checking his watch. He's been there since dawn. The dogs are fed and the cleaning is almost done. It's Mike's business to give me a hard time and to give me the news. What's been going on with the Haven? How are the dogs? Who's been adopted? Who's been brought back?

The morning is clear and cold and the dogs bark at the occasional passing car, the odd gust of wind. I see old friends, dogs who've been at the Haven for as long as I've been volunteering. The best way for me to visit these friends is to clean out their pens. Once Mike's given me the update, I find myself a bucket and rake and some Glad trash bags. My old work gloves are right where I left them, on the high book shelf in the office, the one that holds adoption kits.

The gloves are warm and soft, the leather cracked, holes threatening to wear through. They are a part of my Haven uniform; paint-stained jeans, sweatshirt, tennis shoes turned green from mowing grass. Sometimes when I get homesick I consider wearing this ensemble to class, teaching nonfiction literature in clothes that are as comfortable as they are purposeful. You wouldn't want to work at the Haven in a dress and heels.

Family members have asked me why I like to clean dog pens. "How can you like scooping poop?" They say. Well, first of all, it isn't about the poop. It's about the dogs. It's visit time. It's thinking time. It's something like meditation.

There is a sign on Tulip's pen that says "Dog May Bite." Tulip is an Australian Shepard mix with a lot to bark about. I've heard the stories of her biting, and for a long time Tulip scared me off with the barking routine. She can be especially intimidating when she perches on top of the dog house, putting herself on eye level with you. This business kept me nervous for months while cleaning Tulip and Shorty's pen. Then I started talking back. Maybe, maybe this dog just wanted to have a conversation. Maybe she was like one of those loud talkers, the people who believe they must shout in order for you to hear them.

"Tulip my girl, how are you?" I say as I enter the pen. "I know it already, I've heard. Who told you that? Tulip, come on. Texas isn't in outer space. I do get the news." In the end, cleaning Tulip's pen was a dance. We go round and round; she follows me while I rake up old food and poop. We keep up a back and forth conversation and by the time I exit the pen I'm kind of sorry. Tulip isn't going to bite me. Maybe she even likes me. Sometimes Tulip lets me pet her, and on these days the sun shines brighter and good things happen. You don't have to believe it, but I do.

I've been lucky. I've had the chance to get to know dogs like Tulip at the Haven. Hilary, who now lives in Billings dog paradise with my mom and stepdad, was my special favorite for one of the best summers I can remember. That summer I lived with Barbara, my grandmother, and worked at the Haven.

Each day I made sure to spend some time with Hil in her pen. Soon she started standing up in her pen when I arrived, tail wagging so hard it raised a cloud of dust. This image is one I take with me; it came with me across the ocean last year when I traveled to France. This is a piece of home, tangible. Part of the reason this memory of Hil makes me so happy is because I know that Hil got a good home. She got the home of homes, to my mind. I know that on a cold winter morning she gets toast and bacon. Just like she would in the wild.

Except that the wild would be a lot tougher, is a lot tougher. I don't need to tell you that. "The wild" that so many dogs are dumped into on a daily basis is full of fleas, short on food, and during winter it gets damn cold. Thanks to Barbara and Mike and everyone else who makes the Haven of the Ozarks possible, dogs and cats have a refuge from this wild. They have food, shelter, care, love; they have a chance to find a home. Maybe even Billings dog paradise. And this is a thought I carry with me, like I carry that memory of Hil wagging her tail, happy to see me. Somehow, I think to myself, people are making a difference. The somewhere is the Haven.

I am lucky. When school is out, I get to go home. I get to volunteer.

Written by Lindsay Hutton and submitted by Barbara Williams, of Shell Knob.