Saturday, June 28, 2008

A more fitting tribute to Molly

Molly in a training session, circa 1997

I want to celebrate her life, and her effect on me. It still hurts that she’s not there in the morning while I drink my first cup of tea, and that she’s not here right now, reminding me that it’s time to feed the dogs. I still look for her on our walks, wanting to make sure that she hasn't gotten confused and lost. But that’s my problem: compared to what she gave me this is a tiny price to pay.

A lot of people who know me and knew Molly think they understand the bond between us; a few of them do. Very few. One friend gave me a bumper sticker that said, “God help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.” She thought it represented Molly’s adoration for me.

She did adore me – and the feeling was mutual. But Molly held no illusions about me. I am exactly the person she thought I was. She knew my shortcomings, and when she could she covered them for me. When she couldn’t, she tolerated them with varying degrees of annoyance. That bumper sticker should have said, “God help me if my dog tells where I’ve hidden the bodies.”

Perhaps as important, I held no illusions about Molly. I know she wasn’t the greatest sheepdog that ever lived. I’ve probably got a more talented dog in Tweed right now, but as big as Tweed’s place in my heart is, it doesn’t compare to Molly’s. Molly was competent and workmanlike, but not really stellar. But she tried her best every time I asked her to. Who can ask anything more than that in a dog?

There are some great stories about Molly. There was the time when 500 sheep on an island vegetation management project broke out. We thought we had them all back inside the fence, and were getting ready to get home before we were going to have to run against the tide. Molly was nowhere to be found. After about 20 minutes of searching and calling, I saw some motion out in the salt marsh, and here came another packet of sheep. Molly was behind them, bringing them on a dead line for where I was calling her from. If we had left when we thought we were done, those sheep (it turned out to be 12 of them) would have been swept out by the tide or eaten by coyotes.

I had a habit of talking to Molly like she was another person. I do this with all my dogs, more or less -- I don't talk baby talk to them or change my voice very much. But Molly had a large vocabulary and paid attention to me most of the time, resulting in some interesting conversations. There’s the time when one of my stepdaughter’s boyfriends was visiting. He was sitting on the couch, and Molly was curled up on the floor in front of him. I walked into the room and casually asked, “You want to go outside and take a leak?” Imagine his relief when Molly got up and accompanied me. He thought this was some sort of bonding ritual I was expecting him take part in with me.

Molly had a beautiful sense of the pressure needed to move sheep, and she also knew how to turn it down a notch when she needed to. She could avert her eyes just enough to allow a truculent ewe to back up a step, collect her lambs, turn around, and trot off where she needed to go -- giving the ewe just enough space to leave without losing face.

There was the time when we moved a stray lamb, one backwards step at a time, down a narrow path on a cliff face, to his calling mother.

I’ve said it before, and it’s true: Molly made a shepherd out of me. She showed me doors that I wouldn’t have seen without her. Molly gets some of the credit for anything that I do right with my sheep flock or the dogs that I’m working or training.

Selfishly, I hope that my relationship with her wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime deal, but it probably was. I hope that her ghost visits me when I get lazy and reminds me to straighten up and fly right. I hope to see her in my dreams at night after a good day’s work, with the white tip of her tail – the shepherd’s lantern – leading the way down the darkening trail from some high pastures toward home, and toward rest. I hope to see her in the young dogs coming up. Most of all, I hope that I can be worthy of her memory.

She was a good dog. To paraphrase James McMurtry, she'll no more be here, but she'll never be far.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Bill for your tribute to Molly. He may never replace Molly but I hope Tweed will fill a similar niche in your work and in your heart.