We didn’t expect the puppies.
What seemed like a dozen greeted us untethered – terriers, beagles and hounds, some of them breed-unidentifiable. I looked around at this garden of pups, and the whole place burst with pink, blue and green. Flowers spilling from large bins framed aqua sheds where people in blue T-shirts scurried in and out, handing over more puppies and dogs to waiting families.
Janis, her rescue name, was somewhere on the property, waiting to meet us. I’d found her online, longing to stop the tears that had taken over my early mornings since my dog, Little Ronald Reagan Rountree, died earlier this year. Each day as I came down to prepare for our morning walk, I’d tap his ashes box with a “Hey, buddy,” and then they’d come. Dogless, I’d walk down the driveway to meet my longtime friend Grace and her dog Sookie, and we’d walk, finding no words to fill the empty space on the street.
To my thinking, the only way to stifle grief is not more time, but another dog, so I started looking. We’d honor our old boy by adopting, right? We narrowed the search to Lab mixes, scouring dozens of dogs on local and regional rescue sites. The puppies, of course, drew me first, with their soft faces and searching eyes – but, no. An older dog would be easier.
Go to Saving Grace Pet Adoptions when you’re ready, friends said. So we did. We found a spot away from the sun under a pagoda, and I climbed into a stool shaped like a woman’s bikini bottom. My husband grabbed water from a large glass icy bin.
The dogs swarmed around us, and I felt my heart smile for the first time in weeks.
When I saw Janis – she was likely named for Janis Joplin – the first thing I thought of was a song from my college days recorded by Janice, a favorite band in the ’70s. “Oh, I can’t help it, I just wake up smiling, thinking of your love,” it goes.
I’ve never met a dog who didn’t wake up happy. That seemed a good enough reason to meet her.
And so, here we were. A man in the blue shirt brought her out, her head draped over his shoulder, and we followed him to a small fenced-in area. We’d brought some treats, and as she sniffed around, we called her over, asked her to sit. Janis was 10 months, they thought, sleek and yellow like a Lab but not full bred. She’d only been there a few days, rescued from a kill shelter from somewhere in eastern North Carolina. I imagined her running down the back roads near my old house and immediately adopted her as kin. So calm, she was, that she seemed perfect for a couple of middle-agers on the cusp of retirement.
She rode wordlessly in the back seat all the way home. I ran out for puppy food, a crate and bed, training treats and chew bones and thought about who she would be to us.
“I want to name her Scout,” I said. “Jean Louise Finch Rountree,” thinking of my favorite literary upstart.
“Scout,” my husband repeated.
At bedtime, she wouldn’t climb stairs, so my husband carried her up. She walked happily into the crate, laid down and was out, silent all night.
This would be so easy.
Of course, she woke up to her full self a few days later, and our journey with her began. Scout, it turns out, is a good name for her, because there is rarely a minute when she’s not scouting something, eyeing, smelling. Though she’s full of puppy still, her only serious infraction has been to chew the leg of my handmade pencil post bed – no dog has ever dared that. She buries the expensive chews I buy her in the yard and in the covers but finds them days later. Sookie is trying to like her.
A few Sundays ago, we found ourselves back at Saving Grace with other families who had adopted dogs this year at their annual reunion picnic. Inside the gates of this happy yard, dogs mingled everywhere – fat and needle-nosed, spotted and not, from rat terrier to Great Dane – nuzzling and smelling and smiling, though nary a bark between them. A band played in the distance, children spun in tree swings, families consumed potluck under giant oaks in the front yard. Strangers chatted, their only link a dog and Saving Grace.
Molly Goldston started this place in 2004 after a career in animal rescue. “I’d go to these (kill) shelters and see all the dogs and thought, there has to be a better way,” she told me. That first year, she found homes for a few dogs, and each year brought more home to the colorful farm in northern Wake County that had been her great-grandmother’s. She took time to learn how to choose dogs who would be successful pets, and now, shelter workers tag dogs for her. There are so many.
To date, more than 15,000 dogs have found themselves in Molly’s arms, however briefly, as they make their way to families. (Scout is among 1,500 dogs to be rescued by Molly and her all-volunteer team this year.)
We’re still learning about Scout, who jumps on our bed with muddy paws, licks our faces when we let her and wishes her mirrored reflection was really a friend. She’s already scouted her spot in the annals of our family’s dog tales and settled into it. And we can’t help but wake up smiling, thinking of all the love we have yet to share.
Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “Nags Headers” and “In Mother Words.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.