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Eleven years ago, I met the man who became my husband. Our love was quick to take hold, and I broke all of my single mom dating rules when I introduced him to my kids within a month of meeting him. Steve had a year old dog, Clark, a black lab who was his constant companion. I maintain that it was the kids' love for Clark that led to them loving Steve so easily. He was the dog they always wanted, and the one I couldn't afford to give them during my years as a single parent.
Steve bought Clark after deciding it was time to take a year off from dating and relationships. They forged a bond that is one of the strongest I've ever seen between man and dog. Steve made the winning bid for a puppy at a Pheasants Forever auction in Clark, South Dakota. Hence his name. He was a baby-only a few weeks old, and Steve tucked him into his jacket to warm his tiny body. From then on, Clark was carried in Steve's jacket until he was too big for such transport, but Steve still took him everywhere. The dog went to work with him everyday. When Steve visited job sites, Clark was on the seat next to him, or in a kennel in the back of his truck during warmer months. The pair were together almost 24/7/365 until Steve built a new office in 2006 and decided Clark would be better off at home. The kids were home in the early afternoon, and home all summer, and Clark always had at least one other dog at home to keep him company.
This early bond between man and dog left Clark extremely protective of his master. As Clark grew, his bark was deep and loud, and more than a little intimidating-especially once he reached his peak weight of 130 pounds. Any stranger that approached Steve was greeted with a big, black dog growling and barking at them, the hair on his back often raised-a terrifying sight. If you've ever visited our home, you've seen that side of Clark. It was all show. Clark was what my dad would have called a "rough, tough creampuff", quite literally all bark, no bite. But with Steve, the kids and me, the dog was a gentle giant. He was the most loving, sweet natured boy, full of kisses and always by our side.
It was always easy to love Clark. His happiness when family came home from school and work was unflagging, he greeted you with love whether you were gone for fifteen minutes or five days. He was miserable the few times we boarded him. The first time we kenneled him for a week, he lost ten pounds and was almost unrecognizable when we arrived to retrieve him. His joy was obvious as he tackled each of us, relieved to finally be reunited with his family.
Clark was one of the shiniest, most handsome dogs you can imagine. Under the full sunlight in summer, I swear you could see your reflection in his fur.
He was full of wild, unbridled energy for the first two years of his life. We used to own a cabin in Western Wisconsin and Clark loved running and swimming with kids. The first time they went swimming with him, Clark thought Alex needed rescuing, and took his boy's arm into his mouth and began paddling toward shore. We doubled over with laughter, and let our dog know his family wasn't in distress.
It was hard to say whether Clark loved winter or summer more. Every year, after the first significant snowfall, Clark would run outside and roll around in the snow. He loved to take in big mouthfuls of the white stuff, and looked as if his muzzle was covered in sugar.
He loved to go sledding with the kids. Clark loved to do everything with the kids. He tolerated them using him as a body pillow, a foot rest, and a model. He was never aggressive, he just loved being included.
In 2007, Steve rescued a female black lab named Nori and introduced her to Clark. Clark seemed less than thrilled at first, but Nori's youthful exuberance was good for him. She was two years old to his five and proved to be the perfect companion to the older dog.
Three years later, in 2010, a friend let us know he couldn't care for his black lab anymore and Remy joined our family. Remy was only a year old, and the 8 year old Clark and 6 year old Nori were unprepared for the disruption of this wild man. I was sure we'd made a horrible mistake for the first week, but Remy grew on us. Clark made sure the newcomer understood who was boss and that Remy was at the bottom of the pecking order. It only took a couple of instructive nips and growls for Remy to get the message. He loved to lay with Clark in the kitchen while I cooked. As long as Clark had first dibs on any food that landed on the floor, Remy was safe.
Clark could never stand to be alone. He wouldn't even stay downstairs by himself. If I was in the shower, he was on the bathmat. If I was cooking in the kitchen, he was on the floor nearby, waiting for scraps. He followed you from room to room, always watching. He slept in the bedroom with Steve and me each night, either on the floor just below me, or in our walk-in closet. Always close.
Over the last twelve years, Clark had a life full of ups and downs. Mostly ups, but his physical challenges were many. Shortly after we moved into our home, Alex left a sliding door open in the basement and Clark took advantage of the oversight and slipped out. By the time we realized he was gone, a half hour had passed. We drove around a couple miles of our home, calling him, looking for him in the dark. After several hours, he hadn't returned and all of us were in tears. That night was agony. There was no sign of him the next morning either. We left the sliding glass door open in case he found his way home in the middle of the night. Three days after disappearing, I was in the shower and Clark came into the bathroom-soaking wet, covered in dirt and burrs, but no worse for the wear otherwise. I phoned Steve to let him know our boy had returned. He burst into tears with relief, and rushed home to see for himself. The story has become part of our family lore, we never stopped wondering what Clark did during his three days on the run. Where was he, what did he see?
After Clark's great escape, he was taken to the vet for neutering. It was at that vet visit that we were made aware of a cataract and hip dysplasia. Common problems for a purebred black lab. Knowledge of the cataract was the explanation Steve needed for Clark's struggles during hunting training, so that plan was scrapped. While Clark's cataract impaired his vision slightly, it was glaucoma in his other eye that led to his next health crisis. I'm so grateful we had the ability to pay for Clark's healthcare, because it's easy to understand how another dog's family may have made a different decision. Buying a dog is the cheapest part of ownership, the cost in ensuing years is where the biggest expense lies. By the time we realized Clark had glaucoma it was too late to save his eye and our family vet referred us to the University of Minnesota Vet Clinic. We were given the option to have a prosthetic eye implanted, but opted to leave Clark perpetually winking. When my niece saw him, she remarked that he looked like an old grizzled war veteran. He did. But he was no less lovable to any of us, and it didn't seem to slow him down much at all.
Post-surgery, I decided it was time to work on Clark's weight. Clark always found a way to get extra food. In spite of his girth, he was catlike when it came to grabbing chow off the counter. His favorite treat was a loaf of bread. If the pantry was left open, and Clark was unattended, it was feeding time. More than once I came home from work to find empty bread loaf wrappers strewn across the floor. Once I left a 9x13 pan of brownies on the counter to cool. Hours later, the pan had disappeared. I accused the kids of eating them, they all plead ignorance. I couldn't imagine Clark got them, the counter is bar height and he showed no evidence of gastric distress. After an hour of looking, I found the pan underneath a coffee table in the family room, licked clean. Clark's weight topped at 130, and I couldn't imagine the struggles that awaited if we kept going down that path, so I cut his daily food portion and kept a closer watch on his snack intake. He was never small, but our vet was pleased when I got him below 100.
My favorite times with Clark were spent in the yard. He loved to lay in the grass, soaking up the sun and sniffing the air while I gardened. For hours, he would observe the comings and goings of our little cul de sac, I would let him drink from the hose, he would tear apart my empty pots or gnaw on a random branch. This fall, we had beautiful weather until the end of October. As I prepared my beds for winter and planted my mums, I watched Clark in the yard. I knew deep down, this would be his last time watching over me in the yard. Ultimately, that was Clark's job-protecting and loving us. He never flagged in his responsibility.
In the past year, I noticed Clark's weight declining even more. His last annual vet appointment in October revealed he was at 76 pounds. Not small by any means, but the wasting around his hips was especially evident. His doctor called him, "Kiddo" during the exam and I laughed at the joke. Our old man was anything but a kid.
Thanksgiving in our house is open to friends and family. I love cooking for my people, but the dogs are restricted to the garage or bedroom during meal time, their begging is pathetic and endless. This year, one of my best friends, Jill, brought her sister Keri with her to dinner. Keri had eaten with us a couple years earlier, but I'm always nervous about how newcomers to our home will react to the herd of canines in our house. Keri insisted she loved dogs, and wouldn't mind if they were around. Release the hounds! The dogs stampeded to the dining room and instead of barking and growling at a stranger, Clark went right up to Keri and kissed her face as she asked, "Who is this gentle, old soul?"
I nearly fell out of my chair. "Gentle old soul?" Clark? I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Clark needed regular visits before he had that comfort level with someone new. I was even more astounded after dinner when Keri lay on the floor next to Clark, gently stroking him. Folks, I don't like to lay on our floor, but I loved Keri as much as I love her sister Jill in that moment and I was so grateful that she spent the evening with our family.
The night after Thanksgiving one of my other best friends, LeAnn came over for our annual leftovers get together. As usual, she brought big marrow bones for the dogs, who were always overjoyed to see her. After dinner, we sat in the kitchen and talked and Mario announced something was wrong with Clark. He was on the couch having a seizure. I grew up with a dog who suffered with seizures most of her life, so I was calm. Steve was ready to burst into tears. Even though I didn't panic, I knew it was not a good sign to see this symptom show up at this late in the game. Clark was disoriented afterward, but by the next morning was pretty much back to normal. I took him to the vet and we agreed that we'd start medication only if Clark had another seizure. Unfortunately, that was within the week. It was if a clock started ticking down our Clark's time with us. The medication left Clark disoriented, so we dropped the dosage. A couple days after Christmas, Clark suffered two more seizures at night within a few hours of each other. The next morning, he could barely walk, and seeing his world shrink to our family room was awful. We slept fitfully and briefly the next two days, and cried much. Clark looked sad and scared, and it was obvious what needed to be done.
On December 30th, we put down our beloved Clark. I want to believe that Clark held on until Alex was home, insuring that all of his family members would be able to say their final farewells to him. It was probably just serendipitous, but it was enormously comforting to the human contnigent that held Clark as he took his final breath. My husband is beyond heartbroken, and two days later, his tears are still flowing.
I want to thank the incredible staff at Eagan Pet Clinic for the amazing care they gave Clark for the last nine years, as well as the care they continue to provide to Nori and Remy. They have been emotionally supportive in the last week, and took the time to call me back after I called them sobbing, looking for their guidance and approval with our horrible decision. Thanks also to the doctors at The University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center who cared for Clark when he lost his eye due to glaucoma.
Finally, I hope that you never need to use the service, but when the decision to end Clark's pain became obvious, we wanted to avoid an ugly group cry at our vet's office. They are phenomenal, but the thought of loading poor Clarkie into the car in subzero weather and putting him through that stress wasn't the way we wanted him to spend his last moments. Through our vet, we were referred to MN Pets, a firm whose doctors will visit your home and let your pet pass away in familiar surroundings with loved ones by their side. Dr. Melinda came to our door and I went to shake her hand, but instead collapsed into her shoulder with a sobbing hug, which she warmly returned. She was so gentle and understanding with the family, the absolute best possible option for a sad ending. Clarkie was surrounded by the five people who loved him the most, stroking him, declaring their love for a dog who was as much a part of our family as any human. His fur was wet with our tears.
In a book of essays, Just Beyond the Firelight, Robert James Waller writes of the pain of putting down his beloved Roadcat. "For some days after, I swore I would never go through that again. If it came to euthanasia, I would refuse to be present. I have changed my mind. You owe that much to good companions who have asked for little and who have traveled far and faithfully by your side."
Annelise took this photo last August as Clark waited for Steve to come home. It's my favorite picture of him.
It's been eleven months since I last posted, so let's dust this thing off and go for a month of daily posts again! Last year on November 2nd, I posted pictures of my son as he was sworn into the United States Marine Corps. Today, my barely 18 year old son is wrapping up his last month of boot camp in San Diego at Camp Pendleton.
The year leading up to Alex's departure was tough on me. The littlest things could prompt crying jags, and I spent the better part of Labor Day weekend in tears. Alex's platoon had the final swearing in ceremony on the field before the Minnesota Twins baseball game on Labor Day. This elevated an already momentous occasion to new emotional levels for me. My husband, who is stepfather to Alex and his twin siblings, was just as emotional as I...possibly worse, since I practically cried myself dry at some point the day before Alex's final swearing in ceremony.
The young men and women marched on to the field, accompanied by several Marines who themselves were sworn in at a Twins game in 1967. The author of a book about their experience in Vietnam, Christy Sauro, Jr., was among them.
I packed extra handkerchiefs, which proved useful when Alex's name was emblazoned on the scoreboard.
Afterwards, the Marines treated family members to a lovely rooftop reception at Seven, a sky bar in downtown Minneapolis. The weather was flawless. I looked at the young men and women sworn in with Alex...none seemed old enough for the enormous responsibility ahead. They looked both confident and nervous, certainly still coasting on the ovation and outpouring of gratitude shown them at the baseball game three hours earlier.
I hugged my son more that last weekend than I had in the last five years combined. His last words to me before he joined his platoon mates, were "See you in thirteen weeks!" He smiled broadly, and I wept as I remembered him as a five year old, climbing on to the school bus for the first time. He climbed the bus stairs and never looked back. That was the first time I truly realized...they're all going to leave one day...the diapers, the little shoes, the Matchbox cars and Legos...it's all temporary. Someday, I realized that morning thirteen years ago, I will have to say goodbye for real. September 6th was the first goodbye. It's clear to me that my son is never again going to need his mom...at least in the role I've held the last 18 years. I'm sure he'll ask my advice, and hopefully my duties as a grandmother will be called on at some point, but he doesn't need my permission, or approval, or financial support any more. That is sad, but that is a job well done, too.
The letters from boot camp are both hilarious and worrisome, but I can sense a maturity in my oldest son that wasn't there in August. I'll bring a bale of handkerchiefs with me to Camp Pendleton, because I know Alex's transformation will bring a new wave of tears-both joyful and sad.
After I left home, my mom would regularly send me a package of Heggy's peanut brittle. It's almost not worth the effort of making it yourself when it's so readily available, but I haven't found a supplier here in the Twin Cities that matches my hometown's product. It's been thirty plus years since I last tried my hand at peanut brittle, and that was as an apprentice to my mom who was using our brand new microwave oven instead of a stovetop. I thought I'd give it a try and see if the effort was justified.
This is a recipe that requires patience for most of the process, then urgent and swift attention at the end. Side story-during my baking marathon a few years ago, I grew tired of listening to the same Christmas CD's over and over. So, I turned on the TV and searched for programming that would keep me entertained during some of the more mindless tasks and inevitable waiting periods of baking. I happened on the documentary about the Ramones, End of the Century. If you loved punk rock back in the day, this is a must see. The music is awesome and the story of the band is surprisingly poignant.
Anyway, I spent the rest of that baking time listening to early punk music on a DirectTV channel that has since been replaced. Idiots. Thank God for Pandora. Now I make Christmas cookies while listening to festive songs from The Clash, Talking Heads, The Misfits, the Sex Pistols...you get the picture. That three chord progression and those rapid gunfire drums make my task seem so much less tedious and monotonous.
Back to the peanut brittle-hey ho, let's go!
Perfect Peanut Brittle
Get your ingredients ready just as I have them above. Once you hit the temperature markers, you need to be ready to move fast, fast, fast. Time is of the essence when you're making any kind of hard candy.
Heat and stir sugar, syrup and water in a heavy 3-quart saucepan until the sugar dissolves. Add salt.
Cook over medium heat to soft ball stage (234 degrees). Add peanuts at 250 degrees.
Stirring is critical at this point, but it will feel at first as if you have too many nuts and the candy isn't cooperating. Stick with it. I had Annelise help me by holding the thermometer until the candy reached 290°.
Cook to hard crack stage (290 degrees), stirring often. Remove from heat. Quickly stir in the butter, vanilla and baking soda. Beat to a froth for a few seconds.
Pour the candy onto the buttered cookie sheets, spreading well or stretching mixture with two forks in order to get the candy as thin as possible.
The verdict? It's every bit as good as Heggy's and it only cost about $2.50 for this batch. Gabba gabba hey!
These yummy pastries are definitely in my top three of all time favorite cookies. They're made with real butter, they contain pecans and the dough is kept in the freezer until they're ready to bake. I almost always have a few rolls in the freezer during the holidays so I can pop a batch in the oven when company shows up.
My dad claims that my grandma made these, but I don't remember them. Of course, I was still a picky eater back in the day, so maybe I just turned my nose up at them. I found the recipe in The Christmas Cookie Book, one of my favorite cookbooks for this time of year.
These are great cookies for shipping because they're not crumbly. They're just wonderfully buttery and dense and rich.
Butterscotch Pecan Icebox Cookies
Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and pecans in a bowl and set aside. In a small, heavy saucepan (preferably not a dark colored pan-you need to see the butter activity) over moderately low heat, melt the butter and simmer it slowly until it is a deep golden yellow and the sediment at the bottom has browned very slightly.
If the sediment has burned, strain it through a cheesecloth lined sieve into a glass measuring cup. (Mine was perfectly browned, but I created a mock-up for you to see)
Combine the butter and brown sugar well in a mixing bowl.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Remove the rolls from the freezer, place on cutting board and slice discs 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. (I prefer mine a little thicker.) Arrange the cookies on a parchment covered cookie sheet one inch apart. Spreading won't be an issue with these.
Bake for 9 to 11 minutes on a center rack, just until the edges of the cookie are golden brown. Cool and store in airtight containers for up to a week, freeze for up to two months. They're always impressive for spontaneous cookies, and they're lovely with morning coffee or a tall glass of milk.
One of the reasons I love these cookies so much is that my kids don't particularly like them. Of course, this can mean only one thing. All the more for me!
Well, I did it.
I posted every single day this month, after an 18 month hiatus. Granted, several of the posts were phone-ins at best, but I accomplished a goal. I am still going to post cookie recipes next month. I'm not ruling out another 31 day posting streak either.
Here are some recipes I'll be including next month:
Some of these are annual traditions, others I haven't made for decades and the rest are projects I've always wanted to try. I will be making quite a bit in anticipation of a visit to a group home on Sunday. Never one to show up empty handed, I plan on bringing a cookie basket to the residents and supervisors.
I'll see you all back here tomorrow!
I wish I could have summoned the energy for a new post today, but I think I'm still recovering from Thanksgiving. I've been nursing a cold since Wednesday, and it's left me a little weak and fatigued. Cookie recipes to come this week, though! Promise!
In the meantime, I'll show you the obstacles I deal with in the kitchen on a daily basis. Clark is notorious for plopping his carcass right in the middle of the kitchen floor while I prepare meals. I'm often forced to juggle platters and dishes while I step over his bulk. The new fellow, Remy, seems to be taking after the Alpha Male's bad habits.
The first few days were rocky, but I must admit, the little guy has won me over. He's so gangly and eager to please, I just can't resist him. As I worked around the kitchen last week, he followed me everywhere while the other two dogs slumbered upstairs. He watched every task I performed with a genuine curiosity.
In the nick of time, I'm still in the NaBloPoMo!