Bubble Wrap


Unless you’re super-human, how many times have you looked into your closet or storage shed and said, “I’ll hold onto this in case I need it someday…” or, “I’m not ready to part with that now…”? Guilty of such utterances, I yearn to streamline, clean out, lighten up. But the unlit corners of my house hold so many boxed-up treasures – aunties’ costume jewelry, uncles’ neckties, dad’s CD collection, trophy ball caps, a multi-generational fabric stash, and a clutch of old toothbrushes kept to assemble that fleet of model airplane kits never built in the 1970’s but retained for when we, someday – but not too soon – have grandchildren to dote upon. So many forgotten mementos and inherited bits linger under the protective motto, “Save for later.” Honestly, I can’t let go.

Friends called to say they would be running errands at the Container Store and would I like to join them? Here was a chance to get out of the house, socialize, and roam the aisles to see if there was anything I couldn’t live without. I hopped in the car to meet them. This store sells promises of ease and happiness if you’ll just buy enough clear plastic bins to organize your life. I would not be tempted. While I do not disparage Organizing, are you really buying a solution or a bandaid? I digress.

While my friends shopped in the tempting, high-traffic aisles, debating the merits of toy-sized, candy-colored sticky notes with barely enough surface area to inscribe a scratch, I wandered into the deep recesses of the store, past so much tantalizing bait: the haute mode laundry bins (lipstick on a pig), the myriad of waste baskets where you think, “Gosh, if it looks like a hilarious panda, maybe my kid will actually toss his trash in it,” and the diminutive laundry racks recalling the days of hand-washed lace doilies. Open to the possibility of a bargain, I headed for the sale rack of tattered gift wrap and clever luggage tags, and found myself in the neighborhood where plain shelving, lackluster bins, and the decidedly un-sexy things are sold. Or so I thought.

I heard it before I saw it – the distinctive, randomly effervescent pop-pop-pop of bubble wrap. Pausing at the end of the aisle, I peered around the end-cap. There were, against the wall in the furthest corner of the store, industrial-sized rolls of bubble wrap – the kind you buy by the yard if you are shipping a Ming vase, a Monet, or just making an outfit for your kid to go outside and play.He was probably about 13 years old, no doubt in the store against his will while a parent shopped for a sibling’s dormitory products. Clearly in his own private reverie, he held the edge of the roll in his hands at waist height, poppety-pop-popping like a virtuoso pianist at Carnegie Hall. His tousled mop of hair swayed over his jolting body in sync with his private percussion.

I’m no store security expert, but I’m pretty sure that when you smash all the air out of the The Wrap, you’re essentially wrecking the product. Where this falls on the retail morality scale of just tasting one grape to eating the whole donut before you get to the register, I’m not sure – but it’s not my problem, not my kid, not my profit margin. I’m more interested in his abandon. There’s no one else at the back of the store; it’s just me, and the ecstatic teen reveling in a heady cache of staggering proportions.

Have you heard? Bubble Wrap manufacturing will be changing – it was in the news. I tell my friends and they’re shocked. They ask, “Why? Is it an environmental concern?” The Sealed Air Corporation is going to a pop-less format. Un-poppable! Unthinkable! To say this is the end of an era is quite possibly the largest understatement of our time. In this store, stack-and-save central, does this kid even know how fleeting is his joy? He’s riffing away in his own world, in rhythm with so many bubble-popping aficionados who have gone before him. This satisfying and profound expression of tactile pleasure and audible joy unites generations and appeals across geographic boundaries.

He goes on for some time, and then his private serenade-for-one is apparently done. He’s spent. His hands fall to his sides. He sighs and swipes his hair off his forehead. I follow his gaze as he notices another roll just off to his right. Eager hands lead the way as he sidles the few quick steps towards greater pleasures. This transition is like moving from a weedy clavichord to the pipe organ at Radio City Music Hall. These sonic eruptions are deeper, more resonant, slower. This is the bubble wrap for the Big Items. Each clear plastic cell is the size of a ginger snap with the padding capability of a marshmallow. I listen in wonder as the measured and deliberate andante profundo spills forth.

I am aware that I’m gawking. I shouldn’t linger but half of me can’t believe how naughty he is, the other half is a bit envious. He stops. He turns slowly and sees me at the end of the aisle. He murmurs, “Oh, sorry —” and quickly moves off. I can only laugh. He was having fun in the moment…using it up and letting it go. Good boy.

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photoPicture This

Picture This

photoPicture This
My earliest memory of a funeral photograph was when I was about eight years old. At the height of the Cold War, Polish cousins had sent a black and white snapshot to my mother.  It was grainy but the scene was clear; eight figures swallowed in black crêpe stood over a small, narrow white casket with a single lily on the lid, an open grave at their feet. Someone must have said, “Wait! A photograph! Our cousins in America will want to know of our loss.”

Their “cousins in America” were my mother and her four sisters. Each week, my family, my aunts, and their closest friends (nearly all Polish spinsters) packed around my aunt’s dining room table for the traditional Sunday dinner. This same table, now in my house, barely seats six guests but 45 years ago merrily accommodated twelve or more at the weekly gathering. My mom was the only of her siblings to have kids so my brother and I were it. It was excruciating. But on those Sundays I was allowed to watch color TV, pluck Cadbury chocolates from a crystal candy dish, slather thick pats of (real) butter on my Pepperidge Farms dinner rolls and wash them down with an icy-cold bottle of Coke. Permitting those extravagant treats was my bribe to ensure that my mother (and my Italian father, the “foreigner” as Pope John Paul II would later refer to him as he observed my mom conversing in Polish with His Holiness in 1988) could spend the afternoon with her family. That all the sisters lived a mere block apart and daily spoke on the telephone didn’t matter, Sunday was their official time together.

During one such dinner, my mother slid the little photo from the blue, onionskin envelope – the latest news from Poland. Fingers were wiped on oversized paper napkins as it was passed around the table. “Ach, so sad! Is that Anna, third from the right? Was this her youngest? What was her husband’s name? Janulevich? No, Kizielewicz, that would’ve been Pop’s nephew. That couldn’t be!” Enough decades had passed that, at best, they were guessing. All were genuinely touched and shared the sadness but none seemed bothered by the photograph of a child’s casket. This was, after all, the same gaggle of girls who had in their youth relished playing “Italian Funeral” when they hoisted aloft an old shoe box bearing a deceased robin or sparrow and fell into a rag-tag procession down the dusty city streets of 1920’s New Haven, keening and sobbing, shouting to the heavens,  giving any genuinely grieving cortège a run for its money. I tried to read the writing on the back of the photo. Purply-black ink, fancy loops, a single name, the number six, nearly my age.

The funeral photo had made an impression on my young mind, not one of recoiling in horror but more of the thought, “You can actually do that?” A horribly sad and tragic event was captured not for macabre gawking but for marking and remembering and, in this instance, sharing in a much more personal way than just the black-bordered letter, the facts. It said, this is who we are, at that moment. I know that attending the wake and funeral of a loved one, witnessing the event, is better than just hearing about the death – which is liable to play tricks on one’s memory resulting in a Christmas card accidentally sent to the deceased from time to time. A photograph seemed practical.

Before my father’s death at age 86, it was common knowledge that my mother had dementia. The high-minded, bi-lingual, accomplished Betty was no longer in control. A few said, “She was so smart, how could this be?” My father had done much over the years to cover for her lapses. My brother and I faced streams of odd outbursts and behaviors that weren’t all that far from her eccentric, individual way but were now clearly worrisome. Before accepting my mother’s reality, I spent much time moaning and wringing my hands, complaining to friends and therapists that I could barely cope with her lapses, her little cruelties. How much patience I needed! How many insults I endured as she lashed out, struggling to make sense of her illness. And yet, she could step outside of her paranoia to remark that her memory loss was infuriating to her. “If you can see that,” I would say, “Mom, then why can’t you fix it?”

Dad died in their assisted living apartment with all of us there. Mom sat quietly at the foot of his bed reading the New York Times, holding his hand, saying the rosary, singing Polish hymns. She had been so present and so appropriate in the moment, but within minutes of the undertaker leaving, the questions returned, “Where’s Daddy? Is Dad sick? Nobody told me! When will Nick be back?”

The dementia experts would say to redirect the conversation. To me, that meant I should lie to my mother. Dad wouldn’t be back. Dad did have cancer, and yes, we all knew it. Those times when I chose to answer her questions with the cold, hard truth she would say, “I’m so glad you told me he’s gone because I would just sit here and worry.” It wasn’t the dying that bothered her, it was the not knowing. I deployed the same honesty over the following years when she frequently asked after her mother, her father, her sisters – all long gone, Mom.
“Am I the last?”

“Yes, Mom.”

Along with her journals and seemingly every scrap of paper she ever scribbled on, she had a collection of funeral cards with the birth and death dates of family and friends. Consulting the calendar on the wall to get the current year, she did the math, subtracting in flowery figures and teetering columns, to figure out her age. “Am I really 90? I don’t know why the good Lord is keeping me around!”
“To teach me patience, Mom.”
We’d share a laugh.

I took pictures at my dad’s wake. I don’t know if anyone saw me. From my seat in the front of the muted parlor, I lifted my phone, Cold War style, just inches from my purse and quickly snapped a few frames – the flowers, the casket, my dad in profile. I took pictures at the funeral, too. After the grave-side service, while the burnished bronze casket still caught the sun as it was suspended over the grave obscured by garish astroturf, (and I don’t know why they’ve stopped the practice of lowering the casket into the ground with the mourners still present to toss in handfuls of dirt, roses, feel the finality in your hands) I stood apart from my family and quickly caught a picture.

The next day, “Where’s Nick?,” asked my mom, clearly exhausted and grief stricken, very unsure. This question stayed with her for years. I’d say, “Daddy’s gone, Ma,” and if the mood seemed right, I’d ask if she’d like to see a picture.
“Yes, yes, I would.” After silently gazing at the little screen on my phone, she would always say, “These little gadgets are wonderful. Was I there?”
“Yes, Mom. You were there for everything.”
“I don’t remember…”
“…but you were there.”
“Good, I’m glad.”

Since my tentative, early steps into surreptitious funeral parlor photography, I have become bold. I photographed my mom in her doctor’s office seated on the examination table. She is wearing her signature cardigan, a large silk babushka, happily looking around, “such nice paintings!,” and wearing my hefty, size 10 hiking boots. (Her feet had swollen and, to be on time for our appointment, I traded my boots for her size 8 Totes.) The doctor would soon deliver the news I knew would not be good. The gravity of this sudden appearance of cancer meant nothing to her. She would never fret about it.

In the remaining weeks, I increased the number of candid shots I took documenting our morning coffee, our daily news round-up, her singing, her decline. Then in the silence and peace of her room just after she passed, I slid out my phone and photographed what I saw: the early morning light as it fell across the foot of her bed illuminating just the length of her body, her hip, her hand, the side of her face in the edge of the frame, my brother sitting in the arm chair by the window, the flowers and books on the table. I’ve barely glanced at these photos. I scroll right over them. But I know I have them.

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Empty Nesting


My friends, all concerned citizens, asked me, “Are you going to be okay with this?”

“With what?” I was deliberately obtuse.

“With, you know, him leaving home a year early.”

“Pshaw! It’s his decision! He wants a change!”

But he won’t be under your roof. It’s like paying for extra college – can you afford that? You won’t know where he is all the time. He’ll miss his friends. Haven’t you heard the stories? You have so little time with him as it is…

And so went the litany of reasons why I should be wary of sending my kid to boarding school, reasons that reflected their doubts more than my own. If anything gave me pause, it would be returning to public school where he had been, from the beginning, slotted in a groove resembling a rut, where the avuncular mantra was “Don’t worry, grades don’t matter,” or “Don’t hover, let them find their own way,” but always with the unasked, “So, what are you going to do about this?” This laissez-faire attitude allowed some students to drift along and phone it in – and who among the average boy isn’t a fan of that? Such glorious educational sentiments allow the swelling average to sag with the weight of “good enough.” And if your child is a line-toeing, self-motivated one, then bravissimo! But some kids want something else, and this is why he sought a small, all-boys boarding school where traditions and dress codes, expectations of excellence and tribal support would be the rule of the land.

So, no, I was not upset to drop him off at his new school. I did not weep. I did not cling – though he might disagree. I did not take pictures. I made his bed (as my dad had done for me) and did my best to leave him to it.

We, the dropping-off families, were invited to share a quick lunch where we could informally chat with some faculty and staff before returning home in our empty cars. The scene was a bright, bustling dining hall where classmates and teachers reconnected after the summer and new students mixed in. Thanks to social media, he already had a small cadre of campus friends, boys he knew from summer camp. Faculty said they were looking forward to meeting our son, they’d keep an eye out for him, get him down to the music lab, or encourage him to try a new sport. Looking around, we were confident that our son (who had already eaten lunch and disappeared amid a cloud of boys) was immersed in a cohesive, caring experience, one that we had wanted for him, to be honest, since the beginning. He had a steep learning curve ahead – but he was game.

Just twelve months earlier, a musing “what if?” regarding transferring to a new school, quickly became the all-consuming school application process of checklists and deadlines, essays and interviews, to say nothing of the harder-than-doing-your-taxes financial aid forms. With all that intensity successfully behind us, I thought there would be a giddy moment to catch my breath and begin those things I had wanted to do if only there had been enough time. But instead, a vague hollowness persisted.

About a week into my empty nest phase, I ran into the children’s librarian from our town. From our earliest visits to the cozy basement stacks, she had reliably suggested titles, always keen and unflappable behind her circulation desk. I felt nostalgic and wanted to express my appreciation to her for being there from our picture book days to Lemony Snicket and beyond. She must be used to this, after all, it is the very nature of her target population to mature and move on. She smiled and assured me that she remembered us. I indulged myself further and told her he was 17 years old now, away at school, all grown up… to which she replied, “Good luck with that transition!”

And this is where I find myself – in that transition. (Cue violins) Reflected in the changing seasons, we move from Summer’s exuberant activity to Autumn’s restful rejuvenation. My child-free routine advances on calm as the house grows quiet, the food bill shrinks, and the laundry becomes manageable. This is, at long last, the freedom I craved with the hoped-for burst of creative energy, surge of productivity, and realignment of purpose. But not so, not yet. I do miss him. I miss the reverberating footfalls, the clouds of cologne, the jokes. I think I’ll enjoy the slight ache for now but soon, very soon, I will get on with it knowing that he is stretching his mind, expanding his world, and growing in exactly the way we hoped he would.

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Pie à la mode

Today’s post is a reprint of my story originally appearing on Sue K’s outstanding recipe blog, Savory-bits.blogspot.com. I recently met Sue K. at a writers conference in Boston and since then she has gently and persistently encouraged me to begin a blog of my own, citing accountability, deadlines, and exposure as the chief benefits. I encourage you, journeymen and foodies alike, to click over to Sue K’s recipe blog where the stories will entertain and the recipes will inspire your next meal!

Fed up with the blanketing summer heat, the high price of good ice cream, and maybe with a touch of guilt, I pulled the old Sears, Roebuck and Co. “Coldspot Ice Cream Freezer,” circa 1960, from the back of my cottage pantry and blew the dust off the box. I set it on a chair and thumbed through the accompanying instruction and recipe booklet. A penciled note beside “Vanilla Ice Cream III (French)“ jumped out at me. It was my dad’s handwriting, “- note – 7/4/69 – make double batch!”

In my 20 year tenure as keeper of my parents’ machine, I have never used it, though I always intended to. It holds ice cream making memories of earlier times. There were yellow and white lawn chairs, seersucker pants, madras shirts and the smell of limes. I vaguely recall wielding a top-heavy hammer to chip blocks of ice in a dishtowel against the cement sidewalk, and unheeded warnings to not taste the rock salt. Over the years, my parents spoke of the legendary peach ice cream as the pinnacle of their summer party success, and the blueberry debacle, laughed off as a patent disaster – the berries frozen into tooth-zinging bullets.

Making ice cream was just one of my dad’s talents. He also enjoyed the festive and splashy projects others declared too time-consuming or tricky to make such as mountains of hand cut pasta draped over white sheets to dry in the kitchen, eggplant parmigiana, spritz cookies, apple butter, and pies. Lots and lots of pies. As kids, our birthdays were marked with cakes, and our Names Days (the Feast Day of the saint after whom we were named) were celebrated with pies. There were strawberry rhubarb pies, cherry pies, pineapple cream pies, apple pies, and peach pies (always made with one interloping nectarine.) Honestly, I recall my brother with a mid-December Feast Day netting more pies than I ever did. I suspect there was a practical reason for not wanting to make a pie for my Saint Susannah’s Day in the heat of mid-August.

The venerable Coldspot lingered on the kitchen chair for days like a visitor who doesn’t know when to leave. The impression of ice cream making as time-consuming, expensive, and a full-on, cranking production kept me from diving in. Then friends invited us to dinner. As one never goes to dinner empty-handed, this was the impetus I needed to bring the Coldspot experience into a New Age. A fully-formed vision of apple pie à la mode danced before my eyes. I said, “I’ll bring the dessert,” and sealed my fate.

On the morning of the dinner party, before I could start the dessert from the ground up, I ventured down to my local general store to purchase some last minute items, rock salt (50 lbs. bag, “Sorry, that’s our smallest size,”) and ice. At the last minute, I bought a box of the proprietress’ outstanding, home-made lemon bars for personal consumption as I knew the apple pie would be for company. In retrospect, I should have bought a pint of the locally produced, all organic, vanilla ice cream but my giddy confidence in the ice cream department was running high.
Back home, in my camp kitchen, I nervously reviewed the ice cream directions and noticed, despite having bought a huge bag of ice, that it was only half as much as was needed. There was no way I was driving back down my steep, oil pan eating “driveway” to buy more, so I filled all available shallow containers with water and hoped they would freeze in time.

To begin the apple pie, I referred to my dad’s pie crust recipe still taped to the inside of my kitchen cupboard door. And as I measured and cut in the fat, I recalled pie making with my dad, a source of much light hearted competition. We had guidelines, and I kept to them in making this pie.

Fruit: Apples were purchased, preferably, from the sale rack at the grocery store or from the “drops” bin at the orchard. This way, a pie celebrated thrift as well as the skill and satisfaction of making something glorious from nearly nothing.
Pie Crust: Always made from scratch. Lard made superior crusts. In sealing the pie, we used the 3-finger pinch that makes the classic, undulating lip around the edge. We agreed that it had to be neat, but not too neat, with an off-hand look that said it came easily but still had imperfections for juices to bubble up here and there.
Recipe: Not devoted to measuring spoons, there was never just one way to make a pie. We worked from a standard pool of ingredients and how you sprinkled and dashed and dotted was entirely up to you. Years ago, I branched out and made a rosewater apple pie from an old Shaker cookbook. Dad, a cinnamon and nutmeg devotee, found it too cloying and tut-tutted. I maintained that the rosewater alternative was delightful.
Venting: Dad preferred the traditional 5-slashes-in-a-circle, mimicking the inner lay of the apple’s seeds to vent the pie. I dabbled in the craftier cookie cutouts in the shape of an apple, a pilgrim couple in profile, a horse or a star. I have a nifty pine tree cut-out tool that will do the whole crust in one go, but Dad thought it was too finicky. Lately, I’m sure he would approve, I’ve returned to the 5-slash motif adding a dusting of sparkling sugar – a nod towards strudel. Neither of us embraced the “blackbird in a pie” ceramic vent as it could not be relied on to fully let off steam which is the most important factor in a successful pie.
Serving: The first slice is always a mess. We both had the bake-in pie server that is set in the pie plate before you lay in the bottom crust. But the urge to make a pie really does seize hold with little warning – and I always forget to dig the gadget out of the drawer where utensils go to die. In all candor, using the “perfect slice” pie server is almost cheating. Pies aren’t perfect. They shouldn’t be. Love is never perfect.

With the pie in the oven, the time arrived, no small moment, to reprise the 1969 French Vanilla III, double batch. To begin, the basic ice cream mixture is made from egg yolks, sugar, and milk which required a double boiler to get it to the “coat the spoon” stage. In my modest cabin, I do not have a double boiler and so fashioned one from a large pot and a slightly smaller Pyrex bowl. This worked well, but had to be managed carefully lest the simmering water leap up around the sides, à la Vesuvius, and slop into the mix. It took a witheringly long time to achieve the spoon-coating stage. I will confess, I only approximated that consistency before removing it from the heat. Then the mix had to cool before adding the heavy cream and vanilla. Even with all window fans going full blast, I doubted anything could cool in the oven-like conditions. But the cooler the mix, the faster the finished product, so, still steaming, it went into the refrigerator.

Mercifully, the apple pie was done and I could finally extinguish my stout, uninsulated gas oven. I set the pie to rest on the screen porch. One glance at my two Labrador Retrievers prompted me to build a protective guardrail around the pie. That accomplished, there are two (possibly more) times when one should always take a nap and they are: a) Nap while the baby is napping. b) Nap while the mix is cooling.

Following my restorative nap and a few delicious lemon bars, it was time for the rubber to hit the road. Operation Coldspot resumed outside under the maple trees. I lugged the rock salt from the car and smashed the ice, reducing my scant 50% supply to a worrying bag of shards. “Prepare your bucket.” This is your basic lasagne technique started with 3 inches of crushed ice followed by a layer of “some” salt, and so on.  A closer reading of the Coldspot’s directive warned – in italics – that too much salt would produce a “grainy” ice cream and result in just the perimeter of the can freezing. Like so many legendary secret recipes, there was no indication as to how much “some” is. As I layered salt and ice around the chilled, silver canister of mix, I understood why ice cream making did not persist into my adolescent and teenaged years. I was certain I was not going to be making ice cream with this family heirloom ever again. Doomed from the start, I had not budgeted enough time or ice; I was slaving away, solo, without the benefit of a gin and tonic or camaraderie.

With the dinner party hour fast approaching, I began to crank. The gears balked. I gave up on my comfy lawn chair and leaned into it. The spinning motion ground the ice and salt to way below the prescribed “top of the canister.” I had no patience to smash up the last of my half-frozen ice cubes, so I tossed them into the bucket, whole, along with “some” rock salt. I was out of ice and patience, but managed to get a limping, gritty rhythm going that I truly hoped would be the right one to make ice cream. It was alchemy as far as I was concerned. And I was no alchemist.

The instruction booklet advises that the ice cream will be done when it becomes difficult to crank. Surely, this “difficult to crank” feeling was due to lousy ice, excessive salt, and the Coldspot’s faulty lock-down mechanism! It couldn’t be done so quickly. Not yet. Just take a peek inside. It took a moment to realize what I was seeing. Mounded around the chrome and wooden paddles, where the velvety carmel-colored mix had been, was French Vanilla ice cream! Magic! I added a note to the margin, just below my dad’s, “7/30/2015 – note – prepare mix one day ahead, make extra ice, invite friends.”

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Beginner Retriever Training



One of the joys of owning purebred dogs is watching your animal take to the task for which it was bred. Having lure coursed my sighthounds, I knew I wanted to try field work with my first Labrador. Here’s a brief account of our introduction to field training.

Reading the syllabus before class is good preparation, but it doesn’t necessarily give you the full picture. “Dogs will be introduced to dead birds…” How, you ask? It’s the handler’s job to do it, though the finer points are not self-evident. I approach the bird carousel where a dozen or so mallards are hanging by their necks like socks on laundry day. I brace myself for the grasp. This is a momentous time. I have never held a dead duck and very shortly will. Presumably, I am here in this remote field on a Tuesday evening with nine other teams and our unflappable instructor, Rainer, because I want to ensure a future of holding dead ducks. Right? How to pick up a duck? I consider the two-fingered beak grab but immediately discard it because a supposedly tough woman with a ballsy hunting dog is not squeamish. Do I grab it by the neck? This would leave the head lolling around and that’s a bit undignified. I settle on the joint where the neck meets the head. My hand hesitates….go! It is done! I am holding the duck and my dog, Boris, is going bananas.

The teams move off, each to their own patch of ground to test if our Labradors like dead ducks. (Evidently, some do not.) In no time, I am tossing and bowling this blessed little mallard from here to there and heaping praise on my dog when he not only noses it but also picks it up and proudly trots back to me. These are thrilling first steps!

When Rainer is satisfied that our dogs are committed, we move on to the duck blind and begin training. Helpers in the field have duck calls, popper guns, a bag of ducks, and catapults. Rather Monty Python-esque, the ducks are flung and our eager Labradors sort through various distillations of instinct to get the job done. You can see their brains realign on the spot. “I was a house dog, but now I’m a hunting dog! I totally get this! I. Am. Retriever!”

At the end of class, we are each given a duck to take home (think: party favor). We are taught the best method for freezer wrapping, whether to practice with a frozen or thawed duck (dog’s preference), time needed to thaw bird (eight hours), useful shelf life and best eventual disposal method.

By the following week, all duck-body squeamishness is gone. After our gun safety lesson, we set up class in a long narrow field surrounded by forest to retrieve over a modest stream featuring a wide, unpleasant stretch of standing water. Two local gals out for an evening hike stumble upon our class. Alarmed, they yell, “Are you hunting?” We’re training dogs.  “Is that a shotgun?” Not exactly.

Each team has a go and, according to the dog’s individual personality, retrieves either through the muck or around the muck. One naughty dog, mine, stops in the middle of this deep mud to have a cooling lie down before completing his task. Afterwards, to vary the marks and introduce the teams to something new, we move on to open water and bumpers. Again, all are keen. Note to self: Unless you have a full change of dry clothes in the car, release the dog before he rockets into the water.

Next, our introduction to canoe etiquette is touch and go. Not everyone loves a wobbly platform. A Milkbone on my fourth try gets Boris into the boat and sitting reliably well. The trick of this water exercise is for the dog to exit the canoe, swim past the decoys, and retrieve the duck, which Boris does well. On his return, within inches of my eager hands, he, instead, shoots down the shoreline bearing the mallard as a love token for Rainer’s bitch, Aimee, who sits in the high grass.

There is no denying it, this class is hard work for both dog and handler. There is a range of interest, too. Some have been hunting for years or plan to compete in field trials, and others, like me, just want to see what their first Labrador can do. Our teacher said, in all candor, he was impressed that our teams did so well, that he would have expected about 50% of the dogs to do what 100% did. We beamed under his praise.

The final class of the series is to simulate an AKC Junior Hunt test. We are instructed on basic rules: how to line up, when you may talk to or encourage your dog, proper leash set-up, etc. We are also given pointers on the correct sartorial deportment for the field. I am to leave my pink and yellow at home. Camouflage is de rigeur. On our own, we set up the blinds, gun stands, ear protection, decoys, feed sacks full of ducks, and the ornery chucker which seemed far trickier to operate than any gun.

It is a beautiful Spring evening at Delaney field, clear skies, slight breeze, few black flies. The call. The shot. The duck sailing overhead. Our dogs are keen, keen, keen to work, to bolt and bound over the wide scrubby plain, to dive into open water. There is nothing so beautiful as a Labrador in full gallop lit by the late-day sun who wants that duck. It is a stirring sight. He returns with ears flapping, tail wagging, eyes on fire, and that big soft mouth holding the bird. “Can we go again?”

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