Counting To Nine
"Five blacks, four browns... they're all accounted for."
"There's three here, four here, and two over there... we've got 'em all."
"I have six, you have two... we need another brown one... here she is! We're okay!"
There are many ways to count nine puppies, and over the weeks, we nailed the skill down cold. First in the whelping pen, to make sure Abbie was not unwittingly lying on a puppy, then out in the yard, once the little Newfies were ready to enjoy a Northland winter.
And they proved themselves true Newfoundlands early on. It wasn't long before they were big enough and agile enough to make the storeroom-turned-nursery seem crowded, so we lined the carpeted rec room floor with plastic, and let them loose to play there during the day. They'd run and tumble and wrestle with each other, then suddenly, one by one, decide it was time for a nap.
Where was the favorite resting place in the big room? The cold, tiled section by the exterior door. Not only that, but the prize position of all was right at the doorsill, where the chilly draft blew over them.
These guys were Newfies, all right.
After several weeks, Dr. G. gave the word, "You can let them outside now." Ten or fifteen minutes at first, then an hour at a time: my wife and I and often a friend or two, all bundled and shivering, and nine happy, fluffy puppies crashing through snowbanks, rolling in the drifts, exploring the Northland winter world with delight.
After some time had gone by, it no longer seemed right to know the pups only by the color of their yarn collars-- "The purple puppy was wrestling with the cranberry puppy and then the pink puppy joined in!" -- so we gave each a temporary name. The boys got theirs from pictures of nineteenth-century Newfoundlands in our history books, while the girls' names were more whimsical.
Personalities emerged as the puppies grew. Eleanor was an explorer, eager to probe every corner of the house when we opened the gate that blocked the puppy-room door. Jack didn't wait for us to open the gate; he learned to climb over it. He was the first to scamper out of the back yard and lead us on a chase toward the street, and he was the first to climb the basement stairs and invade the upper floor where the grownup dogs lived with the humans.
And Jack sucked. Hard. If Jack got hold of your finger while he was trying to nurse, you thought you were going to lose the nail. He even gave Susan a hickey: she must have taken the bottle away before he was quite full. When she lifted him toward her shoulder for burping, he latched onto her chin and cranked up the vacuum pump. By the time she pried him off, it looked like she'd caught a Mike Tyson left.
Bonnie was another escape artist, especially outdoors: she found every spot where she could wriggle under the fence. With a silky brown coat and spaniel-long ears, Bonnie was gorgeous, and I think she knew it. She had an air of self-assurance about her, and when she made up her mind on something, she'd stick with her decision. We resolved to make sure Bonnie went to a home equipped to handle her high spirits.
Robin was peppy and personable, full of joy; Katy was the most affectionate: a little love sponge, a cuddler in laps and licker of faces. Wallace and Sinbad were large and dignified gentlemen, black and brown respectively, some day surely to be "Distinguished Members of the Humane Society" themselves.
"Which one is your favorite?" people would ask.
"You can't ask that question," we'd say. "How about if I asked which one of your children you liked best?"
"Well, then, are you going to keep any?"
How could we not? "Yes... one."
"Okay then, which one?"
A fairer question, and easily answered. Within her first week of life, Ernestine set herself apart. We gave her the name on the third day: the first puppy to distinguish herself with an individual personality. Last-born of the litter, she was big and beautiful, with a rich brown coat that a mink would envy, and snow-white paws for a touch of glamour.
More importantly, she was confident, curious, and assertive. First onto the teat at feeding time, she'd suck until Abbie ran dry, then go exploring to see if there were hidden nipples on Mom's back or sides. Again and again we'd find her stuck between her recumbent mother and the whelping pen wall. When the wading pool became too small for the gang, Ernestine became Queen of the Puppy Room; when we introduced the pups to baby cereal, she was always at the head of the feeding line.
No doubt in the minds of these proud grandparents: Ernie was the pick of a very special litter, and she was not going anywhere. Today, as I type, she's snoozing in the next room, just a few feet away.
Along with Mary. I'll talk about Mary soon.
Next: Day Of Judgment
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