Mound of Dirt

Mound of Dirt

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

Mound of Dirt

The year I was in first grade I ended my prayers each evening with a plea to God to send me a dog. It was a plea that did not go unnoticed by my parents, who knelt beside me. Two weeks before my seventh birthday, which was in May, they told me that they wanted to get a load of dirt for our backyard. I didn’t realize something was up until Dad parked the car in front of a ranch house in a suburban neighborhood.

“This doesn’t look like a place for dirt,” I said, eyeing the surroundings.

While my parents exchanged nervous glances and whispered to each other, a woman named Martha ushered us inside the house.

“I bet you are a very good student,” saidMartha. I didn’t know what to say. I was anything but a good student. As hard as I tried to do well in school, I was failing first grade.

Sensing my discomfort, Martha asked, “Well, I guess you probably want to see the ‘dirt,’ don’t you?”

“Yes,” I answered, eager to get off the subject of school.

Martha set a large box in the middle of the living room floor. I padded up and peeked inside. Six black dachshund puppies clawed at the inside of the box, each begging for my attention. Snoozing at the bottom was the runt. I rubbed my fingers on a tuft of hair that stood up in the middle of her back.

Martha said, “That one will never be a show dog.”

It didn’t matter to me whether she’d ever be a show dog. Her brown eyes looked up at me with such hope. When I picked her up, she snuggled against my heart. There she stayed on the long ride home. I named her Gretchen.

As Gretchen grew, she loved to chew on bones, bury them in the backyard and chase squirrels that dared to disturb her burial mounds. Watching Gretchen’s determination and persistence in protecting her bones was a learning experience for me. I saw that because Gretchen never gave up in her battle against the squirrels, they finally left her alone.

As unwavering and fierce as she was with the squirrels, she loved children, especially my neighborhood friends. If I played mud pies with Sally, Gretchen was right there with us. If Markie and Joanie wanted to walk to the corner drugstore, Gretchen begged for her leash. If the neighbor kids put on a play, Gretchen had a part. If Gretchen slipped out of the gate, all the kids in the neighborhood helped chase her down. She was not a dog to us. She was a playmate—a friend.

Gretchen was the only friend I told about my troubles with learning. While we sat underneath my father’s workbench, I told her about my failure in school, about feeling like a dummy because I couldn’t read and about how the other children made fun of me. I believed Gretchen understood my problems because as the runt of the litter she had struggled fromthemoment of her birth. The closer we snuggled in our secret little space, the more I came to believe that maybe things weren’t as bad as they seemed. Maybe there was hope for me. She seemed to understand how much I needed her. And I needed her a lot that summer before second grade. I wanted to get smart, and I figured the best way to do this was to read every day.

“Which book?” I’d ask her as she jumped up on my bed.

Gretchen, who used her nose to move anything I set on the bed, would nose toward me one of the books lying on the coverlet, and I’d read it aloud. It wasn’t easy for me to read, but Gretchen was patient. Sometimes she’d sigh when I fumbled with the words. Once I made it through a rough spot, she’d nestle against me and lay her snout on my heart. It made me feel better to have her with me as I read. My fears about being a dummy melted away with her beside me.

The summer passed—book by book—until it was time to go shopping for school clothes. Since it was such a hot day, my mother felt Gretchen should stay home. Gretchen whined about being left behind. She hated it when I went someplace she couldn’t go. And no amount of trying to explain to her that dogs can’t go shopping would stop her whining. I looked back just in time to see her head pop up in the window before we drove off, but when we came back from shopping, I didn’t hear her claws clicking against the hardwood floor to greet me.

My mother noticed the hall closet door ajar.

“Oh, no,” she whispered upon closer inspection. On the floor we found chewed up containers of poison that Gretchen had dug out from the dark recesses of the closet. We found Gretchen behind the living room sofa. She beat her tail in slow motion as I approached. We rushed her to the vet.

“Gretchen is very sick. The vet says she is not responding to treatment,” said my mother at the dinner table.

“She’s going to get well,” I said firmly.

“It’s best we prepare ourselves for the worst,” my father said.

“No,” I cried. “She’s going to getwell. She’s going to come home.”

I thought about how lonely Gretchen must be. She probably thinks I don’t love her anymore. She probably thinks she’ll never see me again. Gretchen had always been there to comfort me when I was sad and hurt.

“I want to go and see her,” I toldmy parents. “If she could see me, I know she’d get well.”

“Wake up, Gretchen,” I said, after following the vet to a back room in his office. Hearing the sound of my voice, her tail beat the bottom of the cage, again, in slow motion. The vet couldn’t believe it when Gretchen stood up in her cage and whined for me to open the door to hold her. It wasn’t long before she recovered and came home to stay.

Gretchen and I continued reading together for the whole following year. My reading definitely improved, but it was third grade that was the turning point of my life. That year I became the best reader in my class. My third-grade teacher understood that I was a bright child who had a learning problem. She told stories about people like me who struggled successfully to learn despite obstacles.

Although I appreciate everything my teacher and parents did for me, I feel I owe so much to that little “mound of dirt” my parents bought me on my seventh birthday. Persistence and determination were only a part of the story. The runt who would never be a show dog taught me that love is a healing and nurturing soil in which a broken spirit can grow whole once more.

Paula Gramlich

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