Let’s go visit the swans

I have no idea what it’s like to love a dog with legs. We’ve been a basset hound family since I was 7: Nora, best beloved, was my nearest and dearest until my last year of college, and now Gus is almost 10 and a half years old. He was my mom’s dog, really. She brought Dad onboard, she named him (despite a promise that we’d vote) and maybe most importantly, she did most of the walking. Walking a basset hound is generally as hilarious as you think it is — they neither know nor care about the meaning of straight lines, or brisk trots, or ignoring distractions. They’re not really dogs bent on exercising; they do, however, love getting to know the world.

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Mom and Gus, 2007.

My parents moved to a Columbus, Ohio, suburb in 2007, a place that’s gotten a lot funnier to me since I discovered McMansionHell.com. It’s a step up from “hostile,” the sense I originally got from a contrived planned neighborhood with intermittent sidewalks and “Please clean up after your pet” signs without a public trashcan in sight. Mom wanted a modern house that was easy to take care of, plus access to good medical care, just in case; I was furious and heartbroken to lose my three-story childhood home (built 1903) and my slightly ramshackle, organically weird and eminently walkable hometown. I didn’t want anything to do with the new place, but I didn’t have a say in the matter. One way my mom tried to convince me it wasn’t so bad was to show me her new walking routes with Gus.

Every morning, she would bring him to a pond about three-quarters of a mile away. A pair of swans lived there, and I always got updates about how the swans were, whether there were cygnets, whether the cygnets seemed to have come back, whether Gus had narrowly avoided a bite on the nose by trying to make friends. Then my mom got sick: brain cancer. After the first surgery and treatment, she recovered remarkably well, but she was gone a little more than a year after the second. That was 2012.

It fell on Dad to take care of Gus now. Going on walks got Dad out of the house and interacting with people. When I visited last week, just about everyone we saw wanted to stop and say hi to Gus. Dad’s walks are different than Mom’s, though. He’d rather be at home reading the paper than meandering over other people’s yards and stopping every few feet to thoroughly investigate new smells. When I come home, in part to give Dad a break, I do the walking, and I let Gus take the lead. Being as dog-deprived as I am, living alone in Brooklyn, it’s a treat for me.

It’s a treat for Gus too. The first walk he always takes is the route to go visit the swans.

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You can actually see the swans in the center if you squint, right there on the bank.

I don’t really know how Mom found the place — it must have been Gus wandering off-track, honestly. You have to spot a gravel walkway hidden from sight by pampas grass. The houses with the pond in their backyard are much more palatial, and a “Private Property: Residents Only” sign makes sure you know you’re probably trespassing in spirit, if not by rule. But the path around the water is shaded and lovely, with vines and green things arching overhead and all around. You forget about the road just on the other side of the hillock. It’s just you and the birds and a cool, wonderful quiet.

Letting Gus smell everything he wants gives you a much different experience of his world. There’s something dreamy about it, so involved and present, even if I can’t access what he gets lost in. I’ve written about dogs and memory before, and the sacredness of the homecoming. I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. He spent months keeping watch outside my parents’ bedroom, where my mom slept, even after she was gone. As we wandered, I thought about Mom being here too, enjoying the rustle of the leaves and the light bouncing off the water. I wouldn’t have given a suburb so much credit before.

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Swan, Rush and Iris,” wallpaper design by Walter Crane, 1875

My mom was a brilliant needlepoint artist. The house is full of her work, framed, on pillows, on handmade boxes and furniture. It was what she’d do in the evenings watching TV, or on long car rides. Once when we were talking about making art — about my writing, and what it does for me, she said, “That’s what makes you come alive. For me, it’s needlepoint.” She would design her own canvases, and one of her favorites was a pair of swans she commissioned in honor of her parents, since swans mate for life. It’s an uncommonly beautiful piece, and I wish I had a good picture of it. I wish I’d asked her if she ever thought about those swans and the real ones at the pond, which are much crankier and more dangerous than perhaps you’d want to lionize. (She loved a story about me feeding ducks in France as a little girl. I’d hold a chunk of baguette in both hands, and then a swan — or maybe a goose, something that could come eye to eye with me — would saunter up, glaring, and I threw the entire loaf up in the air and ran away.)

swangangGus is too friendly for swans. He doesn’t know that anyone is his enemy, even when they’re hissing or barking or hiding. There’s always a moment when on the swan walk where you have to actually pass the swans. This time they were right on the bank, preening, the grass around them littered with down. He hardly seemed to notice they were there, but they wagged their tails (a threat) and shook their wings and twisted their long necks to watch him until we passed.

The whole outing took about an hour and a half for a little over two miles. Gus found a sunbeam on a patch of carpet and flopped down. Dad had communed with his New York Times. I was ready to keep enjoying my trip home. I had three or four days at this pace. What a relief.

Every time I’ve been back, ever since that first walk with Mom, those swans have been there. Narratively, that’s pleasing. I’m glad they’re so ferocious about tradition. Gus, for his part, likes routine and variety in equal measure. He’s got a couple of routes that he has to check in on through the week. On my last morning, we headed up the small hill and down to the end of the street, which I still only know by sight and not by name. Letting him choose means you don’t really know where you’re going until he turns. You forget, as loopy as they are, that basset hounds are pursuers. They find things, they find places and people, they know and they follow what they know.

Gus and I came to the fork in the street, and he pulled us both left. He wanted continuity. We walked back toward the swans.

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Gus, those aren’t your friends, no!
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Leaving Athens, on our way north. August 2007.
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