Monday, November 16, 2009

Katrina Kenison & Gracie

Who is in the photo at right?

This is Gracie, our nine-year-old border collie, who is without question the smartest member of our family. When my son Henry was struggling to get through Chaucer, Gracie just had to show him up by plowing right through The Canterbury Tales in one sitting. She claims that the Middle English was no problem for her.

Who are you and what do you do?

I'm Katrina Kenison, mother of two sons, sixteen and nineteen, and author most recently of a memoir called The Gift of an Ordinary Day, which is about the joys and challenges of motherhood at midlife and all the changes it brings -- endings and new beginnings, renegotiated dreams and expectations, children growing up and leaving home. My husband and kids claim that I took some poetic license in writing about daily life in our family, but Gracie has not complained a bit about my characterization of her, for which I'm quite grateful.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

We all have our daily rituals, and no creature appreciates routine more than a border collie. Mornings here are always the same: I come downstairs and put the coffee on, while my husband steps outside to throw the first tennis ball of the day for Gracie to catch. She can't pee until she has fetched the ball, at which point she squats with the tennis ball gripped in her teeth. After one more good long toss and return, Gracie sets out on her morning rounds, frantically sniffing the grass along the edges of our property and barking her head off to make sure that any critter who had the nerve to trespass into her territory during the night understands that it's a new day now, and she's back on duty.

By the time, I've had my first cup of coffee, Gracie is wrapping it up outside and comes loping around to the kitchen door to join us for breakfast.

What's brewing?

Green Mountain Breakfast Blend, brewed strong, laced with half and half, and poured into my favorite brown mug, made by a potter who lives up the road. Our house is on a hilltop, overlooking mountains, so the brand seems appropriate.

Any goodies to go with the coffee?

We think the world's best poppy seed bagels are made right here in Peterborough, New Hampshire, at the Kernel Bakery. We eat them toasted for breakfast every morning, with raspberry jam from the farmer's market.

Any treat for your dog on this occasion?

Unlike the humans in her life, and most of her doggie friends, Gracie is not really food-driven. But she does appreciate a piece of a bagel when she gets back to the house after her morning tear through the field.

How did Gracie come to be united with you?

Nine years ago, when I made a delayed and reluctant final peace with the fact that there would be no more babies in my life, the urge for a puppy came on strong. It seemed that reaching the end of my childbearing years had unleashed some powerful, latent maternal urge that could be satisfied only by the acquisition of some small dependent creature requiring constant care. For months, I tried to resist and then, on a whim, I answered an ad in the newspaper and made an appointment to see an eight-week-old border collie puppy who had just been returned to the breeder by the first family who took her.

The night before we went to see the pup, I read about border collies on-line. It quickly became clear to me that it made no sense whatsoever to bring a high-strung working dog, bred to herd sheep, into our closely settled suburban neighborhood. "Let's cancel," my husband said, when I read him the border collie profile. "We'll just go look," I said. Thirty minutes after I first touched my nose to Gracie's tiny black one, she was throwing up in my lap as we headed for home.

How did she get her name?

The family who took Gracie first, and then gave her up a week later, named her Gracie. They clearly got that right.

Does she have any influence on your writing?

Well, let's see. Although Gracie came of age catching fly balls in our back yard, an eager participant in any game involving my two sons and moving objects, we always knew she deserved a larger playing field. People used to ask us, upon meeting her, when we were moving to the country. And sure enough, five and a half years ago, we sold our beloved house in the suburbs and bought eleven acres of rocky field in southern New Hampshire. I think I can safely say that, had we owned a pug instead of a border collie, we probably would have stayed put. And if we had never uprooted ourselves and moved to this small rural town, I certainly never would have written my book at all. So I guess I would have to say that, not only has Gracie influenced my writing, she is responsible for it in the first place.

What's an ordinary day like for your Gracie?

After her morning rounds and breakfast with us, Gracie settles down within sight of the back door and waits for my neighbor Debbie to show up. When I first met Debbie, she was recovering from the last of 14 major surgeries, after nearly dying from a particularly vicious bout of E.Coli, picked up from a cup of chili at a fast food restaurant. Debbie's doctor had told her that if she wanted to live, and avoid a potentially fatal case of twisted bowel, she would have to walk, which is what she set out to do -- just about the time we moved into our house.

It didn't take long for Gracie to figure out that the solitary walker on our road always had time to stop and chat, and play a game of fetch or two. One day, Debbie asked me if it would be alright if she took Gracie along on her walks. It sounded too good to be true. I could help this woman by allowing her to walk my dog? Of course, I said "yes." It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Now, while I write, Gracie pals around with Debbie. They go to the pond for swims, walk in the woods, drive around town doing errands in Debbie's red pick up truck, meet friends for play dates, wander the Petco aisles in search of treats. When Debbie gets tired, they head up to her house, where Gracie has her own bed, for a rest. Last summer, Debbie bought Gracie a life jacket and a kayak for the two of them; when hunting season rolled around, she got her an orange vest, so they could roam in safety. Debbie claims that Gracie is responsible for her healing. Gracie insists that all she did was try to remind Debbie to live in the moment, which is what any good friend would do.

Do you & Gracie have a favorite place to go for walk?

Sometimes I do manage to grab some space on Gracie's busy social calendar. We have a seven-and-a-half mile loop that is our favorite. What I love about this route is that it winds through the woods, along a quiet bike path beside the river, down a long dirt road past farms and fields, and right back to the road our house is on. What Gracie loves is that there are two good swimming spots along the way, a friendly Aussie puppy to play with, and 90 percent of the route is off-leash. Usually, we do this walk with my good friend Maude and her springer spaniel Digby, an elegant Ralph Lauren sort of fellow who considers himself Gracie's top suitor. Two hours on the trail gives me and Maude plenty of time to catch up, and the dogs plenty of time to exhaust each other.

Stick, tennis ball, Frisbee...?

Anything that flies through the air, but without question, tennis balls are preferred. Gracie is an amazing outfielder --bullet fast, super-coordinated, and with an uncanny sense of where the ball is in space. She can catch on a fly, leaping into the air at top speed, and then run the ball right back to you, whereupon she places it at your feet and takes off at full tilt to get herself into position for the next throw.

Squirrel, cat, postman...?

Postman. When she was a baby, our mailman brought her a treat every single day. Now, nine years later, she still believes that anyone in a US mail truck is her friend.

What's Gracie's best quality?

The fact that she never wakes us up in the morning counts for a lot. But really what we love most about her is her attitude -- her complete enthusiasm and unadulterated joy in life is a constant reminder that happiness is a choice.

What's her proudest moment so far? Her most embarrassing?

Gracie has been working hard to master human speech and she's getting pretty close -- she's about one "L" sound away from being able to say a very passable "Hello." Nailing it will be her proudest moment. Embarrassing? She would rather I not discuss this, but it was definitely a case of worms, which resulted in, well, you can imagine. Let's just say, she didn't make it outdoors, and the stains never came out of the rugs.

Katrina Kenison is the author of The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother's Memoir, and Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry.

From 1990 through 2006 she was the annual editor of The Best American Short Stories series, and she co-edited, with John Updike, The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Her work has appeared in O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine, Real Simple, Family Circle, and many other publications. She lives in rural New Hampshire with Gracie, her husband Steve, and their two sons, Henry and Jack.

Visit Katrina Kenison's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue