Critters, chapter three: Buster.

Sometimes things happen in different places, for different reasons, and move  inexorably along an invisible line toward an unexpected conclusion.   We had this experience, with a horse, and a dog, and two open gates, far distant from each other.

Buster was our first Maremma sheepdog, a large, sweet-smelling snowball of an animal,  who was  maturing,  healthily,  towards his retirement.  He was an excellent guard dog, most of the time, but if there were female pheromones in the air he could climb an eight foot fence as if he were Spiderman.   Always attentive to any changes in his surroundings, we counted on him to alert us to arrivals, especially those people, animals,  or automobiles that were not included in his repertoire of acceptable objects.   We were his flock.

My son attended an elementary school far from here, on the opposite side of town.  It was the same building to which my husband had trudged every day as a child.   There is a distinct possibility that  some of the desks  were the same ones he  sat behind on those  days when the classroom windows mocked the children with  their tempting views of grass and sunshine.   At the back of this school building, there was a fenced area on the edge of the valley below.  Even now, the fenced area is used to keep livestock; sheep, goats, the occasional cow.   On this day, a horse.

A moment of distraction, a latch not properly closed, and this horse found it was suddenly free.  But freedom in town has a different countenance than  freedom in the country, and the streets are in constant movement.  Cars, people, bicycles, motorbikes, and above all asphalt and noise conspired to alarm the horse to the point of panic, and it began to run through the streets.  It galloped away from the school, around the road which rings the town, and on towards imaginary pastures, despite the best efforts of some to slow it down.

Two kilometers, four, six, and the horse continued its gallop until it came to the long gravel road leading eventually to our house.   Our yard is fenced, and we have a large gate which normally keeps the dogs in and intruders out.  This day,  because we had been  doing yardwork, it was standing slightly open.  I heard frantic barking, and inside the house I felt a pounding rhythmical vibration.  At the window there was  an incredible sight, a large horse furiously throwing up divots of earth as it raced around and around the house in circles.    Buster was close on its heels and the animal was becoming more agitated, spooked  by his attempts to nip its lower legs as it ran.   It continued to circle madly, ignorant of the open gate by which it entered, and which  would allow it to tear off down the road, away from the dog.

I used to be a horse owner, so I know a little bit about how to behave around them.  But a panicked horse is anything but rational, and it is dangerous.    Not having the means to calm it, I opted for guiding it out the gate by creating a diversion.  I ran to grab a hoe, a towel, anything to wave in the air and cause the horse to change trajectory.  Suddenly I heard a crack, the unmistakable sound of  a bat hitting a baseball hard enough to send it hurtling out of the park.   But this was not going to be a home run for the team.  I turned, dodging as the horse ran straight toward me and the open gate, to see Buster sitting, dazed, pawing energetically at his muzzle.  Blood poured from his mouth.   It was one of those moments when disbelief gives way to knowledge that things have changed, and for the worse.

As the horse pounded out of the gate and back up the road,  I prepared myself for what I would see.  The horse had kicked Buster with such force directly in the teeth that his entire boney upper jaw,  teeth included, had been detached from the front of his mouth. It was still attached by the muscles and some of the gum, but it was no longer a viable part of him.  The vet was called, antibiotics and pain relievers were administered, the injured area was removed, and we waited.  At the time our small town vet, who was occupied primarily with livestock,  made housecalls only.  He did not have any walk-in facilities, so we had to do without major operations on our animals.  Buster had been neutered in our own garage on a picnic table, with the aid of some kitchen utensils and a massive dose of horse tranquilizer.

After a time, poor Buster healed.  He required softer food, and his fighting days were over, but he got along comfortably enough.  I keep one of his enormous canine teeth as a memento of that day.  He has long since passed away and moved on to that other place where good dogs dwell.   We never had any contact from the owner of the horse, assuming that an unhappy accident is no grounds for exacting any payment or apology.   Another horse has never arrived here unexpectedly, thundering down our road with evil intent.  But I often think of Buster when casual circumstances  seem to align, improbably, and give rise to a  momentous event.

“At Pasture”, oil on wooden block,  4 x 6 x 2 inches, 2011

(above)  “Rusty Gate. oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches, 2010

Fostering a tradition

My children, who will shortly have both feet planted firmly in adulthood, always had to make do with my accounts of celebrating various festivities in the United States.  They never had the chance, until recently, to experience an American Halloween, or Thanksgiving, or a Fourth of July  stateside.   It isn’t easy carrying on a tradition in isolation, but I did my best,  and I am confident that  my attempts to instill American memories in absentia will be fondly remembered.

As Halloween neared every year, I would begin seeking out a pumpkin to carve.  Most pumpkins in Italy are the type which are flattish and have loads of thick flesh, and are therefore  difficult to carve.  But at my special request,  the greengrocer would eventually procure me a round one, maybe two, on which  the boys and I could practice our creativity.  Messes were made.  Candy was furtively purchased.

With approaching dusk, we would prepare, letting the boys dress up as they saw fit; a cowboy, or a ninja, or some hybrid version of a soldier.  I used  a small bungalow which served as my studio, about forty yards from the house,  and I would position myself there with a bowl of candy while my husband stayed at the main house with his bowl.  Lights were turned off, and the jack-o-lanterns glowed as the boys rushed breathlessly back and forth in the dark, gradually filling their bags with candy and treats.  The doorbell must be rung each time!  What a surprise to find mom or dad again every time  the door opened, and my boys were nothing if not sporting about the absurdity of this little farce.  After all, there was candy!   Of course this artificial creation of Halloween filled me with a kind of desperate nostalgia, because during these years I simply did not know if they would ever have the genuine experiences which, for me, had been such a memorable and integral part of my childhood.  And they were growing up fast.

There was general consternation among our friends because back in those years, most were not  familiar with Halloween.   In the  early nineties, when the idea was beginning to catch on, the few kids who dared to ring buzzers and ask at condominiums and apartments around town were often met with scowls and outright hostility.  Children would have to be careful that their requests of “dolcetto o scherzetto” weren’t met with a shower of profanity, a swinging broom,  or even pebbles thrown from a balcony!  Kids were often chased away by angry old-timers, scandalized by the encroachment, yet again,  of America on their sound Italian traditions.

This is changing rapidly today, as Halloween is celebrated with great gusto.  The population of the town is divided unevenly between the many who love an excuse to party for any reason, and the few who resent “commercial holidays which exist only to make money” being foisted upon them by stores.  The tremendous rise in Chinese imports may also have played a role in the speed at which Halloween was introduced.  And of course there is America, ever present,  always ready to offer another “americanismo” for no good reason.   St. Valentine’s day has been borrowed, repackaged by American culture, and re proposed complete with cards, heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and petulant girlfriends expecting to score something shiny.   If I could express my point of view simply, I would say that their  resentment is equaled by my own at having  had “my”  traditional holiday  hijacked for these very same, highly commercial,  reasons.  I cannot easily accept the idea that the festivity was somehow forced upon an innocent culture.    Now, the festivities of  Halloween play a bigger role every year in Italy, with themed parties, invitation-only balls,  and children ringing doorbells.   It has been adopted in record time, and yes, sales are good.    Fewer die-hard traditionalists object every year to its observance.  Jack-o-lanterns shine from windows and the balconies of apartment blocks.

It is a strange feeling, as an isolated American, seeing the adoption and growth  of a traditional holiday,  as it morphs into something similar yet different, tailored and modified to fit another culture.  I suppose Thanksgiving is safe from being franchised, as I don’t think the Italians could justify celebrating the survival of Protestants in the New World, although the Cristoforo Colombo connection is always a possibility.   Hundreds of thousands of immigrants to  the United States must have a special feeling in their hearts about it I am sure.    Every year I have prepared my best version of turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie and whipped cream.    It is amusing to me that there are friends in Bernalda  who insist I make them up a plate of this Thanksgiving food every year because they love the unusual flavors.  At Halloween, I have been consulted about pumpkin carving and the best methodology for covering the most territory during the evening.  My sons swore that gaining entrance to one large condominium could make or break the night’s haul.

I think my boys have absorbed these traditions seamlessly, and they happily participate now as if they had been living as Americans  all along.     I suppose I can say that having done my best to instill these family traditions in my kids, it will be up to them now to carry on, wherever they may decide to live.   I foresee them bringing the Befana to Christmas, celebrating their saints’ name days, and  observing  April 25, the liberation of Italy from the fascists,  as an important date for both their cultures.  Along with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Saint Patrick’s Day, Easter’s various manifestations, all are important to a solid understanding of our cultural traditions.  Hopefully strong roots make  for a sturdier tree.

“Out of the Cage”  mixed media on paper, 2000