Poor Man’s Feast: On Old Dogs Slowing Down

Posted inCreative Voices
Spring, 2016.

It is a gorgeous night— all peepers and frogs, and dry as a bone after two days hot and wet enough to melt glass— and I spend much of it sitting on our front porch with Addie, our fifteen-year-old Yellow Lab, who came to us at seven-years-old having been dumped by her people after a lifetime of churning out backyard puppies for sale. It is 2016, and she moves slowly these days; she’s a quintessential velcro dog, attached to my hip by love and affection and the hope of additional kibble falling from the sky. On this particular night, four years before we are upended by a virus that will take the lives of one million Americans, Susan is on the train, on her way home from New York; Petey, our rescued terrier, is on an overnight at doggie day camp to blow off some puppy steam. Addie and I sit together in the quiet, just looking, and watching the sharp slant of the early evening light on the garden.

Older dogs do this: by their pace alone they force you to slow down, to pay attention, to lift your head to catch a brief cloud of honeysuckle and lilac passing by on the breeze.

When I get up to come into the house, Addie stands up with me and I hold the storm door open for her; she waits for me to go in first, as if to say After you, but I usher her in ahead of me. She and I are very formal that way, but she possesses both the age and the wisdom that, in my opinion, always goes first. I pick up her bowl, give it a quick wash and a cup of kibble, a dollop of mashed pumpkin to keep her ancient skids greased, and two pills: a square, brown anti-inflammatory for her hips, and a natural supplement which mimics the odious Prednisone she’s had to take from time to time. I mix everything together and she stands watching me — she knows the stirring sound and the hand motion and what comes next — as I put the bowl down. She waits, looking me square in the eye and wagging, and I do what I always do right before she eats: I kiss her on the head and tell her she’s a very good girl. She won’t eat unless I do this; I have no idea where the ritual comes from — perhaps her previous owners forced her to wait dutifully before she ate, as a way to wield some sort of power over her — but I’m glad to turn the act into something joyful and loving rather than controlling, and she’s glad to receive.

On this night in 2016, after feeding Addie, I realize that I know the exact size and shape of her pills, and that I could draw them in great detail if someone asked me to; I can tell you exactly how much pureed pumpkin attaches itself to the side of her bowl at every meal, and how it must be scrubbed out before I feed her again. I can describe the sound the kibble makes when it’s folded into the pumpkin (muffled, like a handful of pebbles on a trampoline), and the crinkle of the bag where her treats are kept. I can tell you about the face she makes after she’s eaten— the way her brown eyes change from inquisitive and hopeful to soft and loving— and that it takes exactly eight minutes from her eating a post-dinner biscuit to her hip-aching climb onto the sofa, where she spends half an hour licking a pillow while she digests, keeping a watch on us for the rest of the evening until we all file down the hallway as a family, one-by-one, and get into our respective beds— humans in ours, dogs in theirs.

I can tell you all of this in exact and mind-numbing detail, but I cannot tell you the number of scoops of coffee I put into my Chemex every morning; I cannot tell you how differently the eggs from my neighbor’s Araucana chickens feel in my hand versus the ones that come from her Rhode Island Reds; I can’t tell you how long it takes ghee to melt in my late mother-in-law’s cast iron Griswold pan set over medium heat. I can’t tell you into which pepper mill I’ve put the Tellicherry peppercorns and in which pinch bowl the kosher salt is sitting. I make coffee and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast almost every morning; I saute something in hot ghee nearly every day, and I salt and pepper it. Which means that somewhere along the line, I’ve stopped paying attention to the most mundane activities— the daily work— of my life.

I could claim to be busy, so very busy, because, like most of us, I am, although probably no more than you. I’m writing a lot these days, beginning a new manuscript for a book about what it means to give oneself permission to create; I’m also making notes for the one that will follow it. Before Covid, I spent a glorious week in Oregon at a writer’s workshop, and the loose ends and logistics I had to organize before leaving for the west coast nearly undid me: there were apps to download and car services to arrange, manuscripts to be printed out, broken printers to curse at, keys and swipe cards that were not to be lost, and passwords to be remembered for my iCloud, my cell phone, my email accounts, my mother’s email account, my bank account, her bank account, my Twitter feed, Instagram, Facebook. To remember all of them is mind-numbing, so much so that I have recently gone back to keeping my important dates noted in my old leather Filofax; if it’s written in pen, it’s real.

The last thing I could tell you is how one eggshell feels compared to another, or which pepper mill is holding which peppercorn, or which passcode goes to which phone. But I can tell you, six years hence, what Addie’s pills looked like, and the sound her food made when it hit the bowl, the softening of her eyes when the oxytocin started to course through her body, and the rumbling, midnight snore that came out of her like ujjayi breath.

It took a 106-pound Yellow Lab, dumped when she could no longer earn her keep by producing live babies, to show me how to pay attention to the routines of my life. And how, in a world that prizes exceptionalisim — the big, the fast, the overbooking and the overextension and the fake hyperconnection that short-circuits our analog brains — it is the unremarkable and the quiet that we clandestinely crave, as if it were the most illicit, threatening thing of all.

In grateful memory of Addie Turner-Altman, 2001-2016

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.