For some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about our Newfoundland dog, Ella Fitzgerald, lately. One of the all time great dogs.
It was late in the day on an April afternoon in 1992. My wife and I found ourselves on a quiet beach in Rhode Island where I try to go at least once a year. My father introduced me to this oft-forgotten area when I was about five years old. He had an old derelict boat that he kept tied to a mooring. And although it occasionally went to sea the old oak hull cruiser mostly swung to and fro at the end of a rope as a signal to which way the tides were heading. Even in April when there was still a bite in the air I loved the feel of soft wet sand squeezing between my toes as we walked the tide line. On this day we were walking west and in the distance sat a dog.
From the first moment I saw Ella I was enamored. She stood up on a sandy knoll keeping an eye on all of the beach in front of her. She was large and black. Her red tongue hung out of the corner of her mouth. She was alert and looked as if she was waiting to rescue an inept swimmer in trouble; after all she was a Newfoundland, the large, black dog of the North Atlantic known for rescuing fisherman at sea. I looked at Maureen, who was also struck by this beautiful animal, and mentioned that I had always wanted a dog like this to be my best friend. Maureen poked me in the side reminding me that she was my best friend and always would be but she knew what I meant.
Down along the tide line we saw a fellow dressed in white tennis shorts and a country club polo shirt. He was looking out towards Block Island. You could tell something was on his mind. As we walked along the water our path intersected where he stood. The black Newfoundland had sauntered down and was now standing next to this fellow. He put his hand on her head and she leaned into him.
“Beautiful dog!”, I said.
He looked up and smiled.
“Yeah, she’s pretty special.”
We started to walk on, but something stopped me.
“You know, I have always wanted a Newfoundland. You have such a beautiful pal. What’s her name?”, I said not knowing quite sure where this conversation was going.
“We call her Ella Fitzgerald. My wife and I got her as a pup. She’s pretty special to us”, he replied.
We went on to jabber about the sun which was now near setting. We talked about Rhode Island beaches. We talked about what a well kept secret this particular beach was. We found out his name was Dale and he was an attorney. We found out that he and his wife were having there first child soon. Eventually the conversation turned back to Ella who sat there panting away with her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.
“You know, and this is going to sound really weird, the reason I’m standing here looking so down in the dumps is that I’m looking for a new home for Ella. My wife just doesn’t feel comfortable having her around a new baby. It’s illogical, Ella is as sweet as they come, but there is no getting my wife over these thoughts.” Dale said looking down at the white foamy high tide lapping around his feet.
Ella was now splashing around in the waves, surfing some of the better breakers.
I listened closely. My eyes lit up. This seemed pretty remarkable. We had just lost a dog. It was struck by a car. We still had a hound puppy that we actually had found to be a partner for the older dog. I had been worried about the puppy not having a good buddy. Dogs do well in pairs. I looked at Maureen. She knew what I was going to say. And then she beat me to the punch!
“If you’d consider it Dale, we’d love to have Ella Fitzgerald come live with us. We live in the mountains. We are surrounded by thousands of acres of woods. Once Ella was settled in she would love it.”
Dale looked up. There were tears in his eyes.
“Really? I mean you two seem to good to be true. Well, let me think about it? I mean this is really sudden. Can I have your phone number so I can call you after I think it over?”
We exchanged phone numbers and shook hands. Dale looked greatly relieved but still sad. I wasn’t sure when we continued walking down the beach if this was really going to happen. I looked back after we had walked a shot distance. Dale was sitting with Ella on the beach, his arm wrapped around her broad shoulder.
A week later Dale called our house and said he had decided that it was the best thing for Ella. I arranged a meeting date to pick her up. I knew this was going to be a big transition for her and was prepared to help Ella work her way through it.
Dale was very reserved the day I went down to get Ella. He was very concerned and wanted to be sure that she was going to be in a good home. As I assured him that she was going to get the best care and the most love that she could possibly receive I reached in my pocket and gave Ella a dog biscuit that I had brought along. I saw a tear in Dale’s eye as he handed me the leash. Ella went with me without looking back. I never quite understood that.
As we drove north on the highway Ella sat next to me panting. Her large head seemed to fill half of the space in the front of the pick up truck. She looked ahead as if she were trying to see her future. I cried as I drove along thinking about how brave she was. I vowed to give her the best home that I could.
Maureen and our two boys were waiting when we drove up our long driveway. The kids couldn’t wait to meet her. They hugged her and led her around the yard on the leash. Ella looked around. She had come from an urban environment and she looked pleasantly surprised. Ella Fitzgerald actually looked as if she were smiling.
We let her off the leash and brought out Shadow who was our hound puppy. He was slightly under a year old. He was thrilled to see her and tried pouncing on her side. In one swift move she grabbed him by the side and flopped him on the ground. She stood over him. She never growled, but from that day forward there was no doubt as to who the alpha dog was. And they went on to be the greatest of pals.
Ella new immediately that this was her new home. She wasn’t going to look back. This seemed kind of cool for a three year old Newfoundland. She was now part of a family of two kids, another dog, two adults. Better there were thousands of acres of woods to explore.
It didn’t take long for Ella to fit in. We took our time in getting to know her. She loved being the center of attention. She loved it when you petted her and took her for walks. But most of all she loved to eat!
I don’t think we had her a week when one day I came home and big Ella looked even larger than usual. I looked around and noticed the twenty five pound bag of dog food that we had just bought was completely empty. I freaked out and called our vet. Our veterinarian was an old time country doctor who has seen it all. She doesn’t get easily upset. She laughed out loud and told me not to give Ella any water. She told me to keep a close eye on her and to bring her in right away if she looked ill. I stayed awake most of the night while Ella slept soundly. In the morning she was lined up at the counter, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, waiting for breakfast! Ella was some chow hound.
Ella had some other strange eating habits as well. We had a beautiful garden. It was a sunny summer and we were expecting a bountiful crop. We kept an eye on the tomatoes but they just wouldn’t ripen! We just couldn’t figure out what was wrong. One morning at about 5 AM Maurren let Ella out the door to take care of nature’s business. Maureen glanced out the window and noticed Ella in the garden. She was smelling tomatoes! She smelled a green one and walked on. She smelled another almost ripe one and walked on. She came to a red tomato that had ripened fully during the night and grabbed it with her teeth. She twisted her neck with the tomato in her jaws and it came right off. She chewed about twice and swallowed. She continued on searching for the next ripe tomato. Maureen opened the window and yelled at her. She just stood there and glared at Maureen. She appeared indignant that someone was interrupting her morning breakfast.
Ella Fitzgerald was very protective. She considered herself second in command after me. On one dark winter night Shadow, our hound, was whining at the door. I listened and heard a calf bawling. I let the dogs out the door and ran upstairs for my twelve gauge shotgun and a couple of rounds of buckshot. By the time I got down to the shed Ella was standing over a dead coyote. I looked up and a second coyote was limping away slowly. It was mortally wounded. Ella had made fast work of these predators. Shadow ran over after all the ruckus was over and sat next to Ella. He was proud to be in her company. And so was I.
On another occasion Maureen was walking the dogs out back in the woods on an old logging road. At the top of the mountain Shadow took off. A short while later she heard him sounding. She was slightly alarmed as the sound was coming towards her. Sure enough a large black bear was running down the trail away from Shadow. At first Maureen thought it was Ella but then felt the Newfoundland leaning against her knee trying to see what was going on. Ella didn’t charge the black bear but at the last second it veered off. Shadow continued chasing it down the hill. Ella could care less. She was glad it went away. She probably deduced that it was less competition for her food.
Ella would take Maureen and I on long walks on our country road. At the top of the hill there is a pond where she loved to swim. Her reward was to jump into the pond and swim around for a while. She would always climb out when she was finished and stand next to me. She would then shake about fifty gallons of water out of her furry coat. Of course most of it always ended up on our clothes and we would have to walk home soaking wet with Ella smiling every step of the way.
Ella and Maureen had a huge common bond. They both loved to swim. The only problem was that when Maureen was half way across the pond Ella would always try to grab her by the hair and rescue her. That didn’t go over very well with Maureen and Ella spent many a day on the beach watching Maureen swim.
On one occasion Ella and I were taking one of our wonderful rural road walks. We had to walk by this place that had an attack dog. It was a really big German Shepherd, perhaps 130 pounds. Ella would ignore it as it would yank at its chain and go crazy barking and snarling. One day the owner let the dog off the chain as we walked by. The dog came out snarling and barking. As it approached Ella calmly placed herself between myself and the attacking dog. Her tongue hung out the side of her mouth as it charged towards us. I was getting really nervous and prepared myself for a battle. As the dog leaped towards us Ella stepped aside. My immediate reaction was “What the HELL!”, but as the dog flew by Ella she snatched him out of the air by grabbing the nape of his neck and then she flipped her head up in the air careening the big animal up into the sky. The dog did a full flip and landed on his belly. He jumped up howling and ran back to the tough guy who let him off of the leash. Ella seemed disappointed that she didn’t break his neck. She turned around, tongue still hanging out the side of her mouth, and pulled me up the road with her 150 pound body. There was a bit of strut in her step. I was still shaking in my boots. The fellow who let the shepherd off the leash never did that again.
Ella had one other strange habit. It started the first time I was away from home and Maureen and the kids stayed behind. In our living room there was a large chair that was usually occupied by me during the evening hours. I read the paper there. I played with the kids in that chair. It was kind of my spot in the house. The week I left Ella crawled up into the chair and would not leave. She spent each evening sitting up in the chair overlooking the goings on in the house until I returned. As I said before Ella believed she was second in charge.
Ella loved me, but she loved Maureen even more. They were so connected it seemed as if they were joined at the hip. Ella sat with Maureen as she tended the garden. She protected Maureen on long mountain walks. She often lied at Maureen’s feet during the evening punctuating Maureen’s conversations with loud, very loud, snoring.
In the end, after nine beautiful years, Ella passed away in Maureen’s arms. A fitting end for our sweet friend. She is buried on a sunny hillside meadow in the front of our house.
Last year, six years after her passing, I planted tomatoes over her grave.