ife is made up of small moments, most passing by in the blink of an eye, unremarked and unremarkable. But every so often one of those small moments expands and time seems to stop. We're faced with an occurrence so intense, so monumental, that the rest of life's cluttered minutiae simply slip away like a passing wisp of breeze.
What remains is a haze of shock and emptiness, a void that we must somehow learn to negotiate. There's an elemental shift in worldview and a lesson never forgotten: that nothing in life is as permanent as we once believed.
That was how I felt when a murderer whom I'd been chasing stood two feet away from me and looked me in the eye, then lifted a gun to his temple and blew his brains out.
It was an instant when everything changed.
Maybe clarity of vision is a sign of maturity. If so, I earned mine the hard way. But in that fleeting speck of time when I put my own life at risk and watched another life end, I knew with absolute certainty what was important to me and what was not.
I had a new baby, an almost new husband, and a nine-year-old son, whom I loved more than anything. I also had a houseful of dogs and an extended family whose only goal seemed to be to drive me crazy. The thought that I might never have seen any of them again was beyond unbearable.
And yet in that single moment I had put all of that on the line. What was I thinking? I didn't know.
One thing I did know. I needed a break.
“I just want to say that you've become rather dull.”
“Really?” My tone might have been a bit dry.
I was sitting across the kitchen table from my Aunt Peg, a woman who in her first sixty-five years has stirred up more excitement and controversy than many South American dictators. Come to think of it, she also runs the members of her family like a small, somewhat unruly, junta. Peg stands six feet tall and has iron-gray hair and sharp brown eyes. Should a brawl erupt anywhere in the vicinity, my money's on her.
“Yes, really. Don't make me say it twice. I shouldn't have to say it at all. You used to be interesting. Now . . .” Aunt Peg stood up, walked over to the counter, and poured herself a second cup of Earl Grey tea. Her gaze slid pointedly to the window over the sink.
It was New Year's Day, and we'd had six inches of fresh snow overnight. Eighteen months had passed since I'd made the decision to try to realign the balance in my life. I'd wanted to attain some sense of normalcy, and I liked to think that I'd achieved that goal.
What Aunt Peg saw in the backyard was my husband, Sam, and our older son, Davey, shoveling the new snow off the deck. From the way the pile was shaping up, I suspected there might be a snowman in the offing.
Younger son, Kevin, twenty-two months old and all but swallowed up by a snowsuit, boots, and mittens, was toddling unsteadily around the yard, accompanied by several big black Standard Poodles. That was what passed for normal at my house.
“Now I'm happy,” I said.
“So you think,” Aunt Peg sniffed. “You're what? Thirty-five years old?”
I nodded warily. Not because her assessment of my age was wrong, but because Aunt Peg never begins a lecture without a purpose in mind, usually one that involves work for me.
“You need to get back in the game.”
“For one thing, you need to figure out what you're going to do with the rest of your life now that you no longer have a job.”
Aunt Peg was referring to the fact that after Kevin was born, I had taken a leave of absence from my position as special needs tutor at a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut. A single semester away had now stretched to three.
When Davey was little, I'd been a single mother. I'd had to work. This time around I had a choice. And the thought of leaving Kevin with a nanny or an au pair didn't appeal at all. Even if my son's current favorite wordâfrom an admittedly limited vocabularyâwas an emphatic and defiant
“I have a job,” I said calmly. “I'm a mother.”
“Oh, please. Hillary Clinton is a mother. It didn't stop her from becoming secretary of state.”
“You want me to go into politics?”
Okay, that was immature. The verbal equivalent of sticking out my tongue. But give Aunt Peg the slightest bit of encouragement, and she tends to run roughshod over anyone in the vicinity. Speaking as the person most likely to be trampled, what can I say? Sometimes I sink to my kids' level.
“Don't be ridiculous. I want you to use your brain. I want you to think. I have an idea.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered.
The back door came flying inward, bringing with it a blast of cold air, five scrambling, sodden Standard Poodles, and three rosy-cheeked, snow-covered men of varying sizes. Davey had his gloved hands cupped together. He was holding a snowball the size of a small globe.
Sam was just behind him, carrying Kevin. Even in chunky boots and a puffy down jacket, with a red nose and snow-tipped eyelashes, Sam looked like the kind of man most women would want to take straight to bed. Even after six years together, I'm no exception.
Sam lowered the toddler into my arms and, having heard my last pronouncement, said, “What's the matter?”
“Aunt Peg has an idea.”
“Good day for it,” Sam said mildly. He and Aunt Peg are the best of friends. Sometimes that irks me, but mostly I try to rise above it. “New Year's resolutions and all.”
Davey, who had pulled open a low cabinet and was rummaging around inside, stood up and spun around. “Are we going to make resolutions?”
“Sure, if you want to. Put that snowball in the sink, okay?”
“I can't. I'm going to report on it for science class.”
Davey's tall for his age. He takes after his father, my ex-husband, Bob. They're both long limbed and graceful. But my son's personality is all me. He could argue the spots off a Dalmatian.
Davey turned back to the cabinet and withdrew a large mixing bowl. “How long do you think it will take to melt?”
“It's started already,” I mentioned. Between the five Poodles, the three sets of boots, and the water dripping from his hands, the floor was awash with melted snow.
Sam reached over, plucked the snowball out of Davey's hands, and plopped it in the bowl on the counter. Aunt Peg grabbed a towel from the stack near the back door and went to work drying Poodle legs. That left me to get Kevin undressed.
“Who wants hot chocolate?” I asked.
“No!” cried Kevin. I'd unzipped the front of his snowsuit and peeled the top off his shoulders. He yanked his arms free and waved his small hands in the air.
“Gotta love a kid who knows what he wants,” Sam said.
“I think he takes after Aunt Peg.” I lifted Kevin up and freed his legs. He kicked off his red rubber boots and they landed in a puddle on the floor beneath my chair.
“And isn't it nice that someone finally does,” said Peg.
It took another twenty minutes to get everyone warm, dry, and organized. Amazingly, the floor even got mopped. Once it was dry, the Poodles lay down around us, forming a canine obstacle course for unwary walkers orâif you were Kevin's sizeâa fluffy stool on which to perch.
The five of them were Sam's and my blended canine family. Faith and Eve were a mother-and-daughter duo, originally Davey's and mine. Faith had been bred by Aunt Peg and gifted to me six years earlier, either as a reward or an assignment. I'd never been entirely sure which. Raven and Casey were two champion Poodles from Sam's breeding program that he'd brought with him when he moved east from Michigan to Connecticut.
The remaining Poodle was Tar, the only male in the group. Also bred by Aunt Peg, he had been Sam's special dog: a champion whom Sam had campaigned to numerous Group and Best in Show wins at venues up and down the East Coast. Now retired, he, like the others, wore the close-cropped, easy-to-care-for sporting trim. With two children keeping us busy, both Sam and I were happy to be taking a break from having to “do hair.”
“Finally,” said Aunt Peg when we were seated around the table once more. “Can we now get back to the business at hand?”
“Certainly,” said Sam. “Who wants to begin?”
“Me,” cried Davey.
“Excellent. Someone with initiative.” Aunt Peg stared at me pointedly over the top of her mug. Peg's sweet tooth is legendary, and her hot chocolate was coated with a layer of mini-marshmallows. “Unlike certain of my other relatives.”
“I resolve to eat fewer lima beans,” Davey said firmly. “And not to lose my homework. And not to call Kimberly Winterbottom stupid, even when she is.”
“Good job,” I said. “I don't like lima beans, either.”
“Kimberly Winterbottom?” asked Sam.
“She thinks she knows everything.” In sixth grade now, Davey was in his first year at Hart Middle School in North Stamford. The move from elementary school made him feel very grown up. “And she doesn't. Not even close.”
“Fair enough,” said Peg. “Sam, would you like to go next?”
“Not me,” Sam said, demurring. He knew better than to get in Peg's way. “I'm not ready yet. Why don't you take my turn?”
“I'll be happy to.”
No surprise there. Aunt Peg had been waiting for this opening since she'd arrived an hour earlier. Now she swiveled her seat around to face me.
“You've become boring,” she said.
You know, just in case I'd missed that insult the first time.
“There you go,” I replied cheerfully. “That can be my resolution. Be less boring.”
New Year's resolutions have never been my thing. I just don't see the point of vowing on the first day of the year to read more books, lose ten pounds, or run a marathon. Because if I didn't want to do that stuff before, what are the chances that a change of date is going to make me want to do it now?
“You're stuck in a rut,” Aunt Peg persisted. My easy acquiescence didn't even slow her down. “I can help with that.”
“Don't tell me,” I said. “Here comes the idea.”
“As well it should. Somebody has to shake things up around here.”
Kevin punctuated that thought with a loud bang. Settled on the floor, next to the cabinet Davey had opened earlier, he was engaged in one of his favorite occupations, stacking pots and pans. The leaning tower he'd been erecting had just lost its battle with gravity. Judging by the building skills he'd displayed thus far, Sam and I were guessing that a career in architecture was not in his future.
Aunt Peg didn't even lose a beat. “Edward March,” she said.
Sam looked up. “What about him?”
“He's turning in his judge's license.”
“Wow,” said Sam. “I wouldn't have thought he'd ever retire. March seems like the type of judge who'd hope to croak in the Best in Show ring at Westminster, as he pointed out the winning dog.”
“Don't we all,” Aunt Peg remarked. “And Edward does like his dramatic moments. Nevertheless, I believe health issues have gotten in the way. He's taken very few assignments in the last several years, and now he seems to think that it's time to bow out gracefully and on his own terms.”
“Who is Edward March?” I asked.
Aunt Peg and Sam have both been a part of the dog show world for so long that occasionally they forget that I don't have their wealth of experience and insider information to draw upon. Aunt Peg's Cedar Crest Kennel, founded decades earlier with her late husband, Max, had produced some of the top winning Standard Poodles in dog show history. Once a successful owner-handler who'd competed in dozens of shows a year, Aunt Peg still kept up the same hectic schedule, now serving as a much-in-demand dog show judge.
Sam's tenure in the dog show world was shorter in duration than Aunt Peg's, but he had been no less devoted. His Shadowrun Kennel was a small but select operation. Like my aunt, Sam had spent countless hours studying pedigrees, genetics, and the best available bloodlines. He was also a talented and enthusiastic dog show exhibitor.
Basically, in this group I was the redheaded stepchild.
“Don't worry, Mom,” said Davey. “I don't know, either.”
I reached over and plopped a few more marshmallows in his mug to thank him for the support.
“You don't need to know.” Aunt Peg slanted her nephew a fond glance. “Whereas you”âher gaze shifted in my directionâ“could be better informed.”
Nothing new there.
I sipped my cocoa and leaned back in my seat. “Why don't you tell me what I'm missing?”
“Edward March is nothing less than dog show royalty.”
“Like Prince William?” asked Davey. He had watched the royal wedding on television, fascinated less by the ceremony than by the vintage cars that transported the royal family.
“Not exactly,” Sam explained. “Prince William has a hereditary position. Edward March earned his acclaim. His Russet Kennel was started in the nineteen sixties and soon became the driving force in Irish Setters. He was single-handedly responsible for dozens of champions in that breed throughout the second half of the last century. If there was an Irish Setter in the Group or Best in Show ring anywhere on the East Coast, chances are it was a Russet dog.”
“Bob and Janie Forsyth handled all his dogs for many years,” said Aunt Peg. “Surely, you know who they are.”
Of course I did. The esteemed husband-and-wife team was dogdom's most famous couple. As handlers, they'd all but ruled the sporting dog and terrier rings for decades, before retiring to become highly respected judges. I had shown Eve under Janie Forsyth and had picked up two points toward her championship.