Giving gifts

Confession: I once wrote a blog post called The Great Bird-Dog Mystery, about some puzzling wooden objects that kept popping up around my town, nailed to fences and signs. The post was a little bit sassy and a little bit tongue-in-cheek, and I had it all typed up and ready to publish (Where do they come from? Who makes these things? What are they exactly?) when my husband glanced over my shoulder (a thing he is strictly forbidden to do, but – you know how that goes) and said, “Oh, don’t you know?” and pulled up a news article in the Meadville Tribune explaining the phenomenon.

Which is, simply, that an elderly Italian man who lives very near to me likes to make dogs out of wood. He hand-cuts them and hand-paints them (each is unique) and leaves his gifts in prominent places around the neighborhood, for people to enjoy.

In disgust with myself (and the non-mystery of my mystery, and the sacrilege of having almost made fun of the work of a respectable man old enough to be my grandfather), I deleted the blog post at once, unpublished.

But I still think of that man from time to time – especially when I see his creations, but other times too – and somehow it gets me, the way he labors quietly in his shop over a bit of fallen tree, and sands it smooth and paints it, and leaves it around town so that the people will have joy. Probably sometimes he goes back to check on one and finds that somebody has removed it, and he doesn’t know where it went. Maybe into the TriCounty waste bin.

I imagine that in between his unpretentious dog-planting he is quite a regular old Joe, and pays his taxes and stops at stop signs and helps his daughter around the house.

He is a wise old man.

As I grow old, I too learn that when you must give something surprising and non-status-quo, because it felt good to paint it and there it is in your hand, it is best you should do it anonymously and without asking. Because sometimes people don’t know what to do with it or can’t be troubled to get back with you or have no room, or it’s against the institute’s policy or it’s at a bad time of year, and then you are standing there with a wooden dog in your hand, his painted spots a little lopsided, and no one wants him.

That must hurt. If you are a quiet old man.

Sometimes we give gifts to convince ourselves we have something to give.

Horatian Ode to a Meadville Winter

With deepest apologies to Horace, Keats, Shelley, Rossetti, and anyone else who ever created something beautiful. Also to my grandmother and my first-grade teacher, who expected better.


Season of clouds, of barren gray and dun

Close bosom-friend of darkness. What is sun?

A thing of faerie.

Bitterest wind, and snow on snow

Relentless misery in this line too, no place to go;

I cannot approve thee.


And yet I could forgive if thou hadst made thy peace

And by the end of February’d ceased

Thy pestilence.

O winter, ah winter, canst not thou see

The month of March is not the place for thee?

Get hence.


Another thing I wish to say concerns your roads

I wouldn’t wish them on rats or pigs or toads;

They are despicable.

Snowplows, all unwitting, have spirited away thy concrete

And left a Swiss cheese where solid and gaseous meet

In random acts of violence.

The cake

When my friend Amy walked into The Sweet Shop* that day, she stepped with the confident mien of one who knew from experience how great these gals’ cakes were. She’d ordered two before. The little mom-and-pop operation in downtown Meadville produces made-from-scratch, delectable chunks of sweetness, prettily custom-decorated. What could be better?

The Sweet Shop has two gals: the cake-gal, creator of aforesaid delectable chunks; and the not-cake-gal, creator of pastries and such. The latter had always referred Amy to the former to place her cake order.

Amy stepped up to the counter. “I’d like to order a birthday cake,” quoth she.

“Very well,” said the not-cake-gal, and pulled out a pen and pad. Amy cast an anxious glance around for the cake-gal, who was nowhere in sight. Well, maybe the not-cake-gal was branching out these days…

“I’d like to get a carrot cake, with raisins and nuts; and I’d like it to feed 35-40 people.”

“Alright,” said the gal, made a note of it, and without asking further questions straightened up and prepared to conclude the order.

“Uh,” said Amy quickly. “I’d like it to be blue…”

“You want a blue cake??”

“No. I want it to be IN blue, like the decorations and trimming.”

“Oh. Okay,” and after jotting that down, she once again she laid aside her pen and turned to the cash register.

“I want it to say ‘Happy 50th birthday, Merle,’ inserted Amy gently.

Pen was resumed. Message was duly noted. Transaction was completed, money changed hands, and Amy retired from the Shop.

A week later, Amy drove by to pick up her cake. Her specially-ordered, custom-decorated cake from the cake-gal at The Sweet Shop.

She praises the Lord to this day that she did not open the box inside the Shop. Nudged by a passing angel, she waited until in the vehicle with her family, then cracked the lid.

And began to giggle.

“Oh my word!”

And shriek.

And point, and display.

“Guys, you gotta see this cake.”

I don’t know, but I think passersby assumed the Herr vehicle was inhabited by druggies, be-bopping to wild music. It rocked that much. Who would have guessed that such gusts, such gales, such breathless typhoons of laughter, could be elicited by an innocent chunk of sweet delectability?

A square white cake reposed in the box, pressed up against one side so its frosting flattened. One strip of blue frosting dollops straggled along the bottom edge, another waggled its way around the top edge. In the middle, in large ungainly script, lay the message as promised, “Happy 50th Birthday, Merle.” And in a barren corner, three frosting balloons of the same blue color, strings and all, clung forlornly together, silently deflating into ignominy.

And this was to have been the centerpiece, the crowning glory surrounded by Amy’s lavish cooking.

Amy tried to be mad. She tried. But she kept getting interrupted by chortles bubbling up from deep down. She couldn’t look at the cake without laughing. She couldn’t think of the cake without laughing.

And when, back at home, she separated confection from box, she realized that the cake was resting not on one square of cardboard, but on two: laid end to end and Scotch-taped together. The split between them coincided almost exactly with the center of the cake itself, which resulted in some interesting fulcrum effects in lifting it out, and split a large, sagging, irreparable crack into one side of the longsuffering chunk of delectability.

The only redeeming factor, Amy told her many guests that night, was that they probably all thought SHE made it. Awww, how sweet! She made him a cake!

Two moral lessons I derive from this business:

A)     When you live what you believe, like Amy, and support little local mom-and-pop operations, you must needs be prepared to pay good money for the occasional piece of crap. Birthday man Merle says “I hope you only paid like ten dollars for it maybe…?” and his wife just grins. “Uh-huh. Something like that.”

B)      Looks are deceiving.** The cake (inside) was to die for—rich, moist, and packed with goodness. I ate two pieces.


*The Sweet Shop is a fictitious name for a very real business in small-town Meadville, Pennsylvania.

**Looks are deceiving is a good old-fashioned slogan; we’re thinking of suggesting it to The Sweet Shop… maybe to print on their business cards?