I was watching Saturday Night Live tonight and Paul McCartney was singing. For several years I have had to suppress a cringe when he comes on stage and sings live—there is something a little bit unseemly about a 70 year old man who’s had a face lift or two singing “Hey Jude.” But there he was, singing “My Valentine”, a song most undoubtedly to his lost love Linda. It goes “What if it rained? We didn’t care. She said that someday soon, the sun was gonna shine, and she was right, This love of mine, My Valentine.” This song is beautiful. It took me right back thirty years.
In 1980, I read Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen, who used the pen name Isak Dinesen. The opening line was “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” For me, it was the equivalent of “You had me at hello!” I was transported. Karen Blixen, known affectionately as “Tania”, was a Danish woman who moved to Africa in 1913, married her second cousin Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, and started a coffee farm in the British colony of Kenya. In her book, Dinesen details a story in which her deerhound Dusk plays a major role. Coming home one night, Dusk stops his mistress with furious barking at a tree. Thinking that there is a leopard lying in wait, Dinesen takes aim with her rifle. Just as she is about to kill the animal in the tree, she realizes with a start that it is her own house cat. The cat is safely retrieved, but every evening walk after that is punctuated by Dusk stopping at the same tree, barking and then looking back at Dinesen while baring his teeth in what can only be described as a big deerhound grin. Dinesen commented that if ever there was a dog with a keen sense of humor, it was this deerhound. I was enchanted.
Over thirty years later, I am still besotted by deerhound humor. The females are the funniest—they are sly; they are bad girls, and they love to make fun of human beings. Valentine, aka Ch. Gayleward’s Valentine, was one of the best. Her particular joke was to lie on her bed, beseeching us, or our guests, to pet her. Ear rubs were the greatest—she would moan and groan in the most embarrassing and yet self-reinforcing way. But woe to the person who would pet her, and then stop. Val’s head would pop up and she would give a hearty deep throated and very frightening bark, while “smiling”, with teeth bared and lips curled back. To the uninitiated, it was terrifying. The late, great Vicki Hearne wrote an essay about a deerhound called “A Distinct Impression of Diamonds.” With Valentine, it was more of a distinct impression of a whoopee cushion.
Valentine passed away peacefully at nearly twelve years old in 2006. Our current comedienne is Queen, otherwise known as Grand Champion Jaraluv Queen, or sometimes QueeQuee or Quigley. Quee has a peculiar way of showing her affection—she pokes her head between your legs, then comes out the other side. I will never forget the first time I handed her off to a professional handler at a dog show. She performed like the trooper that she is. When the handler brought her back to me, Queen surprised us both. Slipping her lead entirely, she dove between my legs, wheeled around and approached with another nose dive from behind. And then back again, from the front. And again from the back, then coming up for air and placing her nose across from mine, she laughed and clearly stated, “Am I not the funniest girl ever?” We call this “going through.” She now does it on command.
One day I will go to Kenya. I will visit Karen, Dinesen’s house which has been preserved for posterity. And I will thank Tania, forever young and hopeful and beautiful, for the inspiration which led to our own funny Valentine.