Miss Mully’s Garden

It may be unfinished, but what in life is not?


By Jim Dodson

When COVID-19 shut down the world as we know it last year, I decided this was a sign from on high to finish building my backyard shade garden.

The cosmic joke, as any gardener worth his composted cow poop knows, is that, while no garden is ever really finished, it may well finish (off) the gardener.

That said, I set myself a goal to have the garden fully laid out and growing by the time the dog days of August rolled around. Beneath ancient white oaks, I began to see elegant stone pathways winding through beds of cool ferns, colorful hostas and other shade-loving trees and plants — the ideal place to sit and read a book when the oppressive heat of late summer lays upon us.

You might say I worked like a dog — and with a dog — from February to July, hoping to get the job done. After clearing out the last of the weeds and some forlorn, overgrown shrubs of the property’s former owner, I drew up plans and constantly revised them, laying out pathways and building beds for young plants.

Alas, August is here, and while I toiled and toiled away, my ambitious shade garden is yet unfinished.

Still, my old dog, Mulligan, never missed a day of work. She’s 16, and either deaf or simply uninterested in whatever her owner has to say. We’ve been together since I found her running wild and free in a park where I’d just given a talk at a festival, a joyous black pup with the happiest eyes I’d ever seen.

Workers in the park told me she was a stray that nobody could catch, had been around for weeks, either a runaway or a pup someone simply dumped. She was living off garbage and small critters she chased down in the woods. The girl was a hunter.

To this day, I’m not sure whether I found her or she found me. She raced past me as I was preparing to leave, heading back for the woods across a busy highway where I’d seen her cross into the park an hour before, somehow just missing the wheels of a truck.

I simply called out, “Hey, you! Black streak! Come here.” Something remarkable happened. The pup stopped, looked back, then ran straight into my arms. I named her Mulligan, a second-chance dog. Mully, for short.

We’ve been together ever since.

Any time I’m working in the garden, she’s there. Every trip to the plant nursery, the grocery store, or any errand around town, she’s along for the ride.  It’s been like this for a decade and a half. She’s my constant travel pal — my best friend and the best dog ever — always ready to hit the road.

Four years ago, Miss Mully was along for the ride when I started down the Great Wagon Road for a book about the Colonial Era “highway” that a couple hundred thousand Scots-Irish, English and German immigrants, including all three wings of my family, took to this part of the world during the 18th century.

As I laid out this long-planned journey in my mind, Mully and I would simply breeze down the mythic road together from Philadelphia to Georgia over the span of three or four weeks, meeting colorful characters, diving into frontier history and gathering untold tales from America’s original immigrant highway. The book would almost write itself. I’d finish it in no time flat.

Evidently, God and wives both laugh when foolish men make plans, to paraphrase an old Yiddish proverb. From the beginning, my wife, Wendy, thought it would take me five years to complete my mighty road book.

She was right. Ditto God.

Like my backyard shade garden, my mighty road tale is not yet finished. The sweeping scope of its history and people, not to mention the motherlode of remarkable folks Miss Mully and I encountered along the road, argued for a much deeper dive and more thorough approach to my subject. An unplanned bit of plumbing surgery and a worldwide pandemic that shut down the globe for more than a year hardly helped to shrink the time horizon.

But that’s life.

We all have unfinished business. We are all works in progress.

With a little luck and continued work, I hope to complete both my book and my backyard garden around the same time, maybe by Thanksgiving.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I understand that the day is growing late for my old dog and her master.

She still walks a mile with us every morning, and her dark eyes still shine with the happiest light.

Every afternoon, she takes a slow walk around the garden as if inspecting my work or memorizing the plants. I often catch her just sitting alone in the middle of the garden, thinking God knows what.

For the moment, our journey together is unfinished. But someday I hope to sit in the middle of Miss Mully’s Garden, reading a book and thinking God knows what, too.

Something tells me that won’t be the end of the journey. Maybe just the beginning.  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor and ambassador-at-large of O.Henry.

His favorite children’s book? The Wind in the Willows. His all-time favorite book: James Salter’s Light Years.

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