By Adam Ganucheau
I recently took my dog Emma to meet Willie Morris.
His resting place there in the Glenwood Cemetery overlooking Yazoo City is a stop I’ve made many times alone, but as we were headed south toward home that chilly morning after a long Delta weekend, it felt appropriate.
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him before he died, but his life is well documented through his memoirs, essays and countless tales written and told by others since his passing.
In my sometimes obsessive studies of his life and work, one thing has been made clear, time and time again: Willie loved dogs.
“My Dog Skip,” in both print and film, continues to haunt the tear ducts of folks around the world. No chapter of any book stirs my emotions like that final chapter. By that point, you feel so close to Old Skip that the closing passage is more of a knife to the heart than ink on a page: “They had buried him under our elm tree, they said – yet this was not totally true. For he really lay buried in my heart.”
Willie’s “Terrains of the Heart and Other Essays on Home” is my secondary bible. The book found me shortly after I graduated from Ole Miss. I was living 980 miles from my home Mississippi, and my future was uncertain. The first essay in the book laid the foundation for the decision I’d already been building: I needed to find my way back home.
Willie, Mississippi’s prodigal son, was clearly perplexed by the concept of home throughout his life, and his heart eventually led him back to Mississippi. For years, I wondered how a book of such significance to so many could have such a simple cover: Willie, trailed by his dog Pete, walking across the field at an empty Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Then I got a dog.
I love sharing Mississippi with Emma, my 4-year-old Brittany spaniel from Birmingham. We’ve witnessed a handful of great Ole Miss football and basketball wins together at home. We’ve shared many hikes, exploring the vast woods of central Mississippi. We’ve jogged together through the winding neighborhoods of Jackson, and we’ve stopped off at historic sites along the Natchez Trace.
When I’m feeling sad, she’ll give me a nudge of encouragement. When she becomes excited, she does these tight pirouettes and I can’t help but share that excitement a bit. We’ve passed out on the couch together after long days and searched the house for burglars together. She’s been there for me during trying times or long nights.
When I saw that book cover pre-Emma, I saw a meaningless photo. Now, I see the power and poignancy of the image: a man and his dog in a place that boasts so much history, honor and complexity.
Pete, a majestic black lab Willie referred to as “the dog of my middle age,” was almost as much a legend as his owner himself. Those in Bridgehampton, New York, where Willie and Pete found each other, called the dog “Mr. Mayor.” Pete was the protagonist of a Willie essay called “The Day I Followed the Mayor around Town,” which Reader’s Digest later published as “Pete, the Mayor of Bridgehampton.”
As the original title suggests, Willie, curious about his best friend’s unusual independence, clandestinely follows Pete around town, where the dog makes numerous stops and visits with the Long Island village’s residents as a small-town mayor might. The dog’s human-like intelligence was not lost on Willie, nor was the impact Pete had on his life.
“Dogs give continuity to a man’s life; they help hold the fractured pieces of it together,” Willie wrote. “When Pete the Mayor came to live with me, he reaffirmed the contours of my own existence.”
When Willie packed up his truck to move back home, the lifetime Bridgehampton resident Pete jumped in the front seat as if to say, “My home is your home.” He would faithfully go wherever Willie led him.
Like most of us who spend time here, Pete quickly took to Oxford.
Catfish and collard greens were promptly added to his diet. He became familiar with the Ole Miss campus and Bailey’s Woods, quickly becoming a regular at Willie’s favorite late-night haunts around town. Those who visited Willie’s Faculty Row home for many years were first greeted by Pete, who would then dutifully lead the guests to his owner. If you knew Willie during those years, many of his friends have said, you knew Pete just as well.
Willie perhaps best described his relationship with his dog in a 1982 Parade Magazine essay titled, “The Saga of Pete and Willie”:
“What is the mysterious chemistry that links a human being and a dog? I only know that the friendship between me and this dog, like the few truly fine things in life, is God-given, buttressed by shared experience and fidelity and a fragility of the heart.”
They say Willie wasn’t the same after Pete died. He swore he’d get a new wife before he got another dog (and he did). The news was distributed around the world on the Associated Press wire, and Tom Brokaw broadcast Pete’s passing on NBC Nightly News, prompting dozens of condolence letters and phone calls from well-known figures around the country. Pete was so loved in Oxford that he was honored with burial in historic Saint Peter’s Cemetery, just a few steps from the grave of William Faulkner, Willie’s hero.
Emma, a 4-year-old Brittany spaniel, is the first dog I’ve owned. I see a little bit of Emma while reading about Pete, Skip and other dogs Willie owned. Of course, Emma and I share our own unique bonds, and she has her own unique mannerisms. But Willie makes the parallels clear, and I think anyone with a dog could relate.
I sure don’t need Willie to tell me how important Emma is to me. But his profound writings about his dogs have helped me better grasp just what Emma means to me, and he has helped me better appreciate the joys she brings to me daily.
When we walked up to Willie’s grave that November morning, Emma – ever the curious, sniffing burst of energy, especially in unfamiliar places – sat down, unprovoked, right beside his plot. Maybe it was coincidental. Maybe she was tired from the long weekend, or maybe she was bored.
But perhaps she, like Pete did years ago, sensed she was in the presence of the consummate dog person. I’ll maintain, at the very least, she sensed what that man and the shared experience meant to her owner.
Some might say it’s disrespectful to take a dog into a cemetery. A woman driving by gave that morning gave us a rather sour look. When I told the story later, a friend of a friend scolded me for not adhering to the “no dogs” signs posted around the place.
But I didn’t think twice about it. I knew Willie wouldn’t mind.