Phineas by Ann Matranga / Ann, Kaela, Jonah and Hannah

John Knowles wrote in A Separate Peace, “Other people experienced this fearful shock somewhere, this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive labor of defense… All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way – if he ever attacked at all;
if he was indeed the enemy.”

Phineas was born in Reading, Massachusetts in May, 1987. She came home in August, sternly greeted by Clingon, our cat, who began a rigorous obedience program. Jonah and Kaela chose the name Phineas, an unlikely choice for a female puppy. Like Phineas in the John Knowles novel, she was a peace loving being, though not without a wicked sense of humor. Phinney was a Samoyed, an Arctic working breed. Samoyeds herded both reindeer and seals. Phinney loved the water, and so I think she came from the seal-herding line.

Phineas was interested in food. Friends’ purses were rifled when her keen nose detected the highly prized bar of chocolate. Our friend Annie wrote in her sympathy note, “Zac (her lab) and I sat on our rock and talked of Phinney, and remembered her cute ways. Zac thought that even tho she didn’t know anything about retrieving or wrestling and was just a girl, she knew how to get food, so that made her an ok one.”

In 1988, Phinney got in trouble with the law for barking too much, following in the footsteps of Jonah who did other things too much for a while. Our family also recalls Cujo’s Christmas when Phineas opened every gift in my brief absence, shredded a few, and hid out in the bathroom. My mother, whose gift was affected, forgave Phinney and mended the red shawl I brought her from London using patches such as an insignia from the West Indies.

Phinney loved the water. She and her childhood best friend, Albuquerque Howell, scoured Arnold Arboretum for ponds. When we lived in Mill Valley, her favorite destinations were Muir Beach and the waterfall in Cascade Canyon, where a Quebecoise friend often took Mlle. Phineas and taught her rudimentary French.

Phinney’s final great adventure in this life occurred the week before she died. We were visiting Ronia in Santa Cruz, taking a walk beside cliffs that drop off to a small surfer beach below. Phinney, walking slowly as she did at the end of her life, was right beside me. I saw her glance out toward the water and then suddenly, she veered to the right and jumped the cliff. She slid down to a shelf and then, without hesitation, made the second drop to the beach. She landed on four feet and headed into the water. Her back legs were weak and the tide was pulling her out. Ronia and I struggled to get footing as we climbed down after her.

For a moment it seemed she would be washed away, and I thought, maybe this is how she wants it. What a dramatic exit for Phineas. She was fourteen years old – 98 in human years – and could hardly make the stairs anymore.

Her head hung down as she walked. She was a beautiful and vain dog, accustomed to admiration. I thought, ‘I could ask Ronia to stop, and let her go.’ I didn’t have it in me. Ronia rescued her, pulling her back to safety. We had to carry her back up the cliff.

A week later Phinney took a bad fall on the back stairs and she could not or would not recover. She accepted one last delicacy, a piece of meat that she chomped with enthusiasm. I slept next to her on the floor that last night while she breathed heavily, unable to stand or lift her head. The next morning we said goodbye.

Our friend Foo dug a grave on his property on Mt. Tam, near where we buried Clingon. On Tuesday, Foo and I, accompanied by my father, carried Phinney’s body to her resting place. She looked lovely, a femme fatale to the end. I put a kerchief around her neck, and tucked a big rawhide bone, some dog biscuits, and a wide-tooth red comb into the grave with her. The night before Phinney died I asked her to send me back a message that she arrived safely at her destination, and I explained to her that our method of communication would be bumper stickers and license plates. I have had many messages to assure me that she is doing very well in the company of Grandma (my mother) and Clingon, among many others.

There are other important points about Phineas’s life, too many to cover here, but I want to mention that she joined me as a LITA (Love Is The Answer) volunteer for several years, making weekly visits to an elderly Russian woman in a nursing home. In photographs I see her at the breakfast after Kaela’s senior prom, standing next to Jonah’s suitcase before he left for college, with my father at the Halloween parade in Sausalito, with Hannah on a camping trip, at Kaela’s reunion with her birth father… all the important moments of our lives
in the past 14 years.

In my mind’s eye, I see her face in the rear view mirror of my car, her hair blowing back, eyes closed, inhaling the pleasures of the road. About a month before she died, Phinney began to bark at home for the first time. She faced intently in a certain direction as though she saw something that she wanted to scare away. At first I thought it was dementia setting in, but in her final weeks she gave up her barking.

Now I think she saw the angels coming to get her, and she wasn’t ready to go. Phineas loved life so much. In the last month of her life when motion was hard for her, we walked slowly down the street. She stopped every few feet and buried her head in plants and flowers as though seeking to remember this world. I feel certain
that she remembers us.


We will always remember her with gratitude and love.
Ann Matranga