Working long hours is a given in entrepreneurship. My father and uncle, who tended their small hardware store in Crockett, routinely worked sixty-hour weeks and did so for over fifty years. I had no choice but to embrace this work ethic as I was hell bent on perfecting a hardware store; 70, 80 and even 90 hour weeks became required. It worked – in 1997 we were awarded the Ace Hardware President’s Cup as the best Ace in the United States – but grueling hours take their toll. My brother Robin recognized that I was an over-achiever and, concerned, one day he came up with a remarkable solution. It involved a lanky, toothy canine named Caleb.
Robin’s inspiration came from a respected dog-friendly Benicia family, Chester and Clarissa. Chester grew up in San Francisco and developed a hobby training working dogs, the kind used by police and military. With an animal lover’s heart and a “whisperer’s touch,” he helped many Benicians in understanding their beloved animals with expert training and advice.
One December morning Robin showed up at Ace and introduced Chester… who happened to be leashed with the strangest looking dog I’d ever seen. My family – five Pedrotti boys – had been raised with a number of German Shepherds, but this dog, a Belgian Malinois, was different. At 12 months old and still a puppy, he was unusually lean with a short brown coat and had energy… lots of it! Herding energy, the kind that makes ‘em nip sheep in the butt! Malinois are drug-sniffing, crime fighting animals used worldwide for herding and protection.
Chester introduced Caleb, who was in training, and at the time, hopping up and down soil pallets, sniffing here and there in practice for a future career. You could see that Caleb was smart, quick, curious and very obedient… keen on Chester’s every word. What was not obvious was that Caleb was frightfully gun-shy. Chester spent a lot of time training Caleb, grew to love Caleb, but accepted that most dogs don’t make the cut. And Caleb didn’t. His job description was about to change and this morning’s pallet exercise was not so much about evaluating Caleb’s skills but more about finding him a new boss. Unbeknownst to me, Robin, Chester and Clarissa had been conspiring to play matchmaker and I was under evaluation.
So, did I pass? Two weeks later at a large family party on Christmas Eve and giddy with bad-boy anticipation, Robin presented Caleb to me. I was stunned. And really happy. My first dog! In short order, we bonded.
To appreciate each other, Chester insisted on training; not for Caleb, he was a proven student. But for me. It was essential that I use those same techniques and methods of Caleb’s schooling… how to sit, how to stay, etc.; which included his language… German. Soon we were “sitzing” and “platzing” everywhere… on walks, visiting friends, and every day at Ace. When I awoke anxious at 4 am and decided to go to work, Caleb was at my side. Or at 2 or 3 am when the burglar alarm went off, Caleb was there to protect me. He was an incredible companion.
To their credit, Chester, Clarissa and their two boys, Gianni and Nikko, not only kept tabs on Caleb, they hosted him frequently when I was called away. We became great friends. They attended my wedding to Ian and stepped in when Caleb had leg surgery, keeping an eye on our 2nd dog, Charlie. And when fate called Caleb, they all quickly came to the house to say goodbye; Caleb passed in my arms a few days later.
That last point is important. Our pets, when we allow them, teach us great things… about life, about love, and yes, about loss. Caleb’s passing was very difficult for me, but this was his finest lesson.
Ian and I have a new pair of fostered friends, Dexter and Maggie, whom we adopted shortly before Covid. I am deeply indebted to Robin, Chester and Clarissa for their kind conspiracy and for how it changed my perspective on life.
One last thing. Your pets are always welcome at Ace…. Dogs, cats, birds, you name it. Their presence brings joy.
Life, Love, Loss… the insight and lesson that dogs provide is priceless. And sometimes painful. Caleb’s death was difficult, but it taught me valuable coping skills. It also preceded another horrible loss. Shortly after his 50th birthday, my dear friend Chester passed away, following a prolonged illness. Chester was remarkable and courageous in his struggle, brave, just as he taught his troops when he was Scoutmaster. Popular in the community, the hall was filled with family and friends to celebrate his life. Many months went by when, at quiet moments, I would reflect upon my friendship with Chester. I missed him. Deeply.
In Italian, there is a unique expression for the term “I miss you.” The term is “Mi manchi,” and is taken from the verb “mancare,” meaning “to lack.” “I miss you” translates to “You are lacking to me.” This form focuses not on us, but instead, and perhaps more appropriately, on the subject who is no longer present. “You are lacking to me,” becomes a declaration that the absence is noticeable, meaningful, and perhaps painful. It also is an expression for “I love you.” In describing my friendship with Chester, it was both; I loved him and, no longer there, he is greatly lacking in my life.
Sometimes in these same quiet moments, I would ponder how I could honor and memorialize our friendship. We had spent a lot of time together, often in the company of dogs, and so, whatever it was, the memorial had to involve dogs. One day, reading the newspaper – my husband and I had just moved to Martinez – there was an article about a dog. Or, lack of one. It turns out that the Martinez Police Department was looking to replace a retired police dog and a local teenager, a member of the Grange, created a fundraising drive for the cause. The National Grange is a century-old agricultural club devoted to promoting farming agriculture, and this was surely a lofty project. And the light bulb went off! “That’s it!” I thought, “In Chester’s honor, I’ll help out. He’d like that.”
The contact at the Martinez Police Department was an acting chief; the former leader had retired. So, I called him, left a message and missed his return call. Both of us had busy schedules and it took two weeks to connect. But we finally did. The chief shared that the teen had coin jars placed in bars and clubs throughout town and had collected a considerable sum, but cautioned, “a trained animal is rather expensive and it would be a bit longer before we could get the dog.”
It seemed in order that I offer the chief an explanation and so I shared stories about Chester and our deep friendship and about my intention. Chester had raised many protection animals and donated to police agencies, and this seemed like the perfect way to honor him. “Tell you what,” I offered, “I’ll close the gap and you get your animal!”
And then the magic happened.
Something troubled me, or rather was unsettling and so I said to the chief, “I have to ask you something. Your name, your last name, it’s so familiar to me. I think I have some late relatives by that name in Petaluma.” He was surprised at this but shared his recollection of once having family who lived in Petaluma. And also in Patterson. “Incredible! I do, too!” I said excitedly and promised to look into this. We concluded the call.
After sunset – I always stop to watch them – I called my cousin, Loreen, at their family ranch in Patterson, where they had been growing almonds for over fifty years. I shared the details to which she exclaimed, “Eric? Why, Eric’s my favorite nephew!” She then carried on and on about Eric’s childhood, his academics, his success in college and in policing. “He’s the chief now?” she said, “Wow! But no surprise. He’s smart!” Her pride in the family name was contagious.
With that I called my cousin, Sharon – our fathers worked side-by-side at their hardware store in Crockett, the one I took over – and shared the accounts of both conversations… with the chief and with our cousin Loreen. The line went silent for a long time. And then she said, “Eric?! Really?! Gene, that’s amazing! Eric’s mother and father met each other at my wedding a long, long time ago!” Indeed, we were all related.
After this, there were many more calls to other family members. Turns out, we are all related to the same Swiss-Italian dairymen that settled in Marin County in the late 1800s.
Anxious to share these developments with Eric, I soon stopped by the Martinez Police Department, spontaneously and without invitation. The clerk behind the thick, protective glass looked at me; “I’d like to see the acting chief, please.” It wasn’t clear if she was inquisitive or suspicious, so I added, “He’s my cousin.” She made a brief call and I was quickly ushered in to formally meet my newfound cousin.
Eric being on duty, our visit was short. But in that time, we covered a great deal of ground, about our joint histories, confirming how his parents met at Sharon’s wedding, and more. He then invited me to stop by to meet his wife and children, wrote down the address and briefly described the house. “Next to the house with grapevines and fruit trees?” I asked, adding “Why, I drive by it every day! We live on the same street!”
Sometimes life will be magical, even after troubling events; in the nuzzle or kiss of a dog, the beauty of a sunset, or in the sudden discovery from a chance encounter. I miss Chester, but I know he’s there… smiling at these remarkable encounters, including the discovery of a newfound cousin in a city where we hold neighboring addresses, living on the same rural street.