From the day she was born, our Great Dane, Marmalade, seemed to know she'd been put on this earth to do more than eat dog food and sleep in the shade all day. For instance, one of our neighbors was a retired man who'd recently had open-heart surgery. Daily exercise was part of his recuperation program, so every morning he went for a walk, and every morning Marmie took off to accompany him. In the afternoon, Marmie sat and waited for our son, Ryan, and some of the other kids to get off the school bus. Then she’d walk them home. It was as though she understood that people need protection, or sometimes just plain old companionship, and her heart was full of love for them.
Marmie definitely had personality: It wasn't long before she started carrying around one of Ryan's old teddy bears. Soon people all over town knew her. How could they not notice Marmie? After all, she strolled around with the dignity of an aristocrat and the grace of a deer; the markings on her face made it look like she was wearing a mask; and she always had that teddy bear in her mouth.
One morning Marmie returned from her neighborhood patrol with a doll in her mouth instead. "Where'd you get that?" I asked. "And what happened to your teddy?" Ryan piped in.
Later that day a neighbor called. "Marmie's bear turned up in my yard," she said, "and one of my daughter's dolls is missing."
"So that's where it came from. I'm so sorry," I said. "I'll bring the doll right back."
Marmie traded her bear for things so often that people got used to her barter system. In fact, sometimes we'd pull into the driveway and see the flag up on the mailbox. Inside the box would be the stuffed bear, and standing halfway down the drive with her tail wagging would be Marmie, showing off the new prize she’d tucked in her mouth. Eventually my husband and I started calling Marmie's daily finds her "gifts from heaven." From the proud look on her face, it seemed she thought that whatever it was she brought home--a bone, a ball, a shoe--had come from some source higher than people.
In 1987, our family moved to Virginia to 25 open acres lined by a vast pine forest. It must have been a day in mid-July when we first noticed Marmie standing at the edge of the woods, barking questioningly. After dinner that night she left her bear in Ryan's safekeeping and headed into the trees with some scraps of meat left over from her dinner. "I wonder what that's all about?" I asked Bob.
"There she is!" I said, pointing to the spot where Marmie always entered and exited the forest. Our Great Dane stopped and turned, as if to introduce her newest "gift from heaven." A small beagle staggered out from behind her and collapsed to the ground.
"What did you bring home now, Marmie?" Bob said.
He walked cautiously toward the beagle, with me close behind. The dog couldn't have been more than a year old. Her ears were shredded from briers, she was covered with ticks and her body was wasted away from practically nothing. A black leather collar hung loose around her neck. "She must have been lost a very long time," I said. "Is this where your food's been going, Marmie?" Bob asked, reaching down to stroke our Great Dane's snout. "Okay. If you've given your all for this pup, then so will we."
We tended to the dog's wounds and cleaned her up, got a thick blanket for bedding, then took her to the vet. Ryan held the beagle while the vet examined her. "I don't think she'll last that long," the vet said. Despite his prognosis, during the next few weeks the dog got better. Ryan set out extra food for her every night, and Marmie would curl her massive forelegs around the pup, as if to keep her safe and warm while she slept. Soon the puppy had gained enough strength to join Marmie on her daily patrols.
Meanwhile, I tried to find the beagle's owner. I called the SPCA, and I asked around town. No results. Finally I placed an ad in the lost-and-found section of the paper. Two days after the ad ran, our phone rang. "I'm calling about the beagle with the black collar," said a young boy. He started to cry. "I l-l-lost my puppy after Mom was in the hospital." He sobbed so hard I could barely make out his final words: "I'll have Grandpa call you." Then the line went dead.
Not five minutes later the phone rang again. "Ya found a dog?" asked an old man. "My grandson lost his dog. I gave him the pup when his mom was sick. The dog was just five months old when she disappeared from the backyard, the same night my grandson's mom died. I told him God took the pup to keep his mom company. But still he calls every ad that says 'young beagle.'"
"December," he said gruffly. "No way a young dog could’ve survived with all the snow we had last winter." He asked where we lived, then said, "Besides, we're in King George, a whole county away. Don't see how the pup could've gotten that far. Though I did make the dog a collar like the one you described in the ad."
"What was the dog's name?" I asked.
"Jeanette. My grandson named her after his mom."
I went to the door and called, "Jeanette! Jeanette!" Though I couldn't be sure, it did seem the puppy stopped playing with Marmie and looked at me. When I told the man on the phone, he made arrangements to come out and see the dog.
The next morning, a pickup truck rattled down our driveway. Bob and I stepped outside as an old man in overalls climbed out of the truck. Marmie and the puppy were playing with Ryan. "Jeanette!" called the man. "Jeanette! If it's you, girl, come!"
The beagle turned her head, raced down the driveway and leaped right into the old man’s arms. "Well, young 'un," he said to the puppy, "I thought you were dead after all this time." He climbed into the truck and gently placed the beagle on the seat next to him. Then he turned to us, tears in his eyes. "Got to get her home to the boy. He's been waiting a long time. He never gave up. Guess I shouldn't have either. Thank you." He put the truck in gear and backed out of the driveway.
Our Great Dane stood at attention as the truck turned onto the road. Ryan patted her head. "You did good, Marmie," I said. "You must be a guardian angel for your own kind." She wagged her tail and held her head high, then turned and headed toward the woods. "We know," I said as I watched her disappear into the pines. "You have important work to do."
In just seven years, Marmalade played angel to 15 lost, injured and starved dogs from the woods. "Three weeks before she died," recalls Betsy MacDonald, "Marmie carried home a Benji look-alike that had been hit by a car. Our vet mended its fractured hip and while the dog recovered, one of Ryan's friends figured out who it belonged to." Marmie's resting place is the spot by the woods where she'd appear with the dogs she rescued. Betsy says, "We believe Marmie's returned to where she came from: heaven."