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It’s Called Our Heart

That special space where humans and animals come together

Former Bay Weekly writer Audrey Scharmen
     I’d like to say that animals bring out the best in us. But we all know they bring out the worst, as well. The truth is that our relationships with animals are complicated. I suppose that has more to do with our natures rather than theirs.
     So it’s our better natures we look at in this annual dog days of summer issue, Bay Weekly’s Pet Tales.
     The word pet is going out of fashion in some circles, yielding to the more egalitarian animal companion. Still, there’s a lot of heart in that little word, derived from Old Irish by way of the Scottish Gaelic peata for tame animal. In every use of the word, we cherish and indulge our pets. Adding more complexity is the verb form to pet, which expresses the sensory and emotional experience of drawing close to our hearts by touching with our hands. 
     Perhaps by petting, we tame the wild parts of both creatures, ourselves and our dogs and cats, horses and seagulls. I know many a story that adds anecdotal evidence to that proposition.
    You will, too, after reading this issue, where we’ve extended the family circle of species we hold dear beyond our dogs and cats, to the especially beloved Chincoteague pony Surfer Dude and — of all things — a seagull.
Yes, a Seagull
     The seagull features in a story I hold especially dear.
     It’s a story I know well. It came to me in the summer of 1998, as one of the always-delightful contributions of Audrey Scharmen, who’d been sending us stories since our very first year, 1993 (and continued to do so up through 2006). We printed it under the title St. Francis of Summer.
     I liked it so well that I entered it in the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association’s writers’ competition. The judges — other newspaper people from around the region — vindicated my judgment, naming it the best “local column” of the year among papers of our size.
     Audrey, her husband Merrill, her granddaughter Marta (the St. Francis of the story) and all her family were tickled at that blue ribbon. But not nearly so tickled as when Audrey repeated the achievement, taking first prize — each year wowing judges from different states — again in 1999. And yet again in 2000.
     Audrey’s stories often explored that special space where humans and animals come together — none better than St. Francis of Summer.
     I offer it to you again this week in memory of Audrey, who left this world February 17 and lies with her beloved husband at Arlington National Cemetery. Read it, and your heart will “soar along with the gull.”
P.S. The Lasting Power of Stories
     The stories we tell reach farther than we can imagine when we write them. Audrey’s won her fans as well as prizes, as you’ll read below in the long-delayed letter below.

Remembering Audrey Scharmen
     I never met Audrey Scharmen face to face, but I enjoyed her periodic columns in Bay Weekly for a number of years. She was a topnotch writer with a poetic turn of phrase and a keen observer of nature. Her wide-ranging interests and knowledge of the natural world were clear in all her writings.
     As a middle-aged entrant into the native plant nursery business, I felt a special kinship with Mrs. Scharmen. She once wrote that she wasn’t always taken seriously when she joined a group of native plant enthusiasts for a trek through the woods, because she didn’t look the part: She was no 20-something dressed in camo khakis, hiking boots and backpack. I could relate to that. But I’d be willing to bet she knew her plants better than many of her fellow hikers!
     Audrey Scharmen’s columns were always the first thing I looked for in Bay Weekly during the years she wrote for the paper, and I would be delighted to see some of them made available again.
–Mary Stuart Sierra, Lower Marlboro