Like many people, we have loved animals since we were kids and both of us were lucky to have dogs and cats growing up. (Well, just dogs for Todd, who is, unfortunately, allergic to cats.) And that means we've said goodbye to many pets as they've crossed the Rainbow Bridge. We miss them, even those who left us decades ago. And so we were thrilled to get this letter from Jimmy, who, along with his pals Joey and Freddie, organized a big Belcher-Hayden pack reunion, inviting our beloved childhood pets on the other side of the bridge. It sounds like it was quite a party. - Todd and Stephanie Belcher

      Dear Stephanie & Todd,

      With Freddie's recent arrival on this side of the Rainbow Bridge, Joey and I thought it would be the perfect time to do something we have been wanting to do - have a big family reunion with the pets you've loved since you were kids.

Once we got Freddie to take a break from her daily escapades at The Freddie Belcher Follow Your Nose and Feel the Wind Trail System, Joey and I told her our idea and she was excited. "You know I'm always up for an adventure," she woofed.

     So, we got to work planning the big day. First, we needed a venue. The obvious choice was Sniffing Butts, a big park that hosts pack reunions during the day and dating mixers at night. (We've got a couple of popular dating websites here, including Breeding Buddies, Mates for Life and its spinoff, Mates for Now. But that's a subject for another letter!)

Anyway, we booked a picnic shelter for an afternoon and moved on to the next task: creating an invitation. After spending countless hours supervising Todd while he painted, Joey and Freddie were eager to create artwork of their own. While they finished up the invitations, I took charge of arranging delivery. Pony Express had the best deal - two miniature ponies delivering invites and returning the RSVPs for the low, low price of four apple slices per invitation.

     There was much more to do: We needed to hire a caterer, plan the games and make the reunion T-shirts. Joey and Freddie took on that last task, too, but wanted to keep the design hidden - even from me - until the big day. Very secretive, those two!


It didn't take long for the RSVPs to come rolling in - and everyone was able to come! Todd's childhood dog Pebbles, plus everyone from Stephanie's big pack - her childhood dogs, Gutenberg, Pica and Comma; and her cats, Copy Cat, Onyx and Corey. The delivery ponies reported having trouble getting Cassidy's invitation to her in her tree house, so we gave them a couple of carrots for their efforts and were excited to learn she could make it, too. While they worked on the T-shirt design, I asked All Critters Catering to stop by the house. The smells of the samples lured Joey and Freddie away from their T-shirt designing and they helped me pick out a full spread. We chose grilled hot dogs and hamburgers (no buns, no condiments!), plus seafood kababs for lunch. For dessert, we'd put out freshly baked biscuits and catnip. To drink, the caterer suggested big bowls, each with a different water from streams and lakes in Georgia, North Carolina and West Virginia - a taste of home for each of us. At the end of the afternoon, the dogs would get goodie bags of marrow bones packed with soft treats, just like Todd used to make us every night, and the cats would take home bags of dried rodent bits.

     "It's a perfect menu," I said, eating the last of the samples. "Oh, wait. Will there be something for Cassidy to eat? I don't want her to feel left out."


"Who is Cassidy?" the caterer asked. "She's Stephanie's family's raccoon," I explained.

     "Cassidy will love it. Raccoons aren't picky," the caterer said. "But to make her feel included, we'll have bird seed as an appetizer and serve some of the food in trash cans."

     For games, we decided on the classics: tug-of-war, chase, fetch and Capture Your Tail for the dogs and a hunting grounds for the cats.


It didn't take long for the RSVPs to come rolling in - and everyone was able to come! Todd's childhood dog Pebbles, plus everyone from Stephanie's big pack - her childhood dogs, Gutenberg, Pica and Comma; and her cats, Copy Cat, Onyx and Corey. The delivery ponies reported having trouble getting Cassidy's invitation to her in her tree house, so we gave them a couple of carrots for their efforts and were excited to learn she could make it, too.

     The night before the reunion, we were so excited we could hardly sleep. Early that morning, Joey and I found Freddie in the driveway, tail wagging from the front seat of a Leg Lyft. It was hours before we needed to leave, but Joey and I hopped in, the three of us taking the long way around to Sniffing Butts.

When we arrived, we recognized our pack immediately, each dressed in the T-shirts Joey and Freddie designed - a photo of Todd and Stephanie on the front and Todd's paintings of all the pets on the back. I have to say, I teared up a little at the sight.

     We trotted over to greet Cassidy, who was playing in the water bowls, her shirt soaking wet, and saw she wasn't alone. "Hello!" she said. "Thank you for inviting us. Let me introduce my kids." She rattled off a lot of names we couldn't quite catch. "Stephanie never knew my children. Later in life I moved to a zoo, where I met my husband and started my families. I thought you wouldn't mind if I brought them along."

     "The more the merrier!" I said. "Glad you could come."


As we chatted, a big setter mix bounded up. "Hi! You must be our hosts! I recognize you from channel 740 on TV. I'm Pica! Thanks for throwing this shindig. I saw you took a Leg Lyft. I took a Leg Lyft, too. Sometimes I just call a Leg Lyft and ride around, even if I don't have anywhere to go." Pica was woofing a mile a minute.

     Freddie's tail wagged faster and faster. She and Pica were going to get along great. She said, "Someday, Pica, you should take a Leg Lyft over to our neighborhood. There's a new park there I think you might like." And with that, the two of them ran off, sharing stories of their all-time favorite rides.

Joey and I made our way to the food, where Gutenberg was piling his plate high with toast - a special request he'd made on his RSVP card. Joey, Freddie and I hadn't understood it at the time but wanted to be good hosts and called the caterer to ask that a spread of white, wheat and rye be added to the buffet.

     "Enjoying yourself?" I asked. "Oh, yes! And thanks for the toast," Gutenberg said. "You must have thought it was a strange request. But years ago, when Stephanie was just a little girl, she and I had an adventure in the woods. As we wandered, we came upon an abandoned house, where she found some snacks and fed me toast. It was a nice moment. So, this is my 'toast' to her," he said, handing me and Joey a piece.


After a while, the cats Onyx, Copy Cat and Corey took a break from tracking mice in the hunting grounds. Although still early in the game, Onyx had taken a commanding lead, with six plushie mice hanging by their tails on the scoreboard to Corey's two and Copy's Cat's one. "Join us?" Copy Cat asked, heading over to a fire circle that took the chill off the brisk fall air. Copy Cat and Corey curled up together, Corey gently petting Copy Cat's head with his paw.

     I didn't mean to stare, but Corey's attire was odd: He was wearing the official reunion T-shirt, but over a bulky cardigan. Cats aren't usually fond of wearing clothes and here Corey was, layered up. "It was Stephanie's mother's," he explained. "I wore it in honor of their family, who took such good care of me. I used to love to sleep in a pile of Elaine's sweaters. I've got a similar pile in my house here. Cozy!" It was a reminder about the magic of the Rainbow Bridge, where every animal is given exactly what they need to be happy here.

     "When everyone's ready, I brought a camera to take a group photo," Onyx told us.

     "That's a great idea! We hadn't thought of that," I said.


Copy Cat
"Happy to do it. Before I crossed the bridge, I used to do a lot of newspaper modeling, but here I like being on the side of the lens," he explained. (The modeling career made sense, I thought. Solid black, sleek and shiny, Onyx was a handsome guy.)

     Joey and Comma, a cockapoo mix, who had been playing a rousing game of chase nearby, took a break to join us by the fire pit. Comma roasted a stick from a shrimp kabab over the flames and then gnawed the warm wood contentedly.

     "Looks good," Joey said. "Have you tried one of the stuffed marrow bones? Let me get you one." Joey returned with bones, showing Comma how to drop them on the ground, chew and trade them in the way that he and Freddie invented. Comma suggested roasting the marrow bones over the fire to give them a char, and Joey agreed it was a delicious twist.

Joey and I had lost track of Freddie, but then she reappeared with Pica and Todd's dog Pebbles, the three of them swapping tales of their best-ever walks.

     "I used to take the greatest walks with Todd and his parents," Pebbles said. "We'd go to the Agricultural Center, Gaston College and Carr Elementary School. The buildings weren't that fun, but there were great woods and trails!"

     "That must have been where Todd got his love of taking long walks with his dogs," Joey said. And with that, all the dogs decided to stroll again around the park, passing Cassidy and Corey, who were climbing a tree together.

And so it went for hours. We ate, we played, we talked and we walked. Before we knew it, the All Critters Catering crew was cleaning up to make way for a Mate for Now speed dating event.

     "We should do this again," Cassidy said, sending her children around to gather leftovers before the caterers could wrap everything up.

"Yes! Yes!" everyone woofed and meowed.

     As we huddled for a final group photo - dogs in back, cats in front, raccoons hanging from the roof of the picnic shelter, I promised to send everyone copies via Pony Express.

     "And I want to thank you for coming," I told the group. "Freddie, Joey and I have always known that Stephanie and Todd were the best people ever and today we learned that they've been the best people forever. Even as kids, they loved and took care of you. We've all been lucky to be part of their pack."

     Gutenberg ran over to the table, snatching slices of toast away from one of the caterers. He passed a piece out to each of us. "A toast to Stephanie and Todd," he woofed, holding up a slice in his paw. "Yes," we cheered. "To Stephanie and Todd!"

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