8 takeaways from the ‘Woodrow on the Bench’ discussion with author Jenna Blum

“[L]ove is something inexhaustible," the author said.

Jenna Blum, 'Woodrow on the Bench' Madeline Houpt

We all know the saying about a dog being man’s best friend, but what about a dog that creates a community? That’s what Woodrow—Jenna Blum’s beloved late black labrador—did for the author. Between “holding court” on the bench outside Blum’s apartment to greeting party guests in a bow tie, Woodrow brought people together in an undoubtedly special way. 

In her fourth book and very first memoir, “Woodrow on the Bench,” Blum details the last seven months of Woodrow’s life, during which she cared for him as he suffered from congestive heart failure, and reflects on the way that period impacted her—from the immense outpouring of support she received from friends to the realization that every spell of grief feels different. All the while, peppering in anecdotes about the whip-smart pooch that was an ambassador to her Boston neighborhood and the life of the party. 

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Last month, the Boston.com Book Club hosted a discussion with Blum about the memoir. Moderated by Kathy Crowley, co-owner of Belmont Books, the talk covered the literary inspiration behind Woodrow’s name, the almost “Buddhist” approach dogs have to life, what Blum learned about love through the grieving process, and more. 

Though the author grew up with labradors, getting a lab puppy of her own was nothing like she expected

Blum’s family had three labs in their New Jersey home. “It was a house of chaos,” said the author. “You think I would have been well prepared to have a black lab puppy, but in fact, the first month of Woodrow’s life I spent on my couch huddled up Googling: ‘How to keep puppy from eating whole raw hide’ or ‘how to keep puppy from eating rug.’” She began truly bonding with her “Tasmanian devil” about a year out—settling into their daily routine of learning how to watch, sit, and fetch—and the duo were inseparable thereafter. 

Blum feels memoir is a more vulnerable genre than writing novels, and she was initially uncomfortable with the openness of the format

When writing fiction, Blum explains, the author is disguising their own emotions and experience in the characters and plot they compose and have some protection and distance from the subject matter. With memoir, on the other hand, readers will forge a deeper bond with the writer. “What connects you to the reader is that vulnerability,” said Blum. “I have called it showing my underpants.” Looking back, the author says she found the process liberating to open up not only about the struggle of caring for an ailing dog, but also feeling invisible at times. 

The process of losing Woodrow taught Blum that love is ‘inexhaustible

During Woodrow’s last seven months, friends and strangers alike stepped up to help. From helping Woodrow up the stairs, stopping bustling traffic on Commonwealth Ave., drop-offs of bread and soup, and fellow writers coming to work together in her apartment, the outpouring of support was more then Blum ever anticipated. “It taught me that love is something inexhaustible and it’s not a currency, it’s not transactional,” said the author. “It’s more like: You are loved. We will help you. You love us. You will help us when we need it.”

Blum also learned how grief has many different nuances and no two grieving processes are the same

“Woodrow’s death taught me that every grief is very different,” said Blum, who had already lost both of her parents when Woodrow passed. She described her father’s death a sudden and painful, and her mother’s as numbing—coming after a long battle with cancer. “I knew before he went that—because he was my daily structure…that his death would dismantle me in a different way,” she said. “For the first 48 hours after we put him down, I was inconsolable. …When that very first fierce, intense mourning period was over, I realized that Woodrow’s death taught me you can survive a storm of that intensity, when it feels like it’s taking you apart at your emotional joints.” 

The author thinks dogs have a unique perspective on life—one that’s almost ‘Buddhist’ in nature

“I feel like—because dogs live in the present and they’re not thinking about the past because they don’t care, and they aren’t thinking about the future because it doesn’t matter—they’re actually very Buddhist,” she said. “There’s always time to enjoy the moment and there’s always time to play ball and there’s always another piece of bacon you can eat, and I think it’s such a valuable perspective—even though I don’t always achieve it.”  

Woodrow was so charming that he had the ability to coax Blum’s party guests into opening the refrigerator for him to snag his favorite snack

“I think about all of those parties that we had at my apartment where Woodrow was wandering around in his tuxedo collar and how he could con people into going into the kitchen with him and opening the refrigerator and opening the crisper drawer so he could get carrots,” said Blum. “He would stick his head in like it was a trough and he’d back out and have 5 or 6 carrots hanging out of his mouth at once. …If you’re going to tell a story about a lab it has to be about food.” 

Woodrow was named after a character in the cowboy book series Lonesome Dove 

The eponymous novel is one of Blum and her family’s favorite books of all time and, after growing up with a lab named after the rascal character Gus McCray, it made sense for her to use the name Woodrow after Woodrow Call—thinking it was a good match because of the character’s strong, silent handsomeness.

Blum hopes ‘Woodrow on the Bench’ will bring both joy and catharsis to readers and feels we need both fiction and memoir to help us through life’s tough moments

“For every anecdote about Woodrow getting older or about grief, I made sure to include an anecdote from his young life too and about the joy that dogs bring,” she said. “We all need stories to keep us afloat—especially when the news is so awful. We need fiction to escape to and we need memoir to show us how to get through difficult times.”

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Buy “Woodrow on the Bench” from: Bookshop | Belmont Books

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