Mark Ballard

Pets have way of uniting humans in a divided world

Mark Ballard made this color pencil drawing of Eli, a Jack Russell terrier.
Mark Ballard made this color pencil drawing of Eli, a Jack Russell terrier. Special to The Telegraph

It was a beautiful, crisp winter day. The kind of day when the sky is such a vibrant shade of blue that it refuses to invite any white clouds to join it. The kind of day to do something out of the ordinary and take a break from a hectic schedule. I decided a short drive to the small town of Juliette would be nice.

The reason I was going was Eli. He lives in Juliette and is a new friend of mine. Actually, I had never had the opportunity to meet him in person, but I was very familiar with him. He’s a Jack Russell pup and I had just finished his portrait. His human parents invited me to bring the portrait and join them for lunch at The Whistle Stop Cafe. At first, I thought I didn’t have time but then remembered I hadn’t been there in a long time. I couldn’t say no, so off I went on that nice drive.

While we ate, Eli patiently stood on the console in his parents’ car with his tail wagging and a smile on his face that left his tongue hanging out. He seemed delighted that I was there meeting his humans, Judith and William Ben Speir. I quickly learned that everyone knows them as Judy and Popcorn. They were both born and raised in Juliette and have lived there since. They are very warm, inviting people and I was so glad I had taken the time for lunch and a visit.

It seemed like ages since I had been to country diner that served as a backdrop for the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” in the early ‘90s. As we feasted on delicious vegetables, cornbread and, of course, fried green tomatoes, two trains passed by so close to the restaurant that it shook a little. It was like being back in time when things moved at a much slower pace.

As we ate, the Speirs told me many interesting stories about Juliette from over the span of their lives. Pointing into the distance, Popcorn said, “There was a bridge over there by the train tracks back in the day. As children, we climbed up on top to watch the people far below.” A gleam of love appeared in their eyes as they recounted stories from long ago.

After we were full as ticks with from-scratch goodness, we walked out to the car for me to officially meet Eli. I felt like I already knew him after spending hours drawing his likeness. As if he recognized me, his eyes lit up and his tail started wagging frantically. “Will he allow me to hold him?” I asked. Before they could reply, Eli bounded into my arms. I was pleased I had captured his likeness and was happy his parents were thrilled with the portrait of the dog who is definitely a part of their family.

Since I’ve been doing pet portraits the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some really nice people. However, since many of my commissions come from people who live out-of-town, I don’t have the opportunity to meet the pet in person or to be introduced to his or her human parents. When I do get that chance, it is very special. Companion animals have a way of uniting humans in a world that is so divided.

There are times when we all need to hit the pause button and do something that, if we looked at our calendars, wouldn’t seem doable. Sometimes, we think too much about why we can’t instead of how we can. There’s something to be said about a spur of the moment adventure. Look what I would have missed if I had just opted to ship the original drawing. I left Juliette with a full stomach, a smile on my face and three brand new friends.

Mark Ballard’s column runs each week in The Telegraph. Send your questions or comments to P.O. Box 4232, Macon, GA 31208; call 478-757-6877; email; follow him at creates; or become a subscriber to Mark’s Facebook page.