He was a hard and unyielding man, my grandfather.
Like most who lived through it, he didn’t view the Great Depression as a period of time with a beginning and end. He would always be distrustful of banks. His hard-earned cash was buried in the backyard or hid in tin cans of nails in the basement. Plastic packages of starched white dress shirts in his closet remained unopened and unworn. Because if you looked closely, a nearly invisible slit appeared above the breast pocket, as if carefully sliced by a razor blade. Those pockets hid perfectly folded, crisp bills.
There was never a job that was beneath him. Construction, plumbing, garbage collection, factory work. He built the house his family lived in with his own hands; the house my grandmother lived and died in until she was 101 years old. Monday through Friday, his entire life, he left the house at 7:00 a.m. and didn’t return until 4:00 p.m for a 30-minute bath and dinner at 5:00.
At each milestone anniversary, my grandmother didn’t receive jewelry. She was handed a paper bag of cash, a commemorative marker for the years they’d been married: 25k for 25 years, 50k for 50 years, 70k for 70 years.
The day he had a stroke at 92, he had been fixing a roof. After the stroke, when we sat on folding chairs on his driveway, he’d stare up at the neighborhood roof lines with a desperate yearning. In a weak whisper, he’d say, “I’d do anything to be able to climb up and be on that roof.”
My grandfather functioned on one belief system and one only: You work. Always. You work hard. Always. Nothing else matters. Everything else falls into place as long as you always work hard.
For a while, they lived on a farm where animals weren’t pets, but food source. At 7 years old, my mother’s job was to collect the eggs and feed the chickens. One day, my grandfather found her on the ground in the process of being pecked to death. She watched him chase down the rooster and strangle its neck with his bare hands. 70 years later, her nightmares are still plagued with strangled chickens.
Animals were not family members. If they weren’t for food, they were carriers of disease and another mouth to feed when you were already struggling to put food on the table. As a little girl, my mother would enrage her father by bringing home hungry, sick animals and was scolded over and over, in no uncertain terms, that she was not allowed to keep or care for them.
So, the day my grandfather came home from work with a black-and-white cocker spaniel mix, everyone was shocked. There was only one stipulation. If the son-of-a-bitch shit on the floor, begged from the table, ever bit anyone, or caused any inconvenience whatsoever—even once—it would be gone.
My mother named the dog Cindy, and with visions of strangled chickens forever etched in her brain, secretly cleaned up accidents and kept her away from the dinner table. My grandfather, impressed with her obedience, often bragged that Cindy was obviously special and smarter than other dogs. What he didn’t know was Cindy didn’t need to beg because she knew after the dishes were cleaned and dried, she’d be given table scraps wrapped in a napkin in the bedroom.
The day after my parents were married and my mother packed her things to move out, Cindy, who was old at the time, tried to chase the car. Because the apartment didn’t allow pets, my mother contemplated not moving in with my father until Cindy passed. Weeks later, Cindy died. She never quite forgave herself for leaving her.
Since then, my mother’s never been without a dog. There was Sam, Daisy, Annie, and Minnie. All were some form of mutt with various heath and/or behavioral problems who went onto live long and healthy lives—all beloved family members, all doted on unconditionally, and all treated better than most human beings could hope for.
Last year, Minnie died shortly after my mother finished her first go at chemo. It was a time of deep grief. Not just because she was terribly missed but because my mother had decided there would be no more dogs.
We watched her become sadder, lonelier, and a bit lost. And though we all knew chances of the cancer coming back was likely, it didn’t make it any less devastating when it did.
“It would be irresponsible for you to get another dog,” her brother—like his father, never an animal lover— chastised. “It wouldn’t be fair. You’ve had enough pets for a lifetime. Now you need to focus on taking care of yourself!”
“Oh FUCK him.” I seethed to my brother when he told me.
My brother, knowing me well, had just laughed, anticipating the imminent and thorough ass chewing that was coming to my uncle.
We talked to her after that.
“But what happens when . . .” she started, then stopped. “What will happen to the dog when I . . .”
It still undoes me—this fragile version her. So sad and unsure. And yet—yet—there was a light there. Hope. And in that moment, I caught a glimpse of the little girl who had pleaded with her father so long ago to please let her have a dog to love.
“You don’t need to worry about that. It’s taken care of. Just go find your dog.”
There aren’t words that describe the look of gratitude, of happiness—pure and sweet—on her face when we assured her she should have a dog; that she would always have a dog. In fact, we explained, it would be selfish to deny a dog the love and home she could provide.
In March, she found her dog through a rescue service. She knew instantly, like she always does, that this was the one.
Scrawny, dehydrated and scared, the dog had been rescued from a drain pipe a few hours north. After it had been medically treated and cleared, the caregiver drove four hours to bring the dog home.
They took to each other instantly as if they’d always been together. The first night, the dog jumped into bed and laid its head against her back. Ever since, where my mother goes, the dog goes—at her feet or cradled in her arms. Each night, my mother makes them an ice cream cone, which the dog licks from her finger while they cuddle in front of the TV.
She will start chemo next Tuesday. Again. She will lose her hair. Again. She will become weaker and weaker. Again. She will keep doing it until it no longer works or she can’t do it anymore.
But through it, my mother will have a dog. In the hard days to come and as long as she lives, her dog will provide her a comfort and happiness that—as much as we try and wish we could—we just can’t give her. Not like a dog can. That’s just what they do.
Even a man as hard and unyielding as my grandfather knew it. He knew what his daughter needed and made sure she had it.