MEMOIR OF A DOG LOVER
Chapter 1 – My First Year
It never occurred to anyone that a babe in arms would interest the farm dog, but Jeff had a mind of his own. From the first day the young couple and their baby moved into the tenant house, the collie had a new charge, and he took his role seriously. That evening, after his dinner had been put out for him, he trotted down the trail from the Big House to the little cabin supported on limestone blocks, and he disappeared under the house. Sniffing up though the floor boards, he located the baby’s cradle and curled up right beneath it. He followed that pattern every night of the year we lived there, always on hand for his farm dog duties and always returning to sleep under the cabin. Jeff was as true a guardian as anyone ever had, the first dog who chose me.
My grandfather favored collies for the farm dogs. There had been one exception, when my father was a boy, my grandfather had been tricked into taking a miniature collie puppy when a replacement dog was needed. I don’t know if this was a joke meant in fun or malice – the family had a reputation for being “stuck up.” Whatever the intention, my grandfather was so disgusted when the pup didn’t “size up,” that he shunned it. Laddie nevertheless tagged along with him when he went into the fields, and my grandfather complained about that worthless dog.
Then there came the day my grandfather was crossing a field that held a bull with a very bad reputation. Sure enough, the bull charged him. He set off running to across a distant fence, but before he could reach the fence, the bull was upon him. That miniature collie was right there with him, as always, and rushed in between and fiercely stood off the surprised bull long enough for my grandfather to get over the fence. Ever after, my grandfather couldn’t say enough good about him, and Laddie was loved and appreciated by everyone. When he got into some poison late in his life and was dying, my grandmother baked lemon pies for him.
I was born in 1946, on the leading edge of the baby boom that reflected the wave of relief that swept over people yearning to get on with their lives. My parents moved to my father’s home place in West Tennessee in response to urgent appeals from my grandfather. Every one of his five sons had pursued education and then careers, leaving him to manage the farm alone. Despite his degree in Art, my father’s heart was really in the land, and perhaps he was the best of the sons to return, but there were probably good reasons the other brothers fled the family’s links to the land, as ensuing events revealed.
The spring my parents moved to the home place, it rained and rained. The fertile bottom land was routinely flooded each year by the Tennessee River, but that year the water was slow to recede. Finally, the corn and the cash crop, tobacco, were planted when the clay soil dried enough for plowing, but then, it flooded again, and the seed and tiny tobacco plants washed away. The corn was replanted, with the same result, and finally, planted a third time. By then, it was so late in the summer that the crop could not possibly mature before frost, but only be harvested as green silage for the hogs.
Of all this, of course, I had no idea. Now, having at last resumed an agrarian life myself, I can understand something of the tenor of that dismal year. My life and my parents’ life might have turned out quite differently, had that spring been a good one.
The thousand-acre farm had been in my father’s family for generations, from the settlement of Tennessee and through the period of slavery. I’ve seen pictures of the house where we lived, and it could have once been a slave cabin. My mother named it the Gun Barrel, because it consisted of three rooms in a row, linked by an open region called a dog-trot. At night, mice walked across the sheets in my cradle, leaving dirty footprints. Mother always made very sure I was perfectly clean when she put me to bed, so no milky drops would tempt the mice to nibble.
Conditions were primitive, but that was nothing new for my parents. During the war, they had lived in Louisville and near-by Indiana. My father, ineligible for the draft because of a heart murmur, had been assigned to a crash course in explosives chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and before he succeeded in getting the last Nitrogen on the TNT, he was sent to take a job at the DuPont munitions plant in Louisville. Housing was in short supply, and for a couple of years, my parents were stuck in a tiny one-room apartment with a Murphy bed. Mother got a job at the Airfield, tuning the signal tones that guided bombers to their targets in Europe; she and one other woman had the competence in math, musical ears, and very small bodies that allowed them to work in the bomber’s cockpit.
Miserable in their cramped quarters in the city, my parents began scanning the newspapers for farm property. Finally, their real estate agent came up with a piece of land the owner was eager to sell. My father said they wanted the forty acres, even if it was standing on its side. At the realtor’s suggestion, he withdrew cash from his bank account so the realtor could riffle through it during the negotiations with the owner. They bought the land for a song. It had a crude cabin and a well with a bucket you let down on a rope, fruit trees, berries, and blue birds. Of course, this meant my father had to commute, but they had an old truck he was able to keep running, and my mother was in heaven, gardening and canning jam on the wood stove.
That gives you an idea of what they were willing to put up with, so the Gun Barrel wasn’t so bad, and a wooden washing machine, hand-cranked by my father to turn the wooden paddles, was moved from the Big House down for my mother to use for my diapers and other washing. Banty hens roosted in the trees and laid their eggs there, too, and my mother, who weighed maybe 90 pounds then, nimbly climbed the trees to get the eggs.
Under my grandfather’s stern management, no income was expected until the crops were sold. I have the ledger in which my mother recorded every purchase they made that year — every can of evaporated milk, new item of clothing, box of matches, shoes. Mostly, they made do. A playpen was dragged out of storage at the Big House for me, and when it was put in the yard, so that I could be close to my mother when she was gardening or washing, I could reach out and gather gravel. Mother said that sometimes she would find me with a full mouth, and she would have to ream out the gravel and grit, including fossil crinoids so common in that part of Tennessee. (I now appreciate that that gritty exposure to nature was far better for my maturing immune system than a sterile upbringing would have been!)
My parents worked hard, but they knew how to enjoy living off the land, which included picking berries or fishing. They would take me along in a basket on their expeditions. I heard the story of how an enormous river turtle, the sort called alligator turtles, was peering into the basket at me when they discovered it. Luckily for me, their quick actions were able to drive it away, as such creatures were reputed to be able to bite a broom handle in two.
But I should return to the rains. For the adults, that year was terrible, and the reverses were compounded by the fact that my grandfather suffered from manic depression, a condition undiagnosed at that time. My mother described what the dinners were like when he was in his manic phase. My grandmother would have prepared the big meal of the day and my father’s sisters and hired hands and any traveling salesman might be present. My grandfather would hold forth on some topic of literature or history, like the classically educated gentleman he was, and everyone was expected to keep up their end of the conversation. The meals stretched on for hours. Family members were used to these trials, but Mother, although she was quick-witted and an English major, found it incredibly pretentious, and longed for the interminable meals to be over. Finally, after the heat of the day had dissipated, the men returned to the fields and the women could clean up and go about their work.
Manic was bad enough, but the depressive phases were worse. The dismal prospects for the year’s harvests fell most heavily on my grandfather, and as the summer wore on, he sank into deep depression. He had threatened suicide, many times, actually, but people believed that those who threatened it would not actually do it. When the rain was long forgotten and the days gave way to scorching hot, the drought shriveled the late-planted corn.
It was only when I was looking through my parent’s papers after they both had died that I found documents which showed how my father had had to take over as the man of the house after my grandfather killed himself with his pearl-handled revolver. There had had to be an autopsy, and the one thing it revealed, aside from a perfect set of teeth, were calcifications surrounding tuberculosis bacilli in my grandfather’s lungs – evidence that his body had been able to fight off the disease. Perhaps it was a displacement activity, a way for my grandmother and aunts avoided facing the grimness of the future by launching into hysterical burning of bedding, anything that could not be sterilized – behavior which possibly would have been appropriate if an active case of TB had been discovered.
As a child, I never put the tales of Jeff and the chasing of the hogs and the big turtle together with my grandfather’s suicide. In fact, the death was never referred to. I recall asking why we didn’t stay on there at the farm, and my father replied that he wanted me to be in a good school system – which didn’t explain why we were back in Nashville the next year. My grandmother and her three spinster daughters stayed on at the farm, tended by Jeff, and my father managed the contracts with neighbors to farm the land. One of the sad letters I found among my father’s documents was a tenant’s request to discontinue the contract, as he had not been able to make any money.
We got on with our own lives, which included the first dog purchased for me, a blonde Pekingese called Boo-Boo, which I always called D-Boo, for reasons my parents could never get me to explain. I scribbled her name, D-Boo, in my Winnie the Pooh book, and with her wide brown eyes on me, she listened, just as my Raggity Ann listened, and all dogs up to the present have listened.
MEMOIR OF A DOG LOVER