“Ask the birds, ask the beasts and they will teach you.” - Job 12: 7-10,
My two grandmothers were in many ways women who could not have been less alike.
Our paternal Grandmother Menzies (hereafter Grandma M) had been born in 1896 in the Los Angeles of orange groves and blue skies, the daughter of immigrant Germans descended from burgomasters and church organists; she grew up in a tall house with a sandy-pathed rose garden, electric lights, red velvet furniture in the parlor and a piano at which she was once photographed, her long fingers almost indistinguishable in color and texture from the ivory keys on which they had come to rest. Her eyes were dark and soulful and, I always thought, somehow unhappy. Our mother’s mother, Grandmother Strawser (Grandma S), had been born in the very different era of 1913 and the very different place of rural northern Texas. She grew up on her father’s cotton farm, and the theme on both sides of her ancestry was the recurring and jarring one of slavery in the Deep South and earlier in New England, a fact she never denied but one which she always wished she could have changed. She lived in a house warmed by fireplaces and woodstoves, where her designated task was to look after the many oil lamps, for there was no electricity in her home. Nor were there piano lessons, though my grandmother benefited from a tradition of love of words that ran on her father’s and mother’s sides of the family, fueling a lifelong but never realized desire to be a published author herself. And she had a sense of humor that embraced the absurd—so it didn’t take her much trouble to elicit my first laugh.
My grandmothers’ lives as married women couldn’t have been more different from each other. Grandma M had met my grandfather, a tall, handsome Scot medaled for meritorious service in France in World War I, when both were visiting Yosemite National Park in the summer of 1929. They did the foxtrot on an outdoor dance floor in Yosemite Valley, Chinese lanterns bobbing overhead as the sound of a full orchestra echoed against the granite cliffs, and he proposed to her a few weeks later. They had sons and lived lives of purpose in a small town, always behind the founding of a museum or library or organization for young people. They had a playful love for each other, despite their sometimes awesome seriousness. I once saw when my grandfather carry my evening-gowned grandmother up the steps of the Masonic Hall, he in his askew top hat, she kicking green taffeta out of the way, both laughing.
Grandma S had married in the middle of the Depression a man old enough to be her father, who was strikingly handsome and imbued with the underdog tragedy that never failed to open her heart. Grandpa, who had been married twice before and abandoned his first born son, had lost everything in the crash. When he met my grandmother, as he told my mother later, he knew that in her he had found the most wonderful woman in the world. She certainly stayed with him despite years spent moving around California in search of livelihood, and later in the Nevada desert in search of gold, while Grandpa wrote and published songs he thought would strike it rich, which like his mining efforts also came to naught. When he died, he left my grandmother with debts, empty liquor bottles found hidden under beds and the woodpile, and the books of poetry and French history that he loved. Where Grandma M spent her golden years volunteering and traveling with her husband, Grandma S spent hers as widowed companion to elderly well-to-do women, tending flowers that weren’t hers and spending many hours by herself in her room, reviewing her past at her typewriter and trying to make sense of its patchwork chapters.
Put these grandmothers in the same room and you’d be hard pressed to find anything similar. They practiced a studied politeness with each other—“Mrs. Strawser, would you kindly pass the gravy?” “Why of course, Mrs. Menzies”—and though I try to remember any time they actually had a conversation, I can only remember the two women in the living room after dinner, watching us play with smiles on their faces, sometimes sitting side by side but rarely looking at each other. They were so markedly different we kids came to associate them with the two major holidays of our young lives. With her kitchen redolent with baking, the piano ringing with carols, and the picture window filled with the chalky scarlets and yellows of poinsettias, Grandma M was our Christmas Grandmother. Grandma S, whom we loved to see in her flowered dresses standing against spring daffodils while we hunted for eggs in our garden, and who sometimes became a child herself and hunted them with us, laughing as we did, was our Easter Grandmother.
Yet when I look back, I can see that what they did share was the most important thing of all, because it set the standard for our parents and in turn for my siblings and me: a deep love, respect and compassion for animals.
Though I doubt they knew it, our grandmothers each had had dogs that they had loved and lost. The only time Grandma M ever talked about her childhood was when she told me about her Boston terrier. She told me she had taken the dog into the garden and tied a red ribbon around her neck, and that the dog, having heard an approaching streetcar, had then run toward the street. The terrier bounded across the wooden planks that then constituted the sidewalks of 1906 Los Angeles and into the street, where she was run down and killed by the trolley car. As my grandmother told this she wasn’t weeping but tears rolled down her face, and even as a little boy I knew that what had happened to her was something too terrible for her to ever forget. I also sensed that it was an accident for which she still blamed herself.
Grandma S had grown up with a big brown dog named Joe, who lived on her father’s farm and accompanied her and her sisters everywhere. Joe had once saved my grandmother’s youngest sister when she’d fallen into a pond. That he was especially drawn to my grandmother could be seen in an old snapshot from the mid-1920s, in which Grandma S stands near the back porch of her father’s house, her sisters with her, and Joe can be seen, tail to the camera, as his sharp nose points up at my grandmother. Joe slept by the woodstove in the kitchen, where he stayed more and more as he got older and stiffer. One morning my grandmother came downstairs to find his place beside the stove empty. They looked for Joe all day, but never found him. In a short story she wrote as an elderly woman, my grandmother resolved the mystery for herself by insisting that Joe knew he was about to die; that he loved his family too much to put them through the agony of watching him take his last breaths, and so had left the house, found some far part of the woods, laid himself down and slept forever. She was probably right.
Grandma M had a soft spot for strays, cats and dogs, and left pans of dry food and milk out for them on the porch. Her two little dogs that lived in the house were adorable potentates, apt to nip if you sat on their end of the sofa or neglected to hand them food under the dinner table. But my grandmother also loved a not so domestic animal. Next to Grandma M’s house was a field separated from her backyard by a rusting barbed wire fence. At the bottom of the field was an old and rickety stable, its sole occupant an old donkey that we watched as it shuffled around to eat grass during the day, or just to stand in one place as if seized by some deep thought. There were also chickens, which despite her age and unsteady canter, the donkey could walk among as gracefully as a dancer. Grandma M loved this donkey, which she called Babe. Though she, too, had trouble walking because of her arthritis, but she would painfully descend the slate steps that led down from the pantry to the backyard, carrying a mixing bowl full of vegetable scraps and fruit. Babe always knew that her benefactress was at the fence, because by the time Grandma reached the bottom of the steps she had made her way across the patchy field and put her head over the fence. I can still see my grandmother standing there in the late afternoon light, her apron blowing around her as she fed Babe from the bowl, and it was as if her whole body glowed with a nimbus of joy—as if the act of loving Babe made time stop, allowed her to forget the sadness we often saw in her eyes, made her life reassuringly whole. When, after Grandma M’s death, Babe stood in the field and brayed sorrowfully, we knew it wasn’t just for the bowls of vegetable scraps and fruit parings.
On the death of his beloved Newfoundland, Boatswain, the animal-loving Lord Byron wrote that man, that “feeble tenant of an hour”, knew nothing of the faithful heart of a dog, though he was “in life the firmest friend,/ The first to welcome, foremost to defend…”
Whose honest heart is still his master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth:
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole, exclusive heaven.
My grandmothers knew better. There was plenty of room in their hearts, and in their heaven, for dogs, cats, and for donkeys, too.