Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Yelling In Marriage And My Grandma's Damn Dog

I told my grandma once, “I don’t know why you married him.”

She didn’t answer me.

Poppop was unpredictable and yelled a lot.

We continued to sit in silence on the cement back steps, watching for the dog I’d accidentally let loose into hill country.

Mommom collected the strangest serial assortment of reject pets. Their issues were as varied as they were concurrent -- neurosis and mange, aggressive with no bladder control, astraphobia (fear of thunderstorms) and kidney failure, people-hater, compulsive vomit-er, destroyer-of-all-things. 

This dog, Drifter, was a runner. He would dig, jump, pull, dart, recklessly, effortlessly, tow me scraping down the street behind him. I still self-consciously cover the scars on my knees from Christmas 1994, when I underestimated his strength to race me down the block in rollerblades.

Drifter wasn’t made for showy walks or leashes or fences or city ordinances. He was made to run.

Unlike most of Mommom’s awkwardly ugly rescue pets, Drifter was a beautiful specimen. When he ran, the prairie would cling onto his long, rust-colored fur like Velcro.

And after he had chased every rabbit, deer, and leaf for acres, he’d trot back home and sit calmly by the front door, until someone noticed.

The rest of the day he’d lay passed out, exhausted, while Mommom, unbothered, brushed fleas, ticks, and burrs out of his matted coat with Lawrence Welk or “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “Moonstruck” playing across the room.

And so, we waited on the back porch for that stupid dog to come home. And I told Mommom that Poppop wasn’t a good husband, because he yelled too much.

I wish I could take back my words.

I didn’t know about things like PTSD, or that peculiar Southern etiquette where niceness isn’t necessarily goodness –- and goodness, for sure, isn’t niceness. A 9-year-old doesn’t think about how the lukewarmness of forced civility might be more dangerous to marriage than the discomfort of expressed anger. I also didn’t know that, in the 50s, if a woman got pregnant, she got married, whether a man was nice and civil or loving and angry.

Poppop was my first exposure to cuss words. “Who let the damn dog out?” came as easily as “The damn politicians…” over dinner. To my sheltered ears, it was the worst possible offense. Now I just smile in solidarity with my late namesake – his first name is Charles -- any time I find myself muttering, “Dammit, dammit,” over slammed fingers or a full trash can or an empty coffee carafe.

Mommom had the composure and self-confidence to effortlessly dismiss Poppop's occasional, tempered outbursts. 

“Charlie,” she would say, “it is what it is. Now stop it.”

And he would.

Sometimes still muttering, he would climb the steps up to his office add-on, overlooking miles and miles of hill country, and turn on his classical records, so they echoed throughout the whole wing of the house. He would play “Peter and the Wolf,” if we asked him, and the day would go on as calmly as before. 

At least until the damn dog escaped again.


The porch overlooking hill country, in more recent years

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