Category Archives: Grandfather

American Thanksgiving . . . meh

Me with my daughter Sabrina and my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

Me dandling daughter Sabrina with my grandparents at a long ago Thanksgiving

I’ve never been keen on American Thanksgiving. In the first place, it’s way too close to Christmas. The memory of my grossly distended belly and the self-loathing that invariably attends that phenomenon have scarcely begun to fade before there it is again: The Holiday Meal, in the case of my family, the exact same meal we ate a month earlier, including the dressing which we always had to call rice because my brother Peter refused, for some reason, to eat anything called dressing.

Then there’s the 2 p.m. timing of the meal. It’s Thanksgiving dinner, for God’s sake, not Thanksgiving lunch!   If Thanksgiving dinner happened at a decent hour – any time after 6 p.m., for example – the torment of having to remain awake while cruelly stuffed might be mitigated by an early bedtime. But, no. This insistence on an “early dinner” blows a black hole in the middle of your day — everything is sucked into it; nothing can escape its relentless gravitational pull, and you are left to lie there, beached and disconsolate, a helpless, unwitting witness to the televised spectacle of giant men in tight pants sustaining the kind of traumatic brain injuries that lead to dementia, debilitating neurological diseases and suicide. By which I mean football.

Great Dane Lovey admires the turkey

Great Dane Lovey scrutinizes the turkey

My family is surprisingly functional – which is not to say that we don’t have our fair share of little traumas, pretty much all of which can be characterized, as per my daughter Alice, as, “first world problems”. However, not even we were not immune to the kind of dysfunction that seems to go along with quivering tubes of cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie that looks like baby pooh. Case in point: one Thanksgiving when we were children, my mother, frustrated at my brother who was being all winge-y, shook him. Now my parents were not into corporeal punishment; Mom far preferred a good shaming larded with barely veiled threats that she was on the verge of disowning us, as conveyed by such statements as, “No child of mine would ever do (that thing you just did).” All this to say that Mom probably didn’t shake Peter very hard, but, on that one occasion, shake him she did, and, every year thereafter, Peter would kick off Thanksgiving dinner by dolefully recollecting, “And then there was that Thanksgiving Mom shook me. . . ,” sending the poor woman into fresh paroxysms of guilt.

Sometimes we had Thanksgiving Dinner at my paternal grandparents in Hillsborough, North Carolina. My Aunt Elaine and Uncle Clyde would come down from Winston-Salem and Aunt Elaine, who was something of a gourmet cook at a time when that was regarded with some suspicion in the South, would bring along a little something for the family to savor. One year she presented the assembled, bleary crew with tomato aspic, confounding us all. “What is this?” “Do you eat it?”   This reminds me of a conversation we had with my husband’s Auntie Gloria in which she described the eating habits of her daughter-in-law. “She eats strange things,” Gloria confided in us. “Like vegetables.”

Between her alcoholism and her morphine addiction, my grandmother had succeeded in pickling herself by the time my memories of her congealed into some kind of coherence. Noni contributed but one dish to the Thanksgiving feast – her signature dish, a sweet potato,marshmallow casserole awash in a sea of bourbon. At fifteen minute intervals throughout the dinner preparations, Noni would lurch to her feet, weave her way to the kitchen, baste the sweet potatoes, baste herself and return to the living room to stew in her own juice.

My father carves as my mother looks on

My father carves as my mother smiles for the camera

In the meanwhile my grandfather, by dint of steady  drinking, would wax from sentimental to downright maudlin before deciding to check on the mail.  I would accompany him to the mailbox at the end of the long driveway, both of us knowing full well that there was no mail on Thanksgiving but that we needed the air.

So, all in all, I’m thankful for Canadian Thanksgiving, which takes place in the second week of October.  Canadian Thanksgiving celebrates the harvest rather than that time before we exterminated them that Native Americans saved our bacon.  It doesn’t result in a four-day holiday and, therefore, a loyalty test wherein persons are forced to travel vast distances in inclement weather to prove that they love their families of origin. And finally, being on a Monday, Canadian Thanksgiving isn’t followed by Black Friday, about which don’t get me started.  And then there’s the fact that my ex chose Canadian Thanksgiving 1989 to come out of the closet — scarcely festive at the time, but, in the great scheme of things, something for which I am truly grateful.

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Clan of the Dog People

Cave painting of girl with dog

Cave painting of girl with dog

When National Geographic’s Genographic Project was all shiny and new, my husband Ken and I joined 678,632 other individuals in over 140 countries in sending in samples of our DNA to be included in the database. This was not inexpensive, but we figured it was our contribution to scientific research and, besides, who doesn’t want to unlock the secrets hidden in their DNA?

In due time we received a package from National Geographic and the big reveal was this: our ancestors originated in Africa long, long ago, but had more recently hailed from Northern Europe.  To which we could only say, “Duh!”   As it turns out, we had opted for the Economy DNA Package. If we had wanted to know whether we had inherited a genetic predisposition to like cilantro or what percentage Neanderthal we were, well, that’ll be extra.

Or would it?

Our ancestral path from Africa to Northern Europe. Surprise?  Not really.

Our ancestral path from Africa to Northern Europe. Surprise? Not really.

My grandfather, James H. Zant, who liked a good story, told this one about an acquaintance’s visit to a local Cherokee chief.   “Dig deep, White Man,” the chief reportedly told his visitor.  “Puppy at bottom of pot.”

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting in a darkened room, mired in thought,  when our dog Nellie deposited herself before me, trawling for attention. I obliged, closing my eyes as I scratched her ears, and conjured up an image of myself in my mind’s eye.  However, instead of picturing the little old lady  I am all too rapidly metamorphosing into and her (sort of trusty) dog,  what I saw was a girl — nine or ten, Neanderthal, grubby and sitting on a rock in a dark place barely illuminated by flickering fire light, scratching the ears of a wolf cub.

Now, my view of reality has always been a tad elastic — the result, no doubt, of coming of age in the late sixties and early seventies and all that that entailed — so it wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to conclude l that what I had glimpsed in my mind’s eye was a distant ancestor, one embedded in my DNA, that  I had, in fact, descended from those humanoids who, laboring in different places over vast expanses of time, succeeded in the magic trick of turning wolves into dogs,  that, just as our domestication of dogs impacted their genome, so their domestication of us  has impacted ours, meaning that the term “Dog People” describes something not superficial, but very fundamental.    Which explains SO much. Why I cannot imagine a happy and contented life without a dog. Why my father, speaking of his life in the nursing home, says, “The only thing I really miss is a dog . . . ,”  his voice trailing wistfully off.

Golden Retriever?  Hummm...

Golden Retriever? Hummm…

Back when we acquired Nellie, we were unconvinced that she was, in fact, the Golden Retriever the Kijiji ad purported her to be, given her ridiculously long legs, her narrow muzzle and crooked tail, and, all of it, the whole nine yards, completely wired. While we never suffered from Buyers’ Remorse – well, maybe just a little when she hoovered up a finishing nail, necessitating a $2,500  surgery – we were, nevertheless,  curious to know the ancestry of our whacky little bundle of fur and fun. So we tested her DNA.

Turns out she’s a Golden Retriever – quel surprise! — just the way it turns out Ken and I are Northern Europeans. As for delving any more deeply into our DNA, there’s really no need now. Not after my little epiphany.   I know who I am, down deep:  a  Dog Person with slightly more than a dollop of Neanderthal. As for Nellie, she’s clearly a wolf.

 

Ughy — My Ur Dog

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

Dad with me, Peter and Ughy.

My father courted my mother with puppies.  The first was a mixed breed called Pot, who was summarily run over. The second was a black cocker spaniel  named Ughy.  Ughy arrived on the scene four years before I was born, at a time when Mom and Dad were both married to other people, but clearly gearing up to bolt – you don’t give just anybody a puppy, not in my family. And Dad gave Mom two.

My mother’s childhood dog  was Poochie, a terrier who spent his dogs days asleep in the sunny middle of the street in front of their house in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  Unlike Pot, Poochie died in the fullness of time and of natural causes — for the dozen or so years he was on this Earth cars just edged around him.  If this seems extraordinary, consider this: my grandmother never learned how to back up a car.   She didn’t need to.  She only went two places — her beauty salon and  the grocery store — and both her hairdresser and the boy who bagged her groceries were more than happy to turn the car around for her so that she could drive herself back home.  That’s the kind of town Stillwater, Oklahoma was — women could drive cars in one direction and dogs could sleep undisturbed in the middle of its streets.  Of course, if you were a black man and dusk was approaching, you would have been wise not to count on the same degree of insouciance.   We’re talking Oklahoma here and some things don’t  change.

People assign names to dogs; their dog names emerge with time.  Thus Bill’s Fancy became Mary Frances; Luv (allegedly Danish for Lion) became Lovey;  Tennessee’s Waltz became Tenney, which also happened to be the name of the circle we lived on. Ughy’s given name was, improbably,  Lord Ogilthorpe, thence Oggie, thence Ughy, a.k.a, Boodle Dog.  My Grandfather Zant always called him, “Black Dog.”  “Hi, Black Dog,” he would say.  “Come here, Black Dog.” Ughy adored Grandaddy, perhaps because Grandaddy recognized his true essence.  He was, after all, a black dog.

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

Ughy watching over my bassinet . . . or was he?

My mother told the story of how Ughy would drop his toys into my bassinet. She maintained that this indicated a desire on his part to share his toys with me.  I think it’s more likely that he was actually trying to take me out from the air. Then again, he used to bring Mom mice that he had killed and how can that be interpreted other than as an act of largesse?  In his seventeen years, Ughy only bit me once and that was because I stuck my face in his food dish.  I would do the same to anybody who stuck their face in my food dish.  Consider that fair warning.

Growing up, I was convinced that Ughy could talk; I figured he was just holding out.  On weekends, my father would take me and Ughy along on various errands and, while he was in the Hostess Outlet Store or at the roadside corn stand, I would edge closer to Ughy and whisper in his silky ear, “It’s all right.  He’s gone.  You can talk now.”  That’s when parents left kids in the car and no one thought a thing of it.

Golden Retriever with false teeth.  You get the idea.

Golden Retriever with party teeth. You get the idea.

Ughy had two tricks.  He could sit up on his hind legs for hours  while wearing one of my Dad’s white t-shirts, and he would happily circulate amongst party guests, gag teeth clamped  between his jaws, for so long as people applauded. He taught himself those tricks in his spare time, which was copious.

Ughy buried bones in the carpet.  He would dig and dig and dig, creating no hole whatsoever, then deposit the bone in the no hole  he had dug.  There it would remain until someone glanced over at it, at which point he would promptly dig it up from the no hole and bury it in plain sight somewhere else.  Once a kid on our block dared to call Ughy fat and I beat him up.  He was the only person I have ever beaten up and I never felt a shred of guilt about it. Call my dog fat: you’ve crossed a red line.

Ughy was my first dog –  the original dog; the archetypal dog; the Ur dog.The worst thing I could imagine, apart from the death of my mother or father, was Ughy’s demise.  I would lie in bed at night and try and imagine what a world without Ughy would be like.  But then I’d have to stop myself; his loss was too painful even to contemplate.

The last year of his long life, blinded by milky cataracts and wracked by cancer, Ughy was falling apart the way old dogs do: at the seams. During that sad period Dad carried him tenderly up and down the stairs as required.  My husband and I can relate. For the better part of three years we hefted our aged and enormous Golden Retriever up and downstairs, hoisting him into cars and airlifting him onto beds. Recently a fit-enough looking neighbour  told us he had been forced to put his Springer Spaniel down because she could no longer climb stairs.  As soon as he was out of earshot, my husband and I looked at one another, aghast.    “He couldn’t carry a Springer Spaniel up and down stairs?” we asked.

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Ughy contemplates his Christmas stocking

Every night Dad fed Ughy his green cancer pain pills, stroking  his throat to make him swallow, as he sang:

“Green pills, they taste so good/

when doggies eat them like they should./

Green pills, they taste so nice./

They taste like they’re made out of sugar and spice.”

He sang this to the tune of Green Sleeves.

Then one day it happened — Ughy was gone.  A chasm opened up in the earth and in we fell, only to struggle out, not twenty-four hours later, with the parti-coloured ball of fur and bad news who would become Crocapuppy – the infamous Frances of the Socks.  If Ughy was a true gentleman — and he was — Frances was bitch incarnate.  Life goes on and new dogs come on stream — one after another. And then they die, and you feel like you’re going to die, and then you don’t.

. . .

And then you do.

I have three looks: gussied up, not gussied up and OMG.  My friend Catharine says that I should include ‘Gone to the dogs’ but I argue that that’s just a subset of OMG.  I used to have many looks: most of them pleasing.  .  . .  But now I have only the three.

The Ladies of the Book Club c. 1987. Left, Linda Nicholas, Back, Mary Malone, Bottom, Nancy Bjerring and Right, me

The Ladies of the Book Club c. 1987. Left, Linda Nicholas, Back, Mary Malone, Bottom, Nancy Bjerring and Right, me

My brother Peter once exclaimed at how my mother and I could go from plain to pretty in a matter of minutes with a little judicious hair and makeup.  For years the women in my now nearly thirty-year old book club were able to “come up well” . . . until we couldn’t.  We had a group photo done of us in those glory days.  We have not repeated the exercise.  Before and after. You don’t want to go there.

An old family friend used to say of women wearing housecoats and curlers in public, “It’s all right to look like that, but do you have to come out of the house?”  Every night I don a denim bag I brought used off of eBay, put my hair in pink foam rollers and my feet in Wellies and take the dogs out for their last pee, praying that we don’t run into anymore.   If I do not curl my hair, I look like a woman who kidnaps children from shopping malls.   No, really.  And blow drying isn’t an option.  I can’t bear to look at myself in the mirror long enough to successfully pull it off.

At CREA PAC c.1993

At CREA PAC c.1993

Last year at the Canadian Real Estate Association’s Political Action Day in Ottawa I opened up a new publication outlining CREA’s lobbying successes over the years.  There was a candid black and white photo of me taken twenty two years ago.  I went around the conference showing everybody the photo and saying, “See! This was me!”  To my alarm and distress, most people looked incredulous and asked, “Really?” or, “Wow! You’re kidding!”  Needless to say, a downward spiral quickly ensued. I knew it was pathetic to persist in my quest to find somebody, anybody who would respond to my showing them the ancient photo by saying, “You haven’t changed a bit,” but, alas, I could not help myself.

Right now I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and watching Ken Burns’ Civil War for the third time, trying to wrap my mind around what tore my native country asunder during that conflict.  This is my idea of a good time.  I am a history nerd, a political junkie and a tree hugging, left leaning radical Obamist.  Documentaries are my guilty pleasure, a pleasure in which I indulge perhaps to excess.  I subscribe to serious podcasts and listen to them religiously.  I sit on the Steering Committee for the London Homeless Coalition, for Pete’s sake.  From all of which you might deduce that I am a fairly serious person, but you would be wrong.  You would be wrong because, at the age of 61, I’m still expending blood and treasure – that is to say, my dwindling stock of time – on pretty.

Ruth Skinner Zant. OK, but she didn't last.

Ruth Skinner Zant. OK, but she didn’t last.

Once, while visiting my then ninety-five year old grandfather, I gestured to a photo of my grandmother taken in her early twenties; she had predeceased him by a dozen years.  “Grandmother was awfully pretty,” I said to spark a lagging conversation.  To which Granddaddy replied, “She was OK, but she didn’t last.”

I guess none of us do.

Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.  And then they didn’t.

Bare ruined choirs

My grandfather and Darwin

My maternal grandfather, James Howard Zant, was born on a evolutionranch near Aspermont, the seat of Stonewall County, Texas, northwest of Dallas.  The town was founded in 1889; Granddaddy arrived on the scene in 1897.  His father, John Solomon Zant, was born in 1860 in Murray County, Georgia and migrated to Texas after the Civil War; he remembered driving a herd of cattle along the Shawnee Trail, which ran right through the centre of Dallas, to get it to North-bound railheads.   He married Mary Elizabeth Loving in 1889.   My relatives have sought in vain a for some kind of connection with Oliver Loving of Lonesome Dove fame; I remain hopeful.  Oliver Loving. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Granddaddy was one of twelve children.  They all went to University; even the girls — remarkable for the time and the fact that we’re not talking South Fork here. Granddaddy’s family all called him Bob, despite his being named Jim.  When Mom asked her grandmother why they did this, she replied that, after the last child – Royce Darwell Zant – was born, they realized that they had forgotten to name somebody Robert.  They made up for this apparently grievous failure by calling Granddaddy Bob.   I don’t know if they called somebody else Jim to deal with the problem created by their solution to the previous problem.

I know only one story about my Grandfather’s family.  His father, feeling that his mother was due some respite after twelve children, built her a playhouse where she could retire and, presumably, scream.  One day a tornado picked the playhouse up and deposited it, intact, as far away from the main house as you could get and still be on the ranch.  Apparently the forces of Nature felt that Mary Elizabeth needed even more distance from her brood and conspired to make it so.   In their West Texas community this ranked somewhere between a miracle and a phenomenon.  For a while people came from miles around to see the relocated structure and hear the story.  Then they stopped.

My Grandfather’s first teaching job was in the high school in Durant, Oklahoma.  He taught mathematics and saved up money for graduate school by coaching the school’s basketball team.  If you lived in a small town and taught high school in those days, it was expected that you go to church, so every Sunday, my grandmother and he would put on their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and head on down to the Methodist Church.  The year was 1925 and the Scopes Trial and evolution were being hotly debated nationwide.  In due course the minister, evidently not a big fan of Darwin, thundered, “If anyone in this congregation believes that man descended from apes, let him stand and be recognized!”

So my grandfather stood.  Despite my grandmother’s frantic attempts to get him to for-god’s-sake-sit-down-this-is-SO-embarrassing, he stood.

No one else did.

Awkward!

My grandfather looked around, then, realizing that the cat was well and truly out of the bag,   he picked up his hat, exited the pew and headed down the aisle towards the church door, my utterly mortified grandmother scuttling behind him, red faced and furious.  Granddaddy wasn’t the sort to pick a fight; he was no ideologue.  And his background wasn’t that much different from all the other people in that church.  It was just that, yes, he’d been to college and, true, he was a mathematician and, therefore, a kind of scientist, and, don’t you know, he’d had him a look at monkeys and they sure looked a lot like some people he knew, so . . . . yes. Yes, he thought mankind probably did descend from apes.  It just made sense.

Except for weddings and funerals, Granddaddy never set foot in a church again.  Instead he went on to earn a PhD in Mathematics from Columbia University and become one of the pioneers of New Math and the author of a number of influential text books.  Truth be told, he had a pretty illustrious career. There were a whole lot of reasons to be proud of my grandfather, but what he did in that church that day …  I think that’s what makes me proudest.

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