My grandmother, a noted boxer breeder and handler, and former dancer, was eccentric and charming. She struggled with alcoholism and mental illness. And she was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known.
I. HIDE AND SEEK
My grandmother sits on the bottom stair in the darkened dining room, head in her hands. She is babysitting for my brother and I, who are playing hide-and-seek on the main floor.
Because I am “It,” I’m on the landing, counting to 10, while my brother hides somewhere upstairs. I’ve turned the light on the stairs on, because it’s scary dark. This wakes up Mawn, who gets up unsteadily and staggers over to the wall and flicks off the light, saying, slurring her words, “If you’re hiding, I’ll just turn off the light.” She goes and sits back down. I explained carefully that my brother was the one who was hiding, and turned the light back on. I like to look at myself in the ornate gold-framed, full-length mirror on the landing, which also dimly reflects my grandmother sitting at the bottom of the stairs, hunched over, back towards me. And I am afraid of the dark. She gets up again, and the dialogue and moves are repeated a couple more times. My brother and I decide to play a different game.
I was also deathly afraid of ticks. My brother and I would help Mawn in the Spring pull their swollen, gray-brown bodies off the ears of her show boxer dogs and watch as they bubbled and turned black when she set fire to them in a green glass ashtray. Even though I’d occasionally find one crawling on me, never one attached, I knew that one day there’d be a tick with my name on it in that house.
Papa had left Mawn long ago (I barely remembered them living together), but he’d left behind a closet full of his clothes and shoes smelling like him, of leather and Camel cigarettes. Sometimes I go stand inside that closet to feel close to him. Mawn never threw away his clothes.
Mawn has a much larger, walk-in, cedar closet full of beautiful clothes she saves for the ghost of her past to wear. Pink lace, linen, green velvet and wool jackets and skirts and dresses, all with matching shoes. When I got older, the clothes fit me, but the shoes were too small. She also has a collection of wild, eccentric straw hats ornamented with butterflies, or giant plastic dice, or little stuffed bluebirds, or a little stuffed plastic boxer, that she wears in the ring at the dog show, so people will ask who is that crazy lady with that beautiful boxer dog.
a portal to the underworld
My brother and I understand that Mawn’s house is a portal to the underworld, frequented by ghosts from the past, ghosts of champion boxers, the ghosts of her father and mother. She has pictures of her mother and unidentified relatives in a box under her antique, horsehair mattress bed. Her father’s cremated remains are in a closet on the third floor, in a box wrapped in brown paper with a string tied around it, and a mailing address and name on it which I did not recognize. My brother and I occasionally visit that closet and take down the box, thrill to feel its weight, and shake it, hoping to hear bones rattling, but only hear SSHHH – SSHHH, the sound of ash shifting side to side. Cremated remains of her deceased champion dogs are there, too, in plain little cardboard boxes in a drawer in a black, dusty antique dresser in the same room that had the closet with our great-grandfather’s ashes.
She decided a long time ago for us to call her “Mawn,” because it sounded French – so “chichi.” She had played with the ideas of “Mawn and Pawn,” and “Moppet and Poppett,” for herself and my grandfather, but when I looked up at my grandfather and called him “Papa,” that moniker adhered to him, and my grandmother had content herself with “Mawn.” My father knew a little French, but my siblings and I never got very far beyond “parlez-vous français?” My grandmother also says, “treasurely,” and “toote suite,” a lot, too. I don’t think my grandmother was, at all, French, or had ever been to France. Unfortunate, for I’m sure she would have turned heads in Paris.
My father, her only child, is a classically-trained pianist who can play anything from Beethoven to Broadway classics, but my grandmother plays by ear. She bangs out her own parodies of showtunes at the expense of her rivals [most notably Jane Kamp, a prizewinning handler) and always finishes with a flourish and a laugh. One was, “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Doggie” after “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby.”
Oh, you musta been a beautiful doggie
You musta been a beautiFUL pup!
Prancin’ around at shows, way upon your toes,
Holdin’ your beautiful boxer HEAD up!
And when it came to winnin’ blue ribbons
You really showed the other DOGS how,
And now you’re a champ, and you didn’t need JANE Kamp!
Oh, doggie, look at you NOW!!
Mawn is a hard worker, tirelessly taking care of her dogs 24/7. We always see her in grimy khaki shorts or skirt, and white button-down blouse and scraggly gray-blonde hair. She is cleaning the dog pens, or feeding the puppies, or training the young dogs on lead. She keeps pieces of cooked chicken livers in her pockets for rewards. She is smushing the ground dog meat through her strong, leathery fingers with thick, chipped red fingernails, mixing it with cottage cheese, powdered “pablum,” and vitamins and serving it in stainless steel dog dishes to her weaning babies.
My grandmother has a green Amazon parrot named Mike, who can imitate exactly her greetings, exclamations, and phone conversations. He also takes special delight in calling her special pet brindle boxer, “U.S.” (short for “U.S. Male”), who comes running into the kitchen and looks frantically around, every time. U.S. and I were born on the same day, and same year. We shared our birthday cake and ice cream together until he died after we turned 13.
The kennel is spacious, windowed and airy, and has long runs that are meticulously hosed down. The dogs are free to run in and out of the building. It has fans and air conditioning (we don’t in our house), and a grooved rubber-topped grooming table with a noose, and with drawers fragrantly full of grooming supplies. It is partially shaded by a large maple tree in front. Bright yellow ribbons of Shell No-Pest strips hang from the ceiling, covered with flies. My grandmother keeps fresh newspapers and cedar chips in the dogs’ large beds. She also regularly exercises them individually outside, although on one occasion, two escaped together and ran off to kill some of our neighboring farmer’s chickens.
I remember one of the boxers getting a tomato juice bath after an encounter with a skunk.
In one half of our garage were several columnar stacks of newspapers my grandmother and my parents collected for her dogs’ beds. My brother and I would browse through and take out the comic sections.
birthing suites for puppies
The pregnant boxers are brought into the bathrooms of her house, and special birthing suites are arranged for them there. My brother and I run down from our house to hold the little ones, feel their squirmy soft bodies in our hands, smell their milky puppy breath, and let them suck on our fingers with with their little square toothless pink puppy mouths as their mother watches anxiously, but still trusting.
Sometimes my brother and I help Mawn with chores and training puppies, and are treated to barbecue potato chips and tomato juice with celery sticks, which we never have in our house. (Our parents didn’t drink Bloody Marys.) These treats were also available whenever she threw large afternoon soirées on her stone terrace, inviting all the well-heeled dog people she knew. Then, she’d wear stylish clothes with large red plastic earrings, red pumps, and jangly silver bracelets, Chanel #5, dark red lipstick and painted-on eyebrows. She’d greet us at the door with a strange sideways kiss – she’d pucker up her crinkly mouth and come right at our mouths, then at the last second, her mouth would swerve to the side and she’d go, “mmmMWAH!” with a loud smack on our cheeks. Maybe people did that in France.
Sometimes Mawn relaxes on the front lawn, kicking back in her lounge chair with a Scotch on the rocks, slathered in QT suntan lotion, in her dirty khakis and bra and white sunglasses, flexing her red-painted toenails. If we go out with my parents (we lived up the hill in another house on the same property, and shared the gravel driveway), my mother is always mortified to see her sitting out there like that. We live way out in the country with only occasional passers-by, still, SOMEONE might see her, almost topless!
My grandmother never moves her own furniture. Every chair, every lamp, every picture, every little knick knack has its own fixed, perfect position for all time. But every time she babysat for us, she rearranged my mother’s furniture. Then, when she went home, my mother moved it all back.
my grandmother never moves her own furniture.
First Mawn and Papa, then just Mawn, lived in the main old Dutch Colonial house on the partially neglected 60-acre estate way out in the backwoods of New Jersey, but within commuting distance of NYC. My parents and my younger siblings and I lived in what used to be an old carriage house up the gravel driveway.
After my grandparents separated and divorced, they never spoke to each other again. At family get-togethers, we could never tell if one was even disturbed by the presence of the other by their animated, cheerful conversation with everyone ELSE.
Then we got it worked out so, during a holiday, we would see Papa in the morning, and Mawn in the evening. My mother would cook something and we’d all walk it down to Mawn’s house. Here and there at Mawn’s house, my siblings and I would find strange exotic candy never featured at my parents’ house: peppermint curls, licorice sticks, mints, candied citrus, petit fours, fruitcake, and turkish delight.
Mr. Conover lived alone, way down the street. You couldn’t see his house from her house, or our house either, for that matter, but my grandmother would get calls from him late in the evening to please shut up her barking dogs. She, being heavily in her cups by that time, would turn on the outside floodlight, go out to the kennel, and from the safety of my bed, I could hear her slamming 2 metal garbage can lids together like cymbals, and yelling at the dogs, “SHAAADAP! SHAAADAP!”, probably more for Mr. Conover’s benefit than the dogs. Probably this could have been avoided had she brought them in every night, but sometimes she left them out in the runs to bow-wow at the moon or deer or whatever was nocturnally rustling in the apple orchard.
the party line
We have a telephone party line with my grandmother. Sometimes the lines get crossed, and we intercept Mr. Conover’s calls to my grandmother, and can tell by his slurred speech that he is just as heavily into his cups as she was into hers. They must have some lively conversations.
Before Papa left Mawn, she had helped him pull my sodden, lifeless, 4-year-old body out of a partially frozen, slushy, brackish pond. My grandfather gave me artificial respiration, and I survived to become a grandmother myself, and write this little story about her. It has been postulated that had my grandparents not been distracted by their arguing, they would have seen my brother and I coming down the hill (my mother sent us on an errand to borrow a can of beans), and this drama might have been avoided. My mother said that she had called to alert them that we were coming, and had asked them to watch for us.
. . .
My grandmother stretches out her arm, demi-seconde. Her dental bridge hangs loosely when she smiles. 20 years later, I come to visit from Houston, Texas, where my family and I live now (I am living with my husband), and find she has lost her mind. She has been eating mayonnaise with a spoon out of a jar. After I took her grocery shopping, she adds sliced bananas covered with sugar to the dog food for the 2 obese dogs in the kitchen, and claims, “But I’ve always done this, and they LOVE it.”
20 years later, I come to visit and find she has lost her mind.
The 8 dogs in the kennel she has forgotten; they are skin and bones, so sad to see. The SPCA comes and puts them down. A friend of hers arranges for this on the 2nd day of my visit, and takes her to get her hair cut while this happens. I stand out in the backyard by the cherry trees and cry and scream when the dogs are put down. I don’t watch. I beg the SPCA lady to let Mawn at least keep the 2 overfed, old dogs that she has in crates in the kitchen whom she afterwards feeds the sugary bananas. The SPCA lady lets her keep them. I show the SPCA lady Mawn’s impressive collection of blue ribbons and trophies. I can’t stop sobbing.
The SPCA also lets her keep her special pet brindle boxer, this one named “Taster,” who runs around free. Turns out that Taster is barely house-trained.
I end up staying 6 weeks. I apprise my father of the situation. He sends a little money. I find a wad of cash rolled up and stashed in a closet, and I pay her utility bills. Now the lights will be kept on, and we can put the trash out by the road for pickup, instead of her throwing it in the brook and watching the water, “Swish, swish it all away!” My father and brother come up for a weekend and clean out the filthy den where she sleeps, watching the old tv with all her clothes on. My father fires her lawyer who was hunting in her woods and ostensibly keeping an eye on things.
I convince her to take a bath, and she does, under my supervision. I buy her new clothes. I take her out to a little hole-in-the-wall in town for a pizza, and she cries while she eats it. It IS really good. There is oregano in a shaker on the table.
don’t feed the dogs bananas and sugar
I scold her for giving the dogs bananas and sugar, and she throws a folding table tray at my head.
She wants me to know there are mice in the house. When we hear them running in herds over the low ceiling in the kitchen, she points upwards, and in a stage whisper says, “The dogs. The dogs.” She wants me to know there are deer in the yard. She points outside and says, “The dogs. The dogs.” She has forgotten my name. She calls me, “My gal” and says, “You were the first.” I nod.
Actually, I wasn’t the first child born to my mother, but I only found that out decades later at my mother’s funeral, as revealed by my aunt. My grandmother never knew. My father might not even have known. Where are you, mystery big brother?
After my father, brother, and I go back home to Texas, where my family had moved when I was 16, after all other arrangements fail, she ends up having to be put in a nursing home. She had to be chased down the street, tackled by the nurse and given a shot before she would go inside the home. When my mother visits a few years later and shows her a picture of me with my new baby, she licks the picture. I don’t know why she was kept in a home in New Jersey and not moved down to Houston where we now lived and could have looked in on her.
Mawn once had her own charm and dance school. She came once to my elementary school and led the kids in a square dance. I didn’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed.
She also taught me how to plié and relevé and carry a book on my head. It was a one-hour lesson, then she went to have a drink – I guess I didn’t show much promise as a debutante.
She would run around the dog show ring with her arm outstretched, like a dancer, holding the dog’s head up with the white show leash. She always had muscly, strong dancer’s legs.
. . .
My grandmother stretches out her arm, demi-seconde. She smiles her raggedy smile as I dance to the radio around the kitchen while I cook. It had taken me 2 days to clean the rat turds out of the oven. She had tried to clean the dirty, green linoleum floor with a little scrap of toilet paper. Mawn says, “I used to do that” as she watches me dance, then she makes a single gesture with her arm so graceful and eloquent, I stop, breathless, and am deeply, deeply moved.
Slideshow: Pages from The Book of the Boxer, by Joan McDonald Brearley and Anna Katherine Nicholas.
©1977 by T.F.H. Publications, Inc. Ltd. I. The book is inscribed to me by Billie McFadden (last slide), who gave me the book and helped me with my grandmother when I came for my unexpectedly extended visit.