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Keep the Good Will of a Dog by Alan Ruff


Ask anyone in their mid-twenties where they were on September 11, 2001

and they can tell you in an instant. Ask someone in their mid-forties and they can

tell where they were when Reagan was shot, when the Challenger exploded, and

when OJ took off in a white Bronco. But ask my grandmother and she can’t

remember where she was or what she was doing on October 24, 1929. I mean,

she could tell you that she was ten years old and that she lived on the fourth

house on the left of Farley Street just across from the fairgrounds, but she had

absolutely no idea that the stock market had crashed. When you’re poor, you just

know you’re poor and you have to have something before you can lose it. That

day might have passed without much notice to her, but the lessons she would

learn over the next ten years would shape her beliefs and who she would become

as much as any of the days yet to come.

Growing up the second oldest of twelve children in a small three-bedroom,

one bath home taught her a lot. It taught her how to organize. It taught her how

to delegate. It taught her how to serve. And it taught her how to cook. “Darling,

you didn’t just run up to the store and buy dinner. First off, there wasn’t any

grocery store like there is now and even if there had been, you didn’t have any

money, so it didn’t matter. Estelle was older so she got to stay inside and help my

mother with the smaller ones. George would go outside with me and I would

shoo the chickens toward him until he could catch one. Then he’d wring its neck,”

she would say while moving her hand like a fifth grader sharpening her pencil.

“When you cut their heads off, they keep on dancing around for a few minutes.

It’s easier to wait until they stop than it is to try and catch ‘em again.” Once the

chicken had finally given up the ghost, it was her responsibility to pluck the

feathers and bring it inside so she could help her Mother begin supper. Their

plates would be rounded out with whatever they had been able to grow, can, or

preserve from their garden. “Everybody got something, but nobody got enough.”

Things would get better as she grew older. She would be fortunate enough

to graduate high school and even get a job working downtown at Woolworth’s.

She married my grandfather, William, on January 23, 1942 and by February 9 th he

was on his way to Tyndale Field, Florida. He would quickly be stationed in North

Africa as an Aerial Machine Gunner aboard “The Big Dealer”. Uncle Sam was kind

enough to send him home on June 21, 1943 with a Purple Heart and a thank you

letter for parachuting into hostile territory over Tunisia when his B-52 was shot

down. “He hid in a fox hole all night while they kept looking for him. When the

sun began to come up, he started running and never looked back.” He told her

that story one time and never mentioned it again. She said the only reason he

told her then was so she would understand how serious he was when he

promised he would never leave her again. It was a promise he kept for the next

sixty-four years.

The work ethic acquired while growing up would eventually carry her to a

job as a customer service manager for Citizens and Southern Bank. “Don’t let

your money burn a hole in your pocket.” “Save your money for hard times.” “A

fool and his money will soon part ways.” “Make sure you keep your money

situated.” For you lay people, that means keeping all of your bills facing and

turned the same way. “And make sure you keep your money in your front pocket.

Someone can take your money out of your back pocket and you’d never know.”

She lived what she preached. Every month she had a little taken out of her check

to buy stock in C&S and Duke Power. The Great Depression and World War II had

made my grandfather a bit more skeptical. He preferred to trust Benjamin

Franklins in a Hav-a-Tampa box.

From the early days of spring, until the dog days of summer had passed,

Maw-Maw, that’s what I called her, would come home from work at the bank and

change her clothes. She would put on a stained blouse and a pair of polyester

pants. She would tie her hair up in a kerchief and slide on her red-clay stained

rubber boots and go out in the backyard and work in her garden. Everything was

purposefully planned and had its place. The plot to the right was for tomato

plants. The bed to the left was for cabbages, cucumbers, and squash. The rows

coming up along the fence were filled with butter beans, crowder peas, okra, and

runners of string beans climbing across taught pulled jute string. My job was to

take the white five-gallon bucket and mix the blue Miracle-Gro with water. She

would then walk between the rows with the bucket in one hand and a nail-

punched Maxwell House can in the other. She would fill an old sock with Sevin

dust, tie a knot on the open end, and then tuck the knot in her back pocket. The

sock would hang from her back pocket and with the skill of an old west gunslinger

brandishing a six-shooter she would use it to kill any vermin or insect that tried to

make a meal of her handiwork.

I can remember sitting in her den with the sliding door opened to the back

yard, watching the sun set behind the North Carolina mountains. The sound of

crickets punctuating the low hum of the attic fan provided the perfect soundtrack

to hours of shelling butter beans and stringing green snap beans while we

watched the Atlanta Braves. My ten-year-old thumbs would start hurting and I

would ask her why we couldn’t just go to the store since it was only two miles

down the road. “Why should I pay somebody for what I can grow on my own?”

So, I would snap and she would can and together we would fill her cupboards.

When the winter months would come, I would be so thankful that we had.

It would almost be dark when she got home from the bank at 5:30. She would

slide off her heels and put on her slippers. She would hang up her skirt and blouse

and put her flower-printed apron on over her slip. While chicken she had brought

home from the Community Cash fried in a cast iron skillet and beans simmered in

a large pot, she would stand beside the kitchen table. Perched above her mixing

bowl, she would begin by adding flour. I don’t know how much because she

never measured. Then she would reach her hand into a can of Crisco and scoop

out the perfect amount. With the other hand she would begin adding buttermilk

to the bowl. I wish I knew how to describe what she did next. To say “she mixed

the dough” misleads one into believing they can do what she did with the same

result. This is just not true. Using her red-handled rolling pin with the skill of a

Jedi, she would roll and cut out the best biscuits that I’ve ever had. They were the

perfect complement to the gravy she would make from the leftover flour and

chicken grease. It would be years before I would understand the joy of watching

your family sit around you and eat. But I understand now.

My mother says that they didn’t own a television until the late 1950’s but it

didn’t matter. No one knew how to tell a story better than Maw-Maw and she

had a bunch of them. She would share the stories that her grandmother had

shared with her about growing up on a plantation in Prosperity, South Carolina. It

was after the Civil War and her father had remarried after the untimely death of

her mother. The stepmother wasn’t as kind to the children and would lock the

pantry forcing the children to be hungry on most days. The children’s nanny,

Kizzi, stole the key to the pantry so she could fix the children something to eat.

When confronted by the stepmother and threatened with her life, Kizzi

responded, “I’se been carin’ for dese babies de whole life and done had the

misfortune of watchin de first momma die. I don’t reckon watchin the next one

will be as hard.” My great-great-grandmother would tell my grandmother that

they never had to go hungry again after that. And Maw-Maw would share that

story with us so that we would always be careful how we treated other people.

She would always finish that story by saying, “Keep the good will of a dog; it might

bite you.”

When I look back it seems like she had a saying for every occasion and any

situation. Whenever one of us would run to her to tell on the other one she

would look at us and say, “The bit dog always barks the loudest.” At the time I

didn’t completely understand what it meant but I wouldn’t understand many of

the things she said until I was older. She had said at one time that she wanted to

write all of her stories down so that we wouldn’t forget them. The onset of

Parkinson’s disease in her eighties would take away many of the gifts her hands

had produced. Yet even up to her death at the age of ninety-two she

remembered the faces of family and would smile whenever we came into her

room. After her passing we gathered at her house to go through her things and

see if there was anything we wanted. I searched among her recipes and bible

notes but couldn’t find where she had written any of her stories down. But as we

continued going through her things, each of her grandchildren remembered a

story that she had shared. In her own way she had spoken to each of us and now

we would carry on her stories to our children.

I didn’t take any of the china out of her house that day, only a couple of old

photos. A black and white of her and Poppy, he in his uniform standing by an old

Ford; a color photo from 1976 of her standing in the garden. Everyone says that

she wanted me to have the piano that still sits in the living room of her old house.

My mother lives there now and I haven’t had the inclination or the space to move

it to my house in these five years since her passing. Two years ago, while

celebrating Christmas in her old house, after all of the presents had been opened

and the excitement had faded away, Momma pulled me aside into one of the

back bedrooms and handed me a bag. I reached in and pulled out a red-handled

rolling pin. It sits on top of my stove near the back door of my house. Every

morning as I walk out, I look over at it and hear a small voice remind me, “Keep

the good will of a dog…”

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