Somewhere in the double bed, buried under five to seven dogs, is Bill. His coarse whiskers just barely discernible from that of the fine white feathers of the English Setter or three piled on top of him. His wife Anne is propped up to the right, clear of dogs and blatantly perturbed by an eternity of rest sleeping beside a smelly old man and a kennel full of canines.
“Bill! Bill! Get up your granddaughter’s here and you need to feed the horses.”
Slowly a hand emerging from underneath a dog, stopping to pat a head, stroke a back, and a few grunted good mornings to his critters prove that he’s awake. One by one each dog gets a greeting before he scratches his head, what’s left of his crown of white sticking up every which way.
“Mother, fix us some coffee, will you?”
My grandmother emits her much needed and long suffered sigh and slides out of bed, into her slippers and shuffles into the bathroom attached to their large country bedroom. She pulls the robe off the antique mahogany armoire, stopping momentarily to smooth her own equally wild hair and glance at the nearby clock reading 10:30 am. Continuing down the steps into the dark bathroom she starts the first pot of coffee. Each step on the three hundred year old hardwood floors is echoed by a sharp yip and howl from below. Behind her the dogs who are granted the privilege of the bed rapidly shuffle for a position closer to Bill, or as I have always known him, Gee.
Distracted by his needy dogs, a few more rounds of good morning to the critters ensue before he notices me.
“Oh no it’s the Redhead! Mother, the second meanest woman is standing in my bedroom!”
He tries to look grim and foreboding, like the formidable man who ran a software company for 15 years, a communications for ten prior, and whose career began in the missile race at Cape Canaveral, Florida. His wiry eyebrows raise and the wrinkles crease into his forehead, giving me the original family stare. Spouses of his children who inherited his brows lovingly refer to it as having “Piss Off” stamped across their forehead. The twinkle in his eye and the twitch of his mustache give him away, and as I match his “F-off” expression squint for squint.
“You sure you want to be calling for the world’s first meanest woman to help you with this problem?”
At that he’s off the bed, and I’ve been crushed to a hard chest within steel arms while he cackles in glee at having a wise-ass eldest grandchild. He’s particularly sprite and strong, and not just for his 79 years. Since retiring five years prior, he and Nanny work their 20 acres single handed. Their gaggle of dogs, three horses, and multiple flower, herb and vegetable gardens keep them busy from sun-up, or 10:30, until well past sundown, or their evening cocktail and programs. Gee’s days consist of long hours on the tractor, fixing fences, chasing dogs, hauling horse food and hay bales and doing the work that the average 25 year old guy with an office job would struggle to keep up with.
He lets go and pushes me toward the door.
“Get out of here Redhead and leave a man to his morning constitutional. I’ll meet you at the barn.”
As I descend the stairs I hear the two of them squabbling.
“Damnit Bill, get out of here and wait your turn. Take your coffee and sit with the dogs.”
“Damnit Annie…” echoes through the foyer and is drowned out by the sound of anxious dogs who have been holding their bladders for ten hours.
An hour later, Gee joins me at the barn. I’ve already gone back to the house a few times to check on him, see if he’s still coming or if the plans have changed. At the last check a stampede of dog feet tore through the great hall, shaking the old chandelier and made the newel post rumble off as Gee and his entourage were finally ready to start their day. Or almost. A desperate search for one of his six pairs of drugstore Aviator sunglasses and his goat-pee smelling camo hunting cap had to ensue first.
At the barn Gee is greeted by his best friends, Dollar, Joe and Dan, three fat and aging Tennessee Walker horses. Dollar, the youngest of the old farts at a ripe 17 tosses his head up and slaps Gee on the shoulder, like two long lost pals heading to the pub for a beer. Throwing his arm around Dollar’s neck, the two head into the tack room for some breakfast. Dollar digs through the cans searching for the molasses rich sweet feed while Gee cackles, smacks him on the rump and tells him to move his “fat ass” before secretly adding a bit of the treat to his regular grain. The two emerge, Gee laden down with buckets of food that Dollar’s trying to graze from as they walk, and the other two horses slowly meander to the usual booths in the back, stalls without doors that they come and go from as they please.
I’m ignored throughout this process as this horse brunch is sacred. It’s Gee’s time to hang with his buds, shoot the shit with the boys, and ignore the world. The phone rings and he disregards it until he’s thoroughly rubbed Joe’s ears and gone a bit teary about this old horse who has been with him for twelve years. The persistence of the ringing is eventually acknowledge with yet another, “Damnit” before he answers gruffly, Dollar having hoovered his food in record time, ambles over to listen in. It’s my mother, his eldest daughter and of the four, probably the most similar to him. She’s calling to invite him to see a war horse movie that will turn them both into blubbering messes. He stays on the phone for a full two minutes before telling her to call back and give Mother the details. Even for his beloved oldest daughter, the critters come first.
The chores done, he and his boys stand by me on the ramp leading up into the barn. From this angle he’s the king of all he purveys. To the left is the cabin and ten acres he purchased a few years ago that abut the original estate. Ahead is an ancient crumbling red barn, piled high with a century’s worth of junk, snakes, and bugs. To the right is the graveyard filled with owners to the property dating back to 1690, and if he has his ways, one day his children will write a new name on an old rock and place him beside them. The white house with the green tin roof stands tall next to the cemetery. Behind it, though out of our line of vision, sits an original smokehouse, American and Virginia flags waving proudly over the horse pasture. Gee and I stand and survey his domain in silence as he takes in the fruition of his life work. This farm isn’t his heritage but it is his legacy. He purchased it in 1988 and leaves it as rarely as possible.
“Not a bad view, Old Man.”
“Hah, no it’s sure as shit not, is it?” he laughs, but his voice catches at the end.
With a final pat and nod to the horses that he’ll see them again soon, he hitches up his back brace that he wears daily. A nasty accident bruised his ribs and at his age they’ve never quite recovered. His faithful steed sits in the middle of the paddock, a 4-wheeler ATV that helps him get around the property faster than on foot. We hop on as he tells me about the bird reserve he’s made at the back of the property, the deer that come out each night, George the big old black snake that likes to crawl under the house to warm up, a hefty mama bear that ambled through the field last summer and how Dollar alerted him right off. As we drive along he points out where each animal passed by, imprinting on his farm and his memory.
Eventually we make our way back to the house, traversing through every hand cut trail, past the trees we planted for my sister and I when she was born, by the gazebo I carved my initials into, past the Secret Garden where twenty years’ worth of family dogs are buried with markers, and around the vegetable garden where former horse friends rest. He parks the steed in the garage and later he’ll ask Nanny where he left it.
He walks in the house, sunglasses forgotten in his workshop, and he sinks into his faded red leather chair. Before he’s even kicked up his feet one dog is on his lap and by the time he’s grabbed the cigar he left the night before another two dogs have appeared.
“Anne, make some coffee”
“You already had two cups, you don’t need another.”
” Dammit Anne no I didn’t, now just quit your nagging and let a man have some coffee.”
She ignores him and tells him that my mother called and scheduled their movie trip for the Saturday after next.
“Cyndi called? When she’s coming out to visit?”
“I just told you, next Saturday you two are going to a movie. You just spoke to her while you were at the barn.”
He stands up disgruntled.
“Anne, did I feed the horses?”
Calmly she tells him he did, but the sign he keeps by the fireplace is flipped to “In” since he neglected to turn it over when he came inside. Nothing Nanny tells him will suffice so he has to go out and see for himself.
We walk to the barn not discussing that he doesn’t remember that we just came back, or that like the accident that his ribs won’t quite heal from another more serious fall caused swelling in his brain stem. Constant pressure on his brain eroded his short term memory and the damage is only worsening. It’s the same reason I didn’t mention he took me on a tour of both properties the last few times I visited or that I’d been exploring them for the last 23 years. He doesn’t need another person reminding him of all he’s forgotten.
His mood has soured and frustration rolls off of him until we pass Big Red, his tractor which guards the horse paddock, waiting for their next adventure. At the gate the frown lifts because his friends are waiting for him.
Dollar leads the way and the other two follow, slowly ambling toward the fence to see what’s new since the last time they spoke, not minding it was only twenty minutes prior. A dog appears out of nowhere and fit its head under his hand while Joe nuzzles his shoulder.
He turns to me, and not for the first and definitely not the last time he says:
“You know I never did give a damn about people, but I sure do love critters.”