Sunday, July 21, 2013

Grandpa and Ginger

At first blush, I tend to remember childhood in blacks and whites.

Take my Chinese grandparents’ dogs.

There was Ling-Ling. Friendly. Liked to be petted. Might bark when there was some sort of commotion, but never in a mean-spirited way. I spent my youth devoid of pets. Spending time with my grandparents’ dogs three times a year, for long weekend trips, Ling-Ling more or less shaped my perception of what a dog was supposed to be.

And then there was Ginger.

Ginger was a Doberman Pinscher, a breed traditionally used for guard dogs and police dogs. My uncle bought her, but my grandparents ended up taking care of her while my uncle worked long hours at his pharmacy, and my grandfather eventually became her de facto master; most certainly her best friend.

I think my grandfather was the only one who ever liked Ginger.

Whereas Ling-Ling was gentle and affable, Ginger barked at everyone and everything. Deep-throated growls that promised she would rip your throat out if given the chance. For my lifetime, my grandparents slept in separate bedrooms. Ginger stayed with Grandpa, and when we came to visit was, for the most part, restrained behind a plastic barrier that hardly seemed like a restraint enough to keep her from hurdling it and devouring everyone.

Years passed. Ling-Ling passed away. Ginger mellowed. While I never quite trusted the dog, she barked and growled far less, and even wandered the house without any clear signs of malice.

Most of all, I remember that, from her meaner youth, to her more subdued old age, Ginger shared a bed with my grandfather. I’ve long theorized that once Grandpa had brought Grandma to the US, and once they’d had their children, the two of them were much more companions than spouses. More friends than lovers.

I don’t mean to imply anything inappropriate when I say that Grandpa was probably more intimate with his dog than his wife in his final years. More so, I’d suggest that this speaks to who my grandfather was. He immigrated from China to a country where he never really spoke the language. He wasn’t a scholar or an artist. He earned an honest living doing laundry, and in doing so, supported a family, ultimately raising three boys who went on to finish college and do a little better for themselves.

And he loved that dog.

You take the meanest, vilest animal on the planet and put it under the care of a man like that. The beast mellows. If you want to get romantic about it, maybe she even learns to love.

My grandmother reported that Grandpa cried when they put Ginger to sleep. I don’t doubt that a part of him died with that dog. The last creature he fed, that he tamed, that he took care of.

A few years later, my grandfather passed away, too. I like to think that caring for Ginger was the last of his many steps in making the world a little kinder place.

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