“Stay out of the kitchen.”
“Penny is eating her supper.”
“But I want to pet her.”
“No. You don’t pet Penny while she’s eating. You’ll provoke her. You can watch.”
The little girl stood in the doorway. Penny chomped away on her dog food in the back room, but Elizabeth Ann could see her.
“Why’d you name her Penny, Grandma?”
“Because she’s the color of a new penny.”
Penny was old, overweight and fractious. Grandma was seldom affectionate to her, telling her to “Shoo!” more than she asked her to “Come!” Elizabeth Ann was sure if Penny was HER dog, Penny would never get provoked. Every once in a while, though, Elizabeth Ann caught her grandma scratching Penny’s ears while Penny’s stub tail wagged in delight.
In grandma’s mind, a dog was a working member of a farming operation even though, in her old age, all that remained of a farm were a few chickens. The cow and its calf were sold when grandpa died. Mostly it was fruit trees and the vegetable garden. She still put up vegetables — tomatoes, corn, beans and fruit — peaches, mostly. Plums were for eating and jam; apples for pies, apple butter and jelly. Wherever grandma went out to the yard, Penny followed on her short legs.
“She just wants to be fed,” said Grandma.
“I think she loves you,” thought Elizabeth Ann who was always trying to pet Penny but Penny was not interested. Grandma interested Penny, not the 20 odd grandkids who came and went “of a summer’s day” and tried to pet her.
When Penny was old and sick, and it was clear she wouldn’t make it, Grandma called her son-in-law, Jack. He brought his 22, but couldn’t shoot the dog. He stood over her, shook his head and said, “I can’t, Mother.”
“What are you going to do then?” Grandma’s lips set in a tight line, as if by closing her mouth tightly her feelings couldn’t escape.
“I’ll take her to the vet, Mom.” Jack wrapped Penny in a blanket and set her in the trunk of his car. It wasn’t far to the vet. When Jack came back he had the blanket and Penny’s collar. “Here Mom,” he said. “I’m sorry about Penny.”
“I’m not getting another dog,” said Grandma, her lips still narrow and pale.
She meant it, but that left her all alone in her little house smack in the middle of five acres. No one thought that was a good idea, so Jack and Florence appeared on Christmas Eve with a wiggly brown puppy with curly fur and bright eyes. “This is Brownie, Mom,” said Florence.
The whole family was there to open gifts, all nine children, all 20-odd grandchildren. They stared at Grandma, wondering what she would do.
“I don’t need another dog,” she said. “Penny was enough.”
“You need a dog, Mom,” said her daughter Mary Ruth. “You’re here all alone. You need a dog to bark if something’s wrong.”
The puppy walked around the room, sniffing, undoubtedly finding the ghost-scents of Penny. Then she went to Grandma. The argument went on, the “kids” (all people in their thirties and forties) trying to persuade Grandma that she needed a dog, and grandma resisting. What no one saw was that grandma was scratching Brownie’s little, silky ears.