A dog’s best friend: Mary Elizabeth Johnson
By LONN TAYLOR
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about dogs. This column is about dogs, too, but it is also about a dog lover, Mary Elizabeth Johnson. She was my former wife’s grandmother’s sister, and was known to everyone in her family as Sister.
My former wife was named Diane, and Sister played a larger role her life than a great-aunt normally would because Diane was raised by her grandparents and Sister had been part of their household since the 1920s. By the time we met in 1968, Sister was Diane’s only living relative. She lived on a ranch about thirty miles south of San Antonio with seven toy poodles.
Sister was born sometime in the 1880s into comfortable circumstances in Boonville, Missouri. Her father was a lawyer who had once served as attorney-general of Missouri, and Sister grew up in a Southern household whose experience of the Civil War had been skewed by being in Missouri. She thought that the Battle of Boonville was the decisive battle of the war, and that General Jeff Thompson, known as the Swamp Fox of Missouri, was the greatest of all Confederate generals.
My former wife’s grandfather was an Englishman who came to America in the 1890s and got a foothold in the oil business by going to Tampico, Mexico, in 1916, claiming to be a “surface geologist.” The most productive oil well in the world had just been brought in near Tampico and Tampico was at the peak of an oil boom. He once told his granddaughter that he did well in the oil business because Americans would believe anything someone with an English accent told them. He married my former wife’s grandmother before leaving for Mexico, and Sister went along with them. In Tampico she married and divorced the mysterious Mr. Johnson, whom she never spoke of. When the family returned to Texas in the early 1920s Sister became her brother-in-law’s secretary, and she was part of the family for the rest of her life.
Sister was in her eighties when I first met her and was still a beautiful woman. She had a milk-white, unlined complexion, enormous blue eyes, and red hair, which she kept red with a little artificial assistance. She managed her deceased brother-in-law’s ranch, which was actually about three hundred acres of pecan groves, with the help of a foreman who lived on the property, and she annually negotiated the sale of the pecan crop herself. After Diane and I married Sister became very much part of our lives. To be more accurate, Sister and her dogs became very much part of our lives. A large portion of Sister’s life was devoted to looking after her poodles. Toy poodles are very high-maintenance dogs. At least one of them was always in need of veterinary care, and she would load all seven of them into her Lincoln Continental and drive them into San Antonio, leaving the ailing one at the vet’s and then stopping at Luby’s Cafeteria to buy meals for the other six. They all rode in the front seat with her, getting as close to her as they could. She looked like she was wearing a living fur coat when she was driving with them.
Sister’s life was her dogs. She had kept toy poodles since the 1930s, and her bedroom at the ranch was filled with photographs of them, some of them autographed with little paw prints. On the mantelpiece in that room were half a dozen small plastic urns which contained the ashes of especially loved past poodles. One summer I wanted to work on a book at the ranch, and when I proposed to Sister that I use one of the outbuildings to write in she graciously acceded, saying, “I wrote a book myself once.” I had not heard about this and asked, “What was it called?” “The Golden Dog,” she said. This turned out to be pure fantasy.
Sister died in the summer of 1977, and we got three surprises. The first came when we went to get her death certificate and discovered that somewhere along the line she had knocked ten years off her birth date; she was actually ninety-seven instead of the eighty-seven that we had thought her to be, and she had been driving into San Antonio and back by herself – unless you count the dogs – until a few months before her death. The second came when we opened a letter she had left concerning her funeral arrangements. She wanted to have the ashes of her favorite poodle, Lou-Lou, buried with her. I took the urn down to the funeral home in San Antonio and explained that I wanted to put something in her coffin. The funeral director told me that was fine; she was in a viewing room and I could put whatever I wanted to in the coffin and then be present while the lid was screwed down. “Why do I need to be present when you do that?” I asked. “Well, it is jewelry, isn’t it?” the funeral director asked. I explained that no, it was the ashes of a cremated dog, and he went a little crazy. “You can’t possibly do that!” he said. When I asked why not, he said that no cemetery in San Antonio would allow animals to be buried in it; it wasn’t decorous. When I heard the word “decorous” I said, “What about Ilene West?” and that stopped him dead.
I should explain that Ilene West was a San Antonio socialite who had recently been buried by the same funeral home seated upright in her 1964 Ferrari 300, wearing a lacy nightgown. “I don’t want to hear about Ilene West,” the funeral director said. “Just please don’t mention Ilene West. You can put anything you want in your aunt’s coffin.” And so Lou-Lou is at rest with Sister in Sunset Memorial Park.
The third surprise? Sister left $45,000 in trust for her surviving poodles. Diane and I tried to persuade the trust officer at the Groos Bank that the poodles would benefit from a round-the-world cruise in the kennels of a luxury liner, accompanied, of course, by us, but he was not persuaded. The dogs ended their days in the finest kennel in Medina County, with a concrete floor, heated sleeping areas, and a fenced run, cared for daily by a ranch foreman who had dog-feeding added to his duties.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk