Our Dog Ray

We spent the morning in the backyard, playing with water from the hose. Later, he had a big meal of freshly cooked chicken breast & white rice and chased his peanut butter kong down the run between mine and the neighbor’s houses. He rolled in and crushed several of my flower beds, jumped at a passerby and scared him, and had a generally good, albeit mischievous time. By 10:59 AM, he was dead.

When he finally fell asleep, the sun was high enough to shine through in spots from behind our garden trees. Birds chirped on the grasses nearby. A cool breeze blew between us – it was so serene, it was difficult to remember that we were in the middle of a city, in the backyard of a busy Pittsburgh neighborhood sitting right on the bus line.

Ray lay on the stone patio at my feet. I got down and sat with him. He seemed comfortable, but I had my doubts. This is a dog who hogged pillows and was too good for the carpet – always pacing in circles around the sofa, like a shark, until a space on the cushions opened up for him. There he lay, though, sprawled across the sun-warmed stone and mosses, looking over the dahlia bed. He was wet and covered in mulch and dirt from having just crashed through the bushes by the borders of the garden, crushing countless petunias and impatiens along the way. A parting shot at us? No, that’s just Ray. A constant coil of energy springing into action, consequences be damned.

The travelling doctor came recommended to us by Ray’s daily walker. She was kind, openly compassionate, and took her cues from my behavior. She let me spill my guts when I began to ramble about how we tried everything to keep him from attacking other dogs. I felt like I must have been going into a sort of psychological shock, the way I just kept talking. But “knowing” that I was hopelessly rambling didn’t stop me from a profuse barrage of excuses for the decision to put Ray to sleep. Each was supported by an event in Ray’s past as though I needed to present individual case studies in dog aggression to defend this ultimate conclusion. When I finally stopped talking, she didn’t judge or try to empathize; instead she explained in calming whispers what she would do next and what to expect from Ray. And by then, the powerful sedative had already taken effect – Ray’s open eyes were rolled back, his left paw limp across my leg.

The wind picked up and the birds tussled with each other across the lawn. I leaned in and kissed my dog. Surely he had lain still over the years during countless naps and nighttime slumbers. And yet there I was thinking to myself that this was the only time I had ever seen him actually resting. I knew it wasn’t true, but it seemed like the dog was never motionless. His ears were constantly cocked, listening for the next dog or jogger or elderly couple to come down the sidewalk. His torso would tense as he prepared to lunge off of his back haunches like a kangaroo at whatever was coming. He could leap about 6 feet vertically, nearly clearing the back fence. Sitting on the back deck, I heard countless unsuspecting passersby yelp in fear and surprise when the business half of Ray would suddenly appear over the fence, snarling and flinging a froth of spit and mucous.

His breathing picked up. This is expected – some animals actually begin to pant just before the drugs cause them to pass. He was taking long, deep draws. I held my hand over his eyes since they still wouldn’t close. His leg twitched. It reminded me that he had a nightmare just last night and the dream made him whine and kick his legs until I leaned down from my bed to pet his back and comfort him.

Ray … a study in contrasts. He loved our baby, but lunged at passing strollers. He would let me know when he was sick, only to go vomit on the carpet anyway. He would run for hours in an open field, but when we humans left him home, he preferred being in his crate rather than to roam the house freely. We could never understand the cause of his anxiety, we only knew that it was deeply embedded; he hated other dogs and attacked them with unbiased determination. And now here he was, laying completely still, inches from my face. Ray, but not Ray. There, but somewhere else. So much life and personality being gently wrapped like just another dead dog in a blanket and carried out to the good doctor’s vehicle to go to a cremation furnace.

As I wrote a check to pay the doctor, I noticed the ledger number – 666. I apologized about the serial number as I handed it to her. I tried halfway joking that it wasn’t a reflection of my feelings towards her services. But of course I wondered at the collusion. Had I hired the Angel of Death? Had I just fulfilled a contract with the devil, complicit in prematurely delivering over the soul of my most loyal companion?

I will never know whether I made a terrible mistake, or did the right thing considering Ray’s circumstances and behavior. There will always be doubt, and judgement from other people, too. We did what we could for him. We gave him four good years that he never would have had otherwise. We were possibly the only people dumb enough to take such a troubled dog out of the shelter. I can only hope that that counts for something.

As we returned from the car, the doctor and I found a card and a rose on my porch. It was a sympathy card from Ray’s walker – a kind and generous soul who recently lost her own dog to an illness. In the card, she wrote that maybe now the two dogs can join forces in the next world and attack and terrorize other dogs together, and later it maked me cry deeply as I read it to my wife over the telephone.

And then, lunch. A reheated chicken breast that I made for Ray but didn’t give to him. I made too much, quite simply, and didn’t want the excess to give him a belly ache. So I eat the remains of his last meal. I can’t say it tastes bitter; though I wish I could. It was really quite delicious. And so passes Ray Bon from this world: a mostly good thing that I wish wasn’t so good, because it would have made what I had to do to him a lot easier to swallow.

Our dog Ray

Madame Seriziat

My father has always loved this portrait of Madame Seriziat. Over the years I have come to admire it a great deal, too. Such a subtle, but beautiful woman.

The art of our ancestors is a wonderful thing. In the midst of cell phone notification-overload and Tivo-remorse, it is a joy to pause for a moment and enjoy something simple and still. I have to wonder what is making this woman smile. I also wonder what her toddler grew up to become, and frankly how the artist (Jacques Louis David) was able to keep him still long enough to capture his likeness.

I don’t know anything about art, but David’s other work (he is a renown artist) includes recurring themes of politics, religion, and death. This portrait is so wonderfully absent those things. It makes me grateful for my family & grateful that my dad shared it with me.


Edward Braun’s Documents

In September, 2008, we donated all of Michael and Edward Braun’s papers to the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.

Included in the collection were: two work visas, which I previously thought were passports, for Michael and his wife, Adelaide, several legal papers in French, probably sales contracts, one of Edward’s stock certificates, and letters from the stock broker about the mining company. We also gave them a letter which a friend tried to translate, a letter written in ornate, spidery French handwriting, which seemed to be addressed to an official of the forest service and described an incident involving a dog attack in the forest. How incredible to think that when Michael wrote this letter in the 1840’s, he could hardly imagine that it would survive so many decades and will someday, like the rest of the collection, be posted on the internet.

The archivist from the History Center corresponded with me recently about their progress in the translations. Here’s what he said, in part:

We’ve been working on the collection since the time of arrival of the material to the Heinz History Center.  I currently have two assistants working on it.  One person, a former French teacher, is transcribing each document.  Each document has been reviewed and I believe that 50% plus has been transcribed.  He is now working on the sample booklet and he is currently in communication with an archivist in France.  He’s not a textile expert and he doesn’t quite understand the patterns.  The other person working on the collection, a professional genealogist is working on the family tree and she is attempting to verify dates and names in regards to the materials present in the collection, i.e. she is going to show that everything makes historic sense according to census data and what can be found in the collection.  She is also searching for information on your family in regards to what they were doing after the dates of materials present in the collection; therefore we may be asking you for more information, that is if you have it?  I think that all three of us have been engrossed in the project and therefore we are interested to know more! The three of us meet or at least discuss the project each and every week.

When all the materials have been translated, it will be posted on the History Center website in the archives as the Michael and Edward Braun Collection.

Edward Braun

Family stories often get lost in the jumble of daily life until decades take their toll, people pass away and no one is left who can fill in the forgotten details. As we age, snippets are remembered and the time comes when we wish we could ask questions, clarify details and understand more about our origins. Maybe these thoughts are triggered by our own inklings of mortality and the hope that we in turn won’t be ignored by our descendants.

I’ve started a search to find remnants of my grandfather, Edward Braun. His story posed a mystery because although he was a blue collar working man, he made investments far in excess of what his situation would have allowed. Did he have a secret source of income?He died long before I was adopted into the family but the stories I knew about him came back to life through items he left behind.

An old gun was the most memorable link, an object fascinating to me even as a child. It was carelessly kept around the house, and said to have been brought over from France by Michael Braun, grandfather’s brother. The gun was a small, extremely ornate revolver, embellished with finely carved flowers and scrollwork. It had a dull finish and when I was a know it all teen, I decided to polish it with baking soda. I let the baking soda dry, and it was encrusted into the fine carved lines for the next forty years. So much for my expertise at antique restoration!

I vaguely knew there were some papers pertaining to Michael, too, but I was middle aged before I developed the desire to decipher them. Now I am stunned at how very old they are, and their delicate condition makes them almost untouchable. These things have been kept in my safe deposit box for decades. Handwritten in French, in flamboyant calligraphy, they date back to 1845.

Most prominent are two passports, one for Michael Braun and one for his wife, Adelaide Lehmann. Adelaide’s is dated “29 Guillet, 1845″. Michael’s includes this phrase:travail des enfants pour un enfant dans les manufactures usines ou ateteers which might be translated into labor of minor children in the manufacture of ???? Phrases in the passport indicate he was 14 years old, but already Adelaide was his spouse. If I understand the documents correctly, both Michael and Adelaide were born in 1830.

Although the couple had passports in 1845, they continued to live in France awhile longer. All documents show they were residents of Sainte Marie aux Mines, a valley town in the Vosges Mountains in the canton of Alsace.

The city’s history revolves around mining, ranging from precious gems, silver, lead and arsenic, to coal. It is said by one account to have a ‘fairy tale reputation’ because of some fabulous finds which established its fame, including a 1200 pound block of silver unearthed during the Middle Ages. The Alsace Lorraine region had long been fought over by France and Germany, and despite Germanic sounding surnames, the Brauns were staunchly French.

Sainte Marie aux Mines is renown today as a beautiful tourist area, home to the second largest gem and mineral show in Europe. Held annually in June, the show draws thousands from around the world and is famous for its quality.

The latest date on a French document is 9 Juin, 1867. Beyond that, there is no clue to when they immigrated to America.

Michael brought with him a small notebook. Page after page contains postage stamp size fabric swatches, beautiful brocades, plaids and stripes. On each opposing page is a diagram, with lines representing warp and weft, and dots at various intersections depicting how the fabric pattern was created. Until everything is translated, it is hard to determine if he was a simple weaver or a more grandiose designer of textiles. From his passport, we know he traveled extensively.

All these documents relate to Michael and Adelaide, but what of Edward Braun? He may have failed to leave much of a paper trail, but he did leave the most exciting story in the family.

As a 3 year old, Edward had long golden curls, a style usually associated with aristocracy. One day he was playing with some wealthy children just outside the gate of the local nobleman’s estate. A band of Gypsies came along and kidnapped the children, scooping him up with the others, assuming he, too, was worth a ransom. Quickly the village men mounted horses and raced after the Gypsies, successfully recovering the children. What a different course our family history would follow if they had failed!

It was probably sometime around the late 1860’s when the Brauns came to America. We don’t know who all made the journey, whether separately or together, or why they settled upon Pittsburgh.

Edward married, and had two children, Elsie and Elmer. I remember visiting them during my childhood. They lived together in Coraopolis, PA all their lives. Both were schoolteachers. Neither ever married.

At some point, Edward’s wife died and well into middle age, perhaps around age sixty, he married Alice Fitzgerald on August 24, 1903 in Allegheny (now part of the city of Pittsburgh known as the North Side). Alice was from a family of Irish immigrants. I remember her as tall, large, but not fat, rather strong and handsome looking. She was a kind and beloved grandmother to me. They had one child, my mother, Rose Ella, born July 25, 1905.

Edward worked for the Pittsburgh Railways Company as a toll taker on the bridge spanning the Ohio River between Coraopolis and Neville Island. He was an old style European husband and father, so jealous and domineering that he sometimes required Alice and Rose to come to the toll booth with him while he worked.

During the 1920’s he built a handsome house in a nice section of Coraopolis, the home where I grew up. After his death, Alice continued to live there. Rose married John Elder on August 10, 1936, which was John’s twenty eighth birthday and they all lived in the house until their deaths. Alice passed on in 1950, Rose in 1969 and John a year later.

Though Edward left nothing like the letters or papers Michael kept, he did leave one fascinating set of documents: more than a dozen stock certificates along with some cash receipts for their purchase and business letters about the companies. All the stock was in mining companies. As a native of Sainte Marie aux Mines, he must have been convinced the path to fortune was through mining. But how did he pay for all this?

The toll to cross the bridge was five cents. We have no idea what Edward earned but to put the wages of the times into prospective, his daughter Rose was a legal secretary during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s and earned $20 a month. How did a toll taker who might have earned $400 a year, if that, invest almost $3500 in stock between 1907 and 1920?

The answer to that mystery probably died along with Edward and Alice. The companies he hoped would provide his road to riches, companies with names like The Nevada Greenback Wonder Mining Company died with the stock market crash of 1929, at least no trace of them can be found today.

The French documents await translation, keeping Braun family alive for their Twenty-first Century descendants.

Rose Elder Field

December 14, 2006