March 15, 2022

A Child’s Awareness of the Secrets of Death

At Grandpa's funeral, 1954
At Grandpa’s funeral, 1954

Daddy was sad and quiet. Mommy cleared her throat and dabbed her eyes with a tissue. Uncle Jim and Aunt Martha arrived without my cousins.

I was 9 years old and soaked in impending doom, but no one said a word. They thought I was too little to know the truth, but I wanted to know why the grownups spoke in hushed whispers hiding secrets. Why they ate off paper plates or stayed at the hospital? Why no one played cards? Where were you, Grandpa?

Lon C. Ware, Sr. 1942

I don’t know how long it took to understand you’d died. My favorite loving grandpa who took me to the barn and perched me on a cow while he milked by hand, squirting warm milk in the metal bucket. My grandpa who let me bottle feed abandoned lambs and cranked homemade peach ice cream in August. My sweet grandpa who took me to the Jefferson Hotel where the farmers met for Friday coffee while their wives shopped. You ordered hot chocolate and a cinnamon donut just for me.

Did you ever lose your temper or raise your voice? I don’t think so.

In Missouri summers, you wore knee high rubber boots to keep the chiggers from biting. You pulled on old overhauls with your calloused gentle hands. After winter Sunday dinner, you filled the coal stove from the black bucket and pulled your harmonica from a pocket while Grandma ruled the piano. Later, the grownups played canasta and gin rummy. You were quietly happy with squinty eyes and a thin wide grin.

Grandpa (in back) with family, ~1925

By the early 1950s, you were a one cow, ten pigs, 50 sheep farmer, although you’d been a surveyor for years. You weren’t interested in home improvements and didn’t mind a water pump in the yard and an outhouse.

You and Grandma were Roosevelt Democrats, grateful for rural electrification. You raised your own food and had no interest in moving to town.

Daddy worried about you out there, ten miles in the country. You had a radio but no telephone, so when you fell in the yard and didn’t get up, Grandma put her ample weight into clanging the dinner bell, sending a local farmer’s SOS.

How long did it take to get help? Did an ambulance come? You had a car, but Grandma couldn’t drive.

Grandma and Grandpa: ~1953

You were already frail, despite your round belly and rosy cheeks. Sometimes there was a vacant, far-away look in your eyes, but you loved bacon and biscuits made with lard and butter, and in 1954 no one spoke about strokes in Audrain County, Missouri.

Dad looked broken at your funeral, but he and Uncle Jim moved Grandma to town and sold the farm. The new owners burned the old house down.

with Grandpa ~1948

At night, as I fell asleep, I felt your presence—somewhere near the ceiling or floating above the roof. I told you I loved you and asked, “Grandpa, where did you go?

The answer was silence.


Do you remember your first experience of death? I knew animals died, but as a young child, I didn’t know a family member could die. And why was everything so secret? I still don’t understand how death was handled in the 1950s.

For other posts about my grandpa, see How I Learned to Trust a Man. For a post about my father’s death in 1959, see When Dad’s Die Young.


  1. April 8, 2022 at 6:40 pm



    Somehow I missed this beautiful piece about your grandpa, Elaine. You made him come alive for me and I wanted to know more about you and your relationship with him, which made me go back and read “How I Learned to Trust a Man.” Ah, so much tenderness and love. I never knew either of my grandfathers, but from the little I know of them I would not have learned how to trust a man’s words and hands from them. I have been blessed to learn that from my husband, who also has “careful calloused hands” and kind words for his grandchildren that never hurt or scold.

    You wrote that he died of a stroke when you were only 9 and yet your memories are so clear and full of life. It made me think of Rachel Naomi Remen’s book My Grandfather’s Blessings, and what she wrote about her grandfather:

    “The line between the living and the dead may be thinner than we think. In putting death behind us as rapidly as possible, separating ourselves from it with our words and in many other ways, we may make life not only smaller but colder. My beloved grandfather died when I was about seven and my parents were anxious to help me get over the blow of this great loss. Following the advice of a child psychiatrist they had waited for me to speak of it but when I did not my mother began to worry. Eventually she just asked me what it was like for me now that Grandpa was gone. I do not remember saying this but apparently I had told her that things were different now. Now I could take him to school with me. I do remember having a sense of his closeness that faded only after many years. Certainly I talked with him for a long time in much the way we had both talked to God together. As Mitch Albom wrote in his exquisite book Tuesdays with Morrie: “Death is the end of a lifetime, not the end of a relationship.”

    1. April 9, 2022 at 7:50 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      We went to the farm every Sunday when I was a child and it was my favorite place on earth. My mother was tense around my grandmother, so maybe that kept me alert. Grandpa was the sweetest influence and he and my dad were affectionate. They loved singing and playing cards.

      I love Rachel Naomi Remen’s books. When Vic taught physics to premeds (not something they wanted to learn), he began each class with a story from her, usually ‘Kitchen Table Wisdom.’ I talked with my grandpa, too, but when my dad died when I was 14, I couldn’t make that same heart contact. I longed to feel his presence but couldn’t. Thanks for reminding me of Remen’s wisdom.

  2. March 17, 2022 at 2:08 pm

    Jean Raffa


    Such a lovely post, Elaine. You were lucky to know all your grandparents, and to be involved in their lives. Your story brings back so many fond memories of my own grandparents who were all lovely, kind people. Grandpa Benedict died before I was born. and Grandma died when I was in high school. I was away at college when my maternal grandparents died so never went to their funerals. Now that we’re grandparents we feel so fortunate that all five of our grandchildren live within ten minutes of us. It’s been such a joy to watch them grow up into such beautiful young people. I hope you’ll get to have a grandchild or two one of these days!! Jeanie

    1. March 17, 2022 at 3:15 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Jeanie, I was lucky to know my grandparents and spend time with them. They had a positive influence on my life. I didn’t know how lucky that was at the time, but I have fond memories of all four of them. I don’t think grandchildren will happen this time around in my life, but we never know. One son is over 50 and the other is in his late 40s and no children seems to be the plan in their relationships. I’m grateful for friend’s children I’ve known since they were born. Many young people are deciding against having children, but I would have loved the experience. You’re fortunate to have them close as I watch friends struggle to spend time with grandkids who live across the country. Grandparent love is an archetypal gift! My Monarchs are my grandkids–and slowly, ever so slowly, I shape the Monarch material I’ve gathered since 2017.

  3. March 17, 2022 at 1:58 pm



    What loving memories you have of both your grandparents.
    I only knew my grandmothers and not very well because of
    our distance. I was 12 when my maternal grandmother died.

    After college, when I lived in Florence, my father’s doctors and my family tried to protect me from the gravity his illness. He was a doctor and even wrote me a letter that made light of his weight loss. I was sent a telegram to return hime only after his doctors thought he’d be gone.

    But they didn’t know my dad and me. He clung to life and
    returned home and we had another 6 months. I learned so much about his early years and I’m always be so grateful for our time together. I wholeheartedly agree how important it is to let everyone know and be part of the “journey.”

    1. March 17, 2022 at 3:01 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thanks for sharing your story, Sarah. I was fortunate to know all four grandparents well. After this grandpa died, I still had three living grandparents for a long time. I’m glad you had that wonderful last 6 months with your dad, asking all the questions you needed to ask and having time for his answers and just sharing time. We don’t get this end of life coming together if we try to hide the inevitability of mortality. I’m glad both my sons had a few years with their dad, knowing how precious their relationships were and understanding they were “time-limited.”

  4. March 16, 2022 at 2:09 pm



    This is so moving and what a lovely relationship you shared with your grandparents. Reminded me of my grandfather’s sudden demise and how much I cried an entire day..
    Grandparents are such a lovely addition in the tapestry of family especially if they are as loving as you were blessed with.

    Thanks Elaine for seeing this sacred piece… makes me smile and remember my grandparents… God bless you.

    1. March 16, 2022 at 6:07 pm

      Elaine Mansfield


      Thank you, Reena. I was fortunate to know all four kind and loving grandparents. I’m grateful for sweet memories of them from girlhood. I send blessings back to you.

  5. March 16, 2022 at 11:24 am

    susan scott


    Thank you Elaine, a lovely tribute to your Grandfather.

    We were living in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia as it was called then), we’d come back from a Guy Fawkes display, the phone was ringing. My father bundled we 3 young children into our bedrooms .. the awful news which we didn’t really know about until some days later was that our elder half brother, John (21 yrs old) had been killed that night on his motor cycle. We all adored him … but there was silence over everything. Silence, not of the good kind. Brooding, heavy, thick. I don’t think we were allowed to attend the funeral. My mother never spoke about it … of the school of stoicism .. this was in the 1950’s as well ..

    I never knew my paternal grandfather and the other 3 grandparents I remember vaguely. Even though each of them lived with us at some stage or the other …

    1. March 16, 2022 at 11:40 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I never understood this approach, Susan, but it’s the way death was handled in so many families. When Vic was diagnosed with cancer, I wanted community and family support and I’m grateful it was there for us. Our sons knew everything and kept in constant communication with us. If there had been younger children, I would have found a way to include them, too. I can feel the stoic brooding, heavy silence of your half-brother’s death. I’m sorry–and your poor mom. So much grief to carry without support and hugs.
      My maternal grandmother lived to see her great grandchildren and I have a lovely photo of her holding my older son David on her lap. She was forgetful, but her loving heart was intact. The same was true of Grandpa in this post. He never lost his sweetness. I was fortunate to know the love of all four grandparents.

  6. March 16, 2022 at 7:03 am

    Marian Beaman


    I admire how much you remember as a child, but then you are a very, very observant woman.

    I was younger, age 5, when my Grandpa Longenecker died. He was a farm equipment dealer, starting his own business and also farming tobacco in parcels in two villages. I have two memories of Grandpa: killing a snake in the grass with a hoe and giving me something to drink when I cleverly asked, “Do you know how to spell Pepsi?” I’m sure he did, but I’m not sure they had Pepsis in the fridge.

    Although I don’t remember the funeral, I do remember the viewing. It was in Grandpa and Grandma’s home, the body in a casket in the living room. I remember two pink torchiere lamps at either end of the coffin. There were hushed tones and dabbing of eyes too, not with tissues but with white handkerchiefs.

    You Grandpa Ware seems to have had a benign presence as you have pleasant memories, beautifully recalled here. Thanks, Elaine!

    1. March 16, 2022 at 11:27 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      I remember through photos and also because we moved often, so I knew the approximate year because of where we lived. My mother was restless and always on the move. I wanted the opposite in my life. As I recall, your dad took over the farm equipment business and the farming, too. It was a calmer life than working on a computer all day.

      My mother never knew that my grandpa bought me treats and my grandma handed out the cinnamon balls and Pepsi. My mom was on the austere side and I can thank her for my healthy teeth. My Grandma could be fierce (although not with me, but if she felt people were disrespectful or drinking alcohol), but I don’t remember my granddad being anything except sweet and kind. I wanted this piece to highlight the confusion and pain it gives a child when we don’t explain death and give the child a chance to mourn. I hope I succeeded.

      1. March 16, 2022 at 12:23 pm

        Marian Beaman


        You did, indeed, Elaine! ((( )))

  7. March 16, 2022 at 6:54 am

    Aladin Fazel


    It’s a beautiful, heart-touching and lovely memory, my dear Elaine. I had never known my grandparents, and my first awareness of death as a child was when my father died. Your grandparents were self-made and autonomous. All respect! It is so precious to see such beautiful pictures. Thank you for sharing this wonderful memory with us. Blessing.

    1. March 16, 2022 at 11:17 am

      Elaine Mansfield


      My grandmother was an opera singer and classically trained pianist, but she became a farmer’s wife after marrying my grandfather who inherited my great grandfather’s farm. Eleanor Roosevelt was my grandmother’s hero. I’m grateful for the old photos from both sides of my family and try to label everything for those who are interested when I’m no longer here. I don’t have grandchildren for sharing photos and stories.
      I hope to write about Sophia of Kyiv soon since I’m studying Sophia with my mythology class. So far, the cathedral in Kyiv still stands. It takes so long to create elaborate buildings with local religious themes and it’s so easy to destroy. I’m glad the US isn’t dropping the bombs this time, but we’ve done more than our share of that.

      1. March 19, 2022 at 6:26 am

        Aladin Fazel


        I wish the cathedral remains stayed intact. We only can hope for peace soon. I will be happy to read your Sophia, dear Elaine. Stay well.

        1. March 19, 2022 at 1:09 pm

          Elaine Mansfield


          I will write about it in time. I’m trying to adjust to all that is happening. Wishing you safety and good health.

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