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?
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.
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.
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.
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.