I do not remember my Grandfather, my mother’s father, as much as I would like. Of my two younger sisters, I’m the only child old enough to retain any trace of him. He died when I was nearly seven. I have faint memories of him being well, but I mostly know him when he was in a terminally ill state. At times, I have wished that I was born years earlier and could have developed a real rapport with him. This was the case with my cousins, who are now in their forties.
Grandfather doted upon me and my mother. She was his youngest child by far. Sixteen years separate my oldest uncle and my mother. My mother does not remember her brother living at home. Grandfather was forty-five when my mother was born. Mom was influenced by the fact that her parents were much older than those of most of the kids her age. My father had been raised in similar circumstances, and I imagine that shared fact often drew them together.
The cancer had taken its toll. It was terminal and progressed swiftly. My parents believed that his gaunt, haggard appearance would only upset myself and my two sisters. We were never allowed to see him at his sickbed. Towards the end, my parents inexplicably changed their minds one day. I’d been eager to see him after months apart and leapt at the opportunity.
I saw a weak, pale figure propped up on pillows. He had just enough strength left in his body to address me. Grandfather often quizzed me informally on topics of history. He knew I had an interest in it and enjoyed teaching me new facts and ideas.
Did Harry Truman go to college?
His voice was little more than a resigned, sad whisper by then. My first instinct was to say no, but then I changed my mind. He looked disappointed at my response.
No, he did not.
I felt as though I’d failed him somehow. I was quickly ushered from the room, a place I would never again return. It was clear that my parents had arranged only a momentary visit and that I would not tarry there long. He passed away a couple months later.
Now to the matter of the question asked of me. I was called bright and gifted beyond my years. Older people seemed to always want to ask me trivia. I acted the part of the boy genius, providing the correct answer. About the same time, an elderly man offered me ten dollars if I could recite the alphabet backwards in his presence. My mind does not work in such a fashion, but ten dollars was a lot of money in those days. I felt a bit like a trained animal in a sideshow, but appreciated the opportunity to flex my intellectual muscles.
With my Grandfather, there were different motives for this game of teacher and pupil. To him, I was not a curiosity, not a novelty. This line of questioning about Presidents and colleges was due to my Grandfather’s own upbringing. Though more than capable enough intellectually for college, the Great Depression left his family without the money to afford it.
The whole of his life, he felt inferior to those who’d had the opportunity to go. He was an autodidact with an amazing recall and had taught himself as much as any professor could, but still the deficiency nagged away at him. Education was important to him. He read the newspaper front to cover every day and sometimes two or three.
It is a stock cliche of a sort to introduce the specter of death at a young age. It happens frequency and from that perspective it has resonance. The pomp and circumstance of dearly departed does make a powerful impression upon a child. I recall the slow procession of black cars pulling alongside the roadway of the cemetery. I remember taking shade under the tree he’d planted years before with his own hands. The family plot was a reverent destination we would visit for years afterwards.
I think the dead deserve our respect. Not only do they remind us that someday we ourselves will die, but we ought to take time from our busy lives to remember the memory of those who influenced us. Every time I visited the graveside I was always struck by a sense of loss. I felt that he’d been taken from me prematurely, but I trust that God had a greater purpose for him. If I get to Heaven, I hope I get a chance to speak at length to him.
My mother was, quite understandably, utterly devastated. At thirty-one, she was younger than I am today when she lost her father. I remember she entered into a period of deep grieving that lasted for over a year. My Grandfather’s name could not be mentioned in her company, or she would begin sobbing. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a parent, though I know I will experience this same feeling eventually. That eventuality beckons sooner than I feel comfortable contemplating.
The death didn’t haunt me the way it could have, if I’d been a little older. There were a few scary moments here and there, but I was deliberately insulated from most of them. I remember the paramedics arriving, taking him from his bedroom to the hospital. My Grandparents had moved to a retirement community in Birmingham from the family home so that Grandfather could be closer to his doctors.
There was a tense energy in the air that I picked up on, but I said nothing. I didn’t know what was going on and, in any case, everyone was too busy and preoccupied to explain it to me. It must have been close to the end by then. In my mind, the events are scattered, but I was very young. I suppose it must appear this way to any young child.
The class assignments for a new school year were posted on the outside doors to the front entrance of my elementary school. Having passed Kindergarten, First Grade now beckoned. Had Mom been less preoccupied, she would have intervened in my behalf. I was assigned to a teacher who genuinely hated children. Why she’d decided to take up the profession is beyond me. I imagine she could have been extremely burned out. Her reputation preceded her and no child looked forward to nine full months with her.
Mom made one last desperate, in-person appeal to the principal, but received a lecture instead of any sympathy. The next school year, he’d be sent to transportation, which in some public schools is the equivalent of being sent to Coventry. In the school year to follow, I would contract a severe case of chicken pox that kept me out of school for nearly a month. My teacher didn’t call even once.