Third grade was a transitional year.
I suppose you could say any number of those events was a type of death ... but the death of Great-Grandpa was the first time being aware that a human being who had been in my life would no longer be there.
We had just moved back to my hometown after a two-year stint in the California foothills, where I had attended first and second grades at a rural school with five classrooms: Kindergarten. First through third grades. Fourth through sixth grades. And seventh and eight grades. And special ed. At my new school I felt out of my league because not only did I not know any of the kids but mom had insisted I get placed into the class of the “smart” kids — and I was not ready.
In third grade, my dog had another set of puppies, and we traded two of them for a bag of candy bars from a woman who worked at the local chocolate factory. I thought the candy would be an annuity, but when the chocolate ran out and no more was forthcoming, I lamented that we had settled on too-low a price for Freckles and Susie.
In third grade, my little brother was still recovering from a terrible auto accident that left him blind in one eye and was the reason we moved back to our hometown.
In third grade my parents divorced, which though traumatic at the time, was really a good thing in the long run. Plus, the night it was announced, we got to go out to dinner at the smorgasbord.
In third grade, I decided it was time to join the church — a decision I made during a conversation with our pastor at our house on, oddly enough, Halloween.
And in third grade, Great-Grandpa died.
I suppose you could say any number of those events was a type of death – leaving one school, giving away puppies, dealing with the near-loss of my little brother, the divorce of my parents, but the death of Great-Grandpa was the first time that a human being who had been in my life would no longer be there..
Being only eight years old, I didn’t understand the cause of death. For years I thought he died of “corroted arteries,” which I took to mean “clotted” or “rotted” or “corroded.” It wasn’t until years later that I learned we all have carotid arteries, but then the very word itself sounded like a terrible disease.
Great-Grandpa grew up poor and religious in Oklahoma, or maybe it was Texas. A stint at farming didn’t go very well, but he had a gift for oration and a love of the Lord. He became a Southern Baptist Preacher (yes, in my mind, the P also had to be capitalized). He held tent revivals, and from what I’ve been told, could really get things roaring. By the time I knew him, he was retired, but I heard a couple scratchy and warbly recordings of his sermons on fragile reel-to-reel tapes and he did boom about Jesus. I remember a large man with a round head, wisps of silver-black hair over his otherwise bald pate. He had the slightly sour smell of an old man. I seemed to see him only when he wore suit trousers, maybe the matching suit coat, a white shirt and a tie. Dinner got cold while he said grace.
I don’t remember how my mother delivered the news, but I don’t remember being particularly upset hearing he had died. Since I had just joined the church, I was newly of the belief in an afterlife and imagined Great-Grandpa sitting on the right hand of God, or at least on the next cloud over. It was important to me to pick out a sympathy card for my Great-Grandma, and I chose a suitably spiritual one with the message, “He is not gone. He is just away.”
I got to skip school to go to his funeral, and I remember telling my more-learned classmates in a very important and grave tone that I had to go attend to the death of my Great-Grandpa, certain that none of them had yet dealt with such an important transition. I remember the funeral, which was a four-hour drive away. Fully Baptist, it was an open-casket affair, and as the family of the deceased we were the first to pass by it following the service. Being only eight, I was small and came up only to eye-level of the side of the coffin. I didn’t want to look, really, but I did shift my eyes sufficient to get a glimpse of his nose — pale and still, a little pulpy and large. And that was my last sight of Great-Grandpa.
It was also the end of the year’s transitions. Fourth grade, thankfully, was rather uneventful.