It was my first experience with death. I was 10, and our cousin was living with us for the summer, a city kid working on the farm.
When I awoke that morning, this 15-year-old, had-to-grow-old-too-soon, was bearing the news that our grandfather had taken his last breath as he sat down on the edge of his bed after the 10 o’clock news the previous night. At 71, Grandpa’s life was over in an instant, due to a massive coronary.
My cousin was in charge for the morning, while my dad took my mother to their hometown to be with my grandma. Together, this young man and I tried to comprehend our loss.
In talking recently with some of my cousins about that time in our life and the days following our grandfather’s death, I found we all have different memories. And, no matter our age at the time, we all saw life a little differently after that day.
My strongest memory of those days is of one of my younger uncles, who was then in his early thirties. It was a couple mornings after Grandpa’s death, a day or two before his funeral. A number of us were sitting around the big table in Grandma’s even bigger kitchen, with its tall wooden cabinets, often-whirring treadle sewing machine, and heavy iron hand pump.
I don’t remember for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, over her housedress, Grandma was wearing a homemade, flowered-print bib apron, a few straight pins stuck into the front of the straps, ready and waiting for the next sewing project. She usually did.
It was breakfast time, and the old two-slice toaster under the window on Grandma’s counter was working overtime.
What a toaster it was!
I’d never seen one like it before and I’ve never seen one since, but this toaster popped the toast high out of the slots and sent the slices soaring through the air. As kids, it was as exciting to watch that toaster as it was to walk to the small-town Ben Franklin with Grandma, crisp dollar bill clutched in hand.
This uncle was always quite a clown. My mother tells stories of how, when he was a young lad serving as an altar boy, my uncle would push the paten under her chin to try to make her laugh as she received Holy Communion.
And, yes, even in grief, he knew how to bring joy to the moment.
As we sat around the kitchen that day, my uncle took my grandmother on his knee. We children had never seen anyone bounce our grandmother on their knees. Soon all three generations were in stitches—and not from the treadle machine on the far wall.
A few seconds later, the next two slices of bread flew through the air. As my uncle caught the flying toast, his tiny Irish mother balanced on his knee, we giggled more, and all knew that, even in our loss, we had each other. We’d be all right.
I learned a couple of lessons that day—how much comfort can be found in a family making memories and that a little laughter can go a long way toward soothing hurting hearts.
Yesterday, my uncle left us to join Grandpa and Grandma. As I stop to remember his life and his legacy, the laughter is once again the thing I remember most.
He didn’t leave us as quickly as Grandpa did. Cancer took its time in claiming my uncle’s life.
He fought it with courage, and I’ve no doubt one of the tools in his arsenal was his sense of humor.
More than 50 years later, hearing the news of a loved one’s passing isn’t any easier, though.
I love you, Uncle Lyle. Godspeed.
© Ann Tracy Mueller 2013