Part Four. Read part one, part two and part three.
The Cherokee have a saying that harkens the lovely spirit of each ancestor during the birth of a baby, hoping to carry forward the commendable in those gone before us, while letting go of the human shortcomings each carried through this life.
It is a lovely thought, and though I don’t remember the chant, the sentiment has stayed with me.
For all of my Dad’s life, even the very happiest of moments seemed tinged with melancholy. He carried a sorrow with strength and a quiet, stoic heart. To have lost a dear mother at 13, there were no words, really, to have shared the depth of such loss.
What he was able to tell me was that with the birth of each of his children, he felt the joy and happiness of becoming a parent, while another part of him loved each of us so fiercely, he wanted to spare us the very inevitable heartache of losing a beloved parent along life’s journey.
He saw, in each of us, a part of his mother who he never stopped missing.
What I have found incredible is that each person I have talked to over all these many years, when I ask about my paternal grandmother, there is still palpable sorrow.
I once interviewed a woman who was nearing 100, her mind so sharp she still could recite poetry many pages long. Edna McNaull still found it emotionally difficult to talk about my grandmother.
“She was just so alive, so alive. She was a good person in every way, doing so much for so many, looking out for the less fortunate. The room just sparked with energy because she was always doing,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears.
A father’s sorrow
Heartbreak for the children was obvious of course, but Edna had grown up knowing and caring about Charlie, Helen’s father.
Edna said, “I just ached for our sweet Charlie,” who adored his go-getter daughter.
Charlie and Helen often sang duets, with youngest daughter Virginia playing the piano, both at church and community club events. Edna enjoyed those times, and spoke of Helen’s happy nature which mirrored her father.
Charlie, it has been said, aged overnight. Losing his energetic daughter at age 35 during a routine tonsillectomy dimmed a spark he had always had. He never again would raise hundreds of lambs each year. His hair quickly turned white, his face etched with sorrow.
He withdrew, at a time when Helen’s husband also spiraled into what likely was depression, leaving my dad to run the farm on his own at 13.
Picking up the pieces
The Christmas of 1945, Helen had given my father his very first shotgun. In the days after the funeral in March 1946, my dad’s uncle Emery bought some shotgun shells and said, “Come on, let’s go hunting. I’m going to teach you how to shoot.”
The farm and its wooded acreage with a stream running through it proved to be a perfect outlet for a young boy’s aching heart.
Emery would forever be held in high regard, and a few years later when my dad got his driver’s license, he would quite often take his siblings to go visit Emery and his wife Martha.
Charlie, a few years later, often came to our dairy farm to help as Dad built his farm and his family.
Charlie’s wife had died the year before I was born, and my parents said my arrival seemed to perk him up. We became buddies, and my adoration for him ran deep.
I loved to talk and sing, and tried so hard to whistle just like my sweet Grandpa Charlie.
“You’ll get it one of these days,” he said as he plopped his hat on my head.
“Sing me that tune you tried to teach me yesterday,” he said with a smile. I sang my heart out, doing a little dance to go with it. My dad and his grandpa seemed a happy little audience.
I had no way of knowing I was kicking up a little dose of medicine, but the realization strikes me now. Their smiles, their toe-tapping and clapping was joyful. It was a nod to the past they had endured together while finding happiness in the present.
A black and white photograph, me about age 4, wearing Charlie’s hat, my mouth open wide in laughter or in song, shows him smiling down on me.
It is a sweet moment, held forever dear.
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