Death came to our house in February 1960. It was a Saturday morning. I was 7, playing alone in my front yard. My sister, four years older than I, came outside and said, “Grandmother died.” Our eyes met, then she turned and went back into the house.
My maternal grandmother lived with us. She cooked and cleaned, and her matriarchal ways dominated our home. She was 78, diabetic and had a tired, old heart. But death was a surprise.
She had gotten over a mild case of pneumonia (as had my aunt, who also lived with us) and things were back to normal that Saturday morning. I had eaten pancakes and bacon, watched cartoons and had come outside to play by myself — digging in the soft, moist dirt beneath a pear tree, as you can do in the South, even in February.
Now I didn’t know what to do.
It seemed odd to stay outside and play as if nothing had happened. Then, too, Grandmother was gone. There was nothing to be done for her now. The grownups would tend to things, I reasoned; a little boy wasn’t needed at a time like this. Mainly I was afraid.
I played a few more minutes before heading into the house to face what death had left behind.
Inside were sobs and hugs and tears and the disturbing tumult of a family crying out. As I had suspected, no one paid me any mind. So I waded past the others, walked down the hallway and fearfully stepped to the doorway of my grandmother’s room, a room always off-limits to me.
She was lying in her bed, head propped on pillows. Her eyes were shut, her mouth wide open. It was a jarring, scary sight to that little boy, to see his grandmother dead that way — the woman who had been there since he could remember, who had made him breakfast just that morning. He stood in the doorway, trying to take it all in. But he went no closer to the bed or the body. That was as close to death as he wanted to be.
Time would pass before he heard the story of the final moments in the life of Nettie Eudora Finnegan McPhee.
She had bathed and was getting dressed. Her daughter was in the kitchen, one room away, when she heard her mother talking, exclaiming, “Mother, Aunt Minnie, what are you doing here?” My mother saw no one else in the room, but my grandmother continued speaking with girlish excitement. She undressed then and — despite her daughter’s protests — pulled on her nightgown and climbed back into bed.“What are you doing?” her distraught daughter pleaded.
“Mother and Aunt Minnie have come for me,” she said. “We’re going away. It’s time.”
“But you’re fine,” her daughter countered. “You were sick, but you’re fine now. You’re fine.”
But her mother — my grandmother — pulled the covers to her chin, leaned back and softly died. The doctor called it heart failure.
I have often wondered since that morning where she went and how she did it. But I have been in no hurry to find out.
Kerry Temple is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.