By Mona Jean Harley

It was 1972 in April, on a Sunday afternoon.  I was 7 years old.  My parents had taken a typical Sunday afternoon nap, and Mom had taken the phone off the hook so a call would not awaken her.  Occasionally the phone stayed off the hook long past the nap, until someone went to use the phone and realized there was no dial tone. Today was one of those days.

Unbeknownst to our family, my grandma from Florida (my dad’s mom) had been trying to call for several hours.  Not able to get through, she finally called my mom’s parents, my grandparents who lived two miles away.  Soon my local grandparents stopped over at our house, as they frequently did.

My younger sister and I were having fun playing house in the cardboard pop-up playhouse in the corner of the family room, with the painted brick and window boxes bursting with cheery flowers, and my older brother was perhaps reading the Sunday comics.  My grandparents were usually all smiles and talkative, but not today.  My grandma went to find my parents.  My boisterous grandpa quietly sat on a kitchen stool.  I remember something felt odd, different, that I didn’t quite understand, but at that age I didn’t think to question the mood, so my sister and I kept playing.

Grandpa, Dad and a brother about 1969

My usual happy grandma returned from talking with my parents and solemnly sat beside my grandpa.  She didn’t want to play with us either.  Hmmm. A little while later my dad came out and called us the kids  into the living room.

The living room?  We never used the living room.  It was only when Mom and Dad were having private conversations, maybe about Christmas gifts, or if company who we didn’t know very well came over.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

Dad choked out the words, “Grandpa Harley died,” with tears running down his cheek. His dad, my beloved grandpa. This is why my other grandparents were so somber.  Did I realize that then at age 7, or was it only in reflecting on this poignant time that I understood the tenor of that afternoon?

In a flash Grandpa was gone, having a heart attack while driving the car, minutes after kissing my grandma goodbye.  “That is how I want to remember him,” I heard Grandma say, reflecting on the goodbye kiss, as my parents, brother and I were leaving her house in Florida a few days later, to drive by the spot in the road where Grandpa had died, and then to stop at the funeral home to see his body.  My dad wanted to see both.

I witnessed my dad learning of his dad’s sudden death, complicated by a phone off the hook.  Eighteen years later I learned of my own dad’s sudden death from a heart attack, over the phone, from an unknown nurse at a hospital a few states away.  Several days later, I too, wanted to see the exact spot on the road where my dad had died in the car, railroad tracks that my sister was crossing as she drove my dad to the hospital.

The number of my memories I have surrounding my grandpa seems to far outweigh the total of all my other memories of my first seven years of life.  The event also has more parallels than I had even realized, with my own dad’s death, which perhaps has been the most significant branching point in my life.  My reflection on these events and the astounding parallels that had been hidden from my view, have connected me even further, years after their deaths, to two very significant and beloved people in my life.

© 2019 Mona Jean Harley

Mona Jean Harley was delighted to stumble across the “First Monday First Person” writing group in Madison Wisconsin in the fall of 2018, which has been a perfect space to become more fully inspired in writing and in paying attention to life.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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