That evening started with the excitement of going to a movie on a weeknight. Normally forbidden for her sixth-grade son, Mom allowed this one-time privilege because a teacher’s meeting canceled classes the next day, an autumn Friday in 1950.
I watched raptly as Lloyd Bridges and Glenn Ford scaled treacherous Alpine peaks in “The White Tower.” Brimming with excitement and energy when the movie ended, I raced home in the dark, sprinting across the courthouse lawn toward the lights of our home a block distant.
I saw cars parked in front of our house, but thought little of it. St. Mary’s Church stood tall next door. Perhaps Father O’Sullivan was holding a meeting.
When I opened the door to our house, I saw a gathering of familiar faces. Again, I didn’t find the scene unusual. Thursday sale days at the local livestock auction often brought many farm relatives to town.
Bursting into the throng with a big grin, I gushed, “Wow, that was a great movie. Everybody should see it.”
The last words of my eruption trailed off as I realized no one shared my enthusiasm. My glee felt awkwardly out of place. Gloom filled the air. But why?
I shielded my red face by ducking into the bathroom. Confused and embarrassed, I lingered behind the closed door.
I heard my mother’s voice. “Are you, uh, uh, OK?” she asked.
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Mom sounded anxious, shaken. I opened the door and found a ghost-white mother, a hand across her mouth, tears flooding down her cheeks. I looked away, my eyes watering at the sight of my stricken mother. She hugged me and buried her face into my chest. I understood her needs. I held her tight. We cried together. But I wept because of feelings for her, not knowing the source of her grief. She didn’t seem capable of telling me, and I didn’t want to ask.
Finally, she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief and stammered, “Your, your Aunt, uh, Aunt Nadine is dead.”
One awful word explained everything. Dead!
My dad hunted, so I knew of the death of animals. But I had never connected that term to anyone I knew, and had never attended a funeral. In westerns or war movies the likes of Randolph Scott or Brian Donlevy were killed in one movie and reappeared in the next. I didn’t think of human death as so painfully permanent. My mother’s tears told another story.
Curiosity consumed me, but I knew questions would add to Mom’s grief. I remained silent and thought of my kindly Aunt Nadine, a frail woman who some called “Olive Oyl,” a reference to the skinny girlfriend of the comic strip character, Popeye. She was exceptionally quiet, shy, inoffensive, and always in the background.
Later in the evening my older brother told me our aunt committed suicide by hanging herself in the family barn. Our dad helped cut her down. The mental image of such a horrid scene terrified me. I could only wonder at my dad’s feelings.
Many tears were shed at Aunt Nadine’s funeral. I expected my tenderhearted mother to cry. She wept at the slightest misfortune. But my dad’s sobbing shocked me. I had never seen him cry. Indeed, he usually remained so silent, so uninvolved, so withdrawn that I sometimes wondered if he possessed any emotions at all. His tears said otherwise, and I felt for him. I shared emotions with my mother all the time, but never with my dad. I thought a real man didn’t cry and felt like a sissy when I did. Now my father, my male role model, unknowingly released me from my emotional confinement.
I had tragically, sadly lost an aunt. But in a redeeming, important sense, I gained a new understanding of my father.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org