Nowadays, when terrible tragedies happen involving children, counselors are dispatched to schools to help classmates cope. That was not done when we were children.
My father worked at Pennington Bakery and the father of one of my classmates also worked there. When we were third graders, her father died in an accident at the bakery where he fell into the dough machine.
Of course my father told us about the accident but we knew that it wouldn't be discussed at school; it was never mentioned by our teacher. The classmate was not at school for several days. She was my friend throughout school, but we never were "close" friends and of course I never asked her about the accident.
When we were sophomores, my classmate, who had lost her father in that accident, suffered another tragedy when her mother tried to kill her and her brother. Her mother was taken to "Orient"--the State mental hospital--and she and her brother were taken in as foster children by a good family. This was not discussed at school either. After graduation, her boyfriend was killed in an automobile accident.
How much tragedy can a person endure? I had great admiration for her and how she handled all the obstacles in her life that the tragedies had caused. She seemed to have great character and strength. She went to college, married and divorced, became an art teacher and is now retired.
When her mother died, I went to the funeral home in Mount Sterling to pay my respects. She was stunned to see me and asked how I had learned of her mother's death. The obituary was not printed in our local paper. I told her that I read the obituary in the Columbus Dispatch. Of course I didn't ask the questions which were on my mind such as "Why wasn't the obituary in the local paper; why was the funeral in Mt. Sterling; didn't they want visitors, etc." The obituary had given the hours for visitation so I felt they must want visitors. She, her brother and her foster family were the only ones present.
As we sat reminiscing, I mentioned that her brother looked like their father. She called her brother over and told him that I remembered their dad and he said he could barely remember his dad. She asked, with great surprise, "You remember my Daddy?" I said, "Of course, your dad and my dad worked together and I remember seeing him at the Company Christmas parties." She said, "Then you know what happened to my dad?" I had her hand in mine and I said, "Of course I know what happened to your dad." She said, "You have an amazing memory because I don't remember your dad at all." I said, "That's because you wouldn't have any reason to remember my dad because nothing happened to him." I said, "It was imprinted because of the great fear associated with it!" She said she didn't understand. I told her that all of her classmates had the fear that something terrible could also could happen to their fathers and because we couldn't talk about it, it was also a trauma to us. I told her that I'd seen the fathers of other classmates but I didn't remember them because nothing happened to them! I said, "But amazingly, I remember all of the mothers of my classmates--how they looked, how they dressed, if they worked outside the home--but I wonder why!" She said, "Then you remember about my mother." I just nodded. I instinctively knew that I should not pursue the subject.
Then I felt that I should not have been at the funeral home; that I was the conduit for memories best left unshared. When I went home I told my mother about the visit and she told me, "You know, some people do not want to be reminded about things; they don't want things thrown in their faces no matter how long ago it happened." I said, "I didn't throw anything in her face." Mother said, "You might not think so, but that's probably not how she felt and that was probably why they had the service in Mt. Sterling to keep nosy people away." I said, "I wasn't being nosy, I just wanted to pay my respects to someone I have admired all of our lives." Mother said, "Just think, if it were you, how you would feel to have all that dredged up." I said, "But all that happened in the 1950's; how many people would remember that?" My mother said, "All the people--like you--who would go to the funeral home!" That was quite an object lesson; I am now very circumspect about paying "visits" to funeral homes.
My youngest brother, who was born the same year of the accident at the bakery, had no knowledge of that event, but was listening to the exchange between Mother and me, said, "No, you shouldn't have gone--it sounds like a Joyce Carol Oates novel."
For a fascinating look at the books of Joyce Carol Oates, and a short biography, click here.