Funny how memories are stirred from the dark pantry of our minds, but I distinctly remember the day I was introduced to human death. By age four, I was already familiar with the deaths of animals, which happened on a regular basis on our farm. Mother usually killed a chicken on Friday or Saturday for Sunday dinner and watching the headless chicken flop around meant something good to eat and an opportunity to break the pulley bone with my sister. Hogs were also slaughtered in the winter, but I never befriended a hog or chicken and was quite fond of the ham and bacon hanging in the smokehouse and pork rinds that were fried in a big pot of grease in the back yard. But human death was unknown to me until a bitterly cold day in January 1959.
Not yet of an age to attend school, I was making the cattle feed rounds with my daddy when we saw about 10 cows milling around on the county road. As our truck neared, they began to scatter and then we saw the body of our neighbor, Fred Stacy, face down in the ditch. I suppose most men would have told a little girl to stay in the truck, but my daddy didn’t. He turned Fred over and put his ear to his chest, then closed his friend’s eyes and removed his dentures, wrapping them in a handkerchief and putting them in the breast pocket of Fred’s shirt. Daddy then opened the pasture gate and put Fred’s cattle safely away.
I was told to stay with Fred while Daddy went home to call the Justice of the Peace and Fred’s wife, Madge. As I sat near his body, I put my hand on his, still feeling the warmth of life. We had spoken to him only the day before and he was his usual sweet self, pulling my ponytail and winking at me. But now I sat next to what was left of him and to me, he still seemed sweet and peaceful, like he was taking a nap, only in the ditch and not on his front porch in his rocking chair. I don’t remember being scared for an instant, for this man was our friend and this was our road, a safe and friendly place where neighbors stopped to talk and always waved at each other. Daddy was back before long and then the hearse from the funeral home arrived and I watched the Justice of the Peace pronounce him dead and his body carefully taken away. From that moment on, I have never feared death, but became quite aware that it can come when you least expect it.
Very few people probably think of Fred anymore. His nephew now owns his place across from ours and still runs a few cows. Fred Stacy was buried in our little community cemetery along with all of my mother’s people. On visits there, I see his grave and remember the day he died and the lesson learned, knowing he rests in peace.