When I think back to my year in fourth grade, it was a much bigger year than it seemed at the time. Two really big things happened that year. I remember I adored my teacher, Mrs. Desopo, and how she would tell us funny stories about growing up in Brooklyn, New York with her wonderful New York accent. Part of reason I liked her stories was because my father was also from Brooklyn. My small brick school had just two fourth grade classes. Mrs. Desopo was a little round and jolly with dark Italian hair. The other teacher, Mrs. Walker, was tall and skinny with white hair that made her look like she had been teaching for a hundred years. As different as they were, they both got along and were very nice.
The first big event that year was that my mom’s father, my grandfather, died. His name was Jim O’Donnell and he worked many years as a policeman in Northampton, Massachusetts. He had been kind of sick for a long time, but his death seemed like a surprise to me. So we all went up way north to 65 Franklin Street to meet with cousins, help my grandmother and do whatever people do when someone dies.
Since there were so many us, the kids were farmed out to stay with other people. My cousin Daniel, a fifth grader, and I stayed with our Aunt Helen. The funny thing is before this I never knew I had an Aunt Helen. I think she was really my great aunt. I now suspect my great uncle’s first wife, but that is another story.
Before the funeral we had to go to something called a wake. This is a chance for people to say goodbye to my grandfather and comfort my grandmother. I remember the funeral home was a grand old building not far from downtown that kind of looked like a fancy house. Once we walked up the main steps there was a dark main entrance with velvety wallpaper and heavy drapes around the windows. To the left and the right were what looked like two big living rooms. My grandfather’s casket was at the far end of the room on the right. It was already filled up with all sorts of people I didn’t know wearing dark clothes. There was a line of people waiting to talk to my grandmother, a line of people waiting to sign a book of condolence and a line of people to spend a moment on the kneelers in front of the open casket. In the other room was some other guy’s casket but no one was visiting him, so Daniel and I signed his book of condolence.
When things slowed down Daniel and I went to take a closer look at the casket. It felt a little strange because I had never seen a dead body this close, well actually I had never seen a dead body. My grandfather looked shorter and they had put a little bit of makeup on his skin. We dared each other to touch his forehead, but then my older sister came by and started acting all mournful and bossy, so we went outside. It was kind of strange seeing so many adults cry. I felt sad that they were feeling so sad. I did not know my grandfather very well. He was a nice guy but he had been sick for a long time.
I found out about the second big thing that happened in fourth grade not long after we got home. The kid next door, Brett, popped over my wooden backyard fence and announce my mom was going to have a baby. What? I already had a baby sister and three older siblings! I would never get my own room at this rate. Who has time for another baby in this house? Well it turns out Brett was telling the truth. My mom had told his mom and she told him. It seemed a little unfair he knew before I did.
By the time the end of May came around a baby boy had arrived. We named him Jason after everyone voted. It was the same week my classmate Tommy DeJulian got a baby sister with red hair. I remember going to the hospital and thinking he looked kind of splotchy. He didn’t do much at first. My older brother showed Brett next door that you could bend back the baby’s fingernails a bit and they could not feel it because the nerve endings were not fully developed. He got in trouble for that. The baby turned out to be a lot of fun when he wasn’t crying or getting his diaper changed.
When I think back to my fourth grade I got to experience two big things – death and birth. These are perhaps the two biggest things that actually happen in a person’s life. Despite the sadness and a brand new crying baby, I remember fourth grade being a fun year. At the end of the year I gave Mrs. Desopo a macrame plant hanger I made with red wooden beads holding a spider plant. She adored it. And what happened to that baby Jason? He grew up to be a six foot two man, who just so happens to be a fourth grade teacher today.