When My Father’s Father Died

–excerpted from Brain in a Jar

Lyles Baptist Church, Palmyra, Virginia

I recently turned six. It’s 1971. There is a tear coming out of my father’s right eye. I watch it move slowly down his cheek until he whisks it away. I wait for another. It doesn’t come. I’m sitting sideways so I can watch him.

“Sit straight, Gal,” Beau whispers.

My mother, who is on the other side of him, leans over to look at me. She gives me a sweet face. Her black hair is teased up and she has bright red lipstick on her small lips. She is very pale, and I wonder if my mother is actually a ghost—a very beautiful one. She lifts her hand from Beau’s knee, and puts her forefinger to her lips to remind me to be quiet and still.

We’re outside Lyles Baptist Church in Palmyra, about seven miles from Rebelanna, the Bercaw family farm. My grandfather is in a coffin being lowered into the ground. A few people are standing around the grave watching him descend. No one is saying anything. The only emotion I have seen is the solitary tear my father has just produced. If Beau were dead, I would cry my eyes out. Why is there only one tear for Grandfather?

I only saw Berc a few times, and he had no idea who I was. I’d heard stories about how mean he was in his life. Dad told me once that Berc spanked him first thing in the morning to thwart any misbehavior later in the day. “A preventative whooping,” he called it. I wasn’t sure if my father was telling me as a warning or to tease me. My dad is confusing, but I kinda like that about him. He makes me think. He says Bercaws don’t talk unless they have something important to say. I wonder if my dad ever said, “Don’t hit me anymore, Father.” Surely, that would have been worth breaking the silence.

Even though Berc had been mean to him, Beau worried about his dad a lot when he got sick. He sent Grandmother lots of letters about how to take care of Berc.

Clark Air Force Base, The Philippines                                                   28 May 1967

Berc sounds like he is getting worse + worse. I advise against giving him a lot of pills because they are useless for his condition. Certainly a tranquilizer would be OK to keep him from becoming excessively agitated or worried. You should insist that the druggist label all bottles with the name of the medication – this should always be done anyway because of safety in case of accidental overdosage.

You certainly seem to be managing things well. You must realize, however, it will no longer be possible and that for his own good + your welfare, he will have to be put in a nursing home or an institution such as Dr. Jarnett’s.

I have decided to return to Florida for more training in neurology. If I decide to pursue neurosurgery, this will be costly in terms of money, time + inconvenience but I surely would be a better doctor in the long run. If I decide I do not wish to be a neurosurgeon, then it will be the right thing to do anyway.

Nancy + Barbara send their love.



My cousin Kathy told me that Berc wiped his poop on the yellow wallpaper inside the farmhouse. I looked for traces once, but couldn’t find anything other than a squished ant.

Kathy also said Berc couldn’t remember how to get in and out of the tub. Grandmother put him in a nursing home a few years back, but rescued him when she found out that they tied Berc up at night. She brought him back to the farm, and kept him there, until Berc was nothing but a “vegetable,” as my dad described him. I imagined Berc as a carrot. He was tall and slim with a jaw that jutted out and big lips on a big mouth—just like my dad and me. Two peas in a pod, and a carrot.

No one ever said what was wrong with Berc, exactly. It was just his “illness.” The grown-ups acted like it might be contagious. They said things like, “I wonder if I will get it?”

When Grandmother finally couldn’t take care of him one moment longer,  Berc was sent to the Veteran’s Hospital in Roanoke, per my father’s instructions. He died there alone and confused.

“It’s my fault,” Beau told my mother.

My Grandmother drops some dirt into the grave. She looks regal in a black skirt and jacket and brown pantyhose. She has a black hat pinned to her gray head with a bit of black mesh dangling over her eyes. She has a white hanky in her breast pocket, but she never takes it out. She has a brown mink stole draped over her shoulders.

Uncle Woodson is wearing his military uniform and medals and standing next to her. He is my father’s eldest brother and he has three children, including my cousin Nancy. She is six years older than I am.

Uncle David, an Episcopalian minister, is wearing is black clothes and white-collar. He’s the second oldest brother. David has one daughter.

Uncle Peter, who is a doctor like my dad, is standing next to him. He is the third in line. Pete has four daughters.

But Beau is here with me.

I want to go hold my Grandmother’s hand. She has a dead husband and sons who are mad at each other. Beau has been teaching me about baseball and teams. I think Beau’s brothers just kicked him off the Bercaw team. Grandmother probably should be the umpire but she can’t judge her own children. She’s being pulled from side to side. I curl up next to my dad. He puts his arm around me. We’re a team: He and me.

I look around at all my cousins. They look frozen. My cousin Nancy sees me and smiles. I wish we could go swimming in the river at the farm after this is over, but it’s cold and blustery. I look down at the ugly wool coat that one of the cousins brought for me to wear on this occasion. We don’t need coats in Florida where Mom, Dad, and I live now. Beau works at a private practice in Largo. He has a big fancy office, and wears a white coat that says “Dr. Bercaw, Neurology,” in black script. When my mother calls him, she tells the secretary that she is “Mrs. Dr. Bercaw.”  So I must be Miss Dr. Bercaw.

The pastor is reading from the Bible. I can tell it’s my grandmother’s Bible because I see the gold lettering on the front that says Nannie Dunlap, which was my great-grandmother’s name, and Nancy S. Bercaw, who is my grandmother.

I wish I had been named Beth, Susan, Kathy, Amy or Barbie like the other girl cousins. All these Nancys are confusing. I am Little Nan. My cousin is Nancy. Grandmother is Nana. Great grandmother was Nannie—she died a long time ago. I think my name doesn’t fit me. When someone yells “Nancy” at family gatherings, I never think of myself as the one they want.

The service ends. We walk past Berc’s grave on our way to the meeting room in the basement of Lyles Baptist Church. Nearly everyone in Fluvanna County has come to pay their final respects to Berc and to see Grandmother and the brothers. I hear someone tell my father that putting Berc in a home was the right thing to do.

“He shoulda gone there a long time ago, Beau. Glad you finally talked sense into your mother.”

My father nods. I notice another tear trying to escape. He swipes it away. I reach for his hand. I think he feels like he’s done something wrong. I have that feeling all the time. Maybe it’s another Bercaw legacy.

Beau bends down to look at me.

“You’re a good ol’ gal,” he says. “Just like your grandmother.”

My cousin Nancy comes over and asks if I would like to go play outside for a while. Beau says it’s a great idea. I let go of his hand and take my cousin’s. As soon as we leave the building, we start running. All the cousins are playing hide and seek among the gravestones and trees. Our fancy clothes are getting dirty, but we’re pretty sure no one will care.

We stop to look at Berc’s grave.






3 Cavalry

World War I & II


May 22, 1896

January 7, 1971

“What is the Cavalry?” I ask. “Did he ride around on horses?”

Everyone shrugs.

“Why isn’t there a quote or a poem or something?” asks cousin Beth.

“Bercaws don’t like words,” answers cousin Nancy. “Just numbers, wars and the Pacific Ocean.”

Cousin Susan accidentally drops her Coke can on top of Berc’s grave. A little bit of the brown soda spills out on the fresh brown topsoil.

“You’ve cursed us,” says Nancy. And we all run as fast as we can back to Lyles, some of the younger cousins scream bloody murder. We rush inside to find our parents.

Beau and my mom are sitting with the Lovings.

“Do you think your mother will stay on the farm?” Harriet Loving is asking my dad.

“I hope so,” Beau answers meekly. “I sure do love the farm.”

“Dad,” I interrupt. “Excuse me, but I need to talk to you.”

“What is it, Gal?”

“It’s private.”

Beau and I walk over to the pie table. He gets another piece.

“Dad, one of the cousins spilled Coke on Berc’s grave. Are we cursed now? Forever?”

My dad smiles real big for the first time in weeks.

“Gal, Bercaws have been cursed long before today.”

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