Grandpa's Harmonica

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Chapter 29

The funeral for Jamie’s grandpa was held at the Methodist church three days after Christmas. By the time the service was to start, the pews were full and people stood in back and along the walls. Jamie’s family sat in a front pew with Homer and his family behind them.

The pine casket was waxed to a shine and reflected the flames of the candles arrayed at each end. A fresh floral arrangement from Mrs. Lily stood in front of it, making the room smell like spring. Jamie thought the casket and flowers were perfect.

Everyone sat silently while an usher rang the church bell seventy-six times, once for each year of Grandpa’s life. Jamie had never thought of him as old. He was just Grandpa. Always the same. Always there. But each time the bell rang, Jamie felt him slipping away, year by year, across the gulf of time between his seventy-six and Jamie’s twelve years until Jamie could only see him in the mist of his memories. Even though he sat among so many people packed into the church, Jamie had never felt so alone.

When last peal of the bell faded, Reverend McIvor walked out of the side room and started the service. After a dozen sentences, Jamie knew something was wrong and he had to think about it for a few moments before he figured it out. Reverend McIvor was talking about a stranger, not Grandpa. He didn’t know Jamie’s grandpa at all. He could be talking about anyone. Other people thought so too because there was rustling and whispering behind him.

Without thinking, Jamie stood and let his legs walk him to the open casket. The figure inside wasn’t Grandpa.

Turning toward the pews, he said, “Dad, Grandpa doesn’t have a hat on. That’s not right.”

Reverend McIvor grabbed Jamie’s sleeve. “Sit down. You’re interrupting my service.”

Jamie jerked his arm away and waited while his dad came to the casket.

“You’re right, son. I can fix that.”

He pulled the cloth cap he’d worn to church out of his coat pocket and arranged it Grandpa’s head. Jamie nodded. Now it was Grandpa.

Reverend McIvor bounced around them, demanding they sit down and be respectful. Jamie and his dad ignored him.

“Is that okay, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

They walked to their pew and Reverend McIvor went to his pulpit. But before Jamie sat down, he realized that as soon as Reverend McIvor started the service again, it would be wrong.

He walked back to the coffin and when he put his hand on his pants pocket, his fingers traced the outline of Grandpa’s harmonica. Was his grandpa’s music in it? Jamie took it out and faced the packed church holding the bulging cloth bag on the palms of both hands so everyone could see it.

The atmosphere in the room changed. The air got lighter and easier to breathe and he could smell the flowers again. People smiled and nodded silently telling him what he was doing was right.

Reverend McIvor came over and pushed Jamie away from the coffin. His dad started to stand, but before he could say anything, a sharp voice in the crowd said, “Leave off there, Reverend! This here’s our church. Let the boy do what he’s gonna do.”

The voice wasn’t loud, but it belonged to someone who’d had enough and was willing to back up his words. Reverend McIvor hung onto Jamie’s arm and glared, but when he saw the hard expressions on the faces of everyone, he let go and moved away. Jamie thought that was a good idea because it sounded like the reverend was about to end up sitting in the snow outside.

Jamie slid Grandpa’s harmonica out of the bag and turned it over, staring at the shiny surface, trying to think of what to do next when Sam pushed through the crowd followed by Miss Kuelmann and Mr. Jorgenson, who was carrying a box. They’d been standing so far in the back near the door that Jamie hadn’t seen them. Sam marched up front to stand beside Jamie and slipped off her long winter coat showing off the frilly dress she wore.

Homer pointed and yelled, “Sam’s a girl! That ain’t possible!”

People laughed while Reverend McIvor scowled from his corner.

Sam tapped the harmonica in Jamie’s hands with a pink-painted fingernail. “Play your grandpa’s harmonica, Jamie. Now’s the time. You know it is.”

As soon as Sam said it, Jamie realized playing Grandpa’s Harmonica at his funeral was the most reasonable thing in the world for him to do. He put the harmonica to his lips and blew the first notes of his grandpa’s favorite hymn. The music was terrible, weak and off-key and he stopped.

Sam said, “You can do it. Play from your heart the way your grandpa taught you. Everyone’s waiting. They know it’s time too.”

Jamie looked at the faces gazing at him. Their expressions told him that Sam was right.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out the cap his grandpa had given him. He’d worn it to church and taken it off when he went inside. He put it back on, took a deep breath, closed his eyes and gripped the harmonica in his fist while thinking about Grandpa.


All the pictures and feelings he’d learned from his grandpa came together and piled up in his mind ready for him to let out. Jamie put Grandpa’s harmonica to his lips and played from his heart.

Everyone recognized the melody and took hymnals out to join him at the chorus. Sam pulled out her recorder, walked to the pulpit, dumped the reverend’s notes onto the floor and opened a hymnal. At the verse, she and Jamie became a duet.

Homer ducked down behind the pew and one after the other, his boots sailed through the air and thudded onto the floor in the aisle. He walked barefoot to the front with his pant legs rolled up to his knees, stood next to Sam so he could see the words and sang, blending perfectly with Sam’s recorder and Jamie’s harmonica. People looked at him in surprise and smiled.

When they finished the hymn, someone stood, talked about Jamie’s grandpa and then sat down. After someone else spoke, Jamie’s dad said, “Play another, Jamie.”

He thought for a moment and began another of Grandpa’s favorite hymns. At the chorus, all the kids in the rhythm band joined him. Jamie was so startled that he almost stopped playing.

While people talked about his grandpa, Miss Kuelmann had passed out instruments. The church was so packed that Jamie never noticed. She gave Homer his spoons and he took off, tapping and singing as Miss Kuelmann directed the band.

For the rest of the service, Jamie played a hymn while everybody sang or played instruments. Between hymns, people stood and talked about his grandpa. Sometimes people asked for a particular song and Jamie played it, otherwise, he chose hymns he and his grandpa had played many times for Reverend Hawbecker.

When no one wanted to say anything more, Jamie’s dad and mom got up and turned to face everyone. They motioned for his grandma to join them, but she shook her head and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief.

His parents linked arms and while his mom nodded, Jamie’s dad said, “I’m not much for making speeches, but my family wants to thank all of you for coming today and saying so many kind words about my father. He was a good man and we’ll all miss him.” Then they sat down.

While he’d been talking, Mrs. Lily and Mr. Jorgenson handed out sheets of paper. Sam held one up and tapped it with her finger. Jamie scanned the paper, nodded and said, “I have one more. Grandpa always played this song at the end of the summer at harvest time.”

He and Sam played Auld Lang Syne while everyone sang, following words on the paper.

Should old acquaintance be forgot

And never come to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot,

For old long ago.

And here is a hand, my trusty friend

And give me a hand of yours

And we will drink a happy toast

For old long ago.

We two have run about the hills

And pulled the daisies fine,

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot

Since old long ago.

We two have paddled in the stream

From morning sun until dark,

But seas between us broad have roared

Since old long ago.

Jamie got through the first verse and part of the chorus, but playing the song broke his grief wide open and it impossible for him to keep playing. His dad and mom left their pew and stood beside him, each with an arm around him while he sobbed. Sam and Homer led the congregation to the end as Jamie wiped his eyes with the handkerchief his mom had given him.

When they finished, everyone remained standing, uncertain of what to do next. Mr. Meiers walked up and tried to get the knot out of Homer’s tie, but couldn’t so he pulled his jackknife out, cut it off and dropped it on the floor. After he slipped his knife back into his pocket, he mussed Homer’s hair up so it looked normal again. Then he faced the pews and began clapping his hands. Everyone, except Reverend McIvor, joined him, laughing and shaking hands. For the first time in his life, Homer threw his arms around his dad in public, making people cheer.

Through his tears, Jamie joined in. This had to be the happiest funeral ever held in that church. His grandpa would’ve loved it!

That ended the service and while everyone got up to go to the cemetery, the reverend slipped into the side room and shut the door. Homer stared at Sam with his mouth hanging open.

Jamie put Grandpa’s harmonica back into its sack. “Sam, how’d you know I’d play today? I didn’t know myself.”

“Call it intuition.” She looked at Homer and said, “Something we girls have.”

Sam made a fist and tapped Homer under the chin. “Close your mouth, Homer. A bug might fly in. You’d better get your boots on. The snow will be cold.”

Homer retrieved his boots and sat in a pew to put them on. Miss Kuelmann collected the rhythm band instruments and said, “I see you decided to change back to a girl.”

Sam’s eyes opened wide. “You knew?”

“Well, of course. Did you think I wouldn’t be able to tell a girl from a boy after all the years I’ve taught children your age? Really, Sam.”

“But you didn’t say anything.”

“No, I didn’t. But I know your aunt well and assumed she had a good reason for letting you be a boy. You’ll have to tell me the whole story sometime soon.”

“I will, I promise. But if you knew, who else did?”

Miss Kuelmann touched Jamie’s shoulder. “I’m sure your grandfather knew, Jamie. He was a wise man and understood people well.”

Jamie swallowed hard. “Yes’m, and thinking back on it, I’m sure he did. I’ll miss being able to talk to him.”

Miss Kuelmann nodded and gently stroked Jamie’s cheek with her fingers. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Jamie. I know how important he was to you.” Then she touched his grandpa’s hat. “It looks good on you.”

Putting her other hand on Sam’s cheek, she looked at Sam and Jamie standing together and smiled. “Sam, you’re a much prettier girl than boy.”

Homer clumped over in his boots. “Yeah, I think you oughta keep bein’ a girl, but I gotta admit you was a pretty good boy even if you can’t play baseball.”

Sam made a fist and shook it at him.

He rubbed his jaw and said, “I sure wish you’d quit makin’ fists at me, though.”

The three friends laughed and Sam held Jamie’s hand as they went out.

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