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Eulogy for my pawpaw

29 August 2021

I had the great privilege of officiating my grandfather’s memorial service this past Saturday. I have performed and preached in front of people more times than I can count, but I was nervous about this one. Nervous that I wouldn’t do him justice (I’m not sure anyone really could) and mostly nervous I would ugly-cry in front of a room full of people I didn’t really know that well.

I got through it. (If you saw my IG story and prayed for me, know that I felt it.) Part of the reason, I think, was because I actually wrote down every word. I usually type up an outline, or some notes, because I don’t want my face to be buried in notes, but I knew I would need all the words for this one. When I started to lose it, I buried my face.

Anyway, I have all the words, so here they are, for the people who have asked for them.

Disclaimer: This was written to be spoken, not read. Believe me when I say that the editor in me does see all the run-on sentences and improper punctuation. The poet in me insisted on keeping them so the reader might feel the movement of it.

Words for my Pawpaw

Good afternoon.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name’s Alexis — or Lex, Lexi … or Kate, depending on whether you knew my great-grandmother — and I had the esteemed pleasure of being Mick Sullivan’s favorite granddaughter. (The boys will say it’s because I was his only granddaughter, but I maintain that it’s a trivial technicality.)

Some of my earliest memories of my pawpaw are of him sitting on the edge of one of the two twin beds, in an upstairs bedroom, in their old house on Main Cross. Whether we were here for a week or a weekend, my little brother and I slept in that same bedroom, and he would come upstairs every night, once we were in bed, to tell us bedtime stories.

There were one or (maybe) two pieces of fiction in his repertoire, but he mostly told us stories about the gas station that his father ran, about life on the farm, about being the only 5th grader in his one-room country schoolhouse, about his dogs (Tate and Blackie) …

But there was one story that we (mostly my little brother) asked for every night. This story has always been catalogued in my mind under non-fiction, but I don’t really know if he told us it was true or if I just assumed it was — because most of his stories were.

The story begins the day someone in town got a monkey. (You see why I’ve started to doubt it’s veracity.) Not an ape, but a small monkey, and it was kept in a domed cage/enclosure. And the story goes that the kids in town took to teasing and pestering the monkey, until one day when the monkey had had enough and it climbed up on the inside of the cage … and peed on all those children.

We laughed every time.

Because no matter how many times he told it — and he told it almost every night — he delivered it flawlessly. He set the stage so well you could see yourself on it. And even though the details remained consistent (which may have lent to my thinking it was a true story), he would just masterfully vary which details he shared or left out on any given night and push that rising action until the tension was just right to deliver the punchline*.

I will grant that we were not exactly a tough crowd, but I think everyone in this room will also grant that the man was a storyteller.

So many of us here, and scores more people besides, knew him in so many ways. Not just as a father, grandfather, brother-in-law, etc. … but as a teacher or coach, as a coworker or a soldier, as a hunting buddy (or fishing buddy … or golfing buddy), as a church member and elder, as a neighbor or helper … but I’m willing to bet that all of us also knew him as a storyteller.

My own love of stories and non-fiction began in that upstairs bedroom. The first time I ever wrote and performed a monologue, the highest compliment my mother could give was to say that I must have gotten Pawpaw’s storytelling (ability). One of the highlights of my fledgling experience as a writer came when my grandparents chose to read something I had written aloud in church, and probably the pinnacle of my career came shortly after that when Pawpaw (rather unceremoniously) gifted me a volume of quotes off of his shelf. I had no real interest in the thing until he told me that every good writer needs a book of quotes, and it immediately became one of my prized possessions.

He credited childhood radio programs with nurturing his imagination, and his high school theater program with rooting a love of literature and poetry in him, but I think there was something else as well. If I have learned anything about storytelling, it’s that in order to tell a good story, you need to live a good story.

And he lived a great story.

Born in a small Illinois town in 1933, his earliest stories were set against the backdrop of bustling factories, gasoline rations, and “playing war” (as he called it) with other kids. He didn’t tell many stories from that time, but I don’t think it’s because he’d forgotten them. I don’t think he forgot much of anything. Those stories always felt like a difficult prelude.

He was in fourth grade when his parents divorced and he was asked which set of grandparents he wanted to live with. He could tell the story of that day in vivid detail for the rest of his life: knowing there was no right answer but ultimately deciding on the farm, because he wanted to keep his dog and go fishing. (Pretty good priorities for a fourth grade boy, honestly.)

That’s when the settings changed to barns and forests and one-room school houses—stories of dogs following him to school and (one of his favorites) getting special permission to bring his shotgun to school so he could hunt pheasants and rabbits on his way home. He fell in love with learning at that school, and always sung the praises of the two teachers he had there: a lawyer’s wife who drove 12 miles each day and later a farmer’s wife who was excellent at her job. A good storyteller never forgets the details.

After sixth grade, he started taking the bus to Cornell High School where he was involved in sports and theater, and nurtured a passion for golf, literature, poetry, and education in general. I love and admire so much about the man, but especially his love of learning. Just weeks ago he was reading a new set of bible commentaries and answering crossword puzzle clues—even when he could no longer hold a pen.

He would occasionally joke about being the only student to attend Bradley University without actually applying. His mother signed him up to keep him out of the draft. After one year of college, he failed to sign up for a second year of classes and served two years in the U.S. Army instead — in Arkansas and Oklahoma — before being honorably discharged as a corporal with a National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal.

(He didn’t tell many stories from his time in the service, but the ones that he did tell make me wonder if a Good Conduct Medal was truly justified. Those stories can’t really be done justice, however, without language that’s probably inappropriate for this setting, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)

As with most good stories, it’s the unexpected — seemingly minor — plot twists that make all the difference. For Pawpaw it was a 12-week commission in Oklahoma, because it was there that a friend set him up on a blind date.

And there are too many good stories to tell there. Stories about long drives (not romantic ones – he was feeling sick and she was driving to get him some air), why on earth she agreed to see him again, strategies for impressing a cranky old housemother at a girls’ school, girls who pawned their class rings to buy bus tickets to the Army base, long distance phone calls from restaurant phone booths (to avoid the party line at home), and a 14-hour drive on Christmas day to 2310 W 49th Street … because he never forgot her address.

He doted on and adored her for the rest of his life. One of my favorite stories was set at a class reunion. She was seated at a table with some other ladies, and he came over so often—to bring her a drink, or offer a coat, or make sure she didn’t need anything—that another of the women at the table eventually asked if they were newlyweds. Nana told her they’d been married for 50 years.

He wrote her poetry for more than half a century and when she got sick, he waited on her so attentively she would sometimes whisper to the rest of us that it would be okay if he didn’t ask her if she needed anything for a few minutes. Every relationship has ups and downs, of course, but they will always be relationship goals to me. They were married for 62 years before she passed away a few years ago.

He did go back to school, of course, earning a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s. He taught and coached until 1993, and helped raise four intelligent, beautiful daughters at the same time.

The very best stories are about characters overcoming conflict and difficulty to get to their happy endings. Mick Sullivan grew up in what we would call a broken family, but he leaves behind a beautiful one. His quiet kindness and thoughtful passion were the underlying themes in a story that turned trial into triumph and lack into a legacy—and I don’t mean money.

Proverbs 13 tells us that a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, and I am honored by the inheritance he has left to us—to all of us: The example and memory of a man who loved selflessly, gave generously, served quietly, and never stopped trying to do and be better.

When I got the news, last Thursday evening, that he was gone, it landed with an overwhelming peace. His last few weeks had been hard, and I was glad that burden was lifted. His daughters were all there, and I knew he was not afraid.

The morning Jesus was crucified, he told the faithful man on the cross beside him that that same day, they would be together in paradise. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he encourages the believers not to, “grieve as those who have no hope.” There is grief and grieving, but we do have the hope and assurance that we will all be together again one day.

Revelation 21:4 tells us about that day, when God, “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Just a few months ago, our family was all together in the dining room on Whitney Lane. We’d just finished a meal and were enjoying that quiet pause before the bustle of cleanup, when Pawpaw leaned forward in his chair and spoke into the stillness,

“Well … there’s something I should tell you girls.”

There were nervous glances around the table, and some eyes fell as he continued, “I just don’t know how many more times I’ll have you all together like this, and I want to tell you the truth …

“When I was little …

“And I walked to school? …

” …

“… It was only uphill one way.”

Because the best stories are about overcoming conflict to get to that happy ending, and my hope and prayer for all of us today is that we get to live those stories too, but the very best storytellers and poets are masters of timing, delivery, and language as well.

And he had it all.

There are so many more stories to tell and so many more words that could be written or said. It was amazing to be with family and friends for hours after the service on Saturday, hearing about what he meant to everyone. It just served to confirm the conviction that I want to be like him every day that I still have on this side of eternity.

The song we played before I spoke:

*Several sources have independently confirmed, since Saturday, that the monkey story is 100% true.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Gloria permalink
    29 August 2021 10:53 PM

    Oh my goodness … I’m absolutely bawling right now! What a beautiful testimony to the love you and your grandfather shared. Lex, I only got to meet your grandparents a couple times. But from that first time, I could feel and see the genuineness and warmth they both had. They were gracious, lovely people. I’ll remember them fondly.

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