How Do You Write a Eulogy?
At 90 years old, my grandfather, affectionately nicknamed Bumpy, passed away last weekend after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. If nothing else, Bump was an intellectual and a storyteller, and a disease that ate away at his brain and stole his memories over the course of long, slow years seemed a particularly unfair way for him to depart this world. But his final moments were as he would have wanted them: with their children at their side, his wife of 69 years held his hand and told him it was okay for him to let go.
Between the dark and the daylight,
When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
That is known as the Children’s Hour.*
Now I’m faced with the challenge of memorializing the man who shaped so much of who I am today. And as he and I were writers together, I feel like it’s only appropriate that I write about him. A human library of play-on-word jokes and riddles who was prone to spontaneous jigs, silly faces, and bursts of song, he was one of the most joyful people I have ever known, finding poetry in every small moment of life. A 1997 letter from him to me encouraged me to start preparing my entry for a local poetry contest, so we would have enough time to go through several rounds of edits. Personally, I preferred writing short fiction stories over poetry, but that was okay by him too: he would even copy over my drafts by hand in his scrawling cursive so he could add edits and notes. In college, I mailed him copies of my essays and school newspaper articles, and he would mail me poetry, clippings he found inspiring, and manuscripts on writers and poets past. But how do you write a eulogy for the man who taught you to write?
I hear in the chamber above me
The patter of little feet,
The sound of a door that is opened,
And voices soft and sweet.
And how do you write a eulogy for the man who taught you how to tell stories? Bump was an endless fountain of stories about his childhood in depression-era Boston, when the neighborhood kids chased the ice box delivery truck to suck on bits of ice in the hot summer, when his big brother Art would beat up any kid who messed with his family, and when his grandmother’s pet ducks would follow her around as she hollered at them in Gaelic. We would sit at his feet and beg him for a story about when he was a little boy. As we got older, we’d sit over coffee while he told stories about his father, one of the founding fathers of the labor union movement in Boston. Back then, they were fighting for perks like bathrooms on work sites. The leadership would meet in bars, where my great-grandfather would pretend to sip on a beer as the din drowned out their conversations. Bump remembered his dad coming home beaten up when the bosses tried to intimidate them, and his mom begging him to drop the cause. So how do you write a eulogy for a man who taught you to stand up for what you believe in?
From my study I see in the lamplight,
Descending the broad hall stair,
Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra,
And Edith with golden hair.
Bump, for his part, believed in the power of an education. He left high school to fight in World War II, then returned for his GED in his mid-twenties as a married man and a father. But he was the most well-read person I’ve ever met, and an avid researcher of historical topics. He was fond of visiting some obscure museum or historical site, like the Country Doctor Museum in North Carolina, and saving a copy of the brochure along with some interesting details he had learned during his visit. Often, he’d share a clipping from a newspaper, with an introduction like, “Have you ever wondered how many towns in our United States can boast a 100% high school graduation rate among their residents?” Or he’d ask me to look up an old National Geographic article he remembered from the 1950s in my college library archives. How do you write a eulogy for the man who taught you to always keep learning?
A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.
He wanted nothing more for his family than a good education, and I never saw him prouder than when he was at graduations. But then, everything his family accomplished made him proud. He had six kids, thirteen grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren at the time of his passing. He was always the one grown-up who would rather come play with the kids than talk politics with the adults. How do you write a eulogy for the man who taught you the importance of family?
A sudden rush from the stairway,
A sudden raid from the hall!
By three doors left unguarded
They enter my castle wall!
How do you write a eulogy for the man who taught you about companionship? My grandparents’ love is legendary in our family. A charming American Navyman and a sharp Englishwoman, they met in World War II over a broken wristwatch in Plymouth, England. She took said watch to the shop for him so he wouldn’t get ripped off, and a few days later she arrived home to find him at the kitchen table charming her parents into letting him take her out. The rest was history. When things got particularly crazy with the family, the long-standing joke was to point at them and say, “Look what you started!” That’s not to say that marriage and life together was always easy, but they proved that true love is worth fighting for. Even in advanced Alzheimer’s, after he had forgotten everyone else, he would light up when she came in the room. I found this picture last Christmas while cleaning out their apartment. He still looked at her the same way after 69 years together.
They climb up into my turret
O’er the arms and back of my chair;
If I try to escape, they surround me;
They seem to be everywhere.
My grandparents retired when I was two years old, so my sisters and I spent nearly as much time in our early years with our grandparents as we did with our own parents. They’d scoop me and my sisters up in the car and whisk us off to the New England coastline, on a hike in the woods, or to a national park. We called our destinations “secret places” and numbered them so we could talk about them in code without anyone else knowing where we were going. Nan and Bump visited 49 of the 50 states and sent us postcards and pictures from their travels. How do you write a eulogy about a man who taught you how to explore?
They almost devour me with kisses,
Their arms about me entwine,
Till I think of the Bishop of Bingen
In his Mouse-Tower on the Rhine!
Now that his spirit is finally free, I find myself suddenly remembering little things about him: the song we used to sing in the car, the way he would sit one of us on each of his knees and pantomime a horse race, his gleeful laugh when someone made a good joke.
Do you think, o blue-eyed banditi,
Because you have scaled the wall,
Such an old mustache as I am
Is not a match for you all!
He was a prolific letter writer and journal keeper, so we are lucky to have amazing artifacts by which to remember him. We’ve all been poring over our archives to fill our memories with the person he was. I’ll borrow his own words here, written in a 2006 letter to my sister Rachel:
“I close with all the love I can collect and give — if it isn’t enough, you’ll just have to wait until I get there…”
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away!!
*Poetry excerpts in italics are from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Children’s Hour” — one of Bump’s favorite poems.