23 December 2007

My Eulogy for Papa

Trip report to follow possibly, but here is the eulogy I gave yesterday at my grandfather's funeral. I had a couple of tough spots where I broke down, but I made it through. The graveside ceremony had Military Honors, which was great.

JT Hellums Eulogy by Craig Cunningham

Winston Churchill, in a radio address in 1939, described the Russians this way: “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” He just as easily could have been describing my grandfather, JT Hellums.

JT Hellums was the fourth of seven children in a family of ultimately eighteen siblings and half-brothers and sisters, yet having been raised in a herd of chaotic children, he often stood alone in life. He was a man at times apart from his family yet his role as grandfather may have been his ultimate calling. He was a weathered man, hardened by the times atop scaffolds and skyscrapers yet he was a man of great gentleness. He was a vagabound whose world stood still in Tupelo with his two boys surrounding him. And it was a heart forever broken when he was forced to bury a son in the midst of a time of such joy in all of our lives.

It was no accident that it was Jamesie’s chess set that he looked at every day as he sat in his chair in Albertville. I don’t believe it was because he loved him more, but that these rooks and pawns were a symbol of both the great loss that he had in life but also the great joy he brought to his days and, in turn, brought to each of us.

This man was as cantankerous as an old man could be at times. It seemed at times that his ideal family visit would have been better served if our homes had a drive-in window for hugs and grub. Any trip that took over an hour and you stayed over an hour was often an hour too long for him.

He could be a cranky old fool, but it was his dry wit that endeared all of us to him. He handed that wit down to his son Jerry and on to several of his grandsons. Papa was a funny man in a hilarious life that often bordered on the ridiculous. These scenes in his existence would have been rejected as ideas for television series, yet there they were, live and in color. He demanded a pickle jar be used on trips rather than stopping at a restroom along the way. His staple diet for several years was samples given out at Sam’s, making the rounds two or three times to get his fill. My boys called his home in Tupelo the Cat Farm as he somehow had gathered half the cats in the county to watch him ride his riding lawn mower. Fighting with Anne over Christmas chocolates. Rushing away on any occasion to watch his beloved Braves.

I used to travel heavily in my career, and I would often call him from some airport or hotel. I know he thought it was the coolest thing that his grandson was calling from Shanghai or Cleveland or Seattle or Paris. For me though, it was a chance to be with someone who cared about me when I was alone somewhere in the world.

We would talk about his Braves mostly, and I would tease him about their poor hitting, and he would defend Bobby Cox and his great staff of Smoltz, Glavine, and Maddux. Papa could have been the poster child for what Ted Turner envisioned when he created TBS, a fanatic in the South who became so attached to the Braves that he would watch every inning available on the SuperStation. The only thing he enjoyed more than watching them on television was getting to see them in person, and he always told me all about it when I would call him.

He loved the Braves, but all the ladies loved him all over the place for much of his life. I marveled that Granny Anne was able to keep him tied down, because he was always a charmer. It was a credit of how much he loved her that he settled down for the long haul and took himself off the market. He’d still flash his smile or work whatever mojo he had to send some sales clerk or nurse into a tizzy. That was the same mojo that somehow escaped every Hellums, Link, and Cunningham male offspring. No, we weren’t blessed with the natural charisma that Papa flicked on when needed. It took every bit of mojo Jerry and Brian and Scott and I had just to get one girl to finally give us the time of day, yet Papa always had ladies swooning everywhere.

He could talk and joke for hours yet he kept some things very close to him. He only recently opened up to any of us about his time in the South Pacific during World War II.

Yes, he was an enigma. He had been gone working for much of the childhoods of his two boys and two girls. Maybe he knew he missed some special times, because any failures he had as a young father were advanced tenfold as a grandfather. He just seemed to connect with kids in a special way. I’ve never really tried to figure out why, but it was something special in him that stayed with him literally until his final days.

Honey and I brought our three boys to see him three weeks ago. Jamie and Allen loved talking to him, but they quickly bolted for the front yard when Papa began dozing off. We threw the football, and the boys fought much like Priscilla and Jerry and Jamesie and Jane did fifty-plus years ago. When I went inside, Papa was awake and transfixed watching our three year old, Joseph. Joseph has been on an Army soldier kick the last few weeks, and he’s uses a stick for his gun. We have about thirty sticks laying around the house. Anyways, there was Papa watching Joseph peer around the sofa, pointing his gun and shooting at him. Joseph calls me either Captain or Sir whenever he’s playing Army, and he calls himself Captain Ginger. He was a bit intimidated by Papa at first but quickly warmed to him. “Captain Ginger, this is the General,” I told Joseph as I pointed to Papa. “General, where is the enemies?” Joseph asked Papa. Papa looked at Joseph and said, “General, well alright then.” As we got ready to leave that afternoon, Papa again had roused himself up and again his eyes were glued on Joseph as he belly crawled around the sofa with his gun. Papa was one big smile, and I was watching a scene that had been repeated for the last forty years. Joseph was Julie and Brian and Cathy and Andy and Scott and Elise and Christie and me. We were each blessed, and I beyond all of us as I had my grandfather for forty-two years and for three boys and for my lovely wife.

And I was blessed this week as I was able to see him again and again at Shepherd’s Cove Hospice. We snuck in a few lucid sentences each day. I was able to give him an update of Tim Tebow and the Dolphins first win and Tom Glavine’s return to the Braves and Houston Nutt, and he nodded or gave some retort or smiled or asked some follow-up question.

And I was blessed as I left to head home. There were times in his last days when he would speak in random thoughts or to people from his youth, times where he wouldn’t recognize Priscilla and Jane. And then there were times when he was able to talk to each of us. Tuesday morning when I had to leave, I walked to the right side of his bed and told him I had to go. His eyes were shut, but he quickly took my hands that were near and he pulled them to his lips. I leaned down and kissed him on those lips, and what I thought was an invisible departure from my sick grandfather became five of the best minutes of my life. With all of the strength that was left in him, he told of his love for me, he charged me to love my boys, he told me to care for Honey, and he kissed me and held me. His last words to me were, “I love you, son.” He’d said good-bye to me, but it was each of his grandchildren’s faces and the eyes of his great grandchildren and those even now in their mothers’ wombs that he saw when he looked up at me that last time.

JT Hellums was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. I don’t care that I never solved the great riddle of JT Hellums. No, it was enough for each of us to simply be wrapped in the mystery of Papa and to share in the bountiful love he had for life and for us all.
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