For as long as I can remember my Uncle Dave has given the eulogies in our family. Which, for a people who hold their annual family reunion in a cemetery, is just about the highest honor that can be bestowed. I don’t know how exactly Uncle Dave came to power, but if I had to guess, I’d say it probably has something to do with his fluency in the Southern Baptist vernacular. With characters as infamously colorful as the ones in my family, it’s nice to have the Jesus card in your back pocket. If you don’t have anything nice to say you can always say “we loved him as a brother in Christ,” and “he’s gone to be with Jesus” seems to roll off the tongue a bit sweeter than “good riddance.”
So, when my Granny died almost two years ago, I found comfort in the fact that I knew exactly what to expect. I was on autopilot; I filed into a very beige and sanitized side room at the local funeral home. I held my mom’s hand and listened to Dave’s son, my cousin Drew, sing Amazing Grace (even Southern Baptists aren’t above a little nepotism). And then I sat down and listened to Uncle Dave’s eulogy and it was exactly what I thought it would be: where she’d grown up, the work she did as a teacher’s aide and the daughters and grandchildren she was survived by. Of course, everyone in the pews was filling in the blanks. She’d been an alcoholic most of her life. She’d been married six times, each suitor less desirable than the last. That is until Thomas, her final partner, who had left her with a beautiful house and a considerable sum of money, part of which she promised him she’d use to send each grandkid to college. He died, and she broke that promise. She’d taken up every ounce of her children’s time and attention in her final years with guilt-laden demands and false health alarms.
“We loved her as a sister in a Christ, and now she’s gone to be with Jesus,” Uncle Dave concluded.
Everyone Amen-ed obligingly and I started planning my strategy of attack on the chicken spaghetti and deviled eggs we’d no doubt have after Granny was laid to rest. I could even picture her grave plot and headstone perfectly because I’d been visiting it for five years during family reunions. She’d had it put up after one of her health scares. I was just about to ask my mom if she knew who’d made the deviled eggs - if it was my Aunt Marla they’d have pickles in them, which would be an unfortunate kink in my plans but meant I could possibly have a piece of both my mom's chocolate sheet cake AND the sweet potato pie - when the coup happened.
“Thank you for your words, David.”
A man I’d never seen before now stood behind the podium. My thoughts came crashing back to reality as I racked my brain for who this sweaty-pated stranger with a thick East-Texas drawl could be and why he’d Kanye’d my Uncle Dave. Was he one of Granny’s husbands? Had I seen him at the family reunions? Was Uncle Dave’s name really David? Or worse, was this a just a senile stranger who had wandered into the wrong funeral and was now missing the memorial of his own loved one laying in some other beige room? I was ready to jump out of my pew and lead this poor man to his correct destination when he explained himself.
“I’m Mr. Ross, a friend of Jimmie’s from secondary school and I’d like to read a letter she sent me years ago in the event of her death.”
And just like that, my Granny crashed her own funeral.
In retrospect, it seems fitting that my career as a speechwriter began the same week as my Granny’s funeral. In fact, within the first few hours of my first day on the job, I received the call from my mom in Texas that Granny was in the hospital with what might have been a stroke. I cringe to think how callous I must have sounded in the ensuing conversation with my boss:
“Sorry about that, my Granny had a stroke.”
“I’m so sorry. Do you need to go?”
“No, I’m sure she’s just being dramatic. This isn’t the first time this has happened.”
It was the last. The small, inoperable brain tumor my Granny had been diagnosed with fifteen years before had finally decided to grow up.
Ironically, in the two years since my Granny’s passing, I’ve become somewhat of a Mr. Ross myself. See, I'm not just any speechwriter -- I'm a personal speechwriter. I write wedding vows, Bar Mitzvah speeches, best man roasts and, of course, eulogies. And while I don’t ever funeral crash, and I always make sure I have the names right, I am, or at least my words are, a foreign presence in someone else’s most intimate moments.
I used to say that my job as a personal speechwriter is a lot like being a therapist but that’s not exactly right. Therapists help people. They stay distant and objective. In truth, I’m more like a voyeur. I am not there to guide anyone - I peek into people’s lives, poking around dark corners and getting uncomfortably close. My objective is not to stay impartial, in fact, it’s the opposite. When I sit down to write a speech, my goal is to become the speech giver. I fall in love with strangers and mourn them. Celebrate their victories and feel their losses. On any given day, I’m a proud mother trying not to embarrass my 13-year old son as he becomes a man, or a groom with shaking hands promising his love forever, or a grieving daughter trying to keep her composure as she celebrates the life of a parent.
In order to do this, I have to pry. I ask a lot of personal questions and I get a lot of weird responses: bitter family disputes, messy divorces, personal addictions and everything in between. I once had a man tell me it’d be best not to mention his ex in his speech, as she was in prison after taking a hit out on him and his new wife. In fact, for any given speech, I do twice as much listening as I do writing and in all those hours of listening, I’ve learned two things to be true. One, no matter who you are, nobody gets through a lifetime without doing both good and bad things. And two, the minute details of a person's life will kick narrative’s ass every time when it comes to giving a good speech. Everyone is loyal and kind and funny. Everyone thinks their child was cute when they were a baby and everyone has a "wild night" story with their best friend. I’m not interested in these things. Give me the small details - the infuriatingly specific drink order your friend gives the barista every time you get coffee. The number of expired coupons your mom rifles through every time she goes to the grocery store. The song your dad always hums when he’s stuck in traffic. The name of the books your sister read to you instead of going outside to play while you were sick and stuck in bed. These are the things that make a speech worth listening to, that truly celebrate the life of a person you love.
I don’t remember what my Granny wrote in her own eulogy, other than a perfectly executed joke about a God-awful yellow skirt she sewed for herself in high school. But I think I now understand why she wrote it. My Granny was no fool, she knew the narrative of her life wasn’t great on paper and that Uncle Dave’s words that day might reflect as much. Or worse, be as beige and sanitized as the room we’d sit in as he spoke them. I think my Granny knew there was a chance the details of her life would be lost, and she took it upon herself to make sure that didn’t happen.
Because the truth is Granny wasn’t just a sister in Christ or an alcoholic or unlucky in love. She was Jimmie Watt, a woman with an acerbic wit and almost ESP-level intuition, who loved roosters and old porcelain dolls. She used to let her grandkids feed the fish in the pond behind her house and she built us a playhouse in her yard that was a perfect replica of her own, down to the maroon colonial shutters. She loved the color red. She had an incredibly green thumb and her garden was always thriving with all sorts of exotic plants, every one of which she knew the name of. She kept hundreds of pen pals throughout her life. Every one of the hundreds of books in her personal library had a sticker inside that said: “Property of Jimmie Watt” with her address below so guests could borrow them at any time. She bought PT Cruisers even though she could have afforded any car on the lot because she thought they were cute. She always had Werther’s candies in a dish and framed pictures of her family on her coffee table, even when she was in assisted living. She once wrote me a check for fifty bucks with the memo line reading "you got up" after I fell in a dance recital. She could handily beat anyone in the game of Skip-Bo and her homemade chicken and dumplings are still second to none. She taught me the magic of room temperature cheddar cheese on a Ritz club cracker.
I wish it hadn’t been my first day as speechwriter when I got the news about Granny. I wish I’d known then what I know now, that I could have asked my Granny the questions I ask strangers every day. She experienced so much before I came around, and she endured so much before my mom and aunts were born. She lived so much life outside of the narrative we’d built around her.
More than anything, I wish I’d thought to speak these words before now. All I can hope is that Uncle Dave is right, and I’ll get to tell Granny one day when I too have gone to be with Jesus.