Thursday, August 27, 2009

Edward M. Kennedy: The Best Old Boy Who Ever in This World Did Live

As I think about the loss of Ted Kennedy and about an appropriate way to eulogize someone who contributed so much to the United States, from a Catholic social justice perspective that often seems to be in its death throes these days, I think back to a childhood scene involving my maternal grandmother.

As readers who have followed Bilgrimage for some time might guess, my mother’s mother played a significant role in my childhood. My grandmother shaped my outlook on life, and her lessons in values—ones she took dead seriously, and which her grandchildren had no choice except to regard as significant—formed my character in ways I feel sure I will never totally fathom. It was this grandmother who taught me to pray on evenings when I would spend the night with her as a child, and we would talk into the night as I slept beside her.

As I’ve grown up and look back on her subtle techniques of character formation, I realize that my grandmother deliberately staged the constant visits we made to her as occasions to teach her grandchildren about values. Many of our visits included a drive to the cemetery in which her parents and grandparents are buried, along with countless other relatives on that side of my family. My grandmother herself is now buried in that cemetery.

On these occasions, as we’d walk slowly through the cemetery from grave to grave, she would tell us stories of each person buried in the plots to which she guided us. These were stories designed to make us aware that who we were was an extension of who our forebears had been and what they had done: we had a heritage to carry on, and we also needed to remember with gratitude the sacrifices made for us by those who came before us.

Needless to say, each story included a little moral lesson.

One grave puzzled me, though. It did so because my grandmother never failed to visit it and point it out to us. But she had no story to go with the burial site.

What she did instead when we reached this grave was pat the tombstone and say, “Here lies the best old boy who ever in this world did live.” That was it. That was her eulogy, and it has stuck in my mind as an exceptionally fine one.

Years later, I discovered the reason for my grandmother’s reticence to talk about this fine “old boy.”

The man she was eulogizing—and encouraging us to remember—was her cousin, her first cousin. He was the son of an aunt about whom she was always reticent—a half-aunt, as she was quick to point out, born to her grandfather's second wife.

The reason for the reticence, I have learned as an adult, is that this aunt had a child some years following her husband’s death, a child born to a neighboring farmer up the road from her. In rural Arkansas, such events caused quite a stir—at least in the area in which my family lived. They brought shame on an entire family, down to third and fourth cousins descended from half-brothers and sisters far back in the family tree.

Despite this shame, which obviously mattered to my grandmother many years after her poor old widowed aunt had stepped across the conventional line with a neighbor (as old letters delicately explain), my grandmother obviously cherished the cousin whose tombstone she wanted us to remember, the best old boy who ever in this world did live.

And I can think of few better ways to eulogize Senator Kennedy. My grandmother was wild about the Kennedys. They could, in her eyes, do no wrong. When she saw the photograph of a Ryan relative of theirs in County Wexford, she was absolutely convinced—nothing would persuade her otherwise—that this Kennedy cousin had to be a cousin of hers, given that her own mother had been a Ryan born in County Kilkenny close to the Wexford border, and that the president’s cousin looked like the very spit and image of her mother.

If my grandmother were alive today, she would say of Ted Kennedy—I know it in my bones—and of his death, “We've just lost the best old boy who ever in this world did live.” And as her grandson, I can think of no finer way to eulogize a man I admired deeply, and for whose good work on behalf of all of us I will forever be grateful.