I bring Kleenexes to class on this day. I open the box and set it on the small stage in Wells Theatre where I teach all my classes. I drag the podium to the middle, and wait for the arrival of the students. Overall, when the day is over, 88 students will grace this stage. Eighty-eight students will stand before me and give a short speech. Not much. Two minutes, maybe three. Three minutes of a small bit of laughter or three minutes of tears. Today we give eulogies.
I keep eulogies in my speech curriculum because we all will give them, if we have not already. During the lecture time on eulogies, my classes are quiet. Some have already given them; others have not. Most have not given it much thought. Why would they? They are nineteen years old!
My first eulogy was for my grandmother. It was a great honor to tell her stories. I remember my Uncle Dean sitting in the front row in his black suit with a red silk handkerchief in the top pocket. Before I spoke, he said to me, “If I pull the red silk out of my pocket that means I would like to speak so please invite me up to the podium. If not, just go ahead and sit down.” As I spoke, I watched him carefully, and then the red silk appeared, and I could introduce him.
The next eulogy was for my dad. My mom insisted I do it for him, and I wanted to, but it was very difficult. I ended that eulogy by singing “Edelweiss” which was our favorite song. The song is what brought on the tears of love.
I encourage my students to eulogize anything from alarm clocks to grandparents and so on. I laughingly tell them one of my favorite eulogies was when Sam Miller gave mine a few years ago. I give them examples and the protocol, and I tell them to dress the part. The rest is up to them. They show up in all manners of clothing for the appropriate location for their eulogy: backyards, boats, mountaintops, churches, theatres, Ancient Greece, back alleys of New York.
One by one, they take the stage. Burying the family dog is a popular subject on this day. These are serious and one young man leaves the podium crying while we sit in silence waiting for him to return. The eulogy of Frosty the snowman leaves us all in smiles. However, there are so many others: parents, grandparents, sleep, bank accounts, Justin Bieber (yes, really), Robin Williams. These students of mine are respectful of each one of their peers. They clap, they cry, they sit silent. They are forgiving.
After a full day of these speeches, I pack up my backpack and my Kleenexes and bike home on this beautiful late September day. Eulogies spin in my head. At this moment in my life eulogies are stronger than ever before. I know more are coming, and they seem to be accelerated.
I park in my yard and look around. My kayak is waiting by the fence…I guess I could eulogize summer thinking about that. Where did it go? Where did my youth go? My children’s youth? Now the grandchildren. As I sit on the bench in my backyard, I think of the speech of one young man. His story was of his grandmother, and how her death changed the family gatherings. He was eulogizing both the loss of her and of the family.
I sit here thinking about something that always nags in my own head. Where do those stories go when someone dies or when a relationship breaks down, and everything changes.
I must find a poem so I head on in to my studio, turn on the lights, and find the book I am looking for easily. But first, I must ceremoniously build a late night campfire before I read the words of wisdom. One match strike and the fire burns. The embers toss into the dark air as regally as tossing jewels into the night sky. I open up my book of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I easily find the one I am looking for because the page actually falls out. “Spring and Fall to a young child…Margaret, are you grieving over Goldengrove unleaving? Leaves like the things of man…”
I finish reading the poem to myself.
I close the book, and let the lost stories fall into my dreams.