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Paul Douglas Sullivan

November 26, 2009

All right, this is something I wrote a couple months ago and thought it was worth sharing. Then, I thought it was somewhat poignant that it’s around Thanksgiving time. Then, I realized just now that the funeral was on Thanksgiving four years ago. Anyway.

My grandfather didn’t much like vacations. At his funeral reception back at the house, grandma made a point in proclaiming herself the matriarch of the family, saying that now, at seventy-seven years old, she could finally take that trip to Hawaii and take her first step onto an airplane.

During the reception, my dad and the uncles sat her down just to keep an eye on her because she’d spent most of the day running back and forth between different attendees, asking them what they needed –– shirts, socks, underwear, some work pants, pocket knives, Paul had some old ties, too –– disappearing into his closet and emerging with an armful of flannels, a shopping bag stuffed with cardigans. I found a child-sized shoe lying near the couch and hopped into the bedroom so grandma could slip it back on. She would die eight months later, to the day.

Paul Douglas Sullivan was the fourth generation of the line of Sullivans descended from William Thomas Sullivan and Catherine Margaret Conway Sullivan who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1838 or 1839. They lived in Kinney, an Irish settlement about twenty miles north of Coudersport, and eventually settled in Ohio after their daughter, Elizabeth was born. Their first child, James, was too young to travel when his parents came to America and was brought over later by a Catholic priest. Later, in Findlay, Ohio, James would join the 21st Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. He was killed in a skirmish near Vinnings Station, Georgia on July 9, 1864.

Their youngest son was John Henry Sullivan. He studied five years for the priesthood but quit over a disagreement with the church and married Anna Mary Shumaker, who they called Mollie. John Henry ran a sawmill in Dunbridge and it’s said that he lived his life by one of his favorite sayings: “If a man’s word ain’t no good, then the man ain’t no good.”

Their son William Thomas Sullivan married Hallie May Fetterman. They named their son William Thomas Sullivan, Jr. and he married Edna Mae Dennis, who my father and his brothers called Grandma Dennis. Grandma Dennis gave birth to Paul Douglas Sullivan and on February 9, 1947 he married my grandmother Patricia Ann Shetzer, who was German and a quarter Blackfoot, of which specific tribe no one is sure.

They held grandpa’s funeral reception back at the house he and my grandmother had lived in for just about as long as they’d been married. He built it with his father and it was the house in which my father grew up with his three brothers, Hal, Denis and Kevin.

When I knew my grandfather, he was a barrel of a man with a deep, crisp, bass voice. He wore glasses, work pants and flannel shirts, which he always tucked in. He made his own belts. He was always clean-shaven and was up before the sun, out walking around the house, checking on the garden, doing some kind of work. He’d always say, “Hello, young fella!” and bury me in his arms, landing a bear-sized hand on my back. When I knew him, he was already retired from his career as an engineer and spent a great deal of time in Ohio and Michigan hunting and fishing. He worked on microwaves before they were made commercially available.

You never came into the house through the front door –– it was always in through the side door of the garage and up the few stairs to the door of the kitchen, which opened directly above the stairway to the basement, the walls of which were lined with what must have been at least twenty pair of mounted antlers and the bullet that got them there.

Everything happened in the kitchen. Grandma would either be cooking or planning out the week’s meals on a yellow legal pad, and whoever was around would be sitting around the table talking and drinking coffee. The table is where we played cards, where I learned how to play euchre, and where I must’ve gotten my dislike of going to bed at a reasonable hour. Grandpa could only ever make it to about ten o’clock and then turn in for the night.

In the garage he had a worktable where he tinkered with old toasters or radios he’d buy at garage sales. He had mouse traps hung up that he’d used and washed to use again. In the basement he had another worktable and when he died, he must’ve had something like thirty different meat grinders, five blenders, a shelf of fixed toasters, drawers full of odds and ends, all meticulously labeled. He even had a drawer for rubber bands, all arranged by size, and a drawer for plastic bags, bundled neatly and labeled with the same neat handwriting.

My dad and his brothers divvied up his guns and appliances and everybody took handfuls of pocketknives. I only took two: one from his nightstand and one that looked the oldest. The odds and ends were collected and split up and given to me and the cousins. I only know that Kip got most of grandpa’s army stuff; he was on leave from Iraq when Grandpa died. I have grandpa’s “P.S.” cufflinks and tie clip, and an old bracelet he bought when he was stationed in Germany in 1947. I can’t imagine he ever wore it. The only jewelry grandpa ever wore was a watch and his wedding ring. The bracelet barely fits around my own wrist and, how I remember it, Paul Sullivan’s arms were as thick as as logs.

So everyone milled around at the reception. Grandma was back and forth with armfuls of clothes, people talked with others they hadn’t seen in a literal lifetime, bland sandwiches were quickly inhaled, plenty of cousins couldn’t stop crying and cans of beer were constantly being passed into the kitchen from the cold garage stairs where they sat next to boxes of pop. It was November.

None of the uncles cried, but I’d never seen any Sullivans cry. Mostly it was jokes, talking a little too loud and a lot of back-slapping. Nobody really drank.

Grandma and Grandpa weren’t religious but Grandma had a preacher relative in there somewhere and when he got up at the funeral to read the story of the prodigal son, the front row of Sullivans quietly erupted with whispered laughter. Later, the big joke was that Grandpa hated that story and could never get his head around why a father would welcome a wayward son back when he’d blown his inheritance. He never could understand what it was all about. When we brought the casket to his plot, the proprietor said it was customary to release a dove, so when they brought it out of the box everyone figured that someone better shoot it quick, before it got away.

Grandpa died when I was twenty-two. I took two green thermoses when Grandma died the following year.

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