Prologue: I wrote this letter to my uncle, Paul Blessing, for his 96th birthday, which turned out to be the last one we got to celebrate with him. When I was a child, Uncle Paul scared me a little. He had a quick temper, and he was ready with his belt as my cousins and I were growing up to punish them (and occasionally me) for wrongdoing.
Once when my cousin Joe and I were washing the car and I accidentally (for real) squirted him with the hose, Joe responded by socking me in the jaw. I started crying, and Uncle Paul came outside. He figured neither party was innocent, and he got a meter stick (quite a bit thicker than a yardstick, which I was used to my mother spanking me on the bottom with) and gave both Joe and me a whipping on the backs of our legs. I was frightened, shocked, and the thought occurred to me that we were being abused. But Joe and I wound up consoling each other by comparing the red marks on our hamstrings. Soon we were back to laughing and finished washing the car.
As Uncle Paul grew older, he mellowed a lot. He was quite affectionate with his grandchildren, and he and my aunt Myrt both took on our children as honorary grandchildren. (My dad was involved with Daniel and Julie as much as he could be, but he remarried in 1994 and didn’t have as much time to devote to his grandchildren as he did before he remarried.)
Uncle Paul was my dad’s first cousin, meaning he was my second cousin, I think.* The “once removed” label for cousins has always caused me confusion, so even after reading about the topic I can’t remember the exact relationships of my uncle and cousins to me. Uncle Paul and my dad (first cousins) married sisters, thereby making him my cousin and uncle and my cousins double cousins. Don’t ask me whether Bill, Sue, and Joe were second cousins once removed or third cousins; I think it was the former, but since we were also related on our moms’ side, it was easier to remember them as first cousins.
Uncle Paul woke up in pain early one Sunday morning in July 2018. He called his friend Mack, who worked at the funeral home where Uncle Paul volunteered a lot of his time. (Always the minister.) Mack drove Uncle Paul to the hospital, where they discovered he had gallstones. He had to have surgery, and his health quickly declined after surgery. My cousin Bill (the oldest of Uncle Paul’s and Aunt Myrt’s three children) realized that if they did not act soon, Uncle Paul might not make it. After consulting with a liver transplant surgeon he knows, Bill arranged for Uncle Paul to be transferred to a hospital in Cincinnati.
They took Uncle Paul by ambulance but didn’t seem in too much of a hurry, as it was around 5:00-5:30 p.m. the day they finally left for Cincinnati. Uncle Paul had another surgery when he got to Cincinnati. Afterward, he entertained the nurses and family visitors right up to a few minutes before he died. He had a heart attack, I believe, or it may have been a stroke. Anyway, he was kidding around with the nurse and one minute he was here, and the next minute he was gone.
I couldn’t believe it when my cousin Joe called to tell me the sad news of Uncle Paul’s death. He had not slowed down much as he got older…he was still driving and often went to the nursing home near his home to visit people and lead Bible studies with the “old people” (this is humorous, coming from a 96-year-old).
Here is the letter I wrote for Uncle Paul’s 96th birthday. I’m so glad we celebrated his 96th birthday, even though we’d had a big to-do for his 95th birthday.
February 15, 2018
Dear Uncle Paul,
Happy 96th birthday! I am so happy we are able to celebrate with you. When I think of you, here’s what I remember about you:
• A keen and curious mind, always striving to prepare the best material to present, whether through a sermon or teaching a Sunday school class
• A rolling stone that gathered no moss—when I recall my childhood memories of you, you were always busy doing something. If not out in the community ministering to someone’s need, you were busy at home with yardwork or at Reb’s fixing something in her house or helping her in the garden.
• An outgoing, friendly personality who obviously enjoyed being around people and never knew a stranger. I also remember your laughing a lot and saying “You see… you see.”
• A faithful spouse, cousin, in-law, and friend—I remember how lovingly you cared for Aunt Myrt and how you looked out for Reb in her latter years.
• A kind and caring presence to people at the nursing home and a comforting presence to people at the funeral home
• Your life was never dull. It seemed that something was always hopping with you, whether it was a mission trip to West Virginia or something going on in the Clinch Valley Baptist Association.
• You took your calling as a minister seriously and remain faithful to that call even now. How many 96-year-olds can say they preached a funeral in the past year? How many can say they officiated at their grandson’s wedding on the beach just 4½ years ago?
• You have meant so much to me and my family, stepping in as a grandfatherly substitute for our children when Daddy was consumed with caring for my mom. You and Aunt Myrt brought Reb down to Nashville at a time when I badly needed some coaching in mothering a newborn. I will never forget how relieved I felt when you three showed up at our house.
• I appreciate all the family stories you have shared with me. You made me feel like a real grownup the first time you came to our house (while you were attending a conference at what used to be the Baptist Sunday School Board). I learned the real truth about why Mamaw and Papaw slept in separate rooms, and I still chuckle when I think about that.
• I remember getting many cards and letters from you signed “With all my love.” That made me feel special.
• You excelled at grandparenthood. I am really thankful that you and Aunt Myrt took our family under your wing, treating Daniel and Julie as if they were your own grandchildren. They have pleasant memories of trips to Kingsport and SW Virginia because you made them feel loved.
• I have always enjoyed our parries about what was going on in the Southern Baptist Convention and debates about women in ministry. I know you were a little disappointed when I became a Methodist, but hey—at least I’m still faithfully attending church and growing in my spiritual life. I did what I had to do!
Here is perhaps my highest compliment to you: I hope I will be like you when I grow old. I hope I can remain positive in the face of grief and bravely continue on. Should my dear spouse die before I do, I hope I have the courage to pick myself up, dust off my feet, and continue living, as you have done. That doesn’t mean you don’t grieve—you did, but you faced your grief and worked through it. And always you kept in mind that God still had work for you to do. You have lived a life full of purpose and meaning.
In short (well not really—for an editor, I’m pretty verbose), I have been blessed and privileged to get to know you as an adult, and I am forever grateful to you. I hope we get to celebrate your 100th birthday in four short years!
Love you (John joins me in that sentiment),
Your niece and second cousin,
*Oops, I think I was wrong about my cousin relationship to Uncle Paul. He is my second cousin once removed because we do not share grandparents. He was my father’s first cousin. Cousin Paul’s dad was my great uncle, so figure that one out—his being the child of my great grandparent would make him my second cousin, wouldn’t it? So I figured out my relationship to the children of cousins Bill and Joe: They are my first cousins once removed. We’ll just simplify things by calling each other cousins. For more information, see https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/cousin-chart/.
One interesting thing I remember from the visitation at my mother’s funeral back in 1991: I stood next to my dad, and so many people came through the line, and Daddy would say, “This is my cousin _______.” All I could think of was that everyone who lived in his little holler (hollow) must’ve been related! I got tickled after a while. I asked Daddy how many cousins he had, and he didn’t know. His mother had 5 siblings, I think. Beyond that, I have not traced all my cousins. I do well enough to keep up with the cousins on my mom’s side of the family. I know my first cousins from my dad’s side of the family but not as well.