Saturday, November 23, 2013

William Weldon Cunningham V

Our little boy is named William Weldon Cunningham V. We will call him Weldon.

I love this name so much. I also love that he is the V.

I asked William Weldon Cunningham IV, my husband, to write about the family history of the name...

What’s in a Name?

My son will be named William Weldon Cunningham, V. When my Granddad was lying on his deathbed, I told him that one day I would have a son and that he would carry on his legacy. My Granddad passed away shortly after and, among many things, knew that part of the incredible life he lived would weigh on a young boy not even yet conceived.

A name can mean many things. “William,” for example, means “a mighty warrior” or “protector.” “Weldon” means “spring near a hill.” “Cunningham” denotes a place. In some small way I guess I do hope that my son Weldon lives up to these names. “William”, at least, invokes feelings of grandeur and adventure. And goodness knows that if he is anything like his dad, he will find peace in a quiet spring by a hill. But to be completely honest, the script meaning behind those names doesn’t mean too much to me. I don’t really care whether he goes on grand adventures or resides peacefully by a spring. My son will go the places he will go and do the things he will do. He is already his own person, even as he grows in the safety of Christine’s womb. What I do care about is the “V.” The meaning behind that aspect of his name carries the weight of five generations. It carries hope for the future, it remembers the past, it is the embodiment of a vision, and it is the fulfillment of the dreams of the four men before it.

I want to tell you a few stories about my forbearers. None of them have lived particularly grand lives, though the three before me were born by a spring near Peach Orchard Hill. I never knew William Weldon Cunningham, Sr., and neither did my dad. And from what I hear, my Grandfather didn’t know him that well either. He died at an early age after being kicked in the shoulder by the family mule. He refused to go to a hospital and died of pneumonia shortly after. I guess the one trait I do know my Great Grandfather had was stubbornness, and I am afraid it hasn’t skipped any of the Cunningham men in four generations – Weldon will at least get that. My Great Grandfather’s name is, to be completely honest, just the beginning of our story. He was the son of a pioneer, fathered seven children, and sketched out an existence on a dirt farm. I wish I knew more, but the histories of the poor seldom make the books. But the story I wish I knew the most is why he decided to give my Grandfather his name.

Standing on top of Peach Orchard Hill
William Weldon Cunningham, Jr. was the youngest of 6 boys – the proverbial baby of the family – and giving the youngest the namesake is not exactly a time-honored tradition. His older siblings were unsavory at best, and the good ones of that bunch died early, untimely deaths. If one were to take my Grandfather at the age of 5 and extrapolate a hypothetical life for him, I suspect that the trajectory should have been no better than his siblings. But something happened in my Grandfather’s life that is hard to explain or justify. You often hear about generational blessings. Gamechangers. A person who alters familial paradigms. That was my Granddad. He did this simply and quietly, with a single will bent on remaining true to some unwritten, unarticulated code that for him I believe was only felt on the level of the soul. His entire being was bent on becoming more than he was cut out to be – from the time he was a young boy sitting in the cold shackles of the one-room schoolhouse in Eldridge, Alabama, a small town outside of Kansas, Alabama which is a small town outside of Carbon Hill, Alabama which is a small town in the middle of nowhere.

After my Great-Grandfather died, Granddad took care of his mother and began his own family, raising them in the shotgun cabin he was born in. It still amazes me that my own father was born into a house without indoor plumbing. But that was where he started. With barely any education and a life destined for the coalfields of Walker County, Alabama (often referred to as the black-eye of the state), my Granddad began his life. When my Dad was five he moved the family out of the cabin and into the small coal-mining town of Carbon Hill. With virtually nothing to his name, Granddad started working for Alabama Power, and shortly after became the youngest foreman in the history of the company. Men twice his age came under his supervision. While Granddad commanded respect from all around him, it has always struck me the way he did it. Yes, he could be harsh and demanding and, as Cunningham men are want to be, stubborn. But Granddad always outworked every man on his crew, leading by example. He learned to listen, and found that by listening others would listen to him. He worked for Alabama Power for 46 years before he retired. He began erecting telephone poles with a team of mules and ended in the Mobile Bay with helicopters.

But his story is not about work. Work often defines people, but those that knew my Granddad would say that he was defined by his family – by his wife and his daughter and his son and, later in his life, by me (I was, and everyone associated with him knew it, his unashamed favorite. In fact, it is almost laughable how clear he was with this fact). His story, my story, Weldon’s story, is defined by what he gave his children. Both of his children carry his legacy well, but this is about our name, so I will only talk about my Dad.

William Weldon Cunningham, III took what my Grandfather began and left Carbon Hill on a sprint. Those that know him well also know that he hasn’t stopped sprinting yet. I like to think of the day my dad pulled out of the rusty old town in his ’67 Ford and pointed the headlights west. He was probably filled with little more than blind ambition for adventure, but the two years he spent on the road began what would be a long journey of putting words to my Granddad’s vision. Somewhere along the road, somewhere between the Grand Canyon, the Seattle Sound, Pike’s Peak, and the long, rolling coolies and bluffs of the Dakotas, my dad came to understand what being “Cunningham, III” meant. He discovered the inaudible, unweilding bend of my Grandfather’s heart: that to be a Cunningham man meant knowing your master, loving your family, and finding your hill to die on.

All of my Father’s earthly accomplishments (and failures) have happened under that call. It is a dangerous call, to live so recklessly, to love so deeply, and to fight so fiercely for those things that are next to our hearts. It is something that he has given me, and something I am still learning to do. And it is a call that Weldon will enter his life under.

Weldon is my namesake, I am my Father’s, he is my Grandfather’s, and he is my Great-Grandfather’s. No matter what he does, who he becomes, or where he goes, that is the legacy of the V. It is a burden that when fully understood becomes a gift of immeasurable worth.

1 comment:

  1. You wrecked me with this post, Will Cunningham. What a legacy. What a gift.