For many, many years, there has rarely been a day that hasn’t begun with a cup of tea and the obituaries. I read them each day even before I read the daily headlines.
Sometimes, I notice trends. For example, around this time of year – the last couple of weeks leading up to Christmas – obituaries seem to be fewer in number. I’ve wondered if that’s because the universe puts a pause on too much dying right then. A pause on the unseen and unending fights, against desperate odds, that go on quietly in so many homes across the land all the rest of the days of the year – for one last holiday together.
My mom got me reading the newspaper and obituaries as a kid. Every morning, she left for work long before the daily newspaper arrived at the front door, but she read it cover-to-cover every evening after dinner – particularly the obituaries. She always credited her Grade 8 teacher – Carl J. Seltzer – with her affection for the newspaper. Somewhere, in a box of hers, I still have his laminated obituary.
Over the years, I think I’ve unwittingly created a kind of sacred space with my morning obituary-reading ritual. It’s a quiet moment of reflection that let’s me start my day with a little better sense of what’s important. And maybe I live my day a little bit differently because of it.
These two-minute biographies have let me catch a glimpse into all of the different kinds of lives that might be available to me. And, somewhat less appealing, all of the different kinds of deaths – both the ways a person can die and the speed at which it may or may not happen. Obituaries are kind of like a near-death experience – a glimpse over the edge of the cliff – for us cowards.
Where once only the ages of the very young or the very old caught my attention, I almost always take note of the age of the deceased now. Automatically, I relate this figure to my own age. Thirty-four years to go, I think. Or 42. I’m not a numbers person ordinarily. But the power of numbers is never so evident than when we use them to speculate how much longer we might have with this one wild and precious life.
The obituaries I love most are those that make the dead come alive again, if only for a few minutes. Those that are both hilarious and touching or the beautiful, transcendental ones that teach us something of what the person learned from their life. Those about successful people who didn’t live orderly, linear lives. The ones that mention the dead ends, the lucky coincidences, the quirky habits, and a lot of passion for something – or someone. You just know that when an obituary begins with: “If you’re about to throw out a pair of pantyhose, stop,” that it’ll be a good one.
I sometimes imagine that one day far from now, a young woman, is sifting through dusty boxes in the attic one afternoon, and she comes across an old cookie tin filled with newspaper clippings and vintage photographs of family she never met. She sits on the floor with these yellowed pieces of her past scattered around her, reading the obituary of her great, great, great grandmother.
She learns that this woman from her far-flung past was born to tell stories. That she shared her love of sad songs and quiet places like cemeteries and libraries. That she saw the world and let herself be changed by every destination. That she sometimes felt she left too much love unspoken in her everyday life, but she fiercely loved her family. It was sometimes disguised as a text message, or cookies dropped off, or weekend shopping trips. And that she was mostly guessing at how to grow children and it seemed to have a lot to do with letting them be the teacher – and toast.
I imagine her staring at this paper-thin reminder of a life once lived smiling at the thought of her ancestor making good trouble. Marrying a wicked adventure of a woman on a cold October night, with a pandemic raging in the background. Being left-handed but on the right side of history. Petting all the dogs. (Everywhere). Defending Velveeta as critical to a good grilled cheese sandwich. A woman who was 40 before she stopped letting her work define her. Who thought she would die too when her mother did. And who knew that grace and mercy aren’t what you give to other people who haven’t asked for it, or who don’t deserve it. They’re what you give to people in the hope that it might come back to you, if and when you need it.
In my mind’s eye, I see her finding stacks of dog-eared journals that contain random musings like: “Fear is like a phoenix. You can watch it burn a thousand times and it always comes back.” And moody observations like: “I chose the regret I could live with best.” I see her piecing together the sometimes troubled and tumultuous – but ultimately pretty great – life of a woman who just couldn’t follow. Who kept an impressive “to be read” pile at all times. Who lived her personal truth, disappointing many, in exchange for leaving an authentic life and broken generational cycles in her wake. Who loved. And who always felt so loved. And in the end, that was all of everything that mattered.
I hope that someday when I am gone that she – this ancestor that I will never know – finds me and picks my soul up off of the obituary page, smiles and whispers to herself: “I would have loved her.”