Tuesday, 27 July 2010

An Old Woman's Task

When I was thirteen, my folks moved me and my sixteen-year-old sister from Lakewood, Colorado to a tiny little town in Indiana. We left behind my grandmother and my two eldest sisters--daughters of my father's first marriage they were well on their own. That was it for family on my father's side, or that was it for family on my father's side as near as I knew then. My mother left behind her brother, her sister's grave, and any real chance of contact with her extended family. It was almost a decade later, some four years after Mom died, that Gram upped sticks and moved in with Dad his then wife and her three children. Mom's relationship with her brother completely broke down in the year after we settled uncomfortably into life in a small town.

I recall amongst my long list of complaints was the lack of a decent comics page. Back in Colorado the weekday newspaper had pages of comics. In the tiny town, my folks subscribed to the local paper which was delivered on Wednesdays and had just the one political cartoon, and to the daily evening paper from the nearest city of any mentionable size. The daily paper had comics, the entirety of one side of one page. The other side of the page carried a local crossword, a word search, and Dear Abby. Despite my objection, I made easy use of those comics. For three and a half years, I read them slowly even the one's I hated--Annie, Prince Valiant--before flipping over to read Dear Abby and discarding the thing in a jumbled mess next to my father's end of the sofa. I don't know when I first saw someone read a paper cover-to-cover. I certainly didn't pick up the habit until I was well into my twenties.

It wasn't until after Mom died that I started reading the obituaries. I had a system, an excellent system. I'd come home from school and pick the newspaper up off the driveway. It was a good day if Dad had managed to get out and to it first. I'd wander into the house to find Dad watching another cycle of news programs or what was at the time the trial of the century. I'd wait the five minutes I knew it would take him to tell me that he was off for a nap, and when I heard the lock to his door click, I would slide the paper out of its plastic wrapper, or if it were sunny, I'd roll the rubber band up its neck . I'd retrieve the comics page and put it next to me just in case Dad decided to return to the living  room before I was through. Then I spread the obituaries out across my knee. I scanned the pages by age, reading those of people in their 30s and 40s first before moving up in age until I'd read the oldest. Then I read down in age through people in their mid-twenties.

I don't know what I thought would happen if I didn't read the obituaries each day. I remember worrying that there were people whose obituaries wouldn't be read at all if I didn't read them. I remember getting it into my protestant mind that the Catholics might be right about that Purgatory thing. I wasn't sure of the ins and outs, but I thought everyone waiting to enter heaven must deserve one prayer from a complete stranger.

I was certain of the power of prayer in those late days of my junior year. I thought that maybe when Mom had died complete strangers had read her obituary and prayed for me (still at home) Dad (husband) my sister (of Lexington) and my other sisters (of Colorado). I thought that maybe if I prayed for all those young families who'd lost a parent, perhaps there would be enough prayer for me as well. Maybe if I prayed hard enough for all those people Dad wouldn't drop dead of a massive heart attack in middle of the living room, maybe I wouldn't be so afraid all the time anymore, maybe my tiny family in that tiny town would manage to find a way to get on with life. Sometimes I thought that if I prayed hard enough for those strangers, God would take me too and then I wouldn't have to keep feeling the air pass through my chest.

Dad still hasn't had a massive heart attack. He and I have made an uncertain peace. I'm no longer constantly afraid. And I'm still here; though, I'm no longer in that tiny town. I no longer believe in heaven or the God of my childhood. I tend to think if there were a god and a purgatory, we're all pretty much living in it. I don't think that my fervent prayers over the obituaries saved anyone any more than any other unspoken thought of mine might have.

It wasn't until I left high school that I realized just how common it is for a minors to lose parents to death. By the time I was 20, one in seven of my peers had also lost a parent. I knew many of them in high school, but as is often true, I was never made aware that a step-parent had stepped in or stepped up. There were three of us who had lost our mothers on my dormitory floor my freshman year in college. There were less than twenty of us total. Despite this, I still kept my reading of the daily papers a secret. I thought that if anyone caught me, they'd think I was morbid. I was and am pretty morbid.

I eventually gave up saying prayers while I read, but I still read the obituaries. These days I keep it a bit closer to home. I only read the obituaries from towns I've lived in for any length of time. Most of those publish weekly papers, so I trundle through them just like I do wedding and birth announcements. Now, I only read the obituaries of people I have known.

Two weeks ago, I sat down to write an e-mail to a family friend in Denver to tell him I'd finally finished the PhD. The e-mail bounced back. I rang Dad and asked if he had a more recent one e-mail address. He didn't and said they hadn't talked for a few years. Nor did he have a phone number. Google told me the news. He'd passed away in March. His obituary was two lines with a small mention of internment. I'm flabbergasted. How in all that time reading obituaries had I managed to miss those few lines? What had happened that his two children didn't even write him a proper obituary? In the three years we'd been out of contact, how was it that he had ended up alone? Why hadn't he called or e-mailed and asked for help? What was his real story? If I think about it, all I ever knew was that he had two kids, he was divorced, he was Jewish, he'd known my folks for eons, and that until we moved to the tiny town, he'd spent Thanksgiving with us. Maybe there were very good answers, answers that I will never know to all of my questions.

These days I frequently find people I knew years ago in the obituaries. More and more frequently they're people I kept meaning to get in touch with, to say thank you mostly. And, as is to be expected, I am finding my own contemporaries disappearing one by one.

I was in Florida looking after my grandmother a few years ago when I discovered that reading the Obituaries is an old woman's task. I'd been roped into driving three women two of who were in their 70s to see a play. On the way home, one of them commented that she had to read the paper to find out who died. I tend to like people who are blasé about death. A third woman, 98, said, "I don't do that anymore." I asked her why not. She said, "I'm the only one left."  Apparently, for her, it was a relief to stop reading death. Now she reads the the comics and does the crossword and waits her turn for a mention in the local paper.


  1. I'll put in into my instructions to notify you when I die Sweetie. but don't cry, have a glass of wine and smile up at me.

    Love you, Max

  2. I had been complaining about e-mail as a notification format, but Google at midnight is way worse. And thanks.


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