Monday, November 05, 2007

Dead letters

Fup’s little memorial has gotten me thinking about obituaries in general. I’m one of those people who read them like literature. I’ve done it for years; some of the best ones, I’ve saved, clipping them out and tucking them into one of the longhand journals I’ve kept most of my life. That’s not maudlin, is it? I find them so poignant and thrilling, somehow, the good ones: how the world was richer for a person’s presence, how I am a tiny bit poorer, for only learning about them after the fact. I want to live a life worthy of a good obituary. Maybe I'm also reading them for clues, for behavioral cues and markers on how to live a bold and interesting life. Some examples I've collected:

  • Selma Aalto Plum died October 20, 1994, at 90; in that near-century, she'd played high-school basketball, gone barnstorming with her pilot husband, gone vagabonding in a Packard all over northern California, volunteered for the Democratic party, earned a BA in English at the University of Washington in her 70s, and at some point, according to her daughter, found time to be photographed clad only in "long hair and a fig leaf." She was also known for paying every bill "on time, in cash and in person."
  • Irene Elizabeth Amundsen died September 22, 1998, having owned a Seattle cake-decorating shop since 1962 (a place I love, not least for its enjoyable storefront signage: HOME CAKE in huge letters on one panel, Decorating a tiny, appended afterthought). I remember going there for edible gold leaf, but noticing that she also carried those domed cake molds that you inserted a naked Barbie doll into, the frosted cake becoming the edible bell of the doll's skirt. As trends changed, she also carried mixed-race and same-sex wedding cake toppers. She knew how to treat customers, and give them what they wanted.

* * * * *

In high school, I had a trigonometry teacher who was universally loathed, an embittered, twitchy woman who chose to approach a room full of sullen teens with flippant condescension. This worked out about as well as you’d expect. Oh, my God, we mocked and pranked and backtalked or blithely ignored this woman. Our orchestrated disobedience was all the more hilarious because she had both a lisp and, when provoked, a stammer. “Ryan!” she’d shout at the worst of the instigators, when she had just Had It (roughly once a week). “Jusht…jusht…jusht…jusht-jusht-jusht-jusht GET OUT!” Skipping and spitting like a worn vinyl album, one quavering finger pointed imperiously, desperately at the classroom door. “Jusht GET OUT!” After the year I’d had her, she did not return in September; perhaps she’d been on the cusp of retirement anyway, but you couldn’t be entirely wrong to imagine we’d driven her to it.

I was at least a decade out of 11th-grade trig when I spotted her obituary in the Times. It mentioned her teaching career…but also her other professional pursuits, which included a stint as a Microsoft engineer and another as a decorated stock-car racer. I was stupefied by this discovery, by the fact that, outside of her sputtering, dithering math-teacher character, she’d been interesting. Why hadn’t she brought any of those personas to the classroom? Oh, Mrs. GET OUT. You were, and remain, a mystery. And today I am at least a little sorry for how we treated you. Though just a little. Jusht.

* * * * *

I wrote my grandmother’s obituary, six years ago--I begged to do it, actually. The paper charged by the word or by the column inch, something, and I agonized, trying to tighten my prose but desperate to portray her in full, to capture the details of the complicated, quirky, tart and stylish woman she had been. To get her right. When the paper arrived that Sunday I remember spreading it on my living room floor and finding her name, and my heart racing. I felt this enormous sense of pride: not at seeing my words in print, but in the fact that now everyone would know. The world could read it, the world would know her and take a second to mourn what they had missed.

Well, if they read obituaries like I do, they would.

* * * * *

Here is one more, the favorite one I’ve kept. Valerie Silver Ellis was a trader at Cantor Fitzgerald, and died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Imagine, for a minute, the task that faced those New York Times writers, in their Portraits of Grief series. Eight or ten or a dozen a day, for more than a year. Hundreds of souls, captured in a few paragraphs each. Among those hundreds, those thousands, this one has stuck with me ever since, the only one I saved.


One of the best Valerie Silver Ellis stories takes place in the early '80's when she was starting out at Cantor Fitzgerald. A senior trader asked her to take his shoes to be repaired, so Ms. Ellis had taps put on the toes and the heels extended to four inches. When the senior trader ordered the upstart young trader to redo the job, Ms. Ellis had the shoes bronzed.

Bronzed! Bronzed, people. It still makes me laugh out loud. And this, this is only one of the best of her stories? How privileged her family and friends were, to have her. How lucky the dude she put in his place; I hope to God he kept those ten-pound, metal-plated, Cuban-heeled tap shoes on his desk as a fucking paperweight. How sad, and awed, and grateful I am, to know only this tiny fragment of her, to have picked her out of those thousands, and think of her every September and other times, too. The best of her stories is one of the best stories, period.

1 comment:

Madge said...

Well...better late than never. I don't know if you ever go back and read comments way after the fact but since I've been without a working computer for months, I can't help it. Thank you for letting people know just a little bit of how special Gram was. She was everything you put into her obituary and we were so lucky to have her in our lives. I miss her so, but I too sometimes read the obits just because I want to know a little about who we've lost and how precious and special they were. It is nice to get to know just a little about some folks we never met, and to honor them with a moment of pause and heartfelt admiration even though they never personally graced our lives. Mom