OBITS: ‘OASES OF CALM’
By MARIANNE WOOD
Obituaries, often called simply, “obits,” offer readers a rich trove of stories. But their main purpose, providing family and friends a way to publicly honor a departed loved one with a quick depiction of a person’s life, usually features a photo and three to many paragraphs of biographical information. These brief to ponderously long works of non-fiction (we hope) provide a sort of package bow on the gift of a person’s life. Many writers shine halos that don’t exist while others tell it like it was. We all know that the truth about the person eulogized is often somewhere in-between these two extremes. We are all deeply flawed.
Some obits go on and on and on while others give us just the name, dates of birth and death, and the time and place of a funeral or graveside service. I like the ones that start with an interesting name.
Take Jack “Big Jack” Alley and Velma “Hoochie” Bowers. And having come from a long line of Andrewses, I can’t help but wonder how Looney Andrews, 91 from Brownwood, came to own this moniker. It is fun to imagine what Big Jack, Hoochie and Looney did with their lives. For some reason, I didn’t save one of those key paragraphs, the ones about three paragraphs into their stories, that tell how these people made a living and what they did in their spare time.
I particularly love the story about the sisters Lucille and Zola whose other sister Zula Alzenia Patterson Cook, died at age 87 in Albany, Texas. Zula was also called “Zipper.” She lettered in basketball for three years. And she learned to hula in Hawaii—“a pastime that gave her great pleasure.”
Ruby Fay “Poopie” Sipe, 81 of Trent, Texas was a self-employed beautician at the Country Boutique.
I actually noted a Jane Smith, 83, of Haskell, Texas. That one certainly stood out from a raft of triple and quadruple-named people.
In 2016 the world lost Mildred “Sweet N’ Low” Priest, age 90, of Albany, Texas. Her family had a traveling music show. She was sweet and only four feet, nine inches tall. Her obituary ended with “Love you more.”
One story I’ve lost except for the memory of the woman’s favorite daily activity: meeting every afternoon with her best friend to drink Cherry Coca-Colas. That’s the kinda thing that sticks in your mind because it sounds like a great way to pass a life.
A popular obituary that recently made its way through social media and texts is the rather long and direct, ahem, not Sunday School literature approved, but amusing, and yes, thoughtful piece on Tim Schrandt of Ridgeway, Iowa, who died in 2019. I especially like the part about not losing his battle with cancer, but the cancer dying when he did—making it a tie. What a way to tilt the lens to tell the truth!
I do save full copies of some of the obituaries that I read. One that struck me especially strongly came along about the time I was studying the book of Genesis with the women at my church. Our instructor, Jen Wilken via her video/book study on “Covenant,” asked us to think what we’d like our epitaph to say after reading those made up for Abraham and Sarah in the Bible. I knew I had saved some good material that fit our study, so I read this to my table group:
Annie Ruth Newman, Abilene, 85, went to be with her Lord and Savior on the 28th of May. After describing her work as “a cordon bleu chef, a prodigious bowler, an incredible softball player, a crossword puzzle connoisseur, and most importantly a champion of Christ,” the writer tells us “she will be remembered most by her radiant smile that could light up a room.”1
Gee, I wish I had known Annie Ruth.
Prize-winning journalist Russell Baker died on January 21, 2012, and in an obituary for him by Corey Franklin in the Chicago Tribune online, Baker is quoted. Here is my favorite sentence in Franklin’s piece. “Obits are oases of calm in a world gone mad”.2
Speaking of madness, an actress that calls to mind that characteristic for her portrayal of Marjorie Nugent in the movie Bernie, Shirley MacLaine teams up with Amanda Seyfried in the movie The Last Word. It is about obituaries, and you can guess which of these two actresses seeks a writer for hers. It’s a good comedy with an important message: don’t wait until the last minute to live in service to others.
“The Last Word” is a popular title, but the New York Times book by that name shares one hundred obituaries that have appeared in the newspaper. Russell Baker introduces it. I’ve added it to my book wish list, but think I’ll be skimming its over 900 pages for names like this found in my local paper: Jeffalonia (Narnie) Finch, 87, of Midlothian; “Buts” Fambro (Luther James) 86, of Strawn; Elsie, Vida Gober Smith Bean, 82, of Brownwood; and my all-time favorite, Alberta “Peaches” Pirkle, 81, of Goldthwaite and Ranger – a beautician. These creative and mellifluous names have been a blessing as they make me smile inside and out.
I hope this essay on the love of the lives of ordinary people shared lovingly in the newspaper, online service, or by good old snail mail, encourages you to seek inspiration from lives well lived and people well loved. Obits are the best.
P.S. Check out CBS Sunday Morning’s contributor and humorist Mo Roca’s book and podcast Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving.
1 Abilene Reporter-News 6-1-2019 Page 1A
2 February 1, 2019
Marianne Wood works as an editorial assistant and researcher for Bill Wright and teaches art education at Hardin-Simmons University