My father liked to read the obituaries in our local daily paper. He once remarked to me that someday, his name would be there and friends would see it and exclaim, “Oh look – Bert Levy’s dead!” I thought it was quite morbid but he seemed not to mind the idea.
Eventually, his name did show up among those sterile columns and I imagine it was noticed, with appropriate responses. In those days, obituaries could not contain much extraneous information. We weren’t even permitted to name his granddaughter. There was none of the “Memorial Extravaganza” that we see now, with tributes that go on and on for so long, I seldom get through to the finish. I was sad, though, that Natalia couldn’t have been identified, as our family was so small and she was the only member of her generation. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but omission can leave a vacancy down the years that is never remedied. I still have a laminated copy of that obituary, tacked to my wall, and Natalia is still not there.
My mother, in her turn, took to relishing the death notices. She outlived her husband by twenty years, which gave her extra time to enjoy them. I started taking a cursory look, because she wanted to share and my commiseration appeared to please her. With each new loss, her day achieved a certain highlight. Their days had been numbered and ended; hers had not. She would dab at her eyes if needed, in token expression of sorrow. But by then, having endured two strokes, she had clearly downplayed the immediacy and intensity of her grieving. As a younger woman, she reacted to loss with considerable emotion. In more advanced years, her attitude was briefly mournful but resigned. Another one gone; another one committed to a page in memory or a note scrawled on an old photo.
Now I, in my turn, am moving along the timeline allotted to me. And I’ve begun to scan the obituaries, albeit with less eagerness than my 90-year-old mother once felt. If I should reach that age, it will still take awhile. It’s hard to reconcile my garden plots, not to mention all the physical effort they entail, with that singular plot in Willowbank Cemetery where nobody does much, except to be mowed-over, and my father’s mortal remains are mentioned on the stone but actually went into the ocean somewhere. At this point, I’d rather plant than be planted. The hour of our departure, nonetheless, is uncertain.
And now I’m starting to understand why obituary-study has become something of an obsession. It’s not the loss in the present we acknowledge, so much as the removal of someone who once presented so many possibilities for us. I’ve begun to recognize former classmates among the growing roster of the departed. And with each new name, I cast back through the shadows until I stand before that person and conjure as much of the face as I can. Sometimes it’s an indistinct blob; sometimes it is clear and detailed. If the individual was a man, I occasionally reflect that he might have been my companion in old age, my lover and spouse, had other elements of our youth been more in sync. “I might have loved you,” I think. “I could have been your soulmate.” A few of these absent friends might actually have been the objects of my youthful adoration. I had crushes, just like anyone else. I lusted in my heart after various impossibilities, and they always chose another girl. I learned to control my imagination and concentrate on being funny and quirky. The hotties – had that word been current back then – in my high school class never included me. I used to believe I was indifferent but still … it would have been nice to shake off ardent pursuers now and then. Hell, I even got turned down by the one guy I worked up the nerve to invite to our annual Sadie Hawkins dance. Everyone went to that dance, except me. You know you’re a loser in the gender game when that happens. I never forgot it, obviously. Dogpatch is long gone and the whole concept of gender equality has liberated women from the waiting process, by which they are the chosen and not the choosers. And I remember that stupid dance rejection!
Even at the senior prom, my escort – a dear friend – invited me as a substitute for his real girlfriend, who didn’t want to go. I think they’re married now, and older like me, and presumably poring over their own sets of obituaries. I hold no hard feelings in that case, because he was kind and attentive. He gave me a wrist corsage, which made me feel pretty cool. Not pretty, just cool. There was an incident of orange pop spilled down the front of my pink formal, although I did that to myself. But I digress, since he’s still with us as far as I’m aware.
But the dead call to me from their newsprint rest. Most are male, since they tend not to make it as far as the women. I speculate on what they must have felt, growing sicker and sicker, loosening their hold on an abbreviated span that might not have brought them all they’d hoped it would. Several from our last school reunion, in the early 1990s, have taken their places on the List of the Gone Forever. I could not have imagined never seeing them again, when we reconnected for those few days of catching-up. Bruce, Harold, Gary … all the names written in water and washed away. There are more I could contribute. Anyone who was a part of us all can add their own selections.
A few, however, are female and some have passed away far too early. Beverly, Lorraine, Joanne, Phyllis … I think of them often too, these companions along the paths of my childhood and adolescence. Both boys and girls join hands and dance around me, here at my desk, crowding the room with their energy. They strut and sing and crack endless jokes and make silly but hilarious comments in class. They drive our long-suffering grade seven teacher, Miss West, to distraction. They assemble yearbooks and plan dances and prepare for earnest debates that we never win. They organize and attend Army Cadet inspections out on the elementary-school grounds, crammed with spectators and fluttery teenage princesses with teased hair and tiny cameras. We try our best to cheer for our lame-duck sports teams (when your school doesn’t even have a gym, athletic prowess belongs to the kids in the next town). The girls giggle over boys, new rock stars and movie actors. They adore Debbie Reynolds and hate Liz Taylor, twirl in their full skirts, suffocate in clouds of pink and exhale dime-store perfume, compare the exact placement of the parallel ribs in their bobby sox, and secretly gloat as their bra sizes increase. They flip through 16 Magazines, drive me around when they get their licenses since I’m a year too young for my own, swim at Lumsden dam and sit with me around a fire with marshmallows and stories. I go home smoky and filled with yearning. I can never become what so many of them are without even trying – popular, cute, socially smart. They accept me, though. I guess being a comical geek has its perks after all.
So they recede as their memorial notices appear. The tide brings them to me, suspends them, pulls them away. A scatter of photographs washes to shore and I squint at their blurriness, before the last the outlines dissolve. I don’t need them, though. I don’t need obituaries or even memories locked in my brain.
I have them all inside me, woven like strands of my DNA. What I am now, these people have made me. They could not have known this, of course, and now they never will. But I know, so maybe that’s enough. And someday, maybe someone will say, “Oh, look – Brenda’s dead!” I hope when that happens, the reader will add, “Now, she was a character. I’ll miss her.”