I don’t know when I started to read obituaries regularly. Maybe it was when more people who were younger than I am seemed to be dying. The other day, a little video appeared on Skype made by my daughter M. and her two-year-old daughter, Josie. In it, they faced the camera and Josie, in her little voice said to her Mom, “not here?” “not here?” meaning we weren’t coming on the screen. It was a charming vignette and one that is relevant here because I think we all think about when we’re “not here” anymore.
In my writing, one of the themes that recurs is that the superficial trappings of fame are not necessarily what defines a life’s worth of living. In fact, I think it’s just the opposite. For example, I know of so many interesting stories about families who disperse as though shot out of a cannon, siblings who live and work in South America, Asia, Washington and New York City. I remember one family whom I was able to observe because the daughter was a good friend when we were both freshmen in college. I never saw a woman and a man so love in with each other as her parents seemed to be, all the time, in spite of raising a household of rebellious, independent, artistic teenagers. Just the way they looked at each other in the dusk by their swimming pool was so much more intense than Hemingway ever managed to convey.
There was another family who lived up the street from me when I was in junior high school. These parents were cold and formal, but the kids, who were my contemporaries, were wild and curious, unconventional and also gorgeous to look at. One of them went to South America and lived most of his life there; the middle son volunteered for the Marines, served a bunch of terms and then lived in Japan where he met his wife and now live in a simple cabin near Puget Sound and work as fishermen. The youngest, a daughter, changed her name and embarked to Alaska of all places where she taught herself how to play the HARP! which she takes onboard with her when she flies to perform at concerts in the rain forests of Brazil!
So you see, it’s not just people who are heads of things (lettuce) or invent things or are culturally visible who are worth mentioning. To me, there are far more interesting and inspirational lives out there, full of pathos, tragedy and illuminating joyousness. Here is an obituary of Mott Green, about a rebel with a cause who did it his way whose obituary appeared in the Times this week.
It seems to me that people’s lives are worthwhile in many small ways, whether or not there’s a fancy obituary written about them. Maybe I’ll come up with how to capture these characters in this phantom book I keep thinking is just around the corner that I will sit down and write in three weeks. Or maybe, I’ll just keep doing it right here, little by little, at least for the time being until I figure it out.