Where did the attraction begin? In the 1950s and 60s, I worked in public relations in New York City. Oh, there were so many, many daily papers that I had to read. Mornings it was the Herald Tribune and the New York Times (image here from last week).
Not the tabloids, the ones whose big, bold headlines I'd see in the hands of subway riders and on newsstands. There was the Daily Mirror, deceased, the Daily News, still flaunting its increasingly regressive conservatism. In the afternoon, more that are history: World Telegram & Sun, the Journal-American.
It was never a job requirement to read obits: I just liked to read about the lives of others, see images of them from another era. Ultimately, that curiosity led me to become a psychotherapist in midlife. (I'll also be interested in your family's photos from the past.)
Reading about the deceased in the Times has continued. Every now and then there's someone I knew or can connect to through people in my own past. John Updike, whom I met briefly in a Harvard dorm when he came to borrow a tux from my then-boyfriend Christopher "Kit" Lasch. I also have a letter* with Lasch's sketch of him; they were college roommates. Most of the notable people from my era were men. Rarely do I find a woman's obit except for a few, like my friend Barbara Seaman, who made significant contributions to women's lives with her first book, "The Case against the Pill."
Like Updike in the photo here, all of us smoked cigarettes (to be specific). Somewhere in my stuff is a photo from 1954, my junior year at Oberlin. I wear a short-sleeve gray cashmere sweater bought on sale in St. Louis where my family lived then. In my hand, purposely, is a cigarette. Updike died of lung cancer--Lasch and Seaman of other forms. Did I stop early enough in 1968 when I was thirty-three? Hoping so.
Back to my reading of obits--continued the NYTimes habit as we moved around. Left NYC in 1968, continued to read the Times in Oberlin (faculty wife this time), and in Baltimore where we landed next. Also read the ones in the Baltimore Sun once I had a sense of who was who in the community. Back to New York in 1995, still flipping to those back pages in the Times.
What about Portland, Oregon? We've been permanently for over two-plus years. Why not read these too, all about everyday women and men. Oddly, these are more satisfying. Years ago, I said to Ron, "Amazing reading obits in The New York Times could make you believe that women never die." Surely among all those forgotten ball-players, forgotten Hollywood bit players, there could be a woman or two. Rarely.
Women are a larger presence in the Oregonian. I learn details of their lives as working women in the Northwest. Often there are photos of them both young and old like Ruth S. McDonald here who died at 89 last September. Most are homemakers. But there's more to learn here about Ruth's working life. She was born in 1920, on a farm near Madison, Nebraska, town of about 3,000, whose largest employer is Tyson Fresh Meats.
She moved to Omaha, was working in the Blackstone Hotel as a waitress when she met her Army husband. They moved to Vancouver, Washington, and both worked at the Kaiser Shipyard. She had two sons, grandchild, great grandchildren. Returned to waitressing at sometime in the 20th century, retired from Ye Olde Towne Crier when she was 70!
"She was a true professional who took pride in her work." Donations suggested to Sisters of the Road Cafe known for its programs of community-driven solutions to poverty and homelessness, and Bradley Angle, center for domestic violence survivors. First time I'd seen organizations like these in the obits. Think Ruth and I would have had some important conversations about tikkun olam (healing the world) if we had met.
*My letters from Lasch went to an archive at the University of Rochester. To write this post, I saw the link for the first time and cannot figure out where and if the letters are there. Have to ask my son, Nick, who is behind the curious small world story of how they landed there. Another time will write about how little personal information Lasch seems to have made public as I noticed in a review of recent biography.