Little stories, biographies really, are published every day. In the case of well known people they are filed and updated regularly, just waiting for the subject to die. For regular people its normally written by a family member. If the dead are fortunate; let me amend that, if they were fortunate they wouldn’t be dead would they?
I’ve been reading obits for decades. The good ones are like tiny books with a life compressed to less than five hundred words. Ernest Hemingway spent his writing life paring away superfluous language in his books, but not even he wrote obituaries.
My brother, mother and I have all written them for family members trying to find the essence of a person we knew as well as or better than anyone. When you cook certain things you must reduce the sauce, boiling away the excess in order to maximize the flavor. Same here. How to compress a life into 500 words. You must leave out the sinews of a life, the hard time, until only a husk remains like the faint scent of perfume left on your mothers clothes.
An entire life reduced to a 3 x 5 card. How very sad. An obituary should be, well, actually I don’t know what it should be but I know a good one when I see it.
Take Bud, he died at 95 and was quoted by his family as saying “I was a pilot with the Flying Tigers in China during World War II and I’m ready to climb back into my old P-40 Warhawk and fly away to my wife Betty.” And so he did. There is a man I wish I had known.
In the year 2000 I ran into my dad’s cousin, Bill Marriott in the Santa Maria Library. Quite by chance, as I hadn’t seen him since I was a teen. He recognized me because I had grown old enough to look like my father. We sat down on a bench a talked a while about family. Bill was the last of my grandmothers sister Gannis’s family and was in his late seventies. We spoke of family things, lamenting as people do the drifting apart with each succeeding generation.
It became a casually drifting conversation with no particular subject. Nattering my wife would call it. I told him that I had some of his V-mail letters that my grandmother had saved from WWII. He began to talk of the big war in which he served in the California National Guard, the old 40th Division. He said they had gone to Hawai’i from Camp San Luis Obispo, then Guadalcanal and on to New Britain in the island hopping campaign up the eastern Pacific.. Now I’ve been to the New Britain area and you must believe that its one of the nastiest places on earth. It rains constantly, all the insects in the world live there, smells terrible and is hotter than the shade in Hades. Bill fought a war there in the most appalling conditions imaginable. Horrible. He really didn’t dwell on the conditions though, what he remembered most were the soldiers he served with, boys he called them, for that they certainly were. In all wars, those that carry the burden are always just kids and thats what what broke this old man’s heart. He said, “They were just kids, kids, Mike and they died alone in that awful, awful place.” He began to cry, a 78 year old man crying for the forgotten boys of his youth. An obituary.
A few years ago we drove up California Highway 4 towards Ebbets Pass. We stopped for a little break just below the tree line to stretch and walk. The path we followed wound between enormous, flat, granite slabs, sprinkled with boulders and stunted pines filtered in amongst the deer brush. The little trail wound its way down the mountain toward the mosquito lakes and as I passed a pile of small stones I noticed a corner of a small plastic bag peeking from under and thinking it was just litter I pulled it out. It was weatherworn and the plastic was dry but something was inside so I opened it. It held a folded piece of paper and some dried Jacob’s Ladder, the beautiful sky blue, five petal flower with the golden center that grows in the high Sierra Alpine zone. Opening the folded paper, curious to see what was written on it, I was stunned to see that it was a letter from a father to his daughter who must have died on this same road. I felt as if I was intruding; intruding on a man’s grief for his child expressed in this oh so private way. The way you feel when alone in an old chapel haunted by the ghosts of those who have gone before. It was a stunning experience. The letter was too personal to finish. Carefully folded into its envelope it slid easily under its little cairn again and I literally tiptoed away. It seemed a sacrilege. An obituary.
From 1924 to 1954 my grandparents lived in a little farmhouse at the foot of Shannon Hill, where the old highway came down from the Williams ranch. Its now El Campo Road but when dad was young it was California Highway one, the main road from Los Angeles to San Francisco. As with all the old highways, it was two lanes with no shoulders. In those days it had no guardrails just a white painted wooden fence near the left turn at the bottom of the hill. Today the road turns to the right at the bottom but then it went left in a a tight turn along the base of the ridge as the road went toward Costa’s and town. It’s pretty steep and would have seemed more so in the years in which most cars had mechanical brakes and not the modern hydraulic type. Mechanical brakes had to be adjusted so that each wheel had the same pressure applied to the brake drum. Out of adjustment, one front wheel could brake harder than the other, combine this with wet roads and you had a recipe for disaster. This is exactly what happened on March fourth 1941. In the preceding four weeks there had been four accidents at the foot of the hill with cars going off the road and into the creek just past the bridge to my grandparents place. Each time my grandfather and my father had to go down into the creek and help the victims out of their wrecked cars and drive them into town to the doctor.
1941 was one of the wettest years on record with just under 30 inches of rain by the first of March and much more to come. Rural schools were often closed because parents could not get their kids to school. The previous month, Santa Manuela school was closed for a week. The families in the upper Lopez and Arroyo creek watersheds were isolated by the overflowing creeks.
On evening of the fourth, just at dusk, dad heard the telltale shuddering sound of locked up wheels bouncing, pounding and chirping across the concrete and then a brief silence followed by a drawn out crash as the car missed the turn and went tumbling into the creek. He and my grandfather ran from the house to see the beam of a single headlight probing the evening shade; a car was in the ditch. Wading into the muddy water, pushing aside the brush they found a car, upside down, the male driver moaning softly on the creek bank, the woman pinned beneath the roof. My grandfather rocked the car back and forth so my dad could free her. He then climbed, slipping and sliding in the mud, up the bank with the limp body of the young woman in his arms. They placed the couple gently down. The poor woman, clothes torn, missing a shoe, was dead. She was Doloris “Dee Dee” Tudder, a girl really, just 22. She was on her honeymoon. An obituary.
My grandfather, John William “Jack” Shannon died on November 4th, 1976. He was 96 years old and his body was simply worn out from a long life. He was a hard, hard worker and had lived his life to the fullest. He was admitted to the convalescent hospital with renal failure on the afternoon of November 3rd. My dad was with him, as he had been all of his life, 64 years his son. When his parents were old, he took care of them as he took care of us. My grandfathers was dying from the poison in his system and was in acute distress. My dad had to leave him there knowing he might not live the night. My grandfather begged to be taken home. He said “Son, please, please don’t leave me here. I don’t want to die here.” Dad had no choice. He couldn’t take him home, he had to leave him. My grandfather died that night, alone. Imagine having to live with that. An obituary.
Memories of my family, other peoples lives, fade with time and the Obit, file it under grief.