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McCallum: Last Words

I have a secret addiction that I share with a friend. We snip and save fascinating obituaries from our newspapers. Over the years, I’ve accumulated quite a thick folder of them that range from short and plain to stories rich in detail.

Each one speaks in some way to what I call a life well lived.

I discovered that I’m not alone in my habit of pondering obituaries when I came across a poem by American poet Billy Collins about his own fascination. He wrote, “Here is where the final cards are shown, the age, the cause, the plaque of deeds, and sometimes an odd scrap of news - that she collected sugar bowls, that she played solitaire without any clothes.”

While the venerable New York Times publishes detailed obituaries of the world’s famous artists, thinkers, politicians, scientists and celebrities, here in Vermont we have a Brattleboro weekly called The Commons that prints local ones that sing with simplicity. Each life summary written by loving family and friends captures with economy of words the essence, passions and quirks of the departed. The tidbits that jump out at me are usually commonplace things that, when added up, stand like bookmarks that teach how the most ordinary aspects of life give it shine.

Consider these snippets:

He was an artist with heavy machinery... She loved shooting hoops, reading the Bible and submitting letters to the editors of local newspapers... He was as kind as he was cantankerous... She never missed a Lawrence Welk show... He delivered mail by dogsled, taught children how to bowl on Saturdays and enjoyed dowsing with his pliers... In 1928, she was the first in her family to graduate from high school, commuting by horse and buggy... He was known for his excellent dill pickles... She was the church secretary for 35 years until she retired at 97... He was a plumber who loved ballroom dancing... She was a nationally-ranked duckpin bowler... His compassion was his greatest gift...

And this last gem stopped me in my tracks: One of his greatest joys was growing giant dahlias, and once a week he’d cut a huge bouquet and walk a mile to town, handing one to each woman he passed.

Obituaries raise questions worth considering... like how we want to be remembered or what stories we want told that are emblematic of how we walked this earth... like the one about a retired couple who drove cross-country as Peace Pilgrims in a camper covered with 400 bumper stickers about world peace... or the minister of three rural churches who told tales about wild winter rides through snowstorms as he raced to participate in three services on blustery Sundays... or this deceptively simple remembrance of a man we might all wish to be like: No subject or person failed to delight and interest him.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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