Why I Love Reading the Obits

Reading paper

One thing I inherited from my parents and grandparents is a love and respect of the newspaper. Like, the actual printed one. (Yes, I still get the local printed paper, delivered to our door, two days per week.)

One thing I inherited directly from my mother was a love of the obituaries.

During her 62 years, she read them religiously. Especially the Sunday obits. Those she would pour over.

Yes, it was sad. Yes, she would cry.

When I moved out and eventually got married and took the paper at my house a few miles away, she would call me on Sunday morning, in tears.

“Have you read the paper yet? You must read this obituary,” she’d manage between tear-cracked tones.

So I would. Sometimes I would read it as she waited on the phone. Sometimes I’d read it and call her back, in tears. We’d swap highlights and pine, together, over it all.

Since she’s been gone, two things.

First, I took extreme care in writing her obituary. I felt it was a masterpiece and a ridiculously incomplete sliver of a tribute to a woman so much richer, fuller and more complex than those thin lines of ink and newsprint could bear. I think it was decent, though, because I received several letters from complete strangers who were moved enough to send me a note of their condolences.

Second: I still read the obituaries whenever I get a chance.

I cry to myself, inevitably tearing up and shedding saltwater over long lives, short ones, loves lost, details missing and those present. I trace the life lines of each individual’s path through the world, via careers, moves, re-inventions, second and third careers, pre-deceased children, rich relationships and charitable pursuits. You see so much in these concise pieces: meaning and measure, risk and failure, secrets and scars, and love, and love, and love.

It always overcomes me.

My husband asks me why I do it to myself, as my teenage daughter turns on her heel and storms out, embarrassed, and my youngest cuddles up with comforting hugs.

So imagine my delight when coming upon this Ted talk by Lux Narayan, CEO of Unmetric, who shares our devotion to the obituaries and who used his company’s technology to analyze 2,000 New York Times obituaries to see what the data would reveal about the achievements of those featured – famous and common.

You should watch the Ted talk, it’s only 6 minutes.

Here are three things about what Lux and Unmetric found that jumped out at me.

First, the average age people made their first major accomplishments. There was only one age in the late 20s (sports), just one in the mid-30s (art, film, literature) – and the rest of the first major accomplishments (business, medicine, engineering, law, academics, science, politics) were made in the early to mid-40s.

For a lady about to turn the big 4-0, who has lots more she wants to accomplish, this was welcome news.

Second, of all 2,000 obituaries analyzed, the most significant words tended to be creative ones: Artist, Singer, Director, Writer, Pioneer. Also among the top: Leader, Led, Founder, Reporter, Advocate, Activist, Survived, Transform, Creator, Music, Author, Fight, Fought, and my person favorite, Voice.

How sweet it is that the artists, the rebels, the transformers are those we revere once they leave us.

(Spoiler alert: Here’s what wasn’t on the list: spreadsheets, timesheet, hours worked, stable, safe, corporate, retirement, insurance, follower, accept, allow, same.)

Here’s the last of my many takeaways: Narayan also did a side-by-side comparison of the famous obits and the normal people obits, looking at the significant and most frequent words.

Here are the top 7 for each:

Famous

Year

Art

One

World

Help

American

John

 

Not Famous

Help

Year

Time

One

John

Music

First

 

Three words are common between the two lists: Help, Year, One and, oddly, John.

(If you’re named John, good on you. If not, you won’t be offended that I don’t comment on that interesting tidbit.)

Help. Year. One.

What do these three words tell us about people who make enough of an impact to be featured on the New York Times obituary page?

Here’s my take:

They were compassionate doers.

They used their time wisely.

They exercised their courage enough to do something different, something that made them stand out.

That’s it.

As I approach my fourth decade, I am characteristically reflecting on my four decades. I’m sifting through my accomplishments and cross-referencing goals. I’m paying homage to the difficulties I’ve experienced and for the chances they gave me to grow. I’m getting a bit anxious over the pending “to do” list.

Since my mom died unexpectedly at 62, I realize time is short.

But this is welcome navigation.

Care.

Do – now.

Be the one.

Oh, and, keep reading the obits.

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3 Lessons From My Mom On Her 68th Birthday

Happy birthday to Modern Mary's mother, Judith Elaine, patroness of living and travel, literature and art.

Happy birthday to Modern Mary’s mother, Judith Elaine, patroness of living and travel, literature and art.

July 15, 1948 was the day my life became a possibility. It was a full 29 years before I was born.

It was in Youngstown, Ohio. It was the day my mother, Judith Elaine, was born.

I’m sad I don’t know much more about that day than the date. But I know enough about what came after.

I know that was the day the beautiful, creative, kind, intelligent and profoundly generous spirit who became a daughter, sister, wife, mother, cousin, friend, teacher, editor and volunteer was born.

Each year since her death, I do my best to honor her birthday. It’s a challenge because it’s a day mixed with joy and pain.

I bounce between internal reflections of her personal influence on me and external sharing about the values her life embodied and the lessons she taught us with her fully manifested Judy-ness.

My mom treasured three things above all others in her life (besides her family, which was at the top of her list). Embedded in her passion for these three things are many lessons for each of us.

They were:

  • Travel
  • Literature
  • Art

Travel was a full-body and soul experience for my mom. It gave my mother the chance to step outside her life, to traipse beyond the rigors of raising four children, working and keeping pace with her frenetic routine. It gave her the chance to breathe in the ambiance, the art and the literature of the places she roamed. It opened her mind, her soul and her heart to new possibilities. It gave her reprieve from her constant giving and allowed her to receive, to fill back up.

She was no tourist. She experienced the places she visited: rambling through shops for hours on end, purchasing huge, heavy objects de arte my Dad deemed impossible to get home, sat at cafes, read books by local authors, talked to servers and docents and desk clerks. More than that, she applied her imagination to the place. She mused over if she could live there, what her life would look like if she did, where she would shop, what the local flora was like and how the morning air felt on her skin.

In her 62 years, she did not have the travel footprint she wanted. There were so many places yet for her to experience.

Literature consumed my mom, it was a daily indulgence for her. She ate it up, and it fed her in a most glorious way. One of my most powerful images is of her sitting up in bed at night in her pajamas, with her glasses on, knees up, reading, a hot cup of Earl Grey tea gently steaming on the antique dresser that served as her bedside table. Most likely a tea cookie or two, which she stashed stealthily in cabinets we kids couldn’t get to, would be waiting next to her tea. This was her sacred space. This was the most zen Mom.

Words, books, were an escape, a constant revealer and a companion. She read everything, and was a lover of the word. She took large canvas totes of books to the beach with her every summer. She had a stack of at least 50 books on her bedside, next to her bedside, in her car, and under her bed. Selecting books to take on a trip was a challenge and required a trip to the library for just the right read. My mom knew how to release into a time and place invented or real, and she had an uncanny talent for finding just the right book at just the right time.

Her writing reflected this consumption. Although a great loss in her life was that she never viewed herself as a writer the way she rightfully should have. She wrote legendary letters and cards, brief but meaningful notes for her sleeping children in the summers before she left for her part-time job as an editor. She was a master linguist who also had the ability to infuse heartfelt directness in her written words.

Art was a place of surrender for my mom. Each city she visited included a surrender to the power of the local art museum. In her mid-life, even with four small children in school, and very little free time, she spent precious hours and days training to become a docent at the Phoenix Art Museum. All too soon, she had to resign for lack of time.

I will never forget our post-high school graduation trip to France, and the long, meandering daily trips to the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, the Georges Pompidou. We’d learn all we could about the artwork, the artists, the times in which they lived, and swap stories, wide-eyed in front of the masterpieces. We let our eyes and hearts be overcome by Gauguin’s lounging women and Monet’s Giverny bridges. We would dive in and ponder Dali’s off-kilter conglomerations of ideas and Picasso’s disjointed madonnas. Memories of those precious days feed me on days like today, as do the way my mom flung herself, headlong into the appreciation of the art.

She commissioned art from her friends who were artists. She bought sculpture or paintings or handcrafted items that spoke to her, regardless of where she was, how she would get them home, if my Dad liked them or not, and where they would go in their home. She explored her personality in art and let it be a reflection of her: quirky and joyful, dark and abstract, bright and bold.

She would have never admitted she was an artist, but she was. She took photographs, made elaborate cards, drew on hand-crafted wrapping paper, did amazingly intricate needlepoint, sewed clothing, and took drawing classes, calligraphy courses. She applied her artistic style to her amazing cooking talents as well – and once launched and ran a highly successful catering company for several years before resigning for lack of time.

Once a profoundly influential person you love leaves you, there’s abundant time for reflection upon their lives. I think about my mom and her life, every day. Each day, I’m extracting new lessons. I cast what I remember of the 34 years I spent with her in a variety of differing lights. I consider the angles that light casts, the shadows, the highlights, the mid-tones, and the dear, dear candlelight person she was to me.

Among many other sunbeams she cast, my mom’s life was a glowing illumination of full-fledged experience of travel, consumption of literature, the surrender to art. It is a recommendation to me (and each person she touched) to not just to go places or read things or look at art, but to

Experience

Consume

Surrender

your passions. And do it now.

You will have disappointments, be short-changed and confront regret. But by in large, if you push yourself into your loves, the example you set by living your passions will create a legacy of living your loved ones simply will never forget.

I know I won’t.

Happy Birthday, my dearest Mom. I love you.