Monday, February 2, 2009

The Obituary Keeper

I am a quirky person.  Not a totally strange quirky, but the very quaint and a bit odd type of quirky.  I have a collection of newspaper obituaries and memorial cards that I keep in a dresser drawer.  I have done this for about 24 years now.  It all started when I was in my early 20s and worked in a law firm.  Elderly people would come in to prepare their Last Wills and Testaments.  Every once in awhile, the elderly person would come in by themselves.  In one case, it was a very elderly lady who lived in an apartment building in downtown Wausau.  Her name was Minerva.  She would call once a week with a question about having a will drawn up, but very quickly she would start to talk about her family and all kinds of things.  Before I knew it, 20 minutes would have passed by.  Minerva needed someone to talk to.  And I wanted her to be able to talk to someone.  I loved talking to her.  Maybe I helped her feel a little less lonely.  

Over time, the clients we prepared the wills for would pass away.  I always felt terrible when that happened.  I would always cut their obituary out of the newspaper and keep it in a Bible.  Many times it would have their picture, and I could always look at it and remember them.  

In 2001, an obituary caught my eye in our local newspaper.  A 96-year-old lady died.  She had lived her entire life in Baldwin, Wisconsin.  Born in 1905.  Married in 1926.  She started a 4-H Club and a school for the disabled in St. Croix County.  She was crowned the Lefse Queen of Woodville at one time.  She was a lifelong member of her Lutheran church.  She and her husband owned a Dairy Queen, and she also worked for many years as a cook in a care center.  While retired, she and her husband traveled around Europe.  She had 15 children, 45 grandchildren, 71 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren.  An honor guard was provided by the Legion Auxiliary at her funeral.  Her grandsons were pallbearers with the rest of her grandchildren as "honorary pallbearers".  

I cut out the obituary and kept it.  It has a beautiful picture of her all dressed up and smiling.  What a well-lived life.  I picture her at the "Pearly Gates", if there is such a thing, meeting St. Peter and telling him all about raising 15 children, working and traveling.  She made good use of those 96 years she had on earth.  

On January 11th of this year, a third grade teacher in the Hudson School District died of breast cancer.  She was 46.  I looked at the picture of her with her husband and daughter.  Arms around each other.  Smiling.  Her daughter looks just like her.  She had beaten breast cancer before, but last year it came back.  Her goal, she said, through this latest battle with the cancer was to be a strong role model for her daughter.  There was an article in the local newspaper which published letters of remembrance from her friends and colleagues and students.  The letters stated how the world is a better place because of her, and how she was a beautiful example of what it means to be a teacher.  The final letter was from a young student at the elementary school where she taught.  The girl said, "She was simply the heart of our school."  I blinked, and a tear fell on the newspaper.  This lady taught for more than 20 years, and she was the teacher that everyone would remember as their favorite.  Another well-lived life.  I pictured her at the Pearly Gates, free from the cancer that plagued her, smiling her beautiful smile and telling St. Peter about her love of teaching and all the people whose lives she touched.  I like to think that she is teaching in Heaven.  Maybe caring for little angels who, for whatever reason, didn't get to live very long on Earth.  

At the bottom of her obituary, there is a photo of her with her dog, Riley.  She is wearing a t-shirt that says "There's Hope" with a pink ribbon on the front.  On the back, it says, "When the world says give up, hope whispers, 'Try it one more time.'"  Another obituary to put in my drawer.  

I picture myself at the Pearly Gates from time to time.  Not much to tell St. Peter.  Sometimes, I imagine telling him how I deserve to go to Heaven because I've spent my time in Hell when I worked for attorneys.  Sometimes, I plead my case by telling him how I always tried to be a good person.  However, there is always one constant in the dream.  Each time St. Peter sees me, he always says, "What a surprise!"  I guess I could always try and win him over by offering to knit him something.  Maybe I could knit the little angels some sweaters.  

I will keep tucking away obituaries in my drawer.  Tales of lives - some short and some long - pictures of smiling faces, each one holds a lesson for those of us left behind.  We haven't yet accomplished what we need to here on Earth.  We haven't learned every lesson we should.  We are the living, and we need to get to the task of living each day to the fullest extent possible.  

And I'd like to end this post with an old Irish blessing for the 96 year old lady and the 46 year old teacher who have passed on from this life.  Thank you both for being shining examples of lives well-lived.  

"May the longtime sun shine upon you,
All love surround you.  
And the pure, pure light that's within you, 
Guide your way home."  

1 comment:

  1. Jamie! I want you to write my obituary! When it is time of course. This was a wonderful story!