Monday, March 29, 2010

When Walt Whitman Said, "To Die Is Different From What Anyone Supposed" How Did He Know I'd Be Analyzing Obits?

Perhaps you recall from a previous chat we had here that, almost daily, I read with great interest and care the Plain Dealer obituaries. I am not obsessed with or even remotely worried about Death--far from it--I am fascinated with Life. Not mine, you understand. I am thoroughly bored with mine. I like to read about Other People's Lives, especially now that they are done with them.

I like to read their names, first of all, because I am fascinated by unusual, alliterative, evocative, or just downright funny names. One of my favorites recently was Esther Sylvester. How awesome is that? Her name is a poem. (Way cooler than the Esther who was of one of my Uncle Marshall's customers at his candy shop. He used her for advertising every Easter. He made a huge chocolate egg and put it in the window of his store. On it, in icing, he wrote Happy Easter Esther Oyster! Pretty good name. Right up there with another goofy Grandma-friend name: Flossie Shawbell. But I digress.)

A 97-year old woman passed away at a comforting place called "Nannie's Inn." If I can choose a place to have to die, I want to go there. But here's the thing: her name was Hope, and she was preceded in death by her two sisters...Faith and Charity. I'm not lying; look it up.

And how much did I love the obit of the beloved Very Irish husband, last name O'Something, whose kids' names were Kathleen, Timothy, Sean, Maureen, and Patrick? But the best part of all was that his real name, Eugene, is listed, and then, in quotation marks, the name "Geniehoney." I smiled and felt my heart melt and my eyes tear up just a little. Can't you just hear his wife calling him that all the time? So much so that it became his name? I love that the family put it in the paper.

You already know how I love the non-traditional photos for obituaries. I forgot to save/remember the one of the middle-aged woman wearing the Teletubbies sweatshirt. I had to read that obit because I had to know more about her. Turns out, if anyone had a reason to sport a Teletubbies sweatshirt, it was she. She was only 58 years old, but had something like 14 kids, 38 grandchildren and already many great-grandchildren. Wow!

But the photo in this obituary still seems odd to me. The woman died at the age of 84; the picture shows a much younger lady. Yet, the photograph is not antique-looking, and the photography doesn't look as if it was from the era of the 50s when she was a model. (It might be a mixup, but I doubt it. There has been no correction online or in the Monday print edition.) That's not the most intriguing facet to this obit, however. If you read farther into the article, you come across this incredible sentence: In later life she was afflicted with a shower of frogs. That's it. There is absolutely no context surrounding this amazing statement to give you Clue One as to what it refers to. And that is why I love it. This woman had a fantastic life and, obviously, a fabulous family or group of friends who continue to celebrate her personality even after she is gone. Is she lucky, or what? I don't give a damn about the frog shower or what it really means. I just love the fact that it's in her obituary--inexplicably and unapologetically. Probably a lot like her.

In Creative Writing I & II, I encourage my students to steal from the dead, and by that, I mean to grab pieces of ideas for poems and stories from the obituaries. It's a great place to look for names, snippets of plotlines, characters, and glimmers of ideas. Occasionally, a poet can even find a cool line.

Something like, In later life she was afflicted with a shower of frogs.


  1. Wow that's a great idea! I might try perusing the obits for my next Magpie Tale poem. Or maybe I'll just steal the shower of frogs. There would be a lot to work with there!

  2. Yep, absolutely fascinating. My brain is churning out all sorts of unlikely reasons for that to be there.
    The photo looks like one of those that, in the forties and fifties, we used to have taken in little photo booths in the Five and Dime Store. If it had been stored in a dark place, it could easily look that crisp.

  3. Reading the obituaries as a point of interest in people's lives is something that has never crossed my mind. Very interesting, indeed. How often do your students actually do this to get their creative juices flowing, I wonder? Do they tell you?

  4. I love her name...Ellen Ione Arleen (Elwell) Johnquist. What's not to love about that?

    I would surely not want to be afflicted by a shower of frogs, because I suspect that means that she was hit by one crappy illness or circumstance after another. Ugh.

    I don't read the obits in my paper, but I do enjoy the ones you bring to our attention.

    The picture of the frogs you chose is freaking me out. They're going to run over some with their bikes! RUN FROGS, RUN!

  5. Nancy4:50 PM

    Oh, yes, Nance.I also enjoy reading the Obituries. Every morning my husband brings a cup of tea and the Philadelphia Inquirer to my bed. I immediately turn to the obits and if my name is not listed,I get up.

    One of the more amusing obits was the one for Esther Brook (I figure that was her pen name). She was the widow of Desmond J. Johnson who was the inventor of the Crossword Puzzle.If you wish to visit their grave they can be found at St.Mortimer's Cemetary at 3 Down and 42 Across.

    And never forget poor old Pillsbury Doughboy who died recently of a yeast infection. He is survived by his wife,Play Dough and his Father, Pop Tart.

    Finally,say a prayer for Lester J. Crabston,the man who brought us the fun dance called the "Hokey Pokey". The Undertaker had a terrible time arranging Mr Crabston in the casket. He put his left foot in and...Oh,you know the rest.

  6. Nancy--Groan....! Some of those should, perhaps, be laid to rest! LOL.

    J.@jj--Or the "shower of frogs" could refer to a collecting/hobby sort of thing? Who knows? Maybe some sort of adventure/funny mishap she had and that is a sort of "code" to refer to it? I love the mystery of it. I was surprised when I started Googling images to accompany this post. I was expecting hits galore from the movie "Magnolia." Didn't get ANY.

    Nina--Only a former or two has mentioned it. Many kids of highschool age either don't get the paper, don't care to read the paper, or have a HUGE superstition about death, period. It's very odd.

    Mary G--I just didn't think it looked like someone from that era. But I guess she could have had her hair in a ponytail and her bangs a little poufy, although it sure looked more 1980s to me. I never thought of the photo booth snap, though. You sure could be right!

    The Bug--I am all about theft when it comes to writing. My kids don't like to do it because they think it makes them somehow less creative. I tell them that the only way stealing is wrong in writing is when it's plagiarism. It's fine to steal ideas and rework them. Look at Disney's Lion King movie and the blockbuster novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: they're both retellings of Hamlet. They don't pretend not to be, either. Who was it that said there are only 8 plot lines in the world? STEAL STEAL STEAL!! It's what you do with it that makes it yours. *But do give credit when credit is due.

  7. Belleza12:02 AM

    I would like to believe that I am not the only one to succumb to the most gaudy of all plastic shower liners at Linens N Things. (Frog motif was big in the 90's, wasn't it?) Godspeed to a woman with such joie de vivre!

  8. Belleza--I came across a TON of frog shower curtains in my Google Search for an image for this post! I had a big ceramic frog toothbrush holder on my desk for years and years at school. I loved its design. I used it as a grading pen holder. I never had a frog motif in my house, but found the look of the frog very whimsical and appealing for my tchochke desk at school. Welcome to the Dept. and thank you for chiming in here!

  9. Methinks Ellen Iona is fictional. So of course everyone should write about her and the conflict would be the shower of frogs and students could figure out the rising action (they jump, of course) and then the obligatory natural falling action, denouement, conclusion.

    My grandma had a pretty dreadful name. Ethel-Ann Ellington. She was a poet and writer who always saw the humor in names. Her husband was an Orville Jack (his parents fought over his name so the compromise of first and middle came out suitably awful). His mama was an Ida, and her niece was Pearl Amethyst, whom my mother always called Aunt FLEA!

    I had great-aunts who were colors, plants/minerals, and nature names: Ora, Hazel, and Sylvia. At least there wasn't an Ore-Ida or an Ima Hogg or an Ida Rather! That would have been sad.

  10. sputnik--My maternal grandmother's name is also Ethel. Her sisters' names: Bertha, Ruth, Grace. I am more than a little surprised at the resurgence of Grace these days; seems that I hear of a lot of little girls named that. Doubtful that there will be a newfound interest in the names Bertha and Ethel, however, don't you think?

  11. My maternal grandmother Ethel's best friends were named Ader Fulp and Oneida Mays; when Ader, Oneida, and Ethel got to together for a Stanley Products party, it was a happening! Oh, and Ethel's last name was Nance; hence, my own first name, since I was given my mother's maiden name as my first name. The local newspaper here in Horry County, SC, is a goldmine for obits. I've got one from a few months ago that I'll have to look up and send you..."Mother Williams."

  12. The Other Nance--"Ader" sounds like "Ada" being pronounced by someone with a distinct dialect.

    My grandmother Ethel was born in Wiggletown, OH--a place which no longer actually exists, having long since been incorporated into another municipality, from what I understand.

  13. Why very thought provoking! I have never thought of reading obituaries, and it looks like it could be quite fascinating :-) I remember being in Death & Dying class and I had to write my own THAT was interesting. ;-)

  14. I had to finally stop by and comment on this post ... not because I have anything of particular note to add, but to say that I find obituaries fascinating, too. Most are, sadly, the worst. I love that you shared some interesting ones. The shower of frogs made me chuckle. I once had those little tree peepers stuck all over my French doors during a Spring rain. Maybe some of her local frogs made their way inside. Maybe she had a beach/river house and frogs liked to hang out in the outdoor shower. Or maybe the reference was actually related to vinyl shower curtain frogs and the like. I'd like to know, but I guess it really matters that the ones who loved her read the reference and knew, and smiled.

    And, maybe I've said this before, but remember that Mary Tyler Moore show where she had to write obituaries and she was goofing off with them, making up silly stuff, and one of the folks died and Ted read her crazy obituary on air? As a person who likes to be in control more often than not, I hate that my obituary will be out of my hands.


  15. Shirley--Well, I think V. has already written her obituary and left it for her family, so you could do that. But I know what you mean.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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