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Pickle Me This

October 23, 2007

The world is good

I can’t remember where I read it– in a letter, an interview, an essay or a novel– Carol Shields writing about reading obituaries, the stories you find there. The closest thing I can find now is the passage from Unless. Reta and her husband are walking through the cemetery: “Here is an inventory of relics and fashion and a sentimental embrace of death, invoking what may well be the richest moments in a lifetime, the shrine of tears and aching history”.

I don’t read celebrity gossip anymore, but I do read the death notices in The Globe every Saturday. It’s a bit morbid, I realize, and I do end up getting tears on the newsprint, but really I find what lies in the obits such an antidote to the rest of the paper, such marvelous stories. There are people in the obituaries who stay married all their lives. They leave behind their spouses, children, nieces, nephews, friends. They are proud, beloved, missed. And oh the details: they fought in wars, moved across the world to call this country home, had multiple careers, made great discoveries, loved their families, loved their pets, enjoyed their cottages, changed the world, taught school, told jokes and stories, and were the bravest, strongest, most loving, kind, hilarious, unique and vibrant person many people ever knew. Of course not all of these stories are so satisfying: young people whose deaths must leave irreparable holes in a family, those who leave behind partners and children after so little time. But still, there is so much love here, and it’s heartening. So little else is, and so I savour these things.

I love that due to brevity, how cryptic and mysterious these stories become– and how beautiful. On our trip to England in June we went walking through a churchyard in the Lake District, and I was so intrigued by the gravestone of a man who had been “village postmaster and pharmacist for 30 years”. And the man from the photo, that “observer of rainfall.” And these are ordinary lives. The last two weeks in the paper I’ve read about the woman who “never failed to stay in touch”, the longtime resident of Leaside who pursued his love of painting, the top-ranked junior ski racer, the man whose Parkinson’s prematurely ended his brilliant legal career. “She was a renowned expert on the history of children’s books and lectured widely on the topic.” “His top priority in the spring was that his son son raised his beautiful Royal Canadian Air Force Ensign to fly proudly on the beach.” She whose husband “was executed by the Soviets in 1945 during the siege of Budapest” and moved to the US to run her uncle’s hotel. “A great lover of family, friends, good music and a glass of red wine.” The woman who will be remembered “for her kind heart, generous spirit, wonderful sense of humour and her beautiful voice.”

And that this is the stuff of an ordinary life is really quite remarkable– perhaps there really is no such thing? Real life sends delicious shivers up my spine, and the world is good, or at least it can be.

2 thoughts on “The world is good”

  1. rona says:

    Have you read The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson? It’s poignant, funny and full of strange-but-true stories (plus some interesting Canadian content, although the writer is American). A must for obituary buffs.

  2. Kerry says:

    I haven’t, but I should. And so I will. Thank for you for the recommendation!

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