BTWEEN THE LINES - Writing obituaries for life

Thursday, March 8, 2001

It's a frustrating experience to read the obituaries that flow into our news office, as natural and inexorable as the tide and the changing of the seasons.

Most I haven't known, so I can't say that I can imagine the loss that their family and friends feel.

But I do know that in losing these people, we are losing stories, and stories are my thing.

It dawns on me that the obits come a little too late. By the time you find out about people, it's too late to realize that you wish you had been able to know them, to ask them a question about the interesting things they had done, to see life's mysteries through their experienced eyes.

Obits often come as a surprise even to some family members, who may never have known what a grandfather did in the service, or thought about the times a great aunt had seen. Neighbors discover a whole side of people they thought they had known, but really didn't at all.

But we find out too late.

What we need are obits for the living, when people are still here to tell us those stories.

Let me grab the last couple of papers to show you what I mean.

Clarence Ford, 95, loved working with Clydesdale horses. What was that like? I wish I could ask him.

Debra Abdo, 49, gave willingly and was a friend to many, it says. Sounds like I would have liked her.

Cynthia Mills, 44, started her own company for Tender Loving Plant Care. I always heard that you are supposed to talk to plants, I think she's the one who could have told me why and what the heck you're supposed to say.

Darwin Otto, 64, once worked for Lockheed Aircraft and the U.S. Census Bureau. He certainly had stories.

Inez Fraser was 105 years old! Imagine, she was alive when there were lots of Civil War veterans walking around, and before anyone in this area had thought of seeing an automobile or an airplane. She was a lover of flowers, gardening, crocheting, music, scrapbooks and photos. Sounds like a lovely lady. She had 32 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great grandchild. My first question would have been about the tricks she must have used to remember all of their names.

Kenneth Schmidt, 83, loved practical jokes. Ah, the stories he must have had to tell.

Margaret Davis was born with the century in 1900. How had life on a northwest Iowa farm changed in the 100 years she had seen? I wonder...

Merle Kahuda, 97, was an ISU graduate student in the 1920s, when that must have been rare for anyone, let alone a woman. She taught for almost 40 years, 30 of them at Storm Lake High School. She taught Sunday School, was a lifetime hospital auxiliarian, a stalwart of the Storm Lake Arts Council, and had up to 70 years membership in civic groups of a vast variety. How did I miss meeting such a person?

Herbert Sievers, 90, was a former BV County Supervisor and was county treasurer for 16 years as well as chairing a church-building committee. A wealth of stories there.

Christina Bryant, 99, was the daughter of a much-traveled Scandinavian preacher, who went to Buena Vista College and taught in a one-room schoolhouse for many years. She was one of the first women elders in her church, and a deacon. She was known "for her love of poetry, flowers and people." Not a bad description to leave behind.

Edward Miller was a Marine serving in the Korean War. You know he had stories.

Donald Rollison, 75, resided at a local care facility for years, and this says that for much of his life he didn't speak. Suddenly, late in life, he started to talk; and boy did he talk. He will be remembered for lovingly herding ducks, caring for his stuffed animals, and talking on the telephone. He's not just a story, he should be an Oscar-winning movie.

Over here is a man who had been a foreign exchange field volunteer, and here, a woman who had been a singer. Here's a woman who had been a great swimmer, and a man who had loved roller coasters. People who had once lived in all manner of distant places, and I wonder what circumstances brought them all to this place.

You get the idea; that's just from the last few issues.

They roll in every day, little snippets of lives and loves spent well. In nearly every obit, you can find inklings of a story you would have wanted to hear. I find ones I would have liked to tell.

It's a shame to wait on the obituary until a person is gone, and so many of the stories perhaps gone with them.

It strikes me that the art of the obit is not about death at all, but about life.

It's difficult to read so many of them without imagining your own. Did you volunteer a hand in building something? Did you teach something? Did you see change? Did you speak up for some issue? Did you love poetry or paintings or music or flowers or children?

Are you sharing your own stories while you still can?

If you haven't, I imagine that one day there will be someone paging through this newspaper who will read a tauntingly little bit of you, and wish they had known.