Commentary from Garrison Keillor: The old obit man looks around

When I was 20, I dropped out of college and got a job with a morning newspaper whose city editor Mr. Walt Streightiff put me to work writing obituaries of ordinary men and women whose deaths were not considered newsworthy. Other reporters handled crime, natural disasters, City Hall, sports, fatal accidents, high finance, visiting celebrities, and what was called “human interest,” meaning heartwarming stories, usually involving children. I was in charge of ordinary cold death.

Mr. Streightiff liked his obituaries straight — basic facts, plus the deceased’s education, professional achievements, church and club memberships, survivors, and funeral arrangements. I liked to add interesting detail — the man who, until he was 70, swam across White Bear Lake every summer, the woman whose potato salad was envied by others, the woman who could look at a sentence and speak it backward quickly and perfectly, the man with the enormous model-train layout filling his basement. Some of these Mr. Streightiff sniffed at but tolerated, others he crossed out.

That was 55 years ago and he was in his 50s and a chain smoker, so I suppose he is gone now. If I were writing his obit, I’d mention his short bristly hair, his starched white shirt and suspenders, his high-top leather shoes and armbands, and his commanding presence at the end of the horseshoe city desk, the way he barked out your last name, how he picked up a phone and said “YEAH?” into it. His breed is gone now, along with the cigarette smoke and the clatter of typewriters. And now I’m 75 and the people in the obits are pals of mine.

There were three of them in October, Bruce and Russ and Margaret, and the month is only half over.

Bruce was an organic farmer for 40 years, raising farm-to-table produce. His land had been in the family for more than a century and he made it as productive as it could be, taking on dozens of young interns who wanted to learn the ropes and find out if they had a vocation, too. He kept bees and whenever he visited me, he brought a quart jar of honey. The farm was his life. We shared an ancestor, Elder John Crandall of Rhode Island colony who came over from England in 1637 or so and who was arrested for preaching religious freedom among the Puritans. I am a Puritan myself and Bruce tolerated me pretty well.

Russ was an architect who took up the truck-driving life, played in a blues band, found romance, watched over his kids and cheered them on, and admired well-made things: motorcycles, guitars, old houses, barns, a song, a well-told tale. He once built a long twisting snow slide on a hillside with banked curves that he designed for maximum thrills. He made a habit of telling you a joke every time he met you. Ole & Lena jokes, lightbulb jokes, whatever. A man walks into the bar with a handful of fresh dog manure and says to the bartender, “Look what I almost stepped in.” A meaningful joke. His specialty.

Margaret was a college classmate who sat ahead of me in Miss Youngblood’s Shakespeare class. I once recited to her “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments” and meant it but we stayed friends. She became a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst while raising three kids, and practiced for 30 years or so. I accused her of being a hired friend to people of privilege, a joke, and she laughed. I think that what her patients craved was not to be healed but to be understood and she gave them her keen attention. I miss her calm and inquisitive voice. I never heard her speak about anyone with contempt or derision. Not even Death, whom she saw coming a long way off and met with serenity.

They each had a clear vocation and made a mark and I miss them and hate to delete them from my phone. I grieve for each of them and I also tell myself to buckle down. Pay attention. Do your job. Don’t kill time. Cherish your elders as they pass. My cousin Olive Darby died recently at 104, clear of mind, a steady star shining through the branches of the family tree. I’m sorry I didn’t go visit her, the last living person to have known my grandfather James, but there’s no time for regret now. November is coming, 2018 approaches. Onward.

Garrison Keillor writes for The Washington Post.

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