Obituaries

December 2020

I grew up reading obituaries. There were very few books around my home, but we always received newspapers. The few books we did have were Christmas gifts to my father from employees at the Scrantom’s Books and Stationery emporium on Main Street in Rochester, New York. My father ran the parking lot concession for them, and they obviously did not know that he, an immigrant from Ukraine, could not read or write in English. He brought home the latest bestsellers, which were simply added to our bookshelf. I was fascinated by them and remember trying to tackle Les Misérables a dozen times, but at age five or six it was far too advanced–it wasn’t until high school that it finally made sense to me. My mother could read a little English as she had taken classes at night school to gain citizenship. She admired FDR and loved reading about him in the newspaper. Soon she and I were slowly poring over the articles together, polishing our reading skills, side by side. I was soon drawn to the obituaries, which were in both the morning and evening papers, so I had my fill reading them, each and every word. I do not believe, looking back, that I fully comprehended what I read in many of them –the background of the Kodak executive that died meant little to me. My interest was piqued by the battlefront deaths of the real-life young men who served and died in Europe and the Pacific and later the WWII veterans with their colorful military records. They were and still are heroes to me.

Eventually, I was able to ride my bicycle to the public library and my obsession with obituaries was sidelined by a new passion: books. Ever since then, reading has been one of the “structures” in my life, as essential as food and water. These days I read every evening before falling asleep. During the pandemic, book sales soared due to the stay-at-home life. Of course, many people are busy streaming on their smart TVs but reading books has gained momentum. Books are always my first choice for gift- giving, and I try to keep my local bookstore in business rather than using the online bookselling behemoth. Dan, the salesman, knows my taste and always recommends good current fiction and non-fiction. He also goes to the monthly used book fairs in Fort Lauderdale, where he finds copies of the out-of-print books I am looking for—many of which I discovered through the obituaries of famous authors who have died. The inventory at the book fairs come from libraries, private collections, and estate sales. I am often amazed at what people write in their books: comments about the author, notes on the writing, highlights, and underlines, even a shopping list. I continue to read the obit section regularly—unfortunately they keep coming–and quite often, especially in today’s political environment, it is still the most interesting section of the newspaper.

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