When I was growing up, there was a lot of magazine reading going on in my house. My father, who was a dentist, had a newsstand of subscriptions ordered for his waiting room, but our house always got first dibs. We had them all. LIFE, Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Woman’s Day, Harpers, Vogue, Tiger Beat and Good Housekeeping, which encouraged my mother to try daring Sunday night recipes that almost killed us. On top of that, were two daily newspapers, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette and the former Pittsburgh Press, plus the weekly Jewish Chronicle. We were a classic, news-informed, current events family, with ink-stained fingertips and two steps away from a Hoarders episode if reality TV existed in those days.
An early favorite magazine of mine was Highlights For Children. Before I even read some of the silly stories in there, I made sure to do a few puzzles and circle all the hidden pictures, in pen, no less, which really upset my siblings. It was a first come, first serve, ethos in my house. When my brothers got older and discovered Mad Magazine and then Playboy (that one never made it to the waiting room), many who-had-it-first, mailbox fights ensued.
Growing up, I noticed that we each had a unique reading behavior. My father’s was peculiar, but memorable. He was a real newspaper man. Before he ever read the headlines or the sports, he went straight for the obituaries. He didn’t even know most of the dead people that he read about, but he was infatuated with how they met their end, their various backgrounds, their summaries of good deeds, and the family they left behind. We used to make fun of him for turning to that page first, however he couldn’t help himself.
“They are supposed to be read,” he would justify, and occasionally, he came across someone he knew.
Was he curious? Yes. Was he being respectful by reading the obituaries? Yes. Was he entertained? Yes to that, too. When I graduated from college and moved to New York City, I occasionally peeked at the New York Times Obituaries. Some of them were like junior novels. Most of them far exceeded the half column allotted in the Pittsburgh papers.
I remember calling my Dad and reading him a few. “They’ve got some pretty impressive dead people in New York,” he said.
My Dad was so funny. He had an arsenal of great one-liners. He used to fill his patients mouths with dental dams and gauze and then practice his jokes.
“That is what you would call a captive audience.” I accused.
“They’re still laughing” he reported, “Muffled, but laughing”.
“We’ll have to add a stand-up comic line, to your obit,” I replied and we laughed like hell about that one.
Sixty years later, long after my Dad had divorced my mother, retired, dated like a madman and finally married a woman 4 years older than me, he was rushed to the hospital with an intestinal blockage. While in the ER, he had a massive heart attack and never regained consciousness. He was kept on life support for 14 days, his wife trying everything possible to bring him back.
I was never a fan of his wife and she was never a fan of mine. These are common occurrences as families go through shake-ups. She was not comfortable with the closeness that my siblings and I had with our Dad. We felt her tremendous rejection from our very first meeting. I think that she truly believed that since we were adults, we should get our own life. She wanted a life with only my Dad.
Over the time that they were together, she would make brief appearances at family functions, but as the years wore on, those sightings became less frequent and when they suddenly and secretly married five years before my father’s death, she avoided all contact completely. Unfortunately, my father deferred to her isolationist policy and our relationship was relegated to letters and phone calls.
While sitting in the ICU, trying desperately to make comforting small talk, my father’s wife announced that she did not want an obituary to be released upon his death. My facial expression to that declaration prompted this next unforgettable line:
“I don’t want the world to know that I’m some rich widow,” she said.
My sister was sitting right next to me and for the first time ever in our lives, we were completely speechless.
A few days later, my father passed away. As per his wishes, there was no service. I wrote his obituary that night and faxed it to the funeral home. To prevent false reporting of deaths, I learned that Obituary submissions must come directly from a funeral director. I got a call the next morning telling me that my father’s wife was forbidding its release.
“That’s insane.” I said. “I’m his daughter!”
The funeral director agreed with me and apologized profusely. Because my Father’s wife had the Power Of Attorney, she was able to prevent the one thing my father enjoyed most about reading the newspaper. My heart sunk. How could we deny him his very own obituary? As a result of her decision, we had to call each and every one of my father’s friends and relatives and tell them what had happened. His death announcement became an oral Obituary; delivered by his children, recounting the great things about him in ways that a paper truly couldn’t. Although this situation was beyond incredulous, my Father’s wife gave us an inadvertent gift as the constant retelling of my father’s oral Obituary helped us cope with his death.
I never spoke to his wife again. I can only hope that when she encountered people who asked about my father’s whereabouts, she let them know that he passed away and wasn’t home reading the obituaries.
That was seven years ago. I recently found the original “benched” obituary. I wanted to embed it into the end of this essay for no other reason than I now had the power, but I realized that it didn’t hold a candle to the oral version of which I’m still telling.
(Photo of Edward Newman Aronson, 1934, age 9, practicing his stand-up routine on a dirt path in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We think that the cigarette might have been real.)