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Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Obituary Writer- The Sunday Collage

Perhaps we should call them "life summaries'' or some other cutesy name.

I don't know why our culture has a morbid fascination with discovering who among us has recently died. The most simplistic answer, I suppose, is that death is news.

When I speak of our society's morbid curiosity about death, I must include myself. In the past year, I've stood witness to a number of deaths. Often, I find myself looking online at various newspapers trying to locate additional information about the dearly departed. This then brings me to the topic du jour.

Modern day obituaries. Some of the worst, most gawd awful writing that I have ever read. Obituary writers try to condense an entire lifetime into a few hundred words and a couple column inches. And so it is that most obituaries are written as though a life is nothing more than a list of earthly achievements. One last resume' for St. Peter to peruse when deciding who makes it to the promised land.

Modern day obituaries are nothing more than boilerplate ________(insert name here) writing. Obituaries generally omit the cause of death, they chronologically give us a timeline and a list of accomplishments. Maybe they list all those accomplishments, I think, to make the rest of us feel guilty about how little we have done. And then I think, no of course not, obituaries like funerals- are for the living. They never, ever, say anything derogatory about the deceased. It is a feat of disingenuous civility that we extend to nearly everyone it seems. I hesitate to include this here but I think it illustrates the point I am making.'s_obituary_of_Adolf_Hitler

I dislike obituaries because they don't tell the real story. We don't read about the great dreams and disappointments, the ah- ha moments and emotional turning points, the tragedies, the struggle, the successes and failures. The standard obituary reads like a Who's Who entry, shallow and superficial, with all of the real stuff edited out. What kind of man or woman was this person? That question rarely gets answered.

My friend Al died in August of this year. Al struggled with several medical problems, perhaps a little depression and a whole lot of alcoholism. He was a lot of fun to be around in the old days and he was smart. But the only coping mechanism Al could ever find was the one he bought at the liquor store. What a fantastic story that might have been had he managed to overcome his alcoholism- yet it is still a fantastic story because it tells us about the stranglehold that booze has on some of us. It gives us a level of understanding and it educates us. It allows us to make informed decisions about our own lives and understand that some people choose death by drinking. For those who might have missed that post.

On Friday, my Aunt Audrey died. She had a fantastic story as well. I can't tell her story without telling the story of her husband Alan, who is also deceased. My aunt and uncle were truly joined at the hip and devoted to each other- one of the very few great and genuine love stories that I have ever seen.

Audrey was the oldest of my mother's siblings. Audrey, my mother, and the rest of the kids were raised on a farm near Fairview, Montana. Fairview has a population of 800 people or so. Audrey met the love of her life in Fairview, a former valedictorian and college bound man by the name of Alan N. Alan by most accounts, was a genius. Together Audrey and Alan got the hell out of Fairview just as soon as they could because Fairview has never been known as the land of genius or opportunity- unless of course- you wanted to farm sugar beets for the rest of your days.

In the 60's, Alan met and worked as sort of an apprentice for a man named Edward Towe. Towe was a millionaire legend in Montana when I was a kid. Towe was a self styled business entrepreneur- owning and operating a huge number of Montana banks. Towe also owned a giant antique Ford collection. Uncle Alan became a business partner of Ed Towe's. Alan began buying banks on his own and soon enough- my Aunt Audrey and Alan were living the American dream. They went from farm kids to millionaires back when a million was just a ton of money.

Those were some of the best years of my life. We all lived in Butte at the time. We were also well acquainted with Evel Knievel and his sons- kids we went to school with. When my cousins showed up with brand new motorcycles, I was green with envy. Butte was a motorcycle town.

When the Anaconda company announced that they were closing the mine around 1975, Butte's economy went to hell and all of our lives were about to change just as dramatically as the fortunes of Butte. As it turns out, I would not see my cousins, or Audrey or Alan, for the next 30 years.

I can't tell you with any level of precision- how many millions Alan and Audrey accumulated or what they were worth at their zenith. They owned all sorts of things- more banks and businesses, a mansion here or there, artwork, the finest cars, European real estate, and they traveled the world. They were an American rags to riches story. In the fairy tale world- their story might have ended right there. But their story was hardly a fairy tale.

When you have a lot of money it is often very difficult to hang onto it. Everyone is after it. Relatives, friends, business partners and competitors, unscrupulous people, lawyers, the IRS.

All those things came calling for Audrey and Alan. By the late 80's and 90's, a couple of bad business decisions, fate and the economy, unscrupulous and greedy "business partners" did what they do- and it left my aunt and uncle broke. Sometimes people can bounce back but that would not be possible this time. My Uncle Alan, the genius, had a bonafide schizophrenic break and never recovered. My Aunt Audrey became his caretaker.

I visited Audrey and Alan near Kansas City in 2005. They were living in a 700 sqf house with one bathroom on Alan's social security. Audrey, always gracious and nice, looked after us. I tried to talk to Alan that day. He stared straight ahead as I spoke- and I found myself repeating what I said to him because I couldn't tell if he had heard me. I left that little house in a state of shock.

Gone were the young, wealthy, and beautiful couple of my childhood. They had been replaced by two worn down bodies living on a subsistence level. I cannot tell you the range of emotions I felt. Shock at seeing them like this- guilt for having waited so long. I can honestly say, it took me a few days to emotionally reconcile all of this. I'm not sure that I ever really have.

Alan died on Oct. 9, 2007. Audrey, an intensely private person, was devoted to Alan to the very end. In sickness or in health. They really were that devoted couple that we all hear about and one day, hope to become. As coincidence would have it- Oct 9, 2007 also happens to be the day that I drank my last drink.

My Aunt Audrey never really recovered after Alan's death. She had a series of falls and mishaps over the past 7 years- shuttled between hospitals and various living situations by my cousin Scott who did his best to take care of her. Audrey was present at my brothers wedding in Colorado this summer. She was in a wheelchair, still drinking, still full of piss and vinegar and teasing me about a range of subjects- knowing precisely what was going on in my life courtesy of all the hours she spent on the phone talking with my mother.

Audrey passed away sometime during the night of Oct 9- a few days ago. The coincidence of that date did not go unnoticed by any of us. Sometime during this week, someone will write an obituary.

My Aunt Audrey was the most polite and gracious person I've ever known. Her class far exceeded her beet farm beginnings. She lived an outrageous life of extremes. Extreme success and everything that goes with that and extreme disappointment- and everything that goes with that. Is it better to have made millions and lost them or never made millions at all? How many times if any- did Audrey just want to throw in the towel after Alan's losses and schizophrenic break? Maybe and most likely, the thought never crossed her mind. I'll never know- I never had the opportunity to ask her.

Sometime this week, I'll go looking for Audrey's obituary in the Sidney Herald. I won't expect any miracles or enlightening moments. Somebody will write a couple of column inches that will never, ever capture the essence of who Audrey really was and the extraordinary life that she led. Her son will blend her ashes with Alan's. That's the way it should be.

You were a class act Audrey. Rest in peace.


Anonymous said...

Well done Bri--I think this may be one of your finest--you've written a thought-provoking essay with a lot of truth--and you are right about those obits...we don't work as hard as we should to capture the truth about someone's life--and you've written a moving tribute. I would only add that through all the ups and downs Audrey remained incredibly charismatic, with a brilliant, saber sharp wit--she had--as you note, more graciousness and elegance and class than almost anyone I've ever met. Thanks--AM

Firstthought said...

Does it come natural or do you work hard to produce this kind of writing? I want you to know how I look forward to you posting and how much I enjoy reading it. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and feelings.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for yet another fine piece of writing and also for some wonderful insight into a variety of subjects. Your aunt sounds like a fine woman, I would have been blessed to make her acquaintance.

As for the question of whether to have made it and lost it or never have made it at all-lemme tell Brian, just a few years ago I was a millionaire and now I'm living in a dusty little town in a shithole apartment-funny thing is, I've fulfilled lifelong dream, have never been happier, spent the last 3 years learning how to do something that is a lost art and am planning a move to Midland, TX to bank again.

Life sure has some twists don't it? It's folks like your aunt that roll with them-maybe that obit would have a hint of that if you send them your posting?

Frankenstein Government said...

Thanks A.M She was indeed very witty- very tough really given everything she endured. So glad you were here when the news came...find that circumstance a bit strange yet quite fortunate.


Frankenstein Government said...

Some of the time- it comes quickly. Other weeks I struggle and I often dump two or three things I have written. This piece took about 6 hours (maybe 2 of it editing) and I would say it came fairly easily. I wrote my piece about my friend Al (The Liquor Store Loses One More Customer) in one hour after being deeply emotionally touched by everything that happened that day. It's like the script came to me. I wish it was always that way.


Frankenstein Government said...

Thanks MM. Your story sounds very interesting- that's the kind of stuff I find fascinating. People are fascinating creatures yet the vast majority of us are completely ignored while corporate pirates and sports figures are worshipped like Gods. There is a whole, untapped reservoir of "ordinary" people with fantastic stories- stories we won't hear because they are largely ignored whilst we are forced to listen to the 150th interview of Warren Buffett.

Interesting thought but I will prob just let whoever writes obits write. In fact, I'm going to check today at the Sidney Herald site and see if anything is up. Thanks things sound great- find something you love to do and never work a day in your life!