At Large : Talking about you when you're gone
You have to love those big holiday parties. It's a wrenching dilemma when it happens that more than one occurs on the same evening. It is difficult for all but the most indefatigable celebrants to do justice to both.
The pleasures afforded by such affairs are diverse. There are the splendid fashions; the heirloom jewelry exhumed for the occasion from the grasp of loved ones who will, alas, need no such adornment from now on; the kilts (yes, kilts); the snug bodices; the snug cummerbunds; the bow ties; the headdresses; the heady aroma of mothballs.
There are the drink and the music - all antique tunes that fire the dimming memories of the boomers - and the husbands and wives and ex-husbands and ex-wives, the party animals become businesswomen, and businessmen in late middle age become party animals. And for sure, there are the old friends who have been out of touch and turn up on these occasions, welcome ghosts of Christmases past.
But among the most piercing satisfactions are those which derive from observing and comparing the rate of change in one's friends and neighbors. Time takes its toll, and that can be comforting to observe, when someone has just celebrated his 63rd birthday and is feeling just a little fragile. The thinning hair and thickening waistlines of one's friends can add full measures of comfort and good cheer.
But no matter how reassuring these merry scenes may have been, a newspaperman can be forgiven for thinking about obituaries. I do that, although I know obituaries are not customary holiday preoccupations.
As important as obituaries are, they are often underappreciated. Some newspapers, large and small, even charge for obituaries or for death notices. It costs a little for the latter, more for the former. One newspaperman, obviously in extremis given the current global economic decay, told me nothing - including obituaries and birth announcements - would get into his paper without being paid for. We don't do that at The Martha's Vineyard Times, but neither do we pay as much attention to obituary writing as we should.
David McCullough of West Tisbury, the historian laureate, has said that if there is one thing newspapers ought to do better, it's writing obituaries.
Russell Baker, a Nantucketer, who wrote the foreword to "The Last Word: The New York Times Book of Obituaries and Farewells", puts it this way:
"Obituaries these days often provide the only pleasure to be had from the daily newspaper and should be savored slowly, saved for leisurely reading over the last cup of breakfast coffee ...
"What blessed relief they provide after the front page - people butchering the neighbors' wives and children to serve God, right injustice, and display cultural superiority; science announcing that everything you love to do, eat, or drink will kill you ...
"Then, at last, the obituaries. Oases of calm in a world gone mad. Stimulants to sweet memories of better times, to philosophical reflection, to discovery of life's astonishing richness, variety, comedy, sadness, of the diverse infinitude of human imaginations it takes to make this world. What a lovely part of the paper to linger in." Amen.
Mr. Siegel's book includes some of the host of well-crafted obituaries of remarkable and surprising people published over the years by The New York Times. Jimmy Keyes, whose song "Sh-Boom" pushed rhythm and blues onto the pop music charts. Orville Redenbacher, the popcorn king. Wrong way Douglas Corrigan. Angel Wallenda of high wire fame.
Of course, the greatest figures in medicine, politics, the arts, and business are there, too, but often it is the more ordinary sort, even folks who are only known for their simple blunders, who fill out the ranks of the parade of humankind. These stories of actors on the national and international stage are fascinating, but not more so than the astonishing and unique life stories of friends and neighbors, of their changed lives and families, their accomplishments and failures, their days and nights in work clothes, rather than the tuxedos and gowns they all wore to the Christmas party.