Do you read the obituaries? Though I’m getting to the age where I probably should, I seldom do. Just as pedestrians tend to depend on others to look for traffic when crossing the road, I depend on my mom and sister–both of them regular obituary readers–to point out anyone I might know who has died.
Social scientists use the image of a convoy as a metaphor for our progress through life in the company of other people. Some people drop out, some are added, but what’s constant is that we are surrounded by others, some of them steaming along right beside us and some sailing near the horizon, only occasionally coming into view. We don’t need obituaries to inform us that someone nearby in our social convoy has died–we immediately notice they are gone or are soon told of their absence. Obituaries are useful, though, when it comes to those whom we only sight occasionally or who were once nearby but then sailed off in another direction with another convoy entirely. When we see the obituary of someone we haven’t thought of for decades, it evokes both memories of the time we knew the person and curiosity about the subsequent course of his or her life.
Not too long ago, my mom pointed out the obituary of Marian TenHave of Comstock Park, Michigan. I remembered the name but didn’t recognize Mrs. TenHave’s picture. Then again, it’s been a long time since I saw her. She was my first grade teacher in 1955.
I thought Mrs. TenHave was a nice person. I liked her and may have even had a little bit of a crush on her. I remember the reading groups in her class; it was my first instruction in reading. When Mrs. TenHave worked with our group I enjoyed having more of her attention than I got in the class as a whole. We learned from the Dick and Jane readers. Those readers have been criticized for their repetitious language, cultural and racial homogeneity, and overly moralistic tone, but none of that bothered me. I could imagine Dick as one of my friends (which says something about the culture in which I was raised). My parents got to know Mrs. TenHave and her husband, and late in the school year we were invited to spend an afternoon swimming at the TenHave cottage on a nearby lake. What first grader who likes his teacher wouldn’t go for that! I can still remember swimming in the lake that day.
Back in first grade I thought of Mrs. TenHave as one of the pantheon of adults in my life, stable and unchanging. I see from the obituary that she was 26 years old at the time and had just gotten married one year earlier. Life was probably changing for her, but the movement wasn’t fast enough for me to discern. According to the obituary, Mrs. TenHave enjoyed entertaining, was an outstanding cook, and liked to sing and to travel. I didn’t know any of that about her. She had three children–all born after I knew her–and eight grandchildren. Then there was this: “Although she was an elementary school teacher early in her career, she first and foremost listed her occupation as homemaker.”
We tend to think of people who were once part of our social convoy primarily in terms of their membership in that convoy. We don’t realize that even back then there was much more to them than what we saw–cook, musician, traveler. When they leave our convoy, we imagine them continuing on much the same course as they were on when we last sighted them. In my mind, Mrs. TenHave was always and primarily a teacher. It’s interesting to learn that she changed course; it’s a reminder that people I once knew haven’t all continued on as I thought they would. I’m also glad to learn something of the person she became. Whatever we imagine of others is only a small part of their story; their lives are more extensive and abundant than we could ever envision. Obituaries aren’t just death notices; they have something to teach us about life.