I've discovered there's a definite point when a person becomes old. No, nothing like a special birthday, new decade or those indelible signs like cataracts or wrinkles. Gray hair, stiff backs and slower steps don't even count. What I believe is that the very first time we begin checking the obituaries truly signals we've slid into that can-no-longer-avoid stage and moved on to acceptance of old age.
Even when we soften the blow and call ourselves seniors or elders, reading obits tacitly admits that people in our own generation really do (I mean, that those in our peer group actually can) ... die -- that we're well on the road to the startling possibility, if not strong probability, that there's more life behind us than ahead.
What freaks me out the most is "meeting" someone I know on those obituary pages. And now suddenly ... "knew." I search for dates of birth much earlier than my own and then breathe a sigh of relief finding dates of death approaching the century mark. How happily satisfying when someone else's longevity immediately suggests a personal reprieve, like a welcome invite to hang out at the party a little longer than planned.
"There's still time," I inwardly cheer; "years ahead," I muse. If I'm lucky, and keep all my marbles, and exercise my body and brain, I promise to start taking vitamin supplements, finish writing the great American novel, plow through those stacked boxes of photographs. Job jars remain viable, jilted ambitions doable - if I hurry, get going, plan carefully, time can still be on my side.
And then, I turn the page to "Around Town," a guest opinion or local sports and slide back into that comfortable condition of passing the time, not really wasting it. Suddenly there's tons of time, and it's OK to just let time slip by.
Of course, Palo Altans, ever creative and optimistic, have smoothed the rough edges of our inevitable demise and morphed the obit into a "transition." Merely another chapter in the good life we enjoy and celebrate ... that sadly happens to others ... for now.
I can't stop the nagging one-note, however, about what, in the end, will be written about me. What did I accomplish or actually do all these many years? I can see the black-bordered paragraph flash before my mind's eye: "She read the paper and drank coffee, talked on the phone to her friends, shopped, went to lunch with friends, talked on the phone to her kids." So I started thinking: What exactly am I leaving behind besides mother's Bavarian china? Does anyone care if I taught school, sold investments, even dabbled in the food business?
Frankly, I'm absolutely cowed by so many over-the-top recaps of super-human accomplishments by ordinary people who lived -- and died -- all around me. I marvel at the alphabet soup of credentials trailing some of the names, not just plain old Ph.D.'s either. And the fat columns of their multi-volunteer labors pitted against my long-ago PTA membership. Can I "belong" to the Red Cross if I really just donate to them? Will my short teaching stint be considered noble? Guilt by obituary! Obit oblivion!
There's always hope. I've never yet read a scathing or even mildly bad review of someone's life; the closest thing to a personal or nasty knock is a few mid-sentence adjectives like "irascible," "curmudgeonly," "strong-willed," "outspoken" that hint at someone's darker or difficult side. But, hey, it's death we're talking about in these few lines, certainly the perfect opportunity to ease up. It's a fitting farewell to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative as in that old World War II-era song most of these just-popped-off people would remember and appreciate. It's the last chance to erase a lifetime of errors and omissions.
Most religions consider just remembering someone as proof of their immortality. I'll talk to my children.
In a local paper, the most interesting bios retrace a fascinating history of the area via longtime stints of committed employees who built iconic Silicon Valley companies like HP --a fairly quaint loyalty these days. It's also a rare gift to read the nostalgic tales of our long-gone orchardists who turned the Valley of Heart's Delight into a sea of blossoms and a fruit-canning capital. Other obits trace a genealogy, track an early, still-trusted business or uncover a venerable legacy.
Mainly, I can't help marveling at the importance placed on the more mundane accomplishments of so many people touted as never missing a Giants or Stanford game, who cooked a secret spaghetti sauce, loved their dogs, flowers, crosswords. Most printed legacies always plug in the prosaic but passionate honor to beloved parents, love-of-their life spouses, adored and accomplished children -- a must-do requirement to ensure resting easy, I guess, and a tidy, treasured package to accompany kin on their journey. These human connections all sound much preferred to the gold and lapis treasures of kingly tombs.
Myself? With no celebrity status or exciting career past, do I really want to leave my own lowbrow legacy? Then again, why not. Like Popeye, "I yam what I yam," and whether my grandkids or my book club gave me real pleasure, I hope someone will thoughtfully chew on a ballpoint, remember me fondly, smile indulgently and lovingly pen a few highlights of my life as a gentle goodbye to quietly honor my last hurrah! Maybe something like, "She lived in the only second-story house allowed on the block, let 20 boxes of Little League candy bars melt on her radiant-heat floor in 1976, and always enjoyed a really good glass of wine."
Evelyn Preston is a former Palo Alto teacher and a 25-year investment adviser who now writes.