Guest Opinion: What will they write of me when I 'transition'? | News | Palo Alto Online |


Guest Opinion: What will they write of me when I 'transition'?

'I hope someone will thoughtfully chew on a ballpoint ... and lovingly pen a few highlights of my life,' says former teacher.

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.


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7 people like this
Posted by Community
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 4, 2017 at 7:05 pm

One of the most lovely articles I've ever read was about an ordinary guy, I think he was a mailman, who lived a really frugal life so that he could be a philanthropist - not from a saved pile of cash, but from being very careful and thoughtful to give to individuals who needed it and where his gifts made a huge difference. Bigtime philanthropists give to organizations and nonprofits, he gave to people. He was apparently much loved in his community - it wasn't just his money, but his time and care to make a differenc.

I have told my family that if I get any asvance notice, I want the funeral before I go, then no one has to bother when it's sad afterwards. Thinking about sharing love and memories takes some of the pressure off thoughts of legacy.

4 people like this
Posted by Another Evelyn
a resident of another community
on Mar 4, 2017 at 9:36 pm

I believe that a great many people write their obituaries these days. How many offspring or friends would know details of one'e entire life and the years involved? I can't even reel off my husband's life details correctly! It's past time to write my own, but I plan to this year, as well as my husband's so that children won't have to be bothered with that. We even get to select our own photos ahead of time! All but the last date can be known at this time, and since we do not want formal funeral services, our children and grandchildren can do whatever they please when the time comes. Our arrangements will already be made at the cemetery where my husband's ancestors are resting. I, too, feel that I have lived the very ordinary life, but I can spice it up a bit with a couple of off-the-wall memories that most people do not have.

8 people like this
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
a resident of another community
on Mar 5, 2017 at 8:40 am

A beautifully written and thoughtful piece. A bigger impact perhaps than reading obits is writing them about friends and many persons I wish had been friends over the years. It does make one think about life and how death helps define one's life. Jay

5 people like this
Posted by Bryan
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 5, 2017 at 7:00 pm

Hopefully, what you did was to allow the cosmos to be conscious of itself through you. In the infinite expanse of space/time, the alchemy of matter to mind are minuscule but you are one of them!

2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2017 at 11:43 am

Here is a funny obituary:
Web Link

People who didn't know her were so touched by the obituary have written condolences online.

7 people like this
Posted by May your life be an inspiration
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2017 at 1:53 pm

I traveled from college to visit my 93-year old grandmother when she was nearly blind, confined to a chair and living in pain from a broken hip and other effects of severe osteoporosis. Yet, she fed her mind by listening to books on tape. When she was up to it, she would write wonderful, philosophical letters to her grandchildren. She enjoyed a bird feeder installed outside her open window. Though she was in terrible pain, she treated every person in her life with the kindness and grace that had marked the rest of her life. That weekend I had her undivided attention. I enjoyed long conversations with her. I heard a lot about her life before I was born. I learned about my mother. I watched her sleep.

She lived a wonderful life. One of the first female graduates of USC, she taught school on an Indian reservation in Arizona. She married my grandfather and followed him to NYC where he was editor of a newspaper and they started their family. They struggled through the Depression and built a good life. Even though my grandfather died young, she made sure all of their children were college educated. She built her life around her family and volunteering in the community and her church.

Before she died, she told me, "Make sure the memories you make each day make you proud, because when you get to my age...and you are confined to a chair like this one, those memories will be all that you have." That advice has guided my life. Thank you, Grandma, for your life and wisdom. After more than thirty years, I still miss you. I hope I can live with the same grace and love you shared with me.

My uncle, her eldest son wrote her obituary--a moving account of her well-lived life. He needed no prompting. Her life was his inspiration.

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