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Reading Between the Lines in the Obits


I’m never sure what normal people do for fun, but on Sunday mornings, between the before-church coffee rush and after-church breakfast sandwich rush, I sit down and read the obituaries in the Sunday paper at my coffeeshop.

I’ve done this for years at the Firefly, even before I owned it, because as a writer, I’ve always found it fascinating to see how people (or their families) sum up someone’s entire life in 300 words or less.

Most of the time, reading a poorly-written obituary makes me feel compelled to write my own, but then a sense of morbidity sets in and I’m not ready yet.

I’ve always particularly gravitated toward the obituaries of old women. While old man obituaries are often filled with long and distinguished career paths, professional affiliations, organizational accomplishments and military records, old woman obituaries are different. For the most part, I can’t help but think they don’t do the woman justice. Let’s face it, many of the 80- and 90-year-old women dying today did not have professional careers or affiliations. They were too busy raising a houseful of children, keeping a marriage together, cooking three meals a day and trying not to collapse at the end of the day.

I find myself reading between the lines of many of these obituaries, especially short ones like Joanna Pasowicz, age 82, of Madison, who “was the beloved wife of the late Joseph Pasowicz Jr., with whom she shared a dedicated and supportive 55 years of marriage before his passing in 2009 … She was preceded in death by two children, Cynthia, in 1955 and Joseph III, in 1997.”

Think about that last sentence for a minute. In just 21 words, try to imagine the level of grief and sadness she survived through losing two children.  It’s amazing the woman ever found the strength to get out of bed, much less live a strong and fruitful life as a “loving mother, past president of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary Post No. 7444, member of the Florence County School Board and past president of the Madison Polish Heritage Club.” Joanna, I bet your life was an inspiration for many people, and your obituary is less than 200 words long.

Then there’s Dorothy Jean Houden, whom I’m gonna guess would have been my best friend if I were 45 years older. Her obituary starts the same as any other 91-year-old woman until we get to this jewel of a sentence: “After much persistence, she agreed to marry Richard A. Houden on May 14, 1949, as long as she could continue to pursue her nursing career.” There’s a show stopper of a statement. Reading between the lines, we can guess Dorothy was a strong woman, and Richard was progressive for his time, allowing his wife to work out of the home.

Dorothy went on to have a distinguished career in nursing, and was even presented with the “first Board of Trustees award for providing exceptional service in the healthcare field to the citizens of Dane County.” The obituary also includes this sentence: “Richard was the love of her life.” He died in 2012. Together, they had seven children, 18 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Dorothy’s obituary is longer than most women her age, because it lists her education (a degree from UW-Madison in nursing), her extended lifelong training and affiliations, and this: “She firmly believed in social justice instilling the belief in her children that everyone should have the opportunity to live their life to the fullest.”

And these sentences, which I’m guessing her family felt needed to be included because her obituary is so unusual for a woman of her time: “Dorothy maintained a household while also working outside the home. She always found time and energy to share and revel in what the world had to offer with her children.”

Before it was socially acceptable to do so, Dorothy did what many women today don’t think twice about: work full-time and participate in professional affiliations while being a mother and wife. I think most modern woman will tell you this juggling routine is a constant struggle, both physically and mentally, because at the end of the day, we often don’t feel like we’re doing either particularly well, and the most we can hope for is that at the end of our final day, our children write an obituary reflecting the way we tried to live our lives. In 300 words or less. It seems a tall order.


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