I didn’t know Thelma Maurine Hickman Speer, who was born on November 17, 1926. I didn’t attend her church (First Presbyterian in Fort Smith) or send my children to Hobson Preschool and Kindergarten, where she once taught. But after reading her obituary on Friday, I feel like I know a lot about her.
I’ve puzzled over the long-form obits that have become popular in recent years. They are little stories covering big lives, filled with the crippling energy of the newly bereaved, who want to get it right, who need for you to know that Uncle Joe had been called “Do Good Jones” since he returned a pocketful of penny candy to the dime store when he was six. They want you to know their mother loved parrots, or orchids, or bingo, or gambling. There is even a stone in a cemetery in Alma whose slick granite is marked with these words: Gone to Walmart. One line that tells you most of what you need about a life lived in the state where Sam Walton built his empire.
My interest in the obituary column sent me to the library where I scoured through microfiche copies of newspapers from the 1800s. There writers penned lines like, “He was torn from the bosom of his worldly hallows while still in the pale of early manhood.” Or, “Earth could not hold the kindness and beauty of her tender heart.”
From there, we somehow managed to grow sterile in our treatment of death. For decades the obituaries listed family members blocked by semicolons: aunts, children, parents. The “begats” did little to fill in the blanks. There were not anecdotes, no cause of death, just birth date, death date, immediate family, end of story.
Joan Didion, author of The Year of Magical Thinking, dissected grief and dying in this book that turned a microscope on her life after her husband’s death. Life changes in an instant, she said. And it does. Each of us holds two passports; one for life and one for the afterlife. We just don’t know when the former will be revoked.
Is there a lesson in all of this? Sure there are. What Thelma Maurine Hickman Speer taught me was in this paragraph in her obituary: “Her three great-grandchildren demonstrate her love of living in the present. Recently one of the great grandsons decided he no longer wanted to take afternoon naps because he would ‘miss it.’ His mom asked, ‘Miss what?’ He replied, ‘The whole world.’ Thelma Speer, the wife, mother, teacher, grandmother and friend would have agreed.”
Don’t miss the whole world. Live in it, make a mess of it if you have to, and then clean it up and start again. But don’t miss it. Whatever you do, please don’t miss it.