In Retrospect, I Think I Must Have Messed Up

Don’t tell me your age. Just tell me your relationship with the obituary page and I can make a pretty good guess about how old you are.

I spent my youth avoiding the obituaries — a black hole where old, decrepit people I didn’t know went to die, as far as I could tell. Forget that. I was far more interested in Ann Landers’ column, where people were still alive and committing lots of adultery and dealing with incontinent pets and children and overbearing mothers-in-law.

That all changed when I went to work for a law firm after I graduated from college with a not-terribly-useful degree in comparative literature. I was a receptionist and secretary for the small firm, which was housed in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida.

St. Pete had the oldest median age in the country — 55, as I recall — and old people crowded the downtown parks, where they reclined on benches and played shuffleboard and fed the pigeons. They were kind of sad and harmless and, every time I saw them, I was relieved I wasn’t old and never would be.

They also died a lot, which is where I came in. Every morning, I opened the newspaper and went directly to the obits to see whether any of the law firm’s clients had died. I had a pair of scissors ready to go so I could clip when necessary.

Weeks passed. Then months. I combed through the obits every morning. I never found anyone represented by the practice, so I got all depressed thumbing through the death notices for no good reason.

I wasn’t that pleased with my job, anyway, if you want to know the truth. I’d already gotten off to a bad start with the senior partner of the firm, an old bald guy named Mr. Gay. Mr. Gay’s secretary, Jane, told me he was so vain, he always took off his glasses when he spoke on the phone to one of his girlfriends.

“I thought he was married,” I said.

“He is,” Jane said, shrugging. “But nobody’s ever seen his wife.”

Every year, a week before Christmas, Mr. Gay sent Jane to the bank to pick up crisp, new $100 bills for his girlfriends. Jane said she always made it a point to ask for the oldest, dirtiest bills they had at the bank.

All of this was why I was so excited the afternoon I was in the office by myself, dying of boredom, as usual. An elderly woman in an orange wig came in and asked for Mr. Gay. I told her Mr. Gay wasn’t there and asked her name.

“I am Mrs. Gay,” she said.

I was immediately beside myself, knowing how impressed the other secretaries would be when they learned I’d sighted the elusive Mrs. Gay. Eureka!

The phone rang just then and I answered it. It was Mr. Gay.

“Guess who’s here!” I said enthusiastically. “It’s your wife!”

“My wife?” he said. “But she never comes to the office.”

“Well, she’s here now,” I said. I handed the phone to Mrs. Gay and the couple talked for a few minutes. Then she hung up and left the office.

The next morning, as I was poring over the obits, Mr. Gay came barreling into the office and stopped at my desk. He looked pissed. “You thought that was my wife yesterday, Ruth,” he said. I nodded.

“Well,” he continued, “It wasn’t my wife. It was my mother.” He pulled his glasses off and glared at me. “Mother’s almost 80,” he said. “How old do you think I look?”

“Well, not very old,” I said diplomatically.

After that little incident, which became the office joke, Mr. Gay seemed to have no use for me. I figured out I didn’t have any crisp Christmas $100 bills in my future. When I announced I was leaving, nobody seemed terribly upset.

Almost 40 years later, I now have a completely different relationship with the obituaries. I read them every day, even though nobody pays me to do it.

Something else has changed about me, too: I can now tell the difference between a person in his 60s and someone in his 80s. Now that it’s up close, now that I have my bifocals on, I can see that it’s profound. Mea culpa, Mr. Gay, after all these years.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about why camping is dangerous and you should really stay at home

18 comments… add one
  • M.K. Link

    This is a very funny column. Thank you.

    Full disclosure: I subscribe to my old hometown newspaper just to get the obits. True.

  • Cindy A Link

    Mr. Gay and his girlfriends reminds me of Mad Men.

  • I have become more interested in the obits, too. I wonder if there’s a point where one stops reading them?

  • Well all I can say is that when I stopped reading the engagement and wedding announcements I knew I was past my prime.

  • Orange wigs-only little old ladies and Ronald McDonald can pull that look off.

  • M.K. Link

    Alexandra, my father-in-law always said you should stop reading the obit column if you see your name listed.

  • A fun-filled column today!
    Mom taught me how to read the newspaper. First, scan the front page. Second, study the obituaries. Third, read Ann Landers. Fourth, work the crossword puzzle. Reading obituaries has changed over time. Once I looked for surnames I knew, then read down for survivors I might know. Later, I narrowed it to parents of friends. Then I started looking for my friends. Now I count up the number of people who have died younger than me.
    If I had worked in that St. Petersburg firm, I’d have amused myself searching for Mr. Gay’s name in the public record each morning. Having multiple girl friends, plus a wife, can turn nasty, you know.

  • Christine Link

    Ah, this is so funny! It reminds me of what happened recently – or perhaps it’s really not very similar – but I was taken aback when I was with our 21 year old babysitter and someone asked me if I was her mother! Um, no….

  • Sheryl Link

    Thanks for the laugh, Ruth. I love this story! Taking his glasses off to talk on the phone – priceless.

  • Ha! So you never did get to meet the real Mrs. Gay?

  • Oh so funny. In my much, much younger days I wasn’t upset when college football players started looking like little boys to me. But there came a time, soon after in fact, when the coaches started looking like little boys to me. Now that was a shock!

  • My father always said he started the day by reading the obituaries. If he didn’t see his name, he knew it was okay to go on with the day.

  • msue Link

    Once when I thought I’d managed to look decent for my job working with children, a parent complimented me. “Oh you are so good with children. How many grandchildren do you have?” Um. None. And there was the day I sympathized with a grandmother raising her troubled grandson. Sweet lady, little frizz of white hair, apple cheeks, granny glasses, much like Mrs. Claus. And then I figured it out – she was my exact age. I’m certain my mom is somewhere getting the biggest laugh out of all this!

  • Arlene Link

    I always read and don’t comment, but this column was halarious.
    “I was relieved I wasn’t old and never would be”–had me laughing out loud. I remember those days!

  • I’ve read the obits ever since I was a teenager. Am drawn to the NYT wedding announcements on Sundays too. Why? Am fascinated with people’s back stories, serendipity, fate — all of it — it’s truly the stuff of life.

  • That’s a pretty funny work mishap, tho!

  • Nancy Brainerd Link


  • Merr Link

    I have rarely read the obits. I want to say, maybe, maybe, a handful of times (at most – and that may be high). I used to work in a particular hospital and one particular nurse used to read the obits from a local paper daily on her break and report back when a patient who was treated at the hospital had died, along with a commentary about her thoughts in the person, which typically weren’t, um, positive!

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