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)
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