Saturday, June 09, 2007

"It's a Wonderful Life"

Since returning to the Wichita area, I've started glancing through the obituaries every time I read a paper. I think it's because, for the first time, I have a chance of actually knowing one of these people from earlier in my life.

As I've worked on my family's history over the years, I've found that what I'm most interested in knowing about someone who lived before me is who they really were - What kind of person were they? What did they enjoy doing? What impact did they have on the lives around them? Would I have enjoyed knowing them? The dates and facts are good frameworks, but they tell me little about who this person really was.

So as I'm reading the community obituaries now, I look at them through my family history filter: What does this obituary tell me about the person who has died, not just as a family member, but also as a person?

It's fascinating. Some people have wonderful obituaries, while others are simply dry recitations of relatives or factual information about their life, and far too many are simply brief, often legal-type announcements.

While today's paper wasn't the most exciting for obituary notices, it did contain a fair variety, including a few that particularly caught my attention.

There was a probable classmate of mine and my brother-in-law's from high school. I didn't know this individual well at all, but it's always a little sobering when anyone you've known dies, especially if they are a similar age to you. The obituary was very brief, although it did tell me age, date of death, occupation, where the services would be, and that someone in the family was very religious.

Another gentleman who passed away was noted for being part of the team that prepared the Enola Gay for its famous mission in WWII. What must it have been like to have been a part of that mission, even simply as ground crew? Did he ever question his role in history? This man enjoyed model railroads and RVing and was married for 65 years, with several children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Another woman's notice brought a smile to my face. While she was generously lauded as "...fill[ing] her family and friends' lives with love, kindness, and compassion...," it was the following statement that made her life begin to come alive for me, "She was the third youngest born to a family of five boys and at an early age became quite skilled in cooking, sewing, and dealing with her brotherly pranks. She became her brothers' object of affectionate teasing and loved them so...." "She will be greatly missed by all who knew and loved her." I'll bet that's very true.

There was a picture and a brief notice for a retired school teacher who reached the ripe old age of 98. What must she have seen during her life? Amazingly, the obituary states that she is survived by her husband. Assuming that he's anywhere near to her age, that's an incredible accomplishment in and of itself.

Sales people; several homemakers/community volunteers; an aircraft upholsterer, quilter/crocheter, and antique collector; company owners and businessmen; an electrical contractor; a jack-of-all-trades; a school teacher; an aircraft mechanic; a meat packer; an Air Force sergeant; and a former sheriff's officer. What a fascinating cross-section of lives and personal histories.

However, the obituary in today's paper that most captured my imagination was for the man that I labeled as a "jack-of-all-trades" in the occupation list above, although I meant that in a very positive sense. Perhaps I should have said free spirit or "Renaissance Man," but labels are notoriously stereotypical and it's hard to find an appropriate one when I only met this man through his obituary. He was born in 1954 and when he originally went to college, he "experimented in theater productions and majored in psychology. However, his near-encyclopedic musical knowledge and interest, considerable vocal and instrumental talents and a romatic sense of wanderlust led him in the mid-70's to emulate his musical hero, Jimmie Rodgers. Armed only with his guitar and a backpack, he hitchhiked, 'rode the rails' and buskered his way throughout the western United States,..." Later he served in the Army, notably during the Grenada campaign, and returned eventually to Wichita where he finally finished his degree in 1991 and then worked at a variety of jobs. "[He] will be missed by the large extended family of people he befriended, both in Wichita and around the country, and by the many animals he rescued and loved." His was obviously not a conventional life, but it sounds like a rich one.

As each of us goes through life, we leave a legacy, intended or otherwise, behind us. Our own personal version of It's a Wonderful Life. What waves, rippling out from our lives, have touched others' lives? What will our descendants know of us - assuming that we have any descendants - and what will they think of what they know? Have we made the world better for our having been here - or at least more interesting? People have been wrestling with these questions as long as they've been self-aware. The questions are unanswerable, for the most part, but they still intrigue me and, in many ways, fuel my interest in family history.

"The world's a stage..." What a fascinating production we're all involved in.

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