The Slow-Cooked Sentence: Words as sustenance.

Morning coffee with obituaries: Discovery within a final remembrance

Rachael Conlin Levy
Elbow grease

My house and my head are alike in their need for a good spring cleaning (2012).

Her solution to a challenge–large and small–was to wash the dishes, a distraction that resulted in clean plates and new approaches to life’s problems. She passed the coping strategy to her daughter, Nina Ann, who, in her grief over her mother’s death, found solace in a sink of soapy hot water.

Like so many, Bertha “Betty” Lenore Wilke LaBrant spent a lifetime feeding and cleaning up after others. After her first job as a teacher in a one-room school house on the prairie, she trained as a cook, preparing meals in nursing homes, a college sorority house, and Seattle’s Ingraham High School. A self-described pragmatist, her answer to boredom in Nina Ann and her two brothers was send to them outside to run around the house 10 times. She died Feb. 14, on the wedding anniversary to her husband, who proceeded her in death. She was 92.

 

I am 40, now (2010).

“Thinking about death every morning makes me want to live,” said writer-artist Austin Kleon.

“Reading about people who are dead now and did things with their lives makes me want to get up and do something decent with mine,” wrote Kleon in “Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered.”

I dug the Seattle Times from the recycling bin, turned to page B2, and read of people whose varied experiences were rich with humor, reason, faith, and courage, whose lives remained unknown to the larger world, but of great importance to those they loved. For so many, discovery occurs in the final act of remembrance.

During the Vietnam War, Polly Ann Peppard Rohrbach was a stewardess on a public airline that flew U.S. soldiers into combat. On one such trip she met her husband, who she later visited in Saigon just before it fell to North Vietnam. Rohrbach listened to bombs fall while standing atop the Rex Hotel, a gathering place for military officials and war correspondents. A vivacious woman whose wild spirit was shaped in the rugged Montana wilderness where she lived as a girl, Rohrbach flirted with risk throughout her life. Much later, she was lost while skiing in a snow storm on Crystal Mountain. Rohrbach and her companion built a snow cave, and she burned her last dollar to start a fire, which kept them warm that night. She was 72 when she died.

 

“In Love with A. Lincoln” by Maira Kalman.

Kleon credited artist Maira Kalman for the idea of anchoring the day with obituaries and coffee. Reading how people spent their lives is a regular wake-up call Kalman said in an interview with Madeleine Dore of Extraordinary Routines, a website that attempts to understand the intersection between creativity and imperfection through interviews with artists, writers, designers, illustrators, and more.

“These mini biographies of extraordinary people in different fields are fascinating, funny and very inspiring – it makes you really conscious of the fact that you have a very limited amount of time,” Kalman said. “And within that time, the only thing that you can really do is work. I mean, of course there are people that you love and that’s amazing, but really to find what work is important to you – that’s your job.”

 

“Saint Bride” by Scottish artist John Duncan, 1913.

Mary Bridget Murphy Quinn thought her job–no, calling–was to be a nun. As a young woman, she entered an Oregon convent and received the name Sister Bridget Maureen as a novice. But during the training, which occurs before a vow is taken and includes intense study and prayer, Quinn realized her relationship to God was not through sisterhood. She left the convent, but took the name Bridget, a Celtic goddess of spring as well as a 5th-century Irish saint who said mass, heard confessions, ordained clergy, and opened the first religious community for women in Ireland. Quinn graduated from college, married, had seven children. All the while, faith remained central to her life. In different cities and times, Quinn remained steadfast to the values of Catholic social justice, helping the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, working throughout her life for a more just and peaceful world. She was 83.

 

 

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