I read the obituaries every day. I think many people my age do. What I notice is that the New York Times publishes obituaries of men mostly. When a woman is featured, in the exalted company of the men selected to have a free obit (not the paid death notices that loved ones buy at a very high price), I pay special attention.
Recently, there was an obituary of an actress I never really followed but I liked her name: Dixie Carter. What I look for in an obituary is the whole narrative thread, the beginning, middle and end of the story. Somehow seeing it all laid out in chronological order makes sense of the life. Aren’t we trying to make sense of the stories of our lives? Obituaries lay it all out and you can follow along with the subject’s passions, their successes, their final illnesses, what their next of kin said. To me, obituaries are short short stories based in real life.
The obituary of Dixie Carter (who was married to Hal Holbrook, the esteemed American actor) included a quote that explained a phrase I was unsure about, “bless her heart.” Here are the last several paragraphs of her obituary:
Although Ms. Carter long ago moved to California for her television career, she and Mr. Holbrook also kept a home in McLemoresville. In 1999, she told The Palm Beach Post that she treasured the courtesy and kindness she found in Tennessee, a welcome contrast to the backstabbing and sniping of Hollywood.“Of course in the South we talk about people too,” she said. “But if you end your comments with ‘Bless her heart,’ you’re off the hook.”
Today, two more women got obits in the Times, two women whose careers are important to me, film and poetry.
Dede Allen, an important film editor died. She edited Bonnie and Clyde, and Reds, and sort of changed the rhythm of how we want to watch movies. She punched things up quite a bit.
And Carolyn Rodgers, a black poet, died.
She wrote these lines:
I’ve had tangled feelings lately
Bout writing poetry, and otha forms
Bout talkin and dreamin with a
Special man (who says he needs me)
Uh huh And my mouth has been open
Most of the time but
I ain’t been saying nothin but
Thinking about ev’rything
And the partial pain has been
How do I put my self on paper
The way I want to be or am and be
Not like any one else in this
Black world but me