Flash in the Pan
A Quarterly Posting at Tiny Lights
A Life Distilled
by Meg House
My alumnae magazine came the other day, and I opened it to the back with a mixture of anticipation and dread. Who would I see there that I know? What marvelous things would they have done? How would my own life compare? As I poured over the records of those who graduated with me, I worried. They're all doing so well! What do I have to show?
I have a similar response when I read the obituaries in the newspaper. A good friend who's a stay-at home mom told me that she burst into tears one morning when her eyes stopped on an obituary. Below a woman's bold-faced name one word appeared as subtitle: "homemaker."
A life distilled in a word. Some obituaries get two, even three, as a subtitle. What words would I want? For some, "homemaker" is not a legitimate life-time calling--nor is it accurate even for those who devote their lives to the role. If you read the full obituary, you'll find a gardener, a volunteer, a fundraiser, a singer, a photographer. The one-word descriptions are insufficient--for anyone.
Yet we continually seek them. What do you do? What are you? We ask one another.
A doctor, an artist, an engineer, a lawyer--the answer satisfies. We can nod and move on or delve deeper, asking questions. Either way, it's a shortcut to knowing someone, like the way we sometimes misuse race, gender, class or background. Ah, our poor overtaxed brains say, now I know where to file you.
But "doctor" doesn't fully explain someone any more than "homemaker" does. I've started to use the present continuous to answer the "What do you do" question. I'm doing, I'm exploring, I'm becoming.
The tense works for the alumnae magazine. It doesn't work very well as an epitaph.
I used to say, tongue in cheek, that I wanted to be an interesting old woman. I wanted to be the way my purple-pant-suited grandmother appeared to me when I was a child--getting her ears pierced in her 70s, playing Nintendo in her 80s. I want to re-embrace the goal.
I can see it now, among the other obituaries in the B section of the newspaper:
Meg Hanna House
Interesting Old Woman
Meg House writes from Arlington, VA.
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