To celebrate International Women’s Day, I’m unearthing a story I wrote five years ago and stretching it to fill a few blog posts. Because I want to stretch the celebration of the day. I published this essay in Herizons, a Canadian feminist magazine coming out of Winnipeg that hangs on and also deserves congratulations and support.
MONUMENTAL WOMEN: PART ONE
How are women remembered? This is a story about death and life. It’s told as a road trip taken by two Toronto feminists in a rented Toyota in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York in June 2007. It’s a tough topic to cover in a mere 2000 words. It’s also rare to have it told in quite this way, but I’m determined to give it a shot because this question about women and memory kept buzzing in my brain throughout our trip to these distant lands.
I’m an obituary writer for the Globe and Mail and I love doing this work. I believe that it’s an important form of storytelling and often the first recorded notes of a particular person’s history. Obituaries throb with emotion but never, never with sentimentality–at least I do my best to keep it free from that soppy material, promising instead good, solid research, quotes all told with a tight chronology. Nevertheless, there are poignant moments both in noting the stories and scripting them for an audience; I make important and sometimes profound connections with the living while writing about the newly dead.
Last Spring, my partner Heather and I pressed our orange coffee mugs into the plastic cup holders and headed south to Alfred, a little university town in upstate New York, famous for degrees in ceramic art and in having only one traffic light. We were there to attend the 9th Great Obituary Writer’s Conference. While Heather snapped photos on campus, I sat inside with other writers from Israel, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, and a number of American cities. Seminar topics included using archival photographs to describe a life; discussing heated controversies about paid versus unpaid obituaries; and how to avoid the ubiquitous ghoulish puns that are an unfortunate part of this work.
Pulitzer prize-winning writer Jim Sheeler autographed his recently published book Obit, featuring interviews with the families of American soldiers killed in Iraq. And New York writer Marilyn Johnson read from The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. There were lots of inspiring moments and many chances to raise our glasses–le chaim!—while sipping sensational Finger Lakes wine.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO OF “MONUMENTAL WOMEN”