I check the obituaries now and again online. Not the ones in Norfolk, the ones published by a particular funeral home a town over from where I was raised in the Philadelphia suburbs. My parents were “memorialized” there; my father Dorie in 2008, then my mom Dottie in 2012. When I would visit from Norfolk in their later years and I’d drive by the place, I was well aware I would return there on a day not too far off. And so I did when they both died at age 84, almost exactly four years apart.
I started checking those obituaries from afar after my dad died. Not every day. Just occasionally. I’ve been kind of embarrassed about it, to tell the truth, as if it’s somehow morbid. As if it’s strange to peruse the passings in a town I last lived in 31 years ago. But other than a trip or two up the Eastern Shore each year to see my sister and brother and their kids, I found stalking the obits one way of staying in touch with my roots. Those visits are a lot less frequent with my parents gone.
Despite the distance of years, however, what is amazing to me is every time I check the funeral home’s website, almost without fail I read an obit of someone I knew or, more likely, someone my parents knew. They lived in the town, Prospect Park, their entire lives. From the house he owned since the mid-’50s, my dad could literally see the house where he was born in 1923, just beyond the athletic field across the street. They wouldn’t leave, my mom and dad. It got to be a huge chore for my sister just to get them to the Delaware beaches for a week each summer. And they knew everybody in the one-mile town of a few thousand residents, my father the mailman especially. He was already one of those outgoing guys who never met a stranger, who’d talk to anybody. That embarrassed me as a kid. “Dad!” I grew to admire that ability, of course, that talent for getting along and making friends.
Anyway, a popular dinner-table pastime a long time ago was saying the name of a schoolmate and challenging my dad to recite their address. My recollection is he nailed it to the house number nine times, probably 9 1/2 times, out of 10. But that was life for him and many of his contemporaries who for whatever reasons never left a blue-collar town that’s drab and parochial and wholly unremarkable on the surface.
Except that last stuff is all wrong, because I see these names and photos now and they ring in my mind a soft, aching tone of nostalgia. Of the half-mile walk to elementary school that on little legs and through time’s mist seemed so much longer. Of stopping at the corner deli on the walk home from junior-high football practice — that school abutted the elementary school — for a Coke with my buddies. Of riding around town on the tailgate of my dad’s station wagon — he was a Chevy guy — legs dangling, feet practically scraping the road, as we darted about picking up old newspapers for the boys’ club paper drive. Riding on the open tailgate. No seat belt. A crazy, unbelievable, irresponsible thing that would get a parent tossed into jail today for negligence and would have social services shutting down the entire youth club, let alone the paper drive. Who knew? Men were men and kids dangled off of open tailgates.
Just this morning, there was an obit of man I must have known. He worked at the post office with my dad. I heard his name all the time at home. Not many people worked at the post office. I’m sure the man would come to the house for a couple Schaefers with my dad, and that they bowled together. They probably went to school together, though my dad was a few years older. Anyway, the man — Harry was his name — died in early December at 86, but the photo the family chose to run with the short obit could be a high-school senior portrait. Harry in fact in the photo looks a bit like Harry Bailey, George’s brother in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” young, smiling, a head of wavy hair.
An impressive shot, timeless, one moment in his life, in the life of a little town that lingers on my heart in memory. And in melancholy.