Summer, 2008: This was the summer I left New York City for a small town in Northern California. It was also the summer I learned how to drive stick shift, stopping and starting, swearing and stalling, on a cross-country journey with my boyfriend and all my belongings. I was 25.
I had just finished graduate school, walking away with a masters in journalism and an empty bank account. It was the first summer of the recession, and I watched as newspapers and magazines crumbled.
I had been working for more than a year on a book proposal about my experience recovering from a car accident — an accident that took place in Boston where I was training to be a chef, an accident in which I lost my sense of smell and therefore my ability to taste. But when it came time to do something with the finished proposal, I had hesitated. I was afraid — of failure, of debt. So when I was offered a job as a reporter for a weekly paper on what felt like the other side of the earth, I immediately said yes. Please.
The paper was tiny, staffed by only two reporters. We’d work on deadline until the breathless early-morning hours, emerge from the office into empty streets, drained of adrenaline, filled with words. I wrote about local politics, local crime, local food. But mainly I wrote obituaries.
Obituaries: Tiny snapshots of lives, the barest bones of a lifetime of love and loss, often buried in the back of the paper. I had never given them much thought. Yes, my father loved obits (“the Jewish sports page,” he laughed when I told him about my new gig), but I’d always assumed that they were meant to be read solely by immediate survivors and could be easily penned in an afternoon. Wrong.
My newspaper specialized in obituaries. Not the kind found in The New York Times or The Washington Post, chronicling the lives of famous people, of lives with obvious and large-scale influence. These long, narrative obituaries were about normal folks, the ranchers and aging hippies populating the small towns nearby. It was my job to celebrate their lives, to edit their stories, to put them in context.
I spent my time in the company of those in mourning, sinking into musty couch cushions, flipping through dust covered photo albums talking about dead people. There were long stories, short stories, sad, happy, and angry stories. None were simple. Every life was nuanced and complicated, and narratives shifted and changed depending on who spoke. The responsibility of paring them down into a cohesive whole felt at times crushing.
There was Bea Blum, dance teacher extraordinaire, and Eleanor Hamilton, the elderly sex columnist who championed the cause of love late in life. I wrote about Nicolay Terziev, an architect who escaped from Bulgaria in the 1940s, battled communism from Paris in the 50s before moving to California in the 60s. There was the homeless alcoholic named Mike who had been living on the streets of a nearby town for years.
Then there was the week when a 9-year-old girl drowned in a stream while having a picnic with her family. How do you celebrate the end of a life that was barely lived? I went to her funeral and, later, spent time with her mother, who showed me her daughter’s bright pink dresses and her favorite books.
“A voracious reader,” I wrote, this little girl “could finish a book in a day; a paper clip marked her place on page 143 of “The Hidden Staircase,” a Nancy Drew volume she had borrowed from the library and not yet finished.”
I thought about all the books that she would never read, and I thought about my own book proposal, which I had let sit untouched on my desk because I felt wary of the next step.
Almost every obituary begins the same way: the name of the deceased followed by a phrase defining his or her life. It’s a difficult phrase. It’s essentially the distillation of hundreds of significant things — days and decades, decisions and risks — into a handful of words. And with every obituary I wrote — as I boiled down years of living into that single half-sentence — I found my view of my own life rotating.
How did I want to be remembered? Not for pausing in fear. And so one afternoon that fall I tucked my book proposal into a manila envelope and mailed it to a prospective literary agent.
When the recession caused the little California paper to lay off one of the two reporters, I decided it was time to go. I drove cross-country again, this time without stopping and starting. On my way back to Boston, better at shifting, hopped up on adrenaline, I was again filled with words.
I think about all of this every January, when the collections of obituaries and remembrances are published in newspapers around the country. I read them to remind myself of who I want to be, and what I want to leave behind.
Editor’s note: Molly Birnbaum’s first book “Season To Taste,” a personal exploration of the science and psychology of smell, was published in 2011.