THE GIRL NEXT DOOR
To anyone who says newspapers only print bad news, I say: read the obituaries.
For the most part, obits are the uplifting stories of people who led long and full lives, enriched communities with their accomplishments, died at peace with the world and left behind many loving relatives. And, sure, the subjects of these articles have to be more than just slightly dead in order to appear in our pages—that part is, admittedly, a bit of a buzz-kill. But otherwise, obits are some of the happiest news we print.
My paper, The Newark Eagle-Examiner—New Jersey's largest and most respected news-gathering and content-producing agency—organizes its obits alphabetically, last name first, followed by the deceased's town and age. And I defy anyone, even the most jaded cynic, to read one day's worth of obits without feeling at least a little bit better about the state of the world.
Sometimes all you have to do is read one letter's worth—like, say, the M's. You start with a guy like Milazzo, Vincent of Elizabeth, 92, the high school football star who served his country in World War II then worked his way up to foreman at a lawnmower parts manufacturer before enjoying a long retirement. You work your way to Monastyrly, Jane C. of Wharton, 81, the beloved mother of four, grandmother of ten and great grandmother of eight who was an avid gardener and won the Wharton Elks Club pie-baking contest five times. Then you finish with Muster, Edward L. of Maplewood, 77, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers who earned scholarships to college and law school, set up his own practice and became the first black treasurer of the Essex County Bar Association.
All the wrinkles of their days on this planet have been smoothed away and turned into one seamless narrative. All their trials and struggles have taken on the aura of parable. All their successes have been magnified while their failures have been forgotten.
And by the time they "passed on"—or "made their transition" or "entered into eternal rest" or any of those other wonderful euphemisms for the Long Dirt Nap—they seemed to have achieved some kind of understanding of why they walked this planet in the first place.
Or at least that's how I like to imagine it.
There's also something about obits that, as an unrepentant newspaperman, I find comforting. Over the past dozen years or so, my business has ceded its dominance in any number of areas—classified advertising, national and international news, sports scores and so on—to the Internet. But we still have a monopoly on obits. So while you can go anywhere to find out if the Yankees won, you have to come to us to learn if your neighbor is still breathing. It makes the obit pages a throwback to a better day for newspapers, one part of a crumbling industry that has somehow held strong. For me, it's just one more reason to love them.
Some folks, especially the older ones, scan the obits each day to see if anyone they know has died. Me? I'm only thirty-two. So hopefully it will be a good fifty years or so until anyone has to read about Ross, Carter of Bloomfield. And it will probably be forty years until my high school classmates start popping up with any regularity.
In the meantime, I read them strictly for the inspiration.
So there I was one Monday morning in July, sitting at my desk against the far wall of The Eagle-Examiner newsroom in Newark, getting my daily dose of good news—once again, from the M's—when my eyes began scanning the entry for Marino, Nancy B. of Bloomfield, 42.
I read on:
Even though we were employed by the same newspaper, I didn't know Nancy Marino. The Eagle-Examiner has hundreds of carriers, all of whom work at a time of day when I try to keep my eyelids shuttered.
But I have enormous respect for the work she and her colleagues do. The fact is, I could spend months uncovering the most dastardly wrongdoing then write the most brilliant story possible, but we still rely on the yeoman paper carrier to get it to the bulk of our readers. That's right: even in this supposedly all-digit era, our circulation numbers tell us the majority of our daily readers still digest their Eagle-Examiner in analog form.
So every morning when I stumble to my door and get that day's edition—always one of life's small pleasures, especially when it contains one of those stories I busted a spleen to get—I get a little reminder that someone else at the paper, someone like Nancy Marino, takes her job just as seriously as I do.
I leaned back in my chair and considered what I had just read. In obit parlance, "died suddenly" was usually code for "heart attack." But that didn't seem to fit. A just-barely-middle-aged woman who delivered newspapers and waited tables was probably in fairly good shape. Something had taken Nancy Marino before her time and the nosy reporter in me was curious as to what.
By the time I was done reading her obit a second time, I had concluded that the newspaper she had once faithfully delivered ought to do something more to memorialize her passing. Most of our obits are relatively short items, written by funeral home directors, who are following an established formula. But each day, our newspaper picks one person and expounds on their living and dying in a full-length article. Sometimes it's a distinguished citizen. Sometimes it's a person who achieved local fame at some point, for reasons good or ill.
Sometimes it's a Nancy Marino, an ordinary person who spent her life serving others—whether it was with newspapers or coffee refills—and whose presence had graced the world for far too brief a time.
© Brad Parks