When my mother died back in 1993, the best way to alert the community was to get the local newspaper to run a news item people would see when they scanned the morning headlines. Unfortunately, our hometown paper was the Washington Post.
The Post obituary page, when not chronicling the passage of the once-powerful and politically connected, headlined each obit with a concise job title. The problem was that my mother hadn't worked full-time since she quit to have my older sister in 1951. Now, just a few hours after I'd held my mom's hand and kissed her goodbye, it fell to me, the journalist in the family, to persuade the newspaper of record in the nation's capital that the death of a suburban housewife was news.
Although I was a reporter for a big city newspaper, I had never written an obit, except maybe for a journalism class. I needed to come up with a compelling story -- but there was a catch.
The obit couldn't be about a smart, strong-willed daughter of immigrants who'd raised three similarly strong-willed kids on a congressional staffer's salary; made a full breakfast and dinner for all of us, even if she had to stretch the budget with franks and beans or macaroni and cheese (not together -- ours was a kosher home); seemed to know everything about everything and wasn't afraid to say so; jousted with my dad over Scrabble; and agreed when she got married to keep herring in the fridge for him if he got the Sunday New York Times for her. He did, and she'd polish off the crossword puzzle in ink in under an hour.
But there was one possible work-related news peg. Right after World War II, my mother served overseas with the military government in Germany. Looking through an old album, I spotted a photo she'd snapped of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower speaking to a small group of Americans. And my father recalled that my mom had interviewed Nazi economic planners, including Albert Speer, Hitler's architect -- a story I didn't remember hearing.
If she hadn't Made History or been the Wife of Someone Who Made History, she was at least a Witness to History. Pounding away on a manual typewriter, I wrote what I thought was a grab-'em-by-the-lapels obit, gave it to my dad for approval and called the Post. At which point, reality reasserted itself.
The Post reporter with whom I spoke informed me the paper had a standard form for obit facts. She then proceeded to ask questions in much the same tone used by insurance company clerks. She did not bother to feign interest in what I had written or, for that matter, what I was feeling. Attempts to hint at a common human connection -- journalism, Judaism, having a mother -- were politely ignored.
The reporter not only wrote an obit, she called back to ensure accuracy. (She let me know I'd inaccurately put a hyphen in the name of my parents' synagogue.) Yet for all the precision of each individual fact, the headline was jarring, announcing the death of someone my two siblings and I had never known. It read: "Charlotte Katz Millenson. Economist."
The story began, "Charlotte Katz Millenson, 73, a former economist with the War Department and the World Bank, died of emphysema May 31 at Suburban Hospital." It talked about her Hunter College education, her move to Washington from New York and her work: for the War Department, military government and World Bank. And, years later, part-time market research surveys and a stint as a census taker. It also mentioned her paralegal degree.
Only then did the obit mention the Cub Scouts, PTA, League of Women Voters and some of her many volunteer activities. The terms "housewife" or "homemaker" do not appear, and "stay-at-home mom" had not yet become popular.
My bruised feelings notwithstanding, I suppose the Post reporter did us a favor. In just a few sentences she summed up my mother's life in a way that made the paper. Old friends, former colleagues and neighbors who wouldn't have found a fine-print paid notice saw the news and reached out to share our family's sorrow and, thereby, help lessen it a bit. If that required arranging facts in a way that suggested a life that revolved around work rather than home, it was the price that had to be paid.
And yet this Faustian bargain, burying my mother's real identity for the sake of a few inches of type, continued to gnaw at me. It's why I noticed, many years later, that the Post obit style had finally changed. There were still stories, as there should be, about politicians, entertainers and the like, and there were job titles (lawyer). However, "A Local Life" also celebrated men and women whose job description didn't begin to explain who they really were or how their lives had enriched their community. The Post website even invites readers into a dialogue with the obit writing staff.
Nineteen years after my mother's death, politicians have been publicly squabbling over whether "mom" is really a job and, if so, how difficult. Of course, as a parent I know that no mother or father, and certainly no child, thinks about their family in that way. How much of their time moms (and dads) spend raising their kids is a personal decision, not a political one. What gives me particular satisfaction on Mother's Day is to know that someone who chooses to live her life as mother, wife and community volunteer, as my mom did, can finally, at the end of that life, have it publicly celebrated for what it truly was.
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