March 1, 2012

Lessons from Obituaries: Guest Post from Mom (Angela Silverthorne)

Mom's back!!

Several weeks ago, I asked Mom to write a post explaining how she uses the obituaries to find character names (because I've always found it fascinating). I had to twist her arm a bit, okay a lot, but here it is. Enjoy.


Mom/Nana with Sydney
(Granddaughter #8)
Kate Gresis: Photographer

Obit Primer Reader and More . . .

It’s awkward when your children notice oddities about you that aren’t oddities at all. And then you have to give an explanation to all their whys. And explain what seems strange to some is perfectly normal to others. Then they ask you to blog about it, adding insult to injury. But, I ain’t too proud!

I admit it. I read the obituary column daily. It’s as natural for me as flipping over the newspaper and reading it back to front, the same way I do magazines. The only reading materials I don’t approach this way are books. (Thought I’d head off some dang fool that would inadvertently ask about this one, giving that hawked expression people get when they want to prove you to be slightly off.)

As a child, my Papa would pull me up in his lap every morning and we’d read the newspaper, back to front, ending with the obituary column. This was my daily reading lesson. I only had to read the headlines, but I struggled with foreign names and countries. Papa helped and pushed. I knew if I balked or whined a little, he would excuse me and move on.

The obituaries were always near the front of the paper and undoubtedly my favorite column. As soon as he turned the page to the obits, he announced, “Well, let’s see who died today. That way I’ll know which hadyah (hellraiser) I’ve got to deal with at work!” Then he’d let out a hearty laugh.

I didn’t understand it, but it always sounded upbeat, not morbid at all. After I read the deceased name, I would always pause, waiting for Papa to share something about their life. We lived in a small town in Georgia and Papa knew everyone. Most of the time he started with something positive, “Poor Mae, she tried, but couldn’t win for losing. Had three husbands and not one of them counted for chicken shit.” Then he would apologize for spilling out a bad word, reminding me he wasn’t being discourteous to the dead.

That’s when he’d remind me how the truth can hurt. One day I read off the name Emmitt Grundy. This time, there wasn’t one pause. “Damn fool finally died. The saints rejoice!” Then Papa grabbed the paper out of my small hands, pulled it up close to his spectacles and growled, “Half crazy, hadyah! The batard!”

My eyes were huge, hanging on everything he said—and believe me, when an Acadian-French gets riled up, you better listen close. English vowels and consonants don’t have a chance to come out in any natural linguistic inflection. Rather, his first language erupted in guttural tones, and flailing arms.

By now, I had been expelled from his lap, and he was pacing the floor. I never knew what the ruckus was about, and it didn’t matter. To me, the world had opened up into a giant movie screen, and I had a front row seat!

Years later I asked him about his reaction. He repeated the same thing, this time in English, “Half crazy, hellraiser! The Dog!” But that’s as far as he would elaborate on Emmitt, except to say the sorry SOB was in hell.

The obits were my primer reader, but looking back they became more. When I began writing, character’s names flowed from an arsenal of saints and hooligans taken straight from the obituary column. Names of people I never knew were resurrected into a new life of experiences. Emmitt has had at least three other lives to his credit. And Quillie, from Depression Cookies, claimed another life years after her passing.

During the 15 years I volunteered with Hospice, patient names, personalities and life stories became interwoven into a lot of my writing. In some ways, it makes me feel as if I’ve given them another chance, another round at another life.

So . . . always remember “good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.” (author unknown)


What are some of your favorite character names (from books or movies)?

Mine: Daisy Fay (Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man) and Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games). Worst: Renesmee (Breaking Dawn).


Eloise said...

I usually resort to the phone book. Problem is, there is usually a preponderance of male names there. The obits are a great idea; the names always sound just a bit unusual.

Names-Sebastian Flyte (Brideshead Revisited) is a favorite because it fits so well. Agatha Christie did well with character names and so did Dickens.

There is a church - with very old cemetery - behind my house. I think I'll check out the headstones...

Wonderful post, loved the grandfather.

Elise Fallson said...

This post made me laugh, thanks Angela for sharing! I usually scour the internet for names but the obits is also a good idea!

Jaleh D said...

I like reading baby name books, but that really only helps with first names. Obits sound like a fun way to pick up names. Old school yearbooks might be another.

Some of my favorite names are Vetch/Kiron, son of Kiron (Dragon Jousters series), Marina Roeswood (Gates of Sleep), and Creel (Dragon Slippers).

Tia Bach said...

Thanks Eloise, Elise & Jaleh! Mom will be thrilled to know you enjoyed her post!

Beth said...

I've stopped reading the obits. Maybe if I had more time... I loved Stanley Yelnats in Holes. Cute and clever.

Tia Bach said...

Beth, You've mentioned Holes before, and none of my crew have read it. We'll have to change that.

Maybe a special one for Maddie. ;-)

Taslim Jaffer said...

This has got to be one of my favourite posts! Loved the images and the manner in which Angela talks about her oddities as not oddities at all...I particularly liked that because not only do I READ the obituaries (first!), I will even clip out ones that particularly touch my heart. Yes, the names make great characters, but sometimes when the obituary is elaborate and you get a real glimpse of the departed's life and loves...oh, that's inspiring!
One of my favourite character names is Scarlett O'Hara. The colour suited her perfectly.

Tia Bach said...

Taslim, Mom will love your comment! I love to pull Mom in for one of her lively posts every now and again.

And Mom will especially love your Scarlet O'Hara choice. Did I mention my middle sister's name is Tara? ;-)

Sarah Tokeley said...

I know someone has already mentioned it but I loved the name Scarlett O'Hara so much that Scarlett is my daughter's middle name (her Father wouldn't let me have it as a first name).

Tia Bach said...

Thanks for stopping by, Sarah. Ah, yes, Scarlett O'Hara. My mother truly believes Gone with the Wind is required reading (and viewing).