COVID-19: Waving from Across the River

“U.S. DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS, said the May 24, 2020 New York Times headline over an article that calculated the loss. It was a stunning piece of work, really. I had no intention of reading the whole thing–the headline pretty much said it all–but after reading the first name, I read the next, and the next, and so on until the end.

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic,” Joseph Stalin reportedly said. I was never a big fan of Joe, but he’s sort of right in a perverse way. The Times piece, though, was no mere glorified Vital Statistics section. The names, listed by date of death, included lines from the obituaries or death notices, adding dimension to the statistic and weaving a quilt of incalculable loss.

We lived in San Francisco years ago, where people you met never asked the usual, “What do you do?” They didn’t care where you worked so much as finding out who you were, what made you tick. What makes the names in the Times story so compelling is the sense of the whole person radiating through mere words.

Each entry, each death, is a story. Some are novels. For the reader, it’s an encounter with a whole life, not just its end. I’ve selected just a few, here, which was hard, because they’re all really interesting, and I could go on for 10,000 words. This Styx thing is interesting. In any event, here’s the sampling.

“George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne, Vt., could make anything grow.” Who doesn’t know someone like George?

“Theresa Elloie, 63, New Orleans, La., renowned for her business making detailed pins and corsages.” At some point in her life, Theresa thought, “Hmm, I can make some money with this,” after creating her tenth or twelfth corsage. Or, perhaps a friend or relative said, “Theresa, these are so beautiful you ought to sell them.”

“Romi Cohn, 91, New York City, saved 56 Jewish families from the Gestapo.” Generations and friends of generations didn’t just know the rabbi and what he had done, but many owed their existence to him..

“Fred Walter Gray, 75, Benton County, Wa., liked his bacon and hash browns crispy.” With that, Mr. Gray came to life. You can hear him barking at the server in the diner to make sure the bacon and hash browns were crispy. You can see his wife and kids cringe just before he does it, because they know it’s coming. Of such things are memories made.

“Helen Kafkis, 91, Chicago, known for her Greek chicken and stuffed peppers.” You can smell Ms. Kafkis’s kitchen. You can see her bent over the range, stirring and tasting with the steam rising on both sides of her tiny gray head. You can see her stir with one hand and grab for the hot pad with the other and open the oven.

“Angelo Piro, 87, New York City, known for serenading friends with Tony Bennett songs.” Can’t you hear his friends? “Angelo, Christ Almighty, stop it with ‘The Good Life’ already and do ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’, wouldja?”

“Ronald Willencamp, 75, Wisconsin, proud to have logged over five million miles behind the wheel.” Like anyone else, Mr. Willencamp no doubt had a few regrets over choices not made, over opportunities squandered, whatever. But goddamit, he logged five million miles and you didn’t.

“Susan Great Hopp Crofoot, 97, Westwood, N.J., took great joy in writing little ditties under her pen name, Penelope Penwiper.” Most of these names brought me to the brink of tears, but this one put me over it. I imagined her getting the idea of writing her ditties for posterity. I imagined her deciding she needed a pen name when her real name kind of sounds like one. And I imagined the person who put this into the obit and the affection he or she had for Ms. Crofoot.

“Tommie Brown, 82, Gary, Ind., who died the same day as his wife. Doris Brown, 79, wife who died the same day as her husband.” Think about that one for awhile.

“Edward Cooper, Jr., 83, Louisiana, he loved his wife and said, ‘Yes, dear’ a lot.” This entry, as with all the others, stunned me in saying so much more than the mere words.

Okay, a couple more before I stop.

“Jerzy Glowczewski, 97, New York City, last of the WWII Polish fighter pilots.” Wow. I didn’t even know there were WWII Polish fighter pilots, which, I guess, is dumb on my part, but did you? His name made Memorial Day all the more special for me.

“Muriel M. Going, 92, Cedarburg, Wis., taught her girls sheepshead and canasta.” Sheepshead (I had to Google it) is a German card game. With that, you can see a history or a persona and a family, and even share, if vicariously, the love people had for Ms. Going as well as the way she had to have affected so many.

Quite a few names of famous people appear, but it’s the ordinary folk who grab you by the heart and shake it. What you realize is that a neighborhood, a city, a county, a state, a country, a world, when it’s all said and done and the historians are outlining their essays, is that it isn’t the great ones, the billionaires and the star athletes and the presidents and the generals who make society work, it’s all of us. Each one of us is a tiny speck of life that forms into sand and then into mortar and then into bricks and then into buildings, and that’s what makes a society, a culture what it is. And who’s to say which morsel is the most valuable?

 

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