Symphonies in the Key of Life

As a friend fights on in the ICU at Seton Hospital, I’ve been thinking about our lives and how they get summed up in many ways when we were gone.  If you are a loyal reader, you might remember an entry from last June about my great interest in obituaries and how, not counting an inactive Facebook page, they may be the only retrievable source of information about our stay on Earth — at least for the non-famous among us.

Some find obituaries rather boring, as most follow a standard format including where and when a person was born, their marriages, offspring, professions, along with hobbies and pets and devotion to church. [Speaking of which, I’m convinced that religion is bad for your health.  Too many devotees have succumbed to all kinds of accidents and illnesses.]

But it is possible to find much richness — whether we knew the deceased or not — when a family member (or the person himself) tries to communicate the true essence of who the person in six column inches of newsprint.

Over the years, I’ve saved a few that have hit the mark in humanizing an individual in a way that a list of dates, places, and credentials will never do.  And there are some that simply put words together in beautiful ways.  I’ll pass on some that were simply too good to let them go the way of their subject.

Richard Ballard, who died in 2009, was described this way:  “Dick was a quietly honorable man who thoroughly embraced his passions: his family, the practice of medicine and the search for a great bottle of wine at a reasonable price.”

And how interesting it was to read of Wylma Louise “Cassie” Castelberry O’Connell Ruelke, of whom it was said, “Three things changed her life: the opening of a public library branch in the basement of her Houston elementary school that introduced her to a love of novels; her friendship with elementary school classmates Barbara Tierney and Shirley Jones who convinced her to join them in a pact to one day become nurses; and a high school job at the Piggly Wiggly deli counter that introduced her to such exotic fare as Camembert cheese and herring roll mops.”

While I’ll never rue my non-introduction to roll mops, I’m sorry I never met Mimi Segal after reading her obituary.  She was a pilot for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program and after the war, she continued flying for North American Aviation.  Mimi met her future husband B. on a blind date, and if  “truth be known, she was smitten not so much by the dashing pilot from Louisiana, but by his co-pilot, a handsome cocker spaniel named ‘Tufy Tailspin.’  It only took B. seven years to turn on final approach and ground the lady ace long enough to say ‘I do’ on May 23, 1950.” [I must note that I am curious about B.’s real name, which was never revealed.  I’m now waiting for his obituary.]

In September, 1996, this was said about Robert Carnes who worked for the FBI:
“The harness required by his occupation was frequently at odds with his tender heart and elfin sense of humor.  He was intensely moral and honest, fair and kind.  Had he been otherwise, he may have accumulated more of what the world had to offer, but he fervently believed the real score was tallied on a different plane . . . He was a man, and that is the worst that can be said.  He was a man who lived a code of honor that required much, and that is how we recommend him to his God.  He will be sorely missed, but that is beside the real point of his life.  It is more accurate to say he will be well remembered.”

As for published poet Susan Fay Bush, she was reported as being “especially pissed off that her body would not allow her to stay around long enough to 1) see her grandchildren grow up, 2) attend her own memorial services, and 3) vote for Barack Obama.”  It was also wished that in lieu of flowers, we “eat a cheeseburger and drink some wine in Susan’s honor.  Or make a donation in her memory to Planned Parenthood or Hospice Austin.  Most importantly, vote early and often!”  (As you can see, a mention of wine goes a long way with me!)

And beyond the obituary, there are wonderful writings in funeral programs or memorial handouts.  I am reminded of the bookmark at Eileen [Mason] Orton’s memorial service.  On the bookmark was a poem, written by a family friend, Carl Gregory, that read, “To Eileen, dancing was life, and life was a glorious dance.  It was not her profession, nor her great talent, but was the heart of her spirit.  Her world was somehow always lighter, and her outlook brighter, than the one the rest of us lived in.  She lit a candle in everyone who knew her, and we are not darker for her passing but radiant for her having been with us.”  I still see that light in her daughters, Carl.

And finally, another poem recently appeared in a funeral program, written by Spencer Reid years before he was sick and found in one of his personal journals after he died.  “In my soul there are many songs; But not being a minstrel to sing them, I alone hear;  I dance to their melodies.  Unheard and unsung, they will go with me to my grave; And as the dirt smothers their music, people will say, ‘What a stranger!  He danced when there was no drummer and he cheered when there was no music.’  They will never know what a symphony my life really was.”

All of us, I know, have symphonies and dances inside of us.  What we don’t all have are family members with a talent for words, or friends to write poems about our luminous spirits.  Spencer, albeit unknowing, put his own life to music and words, to be remembered for years to come.

On this second morning of spring, outside my window, the birds wake up the day with their music, singing as if their lives depended on it.  And I wonder whether my sons will write a rap song for my memorial.

P.S.  Keep up the fight, Sherry!

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About nowandthenadays

Observer of life who writes about Austin, women's issues, history, and politics. I retired as a Texas Assistant Attorney General after almost 40 years in state government in May, 2013.
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11 Responses to Symphonies in the Key of Life

  1. What a beautiful column Jeffee! I agree that obits are usually boring lists of names, dates and places and I, too, am always on the lookout for those that stand out. Thanks for bringing these folks to life one more time.

    Karen Walters

    • Thanks so much, Karen. I have to say that I’ve been kicking myself ever since my mother died in 1999 because I didn’t write the obit I would have wanted for her. When death is unexpected, unfortunately, you don’t always have the presence of mind to write witty and well.

  2. Mike Wegner says:

    Great catches, J, well done! I’d ask you to have a go at my obituary except that my current plan is to not die.

    • I applaud your optimism, Mikey! Nevertheless, I would suggest you do a draft with that keen wit and wry humor of yours, just in case your plan doesn’t work out. Assuming I’m still around, I’ll be glad to take your draft and cut out all the negative, over-the-top curmudgeonly stuff.

  3. Christine says:

    I hope you write mine, gf!

    • With that in mind, I am requesting a rough draft which I will tweak and spice up! You, my friend, are a wonderful writer, but I know your modesty will kick in, which is why you may need me!!!

  4. JohnF says:

    Enjoyed reading this one. Thanks!
    B’s name was Bernard Segall, Jr.
    Full obit with picture can be found at http://obit.wcfish.com/obitdisplay.html?task=Print&id=472680&listing=All

    B Segall passed away peacefully on November 3, 2007 following a long illness and a final visit with his two children and their three dogs. Bernard Segall, Jr., known to one and all as “B,” was born September 29, 1919 in Beaumont, Texas. Having bestowed the honor and prestige of being born a Texan upon him, his parents promptly moved him across the Sabine River to Shreveport, Louisiana where he attended public school and indulged in endless mischief with neighbor Russell. Upon high school graduation, B departed for Georgia Tech, outraging Russell’s daddy and LSU benefactor, Governor “Mr. Huey” Long. After four years as a Ramblin’ Wreck, B emerged with a degree in mechanical engineering and a commission in the Army Air Corps.

    The military decided to make a glider pilot of him, then promoted B to fixed-wing multi-engine warbirds. He had a C-47 that he raced around North Africa, Italy and France, sampling wine and native cuisine while diligently pursuing the defeat of the forces of the Rome-Berlin Axis. B closed out his military service by “liberating” twenty-five Triumph motorcycles from the British Army. The prank cost him a promotion, but provided Captain Segall’s buddies with one heck of a ride back home.

    After VE-Day, B returned to work in the family business in Shreveport, but his thoughts remained constantly with a California girl, also a pilot, who had stolen his heart in 1941. Muriel (Mimi) Lindstrom was a W.A.S.P. and USC graduate whom he had courted long distance since their first date. He was determined to make her his wife. In May of 1950, B and Mimi at last married and he brought her home to Shreveport. From there, B took his L.A. “big city” bride to tiny Camden, Arkansas, then to Denver, Dallas, and finally to Austin, where the couple made their permanent home on Lake Austin.

    B worked hard and played even harder. He and his adventurous Mimi, often with children in tow, sailed the Caribbean, took primitive mountain horseback trips in search of the perfect trout stream and explored the ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. On any given day, one might find B herding cattle in Spicewood, piloting his Cessna 180 “Charlie,” hunting mule deer on horseback, casting a fly rod at Pearl Lakes, on the golf course or at the card table with good friends at ACC, or even fighting a bull after being slightly over-served on Portuguese vino. His finest hours, however, were spent with Mimi in their yard on the lake, relaxing, sailing, skiing and enjoying the company of family, dogs and good friends.

    When B arrived in Austin, the city had a single engineering firm. B’s soon became the dominant firm and he formed an ASHRAE chapter, becoming its first president. Some of B’s marquee design jobs included: Austin, Westlake and Lanier High Schools, Hancock Center, Highland Mall, Medical Park Tower, Bailey Square and Doctors’ Building, Adam’s Extract, Welch Chemistry Hall and extensive utility tunnels at UT Austin, the first central energy plants at UT Dallas, San Antonio and Permian Basin, the American Embassy and La Commercial (the first centrally air-conditioned building in Mexico City) and IBM/Madrid. Upon “retiring,” B continued to consult with friends in the HVAC business and served as an expert witness in highly select personal injury cases.

    B is predeceased by his beloved wife, Mimi, and his parents, Bernard “Big B” and Bertha Segall and brother Ralph Segall of Shreveport, Louisiana. He is survived by his son, Lynn “Lindy” Segall of Hye, Texas, daughter Michelle Segall Bassett of Austin, and his most challenging gin rummy opponent, granddaughter Caroline Bassett, also of Austin. Additionally, extended family members of whom he was most fond survive him.

    The family wishes to thank the many compassionate individuals who assisted in B’s care during his illness, including Cheryl Fischer, Barbara Merritt, Dr. Michael Pellegrini, Marsha Sebesta and the staff of Buckner Villas.

    Visitation will be held Tuesday, November 6, 2007, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at Weed Corley-Fish Funeral Home, 3125 N. Lamar Blvd. Services will be private.

    In lieu of flowers, those wishing to do so may send a contribution to Children’s Hearing Aid Texas (CHAT), 3801 N. Capital of Texas Hwy. E240-131, Austin, TX 78746 or Texas Hearing and Service Dogs, 4803 Rutherglen, Austin, TX 78749.

    • Thank you so much, John! I can’t believe I missed this. What a wonderful love affair I can imagine this couple experiencing! And, of course, this is my favorite image: “. . . fighting a bull after being slightly over-served on Portuguese vino. ” Thanks again!!!

      • JohnF says:

        It was somewhat hard to locate. I came across the death notice in the Statesman archive and then was able to find the obit. Been reading your blog since Allison let us know about it. We’ve been square dancing with them for the last few years.
        I enjoyed the “Portuguese vino” reference too. Thanks for writing!

      • John…Thanks for telling me about yourself. Good to hear that you are a regular reader. I need more square dancers in my corner! Somehow your comment got out of order and I’m just responding. I really appreciate comments and supplements to my entries!

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