The Mother of All Books

 

From my early boyhood, I always wanted to be a pro baseball player. When my limitations as a ballplayer became more evident, I thought that being a writer would be just as good (and you didn’t have to try and hit a curveball). I don’t have to search around for why I wanted to be a writer—the answer is as easy as the one for why I’m around: my mother.

Since I was a toddling thing, I saw my mother reading. I saw her reading magazines and newspapers; I saw her reading books. And she wasn’t reading dime-store westerns (though that would have been fine too), but big novels, books that thumped when she set them down on the living room tables. I saw her reading books, enjoying books, getting more books.

My deep thoughts at the time: “Mom likes books. Books are good.”

Reading, Writing (and No Rithmetic)

So, I started reading too. She was right: books are good. The more I read, the more I wanted to write, so I started writing too. Writing is good. (Except when it gives me, as Mark Twain would say, the fantods.)

My mom continued to love reading until about 10 years ago, when her macular degeneration made words on the page a blurry mess. For a while, because she still hankered for that mess, she read with a giant magnifying glass, slowly but steadily, until that became too hard as well. I’ve written a number of books, and she had them all, even those published after she’d stopped reading. She loved books, after all.

She died at her assisted-living home in mid-June, after a stroke in late April. She was a remarkably kind and good person, funny and chatty, and fond of social gatherings and people in general. Even though she was 97, and lived a long and good life, it’s still a shock to have her gone. Whatever part of her I have is the best part of me.

Here’s the obit my sister and I wrote, which gives you a bit of her character:

Eileen Agnes Bentley

Thanks mom, for opening up the world of words, and all of their enchantments, to me. I hold you in my heart forever.

How NOT to Write an Obituary for Fun and Profit

Like a lot of self-obsessed pundits (whoops, I mean astute marketers), I use Google Analytics to check my site’s traffic statistics, such as what search engines invite people to visit, which referral sites point an arrow to mine, and what flavor of link bait might entice Lady Gaga to go gaga over my prose. (Note to Lady G: I’ve named all my strings after you.)

One of the analytic tools displays what search keywords people use to find my site. Writers and other types of peddlers have been scolded by marketeers of every stripe that we must discover and cultivate our audience, whether we want to sell words or wombats. The keyword tool does reveal what’s on the minds of site visitors, and thus is one gauge of what people are looking for when they come to a site. Apparently my people want to learn how to write obituaries.

Running from Your Audience
The greatest number of people, by far, who visited my site—as a result of organic search (not direct visits)—over the past nine months were looking for advice on writing an obituary for a family member. The reason: my father, Sgt. Robert Bentley, died on New Years Day of this year. My sister and I collaborated on writing his obituary, and I wrote a “How to” post on that strange, sad process.

I was struck at several levels by that search-tally information: one, on an emotional key, thinking of the anonymous (to me) people who have had death enter their lives, some probably suddenly, and the weight of that loss. Thinking anew of the loss of my father. Thinking that so many issues around a family member’s death are boggling, and how we seek help for those issues—such as help with writing an obituary for our loved one. And thinking that I clearly didn’t want to go into the obituary-writing business, no matter if that’s where my audience is.

Capturing the Elements of a Life
This is an age of specialists; undoubtedly, there are writers who focus on writing obituaries, though I didn’t want to search for them—probably afraid I’d see my own site come up, and add to my totals. I don’t want to consider the commercial aspects of the trade, but I could see some appeal in helping people through the process, because the obituary’s tale is part of the grieving, the letting go—obit content, narrow as it is, can sometimes atomize the elements of a life, the cherished aspects of character, the seat of a family’s love for the lost. But I don’t want to write them; that is too close, too sad.

Ironically, this post will undoubtedly bring more souls to my site looking for a way to write about things that are in some way unwriteable. The words of broken hearts. Maybe my original “How To” did help. I hope so.

At least it’s better than the searches for “long scrotum” and its variants that brought many people to my site a while back after I’d posted an article about my vasectomy. Sigh…