Charlie Joseph was a barber in Heidelberg for more than 60 years in the same block on the same street that his father had run the same business since the 1920s.
He never wanted to leave Heidelberg, and he never wanted to do anything different with his life. At 93, he ran the shop four days a week. He liked old movies, especially musicals.
Much of the equipment he used predated anyone reading this.
On the day he died – the day before Thanksgiving – he had bacon and eggs for breakfast and spent the morning in a chair in his daughter’s living room fixing the hair of his adult children.
Charlie Joseph’s story is remarkable and ordinary. It is the story of a normal man and his normal life, and that is what makes it exceptional. It is his story. His history.
Writing about Charlie Joseph, talking with his daughter in the shop where he spent so much time – even a month after his death – is grounding.
It reminded me why I liked writing obituaries so much.
It sounds morbid, doesn’t it? That I enjoyed calling people on the worst day of their lives and poking around in their pain.
That’s how I looked at it the first time I was told to do it.
It was horrifying.
But that’s now how they view it. That, as far as I have found, is not how the living – the grieving – feel when I call them and ask them about their mother father brother sister grandmother grandfather so on.
They want to talk. They want to remember. They want to tell you about how extraordinary this ordinary person was.
The nurse whose greatest pleasure was helping others, who rallied through chemotherapy but ultimately lost her battle.
The retired police chief who loved his family and his country and never sat still.
The woman who spoke Slovak, drew, danced, cooked and played the accordion and won prizes with the orchids she grew.
The veteran who began a whirlwind romance with a British damsel, who he then brought back as a “war bride.”
Ordinary people with ordinary stories who are absolutely remarkable. I remember their stories and their names. I remember hearing their loved ones smile through the phone as they talked about their lives.
They are stories. Each one unique. Everybody has one.
It is a fact I often forget in a job where I am speaking with a whirlwind of people day in and day out.
Charlie Joseph reminded me that these people have stories. They have histories.
The borough mayor with no political affiliation and two teen-aged sons, just trying to do what he thinks is right for his town.
The retiring township commissioner who spent 25 years – 25 years! – on the zoning hearing board, complaining about the elected officials before she “decided to put her money where her mouth was.”
The high school valedictorian wise enough to realize she still has the whole world in front of her and that her story is just beginning.
What do I want my few inches in the newspaper to say? It might seem a morbid thought, but…really. By my own definition of these people’s lives, my own life is extraordinary. But we don’t think of our own lives that way, do we.
Perhaps that we cannot think of ourselves as remarkable in turn makes us remarkable.
I know. I went all meta and inception on that shit.
(Thing my obit will not say: “She was eloquence personified.”)
My point here is stories. Charlie Joseph had one, and it was ordinary and incredible and deserved to be told and I’m glad I could do it.
It is a pleasant reminder that there are always more stories to be told. Colum McCann has a wonderful, beautiful, semi-related quote in the preface to “Let the Great World Spin” (which you should go read right this very minute).
“Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told.”