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Obituary Clippings in Birthday Cards

Every year was the same. A check for $7.50 together with black and white photos of dead people I didn’t know. And as I cracked open the glitter-coated card they would flutter away, helicoptering off in an attempt to escape the glad tidings of “Happy Birthday Granddaughter” emblazoned across the cover of their celebratory sarcophagus.

We moved the 178 miles, from Missouri to Kansas, shortly after I turned five, but far before FaceTime or fax machines. So even though it was only one state over, it was worlds away. And when that first envelope arrived, I was absolutely elated.

Like most Kindergarteners, “departed” and “deceased” were not on my list of sight words as my sixth birthday rolled around. So when I first found them, I had no idea what they were. Or who they were, these peaceful, pleasant-faced people on the backsides of coupons and classifieds. Each carefully clipped and inscribed with ballpoint annotations penned in their margins.

The following year, “obituary” flowed phonetically from my first-grade lips, to my parents’ utter shock as I beamed with pride at my new ability to sound out the unusually long word found in the fold of my festive fiberboard regards. I remember that small scrap of newsprint being suddenly whisked away as the card was propped open with the others atop our console TV to commemorate the occasion.

But by my eighth year, my reading skills and vocabulary had increased. Now I got the full picture of the portraits before me. A confusing and ominous overture included with my well wishes. And my father had reached his limit.

I remember it was late, because long distance calls were only conducted after a certain hour. I took the phone and thanked my grandparents for their thoughtfulness then handed it to my dad, who took it in a heated state as I headed halfway to my room. I watched around the kitchen corner as the phone cord coiled and extended, coiled and extended, coiled and extended in a hypnotic rhythm with every pacing step he took. And although, the clippings came from a place of trying to keep him connected to where he came from, he wanted my grandmother to know that my birthday card was neither the time nor place. Nor was my “time nor place” not in my bed as I was quickly discovered and escorted to my room.

And the next day, my mother sat me down with stationary and a pair of scissors. Those old enough to read, were now old enough to write…and select additional material to enclose. You see, something had transpired over the course of the unheard portion of the phone conversation that led my parents to not only see my grandparents intentions of keeping us connected to where we came from, but to see our need to attempt to connect my grandparents to where we currently were. Way before wireless, it seems for my grandparents, enclosing a little clipping about what we were up to around town, where we went or even what we had for school lunch, printed out in black and white, somehow made it more real. A third person point of view reporting on the new land that we lived in…and were most likely never moving back from.

And the obituary clippings in my birthday cards? They stopped, but not the $7.50. That amount will always remain a mystery. But the sentiment behind it will not.