Jimmy Dean died. Really, I didn’t know his music well. When he became popular, I was around 10. Then, in the 1970’s when he had a TV show and more hit songs, I was busy with folk singers, protests, and poetry. Back then, country music didn’t appeal to me. Funny thing is, now I love it – the lyrical stories set to music, the romance, the cowboys in their ten-gallon hats and boots.
When I read Dean’s obit, I vaguely remembered The Jimmy Dean Show and the beat of “Big Bad John.” He was, for me, just the “sausage king” and I had no idea he owned the company. I thought Jimmy Dean Sausage was just one of those entities where a “star” lends his name to a company because he’s been put out to pasture and it’s the only gig he can get.
Dean’s death at 81 was headline news on the Internet this morning. According to The Associated Press, “He had been sitting down to eat dinner in front of the television when his wife [Donna Meade Dean] went into the other room. When she returned, he was unresponsive and was later pronounced dead…Dean lived in semiretirement with his wife, who is a songwriter and recording artist, on their 200-acre estate just outside of Richmond, where he enjoyed investing, boating and watching the sun set over the James River.”
I am trying to picture him in those last moments: Was he sitting on the couch, his dinner spread out on a tray table or a coffee table…a flat screen just across the room? Or was he sitting at a dining table or a kitchen table? What I take away is that he sat down to dinner, the way he always did, and then painlessly and quickly died.
After reading about Jimmy Dean online, I picked up the New York Times. Every morning for a little over a year I read the obituaries. I read them before reading headline news. It’s a morbid habit I’ve developed since my mother died. In the last year, I have read obituaries for friends of my parents who disappeared from their lives around the time my mother became ill – either because they became ill as well or simply because my parents’ circle of friends was not a tight one. It was, in fact, somewhat superficial, mostly professional contacts through my father, and with people who were substantially younger. My mother did not have girlfriends the way I do. My parents did not have close “couple” friends the way my husband and I do. At one point, perhaps 30 years ago, there were some “couples” in a small coterie of friends, but all of them were dead or invalids by the time my mother became ill. Sometimes I see obits for the parents of friends I “used to know,” and for parents of people with whom I went to high school or college. And, of course, I look at the ages and causes of death. As I said, it’s a morbid habit. I haven’t quite figured out exactly why I do this. I think it’s a way for me to honor the dead, and I all too often read about someone whom I wished I had read about and known about while they were alive. Just in the last two days, for example: Joan Hinton died at 88. She worked for the Manhattan Project and helped develop the atom bomb but then spent the rest of her life as a Maoist working on dairy farms in China, and Dr. Fred Plum, 86, who coined the term “persistent vegetative state” and wrote the essential text “Stupor and Coma” in 1966 with Dr. Jerome Posner. People like that: I wished I’d followed them when they were in the throes of living. And then there are all the paid obits for the non-famous written as short stories in small type trying to capture a life well-spent signed by those who knew and loved them.
Perhaps I read the obituaries because I believe that we exist as long as we are remembered. But how do we want to be remembered? I would imagine that Jimmy Dean would be pleased that one of the memories of him was watching the sunset. My mother’s paid obituary had my name incorrectly (it used my husband’s surname and not my own). I’ve stopped sweating the small stuff, but for some reason that small mistake still irks me – perhaps because it was a bone of contention between my mother and me: She worried that using my “maiden name” would offend my husband. I argued that she needed to stop using the expression “maiden name” since I was never a maiden. On the days when I believe in ghosts, I wonder if she’s puzzled as to why my name appeared in that form after she died – maybe she’d think that I finally stopped arguing.
I wonder what my mother would have written in her own obit to capture her essence.
I wish that my mother could have spent evenings watching sunsets in her “golden years” rather than spending five years tarnished by illness and true confinement. I wonder when it was that Jimmy Dean unknowingly watched his last sunset over the river. I’m guessing it was probably better if he didn’t know that it was his last one.