WEDNESDAY: Ethel’s Obit


Copyright is held by the author.

ETHEL NOSNORA’S last painting was not quite finished yet. Somehow, her newly discovered manic, splatter approach had failed to cover the edges of the canvas.

“Like in life, there needs to be a splash of colour in every corner, every speck,” she would say, then burst out laughing, because she was half kidding, goofing, she would explain, because she was not one to take herself too seriously.

Ethel died in the middle of the night, before she could finish her painting. The death was unexpected, because Ethel had been healthy, vibrant even, living a very active life despite being 90. Tim couldn’t believe Ethel was gone. He sat in their living room now, alone, and thought about what to do, about how Ethel would have wanted him to handle her affairs, even though Ethel never wanted to talk about it, never wanted to think about what could be, always focusing on what was.

Ethel had no surviving relatives. She had no children and her husband, Seymour, had died in 2016, after 63 years of marriage.

One warm spring day, about 10 years ago, at Seymour’s prompting, the couple sat down at their home in Scarsdale to reminisce.

Seymour had not gotten cancer yet and he was feeling chipper, despite his age of 87. “Let’s do something fun, let’s fly down memory lane,” Seymour said to Ethel.

Ethel had no idea what Seymour had in mind as Seymour dragged a box of photos outside to the screened porch. She brought out a platter of nova, cream cheese, sliced tomato and onion and toasted bagels. They carried out their mugs of coffee and once they sat down, Seymour opened an album he had set on top.

“Do you remember our first trip to Como? Do you remember when we first saw the lake — and that pool?”

That was 1965, the photos showed a dashing young couple in bathing suits alongside the giant pool floating in a sparkling Lake Como.

“I remember the dinners more,” Ethel said. “I never ate so much delicious pasta and seafood in my life.”

They leafed through the photos — Italy, the south of France, Morocco, Paris, London — then the photos of them as a young couple, then at their annual pool party, Seymour often standing with arms around as many people as possible, with a drink in one hand and a wide smile plastered on his face.

“I look really happy, don’t I?” Seymour said, nodding, smiling.

“You sure do,” Ethel said, pointing to a second photo, of two neighbours in bikinis, with Seymour in between them, his head intentionally only chest high.

Seymour shrugged and turned to another album, with photos of a formal dinner, Seymour gleaming handsome in his tux, Ethel hanging on his arm, a diamond necklace sparkling between the thin straps of a red satin evening gown. The next photo showed Seymour on the dais, receiving an award.

“That was a big night,” Seymour said wistfully, staring at the photo and the plaque for a good long few seconds.

“Yes dear, it certainly was.”

Ethel put down her mug and reached for the knife.

“Want me to put some cream cheese on your bagel, Seymour?”

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

Ethel made him, then herself, loaded bagels while Seymour leafed through the photos.

“Let’s eat dear,” she said, “you must be starving.”

They ate their bagels and nova, with cream cheese spilling out. Then, as Seymour wiped his mouth with a napkin, he said, “Now, why don’t we jot down a few memories.”

Ethel chuckled. “Oh my, are we gonna write a book? No one would read it.”

“Don’t be silly. It’s for us, you know.”

“For us?”

Ethel looked at Seymour, then her look became more curious as he began jotting down a few things on the lined pad of paper on his lap.

“We’re not writing obituaries, Seymour, are we? You plan on killing us both?” She chuckled again and shook her head.

“Oh come on, it’ll be fun,” he said. He was starting to fill up the first page.

Ethel rolled her eyes, shook her head. “Jeez Seymour.” She put her plate on the table, leaned back next to Seymour, and for the next two hours they went chronologically through their lives. They talked, Seymour wrote. Seymour’s obit was first, then came Ethel’s.

“As they say in business, ‘If we don’t control the narrative, someone else will.’ ”

Seymour had been an avid obit reader from way back, always scanning for old friends, acquaintances, business associates, sometimes reading portions of their obits out loud to Ethel, and wondering about the ones who didn’t have to pay for an obit, those famous enough where a Times reporter actually wrote a story about the person who died. Seymour would engage in wishful thinking.

“I’m too much off the radar,” Seymour said to Ethel a few times, not realizing, or not accepting, that he just was not successful enough in the women’s dress business to warrant an unpaid obituary.

Seymour ripped the sheets of paper from the pad of paper, labelled them Seymour’s Obit and Ethel’s Obit, as if they needed naming, and mailed them off to their attorney. Seymour’s written instructions said they should be sent to The Times at the “appropriate” time, with “no editing whatsoever” and that, regardless of the cost, the obits should be published “in their entirety.”

Four years later, after Seymour was diagnosed with cancer, fought it, went into remission and then had an inoperable recurrence, he died. The paid obit, spread across two columns in agate type, appeared in The Times, between a Herman Northwell, a criminal defense attorney from Staten Island, and Agis Noxum, a Greek-American stage actress of no distinction, but with 19 grandchildren.

One condolence note Ethel received said, “Beautiful send off in The Times. Sally and I are thinking of you.”

Ethel saved the obit, but didn’t read it, at least not for a few days. She was grieving and there was the memorial service, the shiva and the friends to occupy her time and mind. Then the activities stopped and everyone left.         

A week or so later, when she was thinking of going food shopping because the shiva leftovers had all been eaten or gone bad, she decided to take a few minutes to read the obit. She had forgotten most of what they had written years earlier. She picked up the paper and read.

As she did, she smiled sadly as tears welled up. But then, a few paragraphs later, as she got deeper into their decades together, the tears didn’t drip, no, they didn’t, and she began to smirk, just a bit. Then, the more she read, about Seymour’s climb up the corporate ladder, his promotions, his honours, their glad-handing business trips to Europe and elsewhere, her head roll began. Then her eyes rolled too, accompanied by a few, slight head shakes. And, finally, the head shakes became more pronounced, with her lips pressed together tightly, and her eyes as dry as a winter desert breeze. That was at the end, after she had read the entire 2,000-word obit.

“Success and happiness followed Seymour around in life,” the last line said, a simple line Seymour had concocted even before he sat down with Ethel to write their obituaries, “it followed him until the very end of his life.”

Actually, truth was, Ethel didn’t have much input the day they sat down to write the obits. Then that thought expanded in Ethel’s mind, that she didn’t have much input throughout their life together, as she followed Seymour’s chosen trajectory through the New York City-Scarsdale-Jewish-social-shmata-new-money-blah-blah-blah world . . . Yeah, Ethel kind of tagged along, shadowed Seymour, like the night her husband got that big award and there was Ethel, as always, the dutiful wife hanging on his tuxedo arm, splendid in her satin gown, smiling like she was content, because at that moment, perhaps she was. Or at least, she thought she was.

But it didn’t really matter that much to Ethel; Seymour was dead, and she figured she’d be dead in a few years, too.

And who would give a shit anyway? Ethel thought, because it was, in reality, Ethel who?  That was 2016, when Seymour died, six years before Ethel would die that night, with the unfinished painting in her studio, two rooms away from her bedroom, and with Tim lying in bed by her side. 

After hearing that Ethel had died, the family lawyer pulled out Ethel’s file. He opened the envelope Seymour had mailed him years ago, removed the remaining pages and unfolded them. They were dated June 3, 2012, the day Ethel and Seymour sat on their porch and ate lox and bagels. He sent it off to The Times.

The obit appeared two days later. Like in Seymour’s obit, Ethel obit told the oft-told story about how they had met.

When Seymour saw the beautiful Ethel at a dinner party, he couldn’t help himself. He raced towards her, with drink in hand, pretended to stumble and spilled the entire drink on Ethel’s dress, prompting them to meet awkwardly. But this was Seymour’s plan. About 18 months later, they got married.

That first trip to Como was remembered this way:

Ethel travelled the world with Seymour, accompanying him on his many successful business trips. Their first European trip to Como, Italy, included wonderful boat trips on the lake, fancy dinners out with Seymour’s business associates and car trips into the Swiss Alps.

The obit, which was about one-fourth as long as Seymour’s, included the following sentences:

Ethel was a wonderful wife to Seymour, caring for and nurturing him as he became more and more successful in the business world.

Ethel graduated from Germantown High School and attended art school, the Philadelphia Art & Textile Academy, for one year before dropping out after she met Seymour.

She enjoyed playing tennis at the country club after Seymour joined to play golf. She even once played in a doubles tournament at the club.

During her spare time, she enjoyed her favourite hobby of painting. Her specialty was beautiful floral designs! She even got to paint occasionally on those trips with Seymour.

Aside from all the usual stuff about what an amazing person Ethel was — amazing wife . . . amazing sister . . . wonderful friend . . . — there wasn’t much else of substance in the obit.  

The last line of Ethel’s obit was: Ethel had a wonderful life.

Tim read the obit and shrugged. He then shook his head, a little upset, but what could he do?

He met Ethel late in life, after Seymour had died, after Ethel had lived the life most people knew and talked about. Tim and Ethel only spent five years together. He had his memories, locked safely in his mind, memories he would never forget, even if they came after decades he had spent with his first wife, the most boring woman he had ever met, he would say to himself, but a wonderful mother to their now three grown children.

So now Ethel was gone. He wandered around their apartment, the apartment they bought together four years ago, after they each sold their own places. He stared at the unfinished painting. He understood Ethel had wanted to finish it, but he still thought it was gorgeous.

Tim wandered over to her desk. Tim had noticed that when Ethel wasn’t painting, sometimes she sat at her desk writing.

Tim had asked her what she was up to.

“I’m sorry, Tim, I’m writing something that is private,” she said. “I hope you get to read it someday. But it’s not done until it’s done. And it’s definitely not done.”

Tim arranged a memorial service for Ethel.

The family lawyer, the same lawyer Ethel and Seymour used when Seymour was alive, had received a letter in the mail a few days before the service, a few days after Ethel died. Ethel had given the envelope to her old friend Gabby about two weeks ago, on a day when she wasn’t feeling well, with instructions to mail it to her lawyer upon her death. (She feared Tim might be too emotional to handle this task.)

There were two things in the envelope. An instruction note and a much longer note titled: “Ethel’s Obituary, #2.”

The lawyer had already sent the obit he received years ago from Seymour to The Times, and that had been published. Now, in her instructions, Ethel said, “Time to tell my real story. Please submit this to The Times, pay whatever it costs to publish every single word in my obit, #2, on the day of my memorial.” 

Tim hadn’t even bothered to check the paper on that day. When he arrived at the memorial, friends hugged him and offered condolences and then some offered shy, embarrassed smiles.

“Sounds like you and Ethel really lived it up,” one old friend of Ethel’s said, with a wink.

Tim was told The Times had published a second obit.

The editor whose job it was to read the paid obits before they were published, to make sure there wasn’t any libel or just plain BS in the homage, had to read the obit twice, then a third time. He had read Ethel’s first obit. When he saw the second one, he knew he had to compare the two. He couldn’t help but laugh to himself. His elderly mother had died recently and he was feeling wistful, sympathetic. Ethel’s obit #2 was unorthodox, not written in the traditional style. He thought of getting a second opinion from his boss because after all, The Times was a family newspaper, but decided, for God’s sake, this woman had just died at 90 and he was going to let her have her say. Even if it was in first person. Even if it might break a few taboos. Even if someone might get pissed at him.

Tim decided to sit down on his couch with a mug of peach ginger tea, the same beverage he drank with Ethel every morning since they moved in together. He opened the newspaper.

I, Ethel Nosnora, just died at age nine decades having lived two lives: My first life was fine, but the second, much shorter, was quite extraordinary.

I loved my husband of 63 years, I really did, my dear Seymour, may he rest in peace in his tidy grave in his leafy, ritzy Westchester County; he provided me with a fine life, I’ll even call it mighty fine. But there are a few things I need to note, to clarify, really.

I met Seymour at a party outside Philly on a warm spring night in 1952. I met Seymour because I eyed this handsome man across the room, and I decided I had to meet him. So I picked up my drink (ginger ale!), marched across the room and I, pretty obviously, spilled (threw, actually) my drink all over him, soaking his tie, his shirt and his pants and proclaimed, “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. My name is Ethel Stabinski.”

And that’s how we met. The story in Seymour’s obit and in my obit of a few days ago, written by Seymour, before he died, a decade ago, saying that Seymour was the instigator, that he intentionally spilled his drink on me, was a load of crap.

Seymour was a lovable, able provider, but often so full of himself he drowned out others (me!!!) around him. We wined and dined, travelled, hobnobbed and gabbed about the women’s dress business as if its importance equaled that of a cure for cancer. I sat and listened, and held Seymour’s arm and the years glided by like a slow-moving funeral cortege slogging around the world, crossing oceans, mindlessly, numbly, endlessly, a circumnavigation to nowhere, without a stop, without a way to get off. Decent food, decent people, eh, nice-enough, blah, blah, but no punching bags, virtually no bright splashes of colour, and certainly no rockets to the moon, not even on holidays.           

Then Seymour died. And I sat around for a year, crying only a little, bored to death, because I was only 80 plus whatever and had enough energy and desire to still screw my brains out.

So yeah, I just said it. I wanted it all.

I met Tim, and guess what we did on our fifth date, after sharing tiramisu at a Soho café? We went back to my place, stripped our clothes off (I pulled down his pants with my teeth — Yup, I did that!), jumped into my bed and made love like we were 18 or 30 or whatever. Glorious! Oh my! Three months later, I knew it was time. I began painting again.

Tim and I moved in together, living in New York and the Berkshires.

So one day on top of Mt. Greylock, while I sat painting, Tim scared the shit out of me when he came up from behind me after his daily hike, and grabbed me, but I soon knew I had lover boy in my arms. And you can imagine what happened on top of that mountain, in the woods, where only birds, bees and bears could watch, and then I returned to my canvass and began to imagine, with 60 years of pent-up creative juice flowing, like I was on an elixir of speed, LSD and multiple shots of Jack Daniels, except I wasn’t, because I didn’t need mind-altering substances. My mind had been altered by life. I stood in front of a blank canvas on the top of Mt. Greylock, with paintbrush in hand, closed my eyes and conjured, and then painted, imagining giant airplanes dropping liquid bombs of deep-sea blue, sunset orange, bubblegum pink, daisy-doo yellow and every other colour in Van Gogh’s palette on the undulating valleys, hills and forests below, splashing them like flashes from an old-fashioned camera — pop, pop, pop! — then a crop duster misted seafoam green and scarlet red. If my work didn’t send a lightning bolt through your cortex, God, then I just didn’t know shit.

Tim lit up my days. Once I got that paint brush in my hand, I was on a rocket ship to the moon one day, to Mars the next, and I kept going towards some unknown planet that scientists at NASA had not yet discovered. I didn’t need an oxygen tank or a spacesuit, all I needed was love from someone who could give me a confidence boost. “Go do what you need to do,” he said, “the world is waiting to see what’s percolating inside your brain.” Yeah, Tim actually said those exact words — percolating inside your brain. No one had ever said anything like that to me. Never. Not even close.

A gallery in Chelsea liked my Berkshire Blasts enough to offer me participation in a group show at its sister gallery in Milan. Of course, we flew over. After all, Tim and I had a pact to make love in at least 10 states and five countries. Before the opening, Tim and I ate donuts alla bolognese at a trattoria, bathed in our hotel’s marble tub with lemon-lime bath oils and then did it on silk sheets.

Then I went to the Milan opening and sold a painting to some Italian billionaire, who whispered in my ear, “If you were 20 years younger, I’d marry you.”

I looked at this guy, knowing the funds had already been wired, rolled my eyes, shook my head, pulled him in for a return whisper, and said, “Fat chance, bozo.”

I don’t think his English was too good, because he kept smiling. So was I.

Then there was the painting I never finished, because I’m not feeling 100 percent, and I’m having trouble determining what colours to use on the edges and read somewhere, if an artist dillies and dallies for too long and has trouble completing a piece of art — a painting, a song, a book, etc., — then it might be time, or near to the time, of the big closeout.

So the almost-finished painting, the one still on the easel in my studio, remains hanging, but I need to tell the story behind it, the story that really says it all, the story that sums up how a ho-hum-blah-blah life ended up being extraordinary. 

Picture this: Central Park and 59th Street, across from the Plaza Hotel, around noon on a crisp, fall day, tourists and city folk swarming, because Covid had faded. I stood in front of a large canvas, wearing goggles and a battered football helmet because, I thought, why the f — not? I decided to blast Beethoven’s Fifth from an old 1980s boombox. The symphony dictated my movements, as I alternated splattering white, black or crimson paint with a large, thick brush and throwing ultra-thin balloons filled with vibrant pastels at the canvas. Tourists cheered the explosions. The result was what I had hoped for, as if Basquet, Pollack, Warhol, Matisse and, perhaps, an agitated Picasso ate psychedelic mushrooms and had a paint fight to create a work of art.

The problem was the police. Oh yeah, I had decided to move my easel and canvas to the middle, instead of the side, of Fifth Avenue. I wanted to make a statement, a very public art pop-up pop-up, to let people know how much fun life could be.

“Lady, you can’t do that,” a nice police woman told me.

“I can, because I am,” I responded, smiling as I tossed a paint balloon at the canvas.

The orange orange drew loud cheers.

The officer smiled. “Yes, I see. But unfortunately, you are blocking traffic. We’ll have to arrest you if you don’t move, I’m sorry to say.”

I knew I had red paint dripping down my face because the officer was staring right at it.

“Plus, I have to ask you ma’am, are you feeling OK?”

I laughed.

Tim had come by. He convinced me to take my act to the sidewalk, but couldn’t help himself. “I love you Ethel, I really do,” he said, his smile as big as Broadway.

The officer, who was feeling my vibe and awfully nice, surprisingly, allowed me to paint a thin green streak across her cheek.

“You’re the only painted cop in New York City,” I said.

“I bet you’re right, ma’am,” she said, smiling and laughing. “And you look like the happiest lady in all of New York City.”

Well, I was. That was the point.

I then picked up the largest balloon I had left and did my best pitcher’s motion, flinging the balloon at the canvas. It sped through the New York City air, dozens of eyes following its 10-foot path. The balloon exploded, splattering turquoise on the canvas and everywhere and the crowd went crazy as Beethoven blared and cars honked and Tim beamed and even that police lady clapped and yelped.

On that day, I failed to cover every millimetre of canvas, but got almost all of it. It sparkled. So did I. I felt pretty darn extraordinary.

The obit ended there. Tim shook his head as he finished reading, thinking: What a woman, that Ethel. What a Goddam woman! He was smiling and crying at the same time.

The Times editor who approved the obit was fired by his boss for allowing the publication of an “inappropriate” obituary. A week later, the boss was fired and the editor was rehired and promoted to the top job in the obit department. He was told, “Apparently, our readers want more obits like Ethel Nosnora’s.”


Image of Peter Aronson

Peter Aronson is a former journalist and attorney and now writes short stories, children’s books, essays and screenplays. His most recent book, Mandalay Hawk’s Dilemma: The United States of Anthropocene, about kids fighting global warming, was published in December 2021. His short fiction has been published by Coachella Review, Shark Reef, Potato Soup Journal, Bright Flash Literary Review and The Big Windows Review.  

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