You've heard the wry joke about the elderly person who reads the obituaries to see what his friends and acquaintances are up to. Well, I read the obituaries all the time too, although my 40-something peeps are rarely in imminent danger of dying from natural causes. It happens, sure, but not often.

No, it's the pictures. Those haunting, grainy, black and white photos of the deceased that accompany the obituaries. They draw me in, nip at my curiosity, and often tug at my heart.

The pictures usually feature the person in their prime. Eleanor may have been 91 when she died, but her photo portrays a saucy young woman wearing a pearl choker and fashionable bob circa 1940. She had laughing eyes and full, bright lips that were, no doubt, painted in fire engine red. And, I'm guessing, toenails that matched. William, whose obituary is featured two columns over, passed away at age 87, but his photo shows a brash young boy with a square jaw and determined grin. He wears a dapper fedora tilted at an angle and although you can't tell from the picture, I'm sure he had a tweed jacket flung over his shoulder.

I'm intrigued by the vigor and vitality expressed in these faces. These look like women I would befriend, men I would date. Their picture puts a life behind each name and suddenly each death feels just a little more personal. The Eleanors and Williams become genuine people rather than generic names followed by a birth and death date.

I find myself wanting to learn more about the person that appears so full of life in an often-blurred snapshot. Even though their passing warrants but a brief, formulaic mention in the paper, seeing their picture makes me ponder the loss of someone who was once very real.

Love stories and heroic deeds. Travel adventures and business ventures. Babies born, babies raised, babies buried. I return to the deceased's photo and wonder how they ever survived such grief.

Maybe this person was a longtime resident of their community, now missed by neighbors who once enjoyed Wednesday night potluck dinners together. Perhaps mention will be made of their brave fight against cancer or AIDS. Sometimes their family history is brought up and I learn that their parents emigrated from France and started the bakery I frequent downtown. Perhaps I read how they met their spouse on a blind date while attending my alma mater, Cal State Hayward, 30 years earlier. Or maybe they returned to school decades after raising a family, getting their teaching credentials alongside students half their age.

This pretty young woman, smiling at me from the pages of today's obituaries, was once an avid gardener who grew prize roses, enjoyed Agatha Christie mystery novels and skated at the local rink before it was torn down and, after several incarnations, ended up as a Wal-Mart. This determined young man with the cocky grin had dreams of becoming an Olympic skier and once served as a Peace Corp volunteer who built homes in Ecuador.

The dates on their obituary merely suggest an aged, wizened person whose time had simply come. Each photo, however, reminds me otherwise. This was a parent, a friend, a co-worker, a jokester, a lover, an athlete, an activist. Someone once loved whose absence others now mourn.

And with their lively, vibrant, half-inch face beaming before me, I too feel a twinge of sadness for the passing of someone I never knew

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