This semester, I’ve learned a new and exciting term in my architecture courses: Pin-Up, a relatively informal presentation of architectural drawings, designs, and renderings. The term comes from architects’ tradition of pinning their designs up on the wall for critique and discussion. I am understanding Pin-Ups as disjointed chunks of printed material on the wall—an explanation will bring them together. I am not an architect, though, and this is not an architecture studio. Everything is fair game for my Pin-Ups—the chair I’m sitting in now, what I ate for lunch, a song, a sculpture, a book, The Pietà… I admit that I am appropriating this term for my own ends—I just like to write in vague chunks. I will be ‘pinning up’ things that I have been seeing around, hearing around, and thinking about, and I will present them all to you in a chunky, vignette style. I am open to relevant criticism and conversation. I would even welcome it:

Mary Louise Boyle Tarantino, a birch tree lover from Pennsylvania turned Connecticut mother, died in New Haven on April 23, 1968. She was sixty.

Her unknown cause of death could have been something slow. A long illness, a killer vice. She died at 166 Cold Spring Street, New Haven, Conn. She was survived by her husband, daughter, and three sons. 

Born to salesman George Boyle and housewife Martha Robertson (insert city if found), Mary Louise was the youngest of five. At twenty-three, she married Louis Gerald Tarantino in the Church of the Savior, West Philadelphia, on Dec. 27 1930—a year after their first child, baby Helen A Crossen, was born. Neither of the newlyweds listed their parents nor any witnesses on their marriage certificate. They had eloped: Louis and Louise. They went on to have three other boys: Louis Gerald Junior, Peter Ayers, and Thomas Howard Tarantino. The family lived in Bridgeport and New Haven; they were Espiscopalian. Mary was a homemaker—she never had a wage job, but she volunteered for the  Visiting Nurses Association of New Haven.

She was buried in Grove Street Cemetery following an 11 a.m. funeral service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on April 25. Her grave is at 42 Central Ave. Look for the tall, white birch tree.  

I grew up in Larchmont Village, Los Angeles. In the middle of the sprawling city, Larchmont feels like a suburb: family homes with lawns, lemonade stands, street lights that go on at 6pm, people who know your name, neighborhood fairs, a main street. Larchmont Boulevard: home to the butcher, the barber, the toy shop, the grocer, a diner, the bookstore, and the weekly farmers market since the 1930s. 

I grew up, and the butcher became a Blue Mercury. The barber became a bespoke perfume boutique. My toy shop became a laser facial spa. A transplant from New York replaced my bookstore with another coffee shop–the third in the neighborhood.  Time passes so tangibly on Larchmont.  Every time I come home, parts of my street have died.  

Last summer, powerless against the floods of Westside millennials pretending to work on their computers, I sought something ridiculous and performative to remind them that Larchmont was mine, and the butcher’s, the barber’s, the farmer’s. 

So I started buying the paper. I spread myself way out on their coffee shop tables, reading for as long as I was patient. A big, fold-out New York Times felt like the oldest thing I could get my hands on anymore. And so began my love for the Obituaries section.  

Better than Arts and Culture, than Reviews, lighter than the headlines, Obituaries are the only part of the paper I love. Lives in 800 words—retrospective, historical, formulaic but tender.  Obits have so little to do with death and everything to do with life. The accomplishments of the deceased trace their outline. Every obit has one line that fills in the soul:  

Suzanne Shepherd, Actress Known for Playing Mothers, Dies at 89

Recently, Mr. Capotorto said, Ms. Shepherd had told him: “There are plenty more mothers to play. I want to play them all.”

Kevin Wynn, Choreographer of Complex Movement, Dies at 67

“The complex layered movement dialogue was more than a movement language. It was a rainforest, a bustling metropolis, it was fantasy and nightmare. It was ultimately the freedom to dream, and to create a world as I’d want to see it.”

David Del Tredici, Who Set ‘Alice’ to Music, Dies at 86

Flamboyant and gregarious, Mr. Del Tredici cultivated a reputation as a beloved scamp who did what he wanted.

Vincent Asaro, Mobster Acquitted in Lufthansa Heist, Dies at 86

As he left the courthouse and got into a car, he giddily joked, “Don’t let them see the body in the trunk.”

Park Seo-Bo, Whose Quiet Paintings Trumpeted Korean Art, Dies at 91

“One day,” he said in an interview this year, “I witnessed my 3-year-old son trying to recreate the writings of his older brother. It was an impossible task for his small, chubby fingers, but he tried again and again with little success. Finally, frustrated, he unleashed a tirade of zigzag patterns all over his notebook with the pencil and admitted defeat. My son’s experience felt close to my own.”

Louise Glück, 80, Nobel-Winning Poet Who Explored Trauma and Loss, Dies

“The poets I returned to as I grew older were the poets in whose work I played, as the elected listener, a crucial role,” she said in her Nobel acceptance speech. “Intimate, seductive, often furtive or clandestine. Not stadium poets. Not poets talking to themselves.”

I don’t always mourn when I read obituaries. I mostly admire their perfect line—something finally made complete, something tied with a ribbon at the end. Obituary writers are so cautious, thoughtful, methodical, emotional; theirs is a tender craft, heavy and filled with responsibility.  The weight of their task lands on the page in that perfect line.  When I find the line, the weight moves from the page to my stomach, where it lives for as long as I remember it. 

In the documentary Obit (2017) about the New York Times Obituary desk, the writers spoke about their careful craft:

“You are trying to weave a historical spell, in a way, and enchant the reader, and do justice to a life. You have the chance that you can’t repeat.  It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.” 

“I always think about the stilled voice, the fingers that don’t move anymore, the fact that you’re not gonna hear anything more that they could’ve said.” 

I am a terribly self-critical writer, and I am always trying to use barely any words. I have, unfortunately, read stuffy German theory about the implications of language and the act of ‘to speak.’ More words means more associations and contexts that are out of my control, that stray my sentence further and further from its meaning.  How can I say just enough?  

This is why I love Obituaries. 

Obit writers have mastered the art of boiling down, of saying just enough, and still getting to the essence. The writers leave so much unsaid. That perfect line is the proof of this reduction process: always so simple, but filled with essence. Obit writers at the New York Times write about people who they never really knew. And yet they are able to write that line that feels so inside the icon, so true, so whole.  I don’t understand how they write that perfect line. 

Maybe you find me crass for admiring obits for their structure. Maybe I need more time spent with obits to access that sadness for strangers.  Maybe it’s not about death or sadness at all.  Maybe an obit is a portrait, a list of a life well lived.  Maybe when the fifth transplant coffee shop from New York lands on Larchmont Boulevard, I will write an obituary for my beloved main street.  Maybe then I will mourn.  Maybe I will learn how to write that perfect line.  Maybe I will write for the New York Times Obituary desk.  But I would settle for finding someone who would share the paper with me, so the headlines, reviews, and interviews don’t go to waste.  

Mary Louise Boyle Tarantino’s gravestone is my favorite in Grove Street Cemetery.  I found her in the snow during my freshman year.  I was the first to put footsteps in the fresh three inches from the night before.  The scum over her epitaph was momentarily cleared by the storm.   I visit her often, and thought I would write her an obituary.  I found national census records, marriage and birth certificates—just her outline, or maybe even less.  I wish I knew what her girlhood was like in Pennsylvania, what she liked to do, why she landed in Connecticut?  I didn’t have to write her the perfect line to fill in her soul.  She wrote it herself; not in her obituary, but in her epitaph: “If in reincarnation, I do appear, how lovely is the birch.”  Right next to her grave grows a lovely birch tree.