A Look At One Ordinary, Beautiful Life

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 3:14 pm

In our busy lives — we tend to overlook the simple acts of kindness around us. For the past few weeks, WBUR has been highlighting some of these as part of a series called “Kind World.”

In this edition we hear about an idea reporters at the Toronto Star came up with: Is it possible to capture the life of a person you’ve never met through the stories of their friends and family… after their death?

Journalists spent weeks combing the obituaries in search of a random, ordinary person whose family might be willing to allow a team of reporters into their lives.

They found Shelagh Gordon. She died suddenly of a brain aneurysm at age 55. Catherine Porter told her story in the Toronto Star.

The Kind World piece is told by Gordon’s oldest sister, Heather Cullimore, her niece, Jessica Cullimore, her best friend, Andy Schulz, and by Porter.

Kind World is produced for radio by Michael May and Lisa Tobin. It was created by Nate Goldman.

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Super Bowl fans, as you know, the game is less than a month away, which means so are those multimillion-dollar Super Bowl commercials. I'm still thinking about Clydesdale, with the ponies. But a new study shows that companies may be wasting their money. Communicus, an advertising research firm, tracked consumer buying habits before and after watching ads from last year's Super Bowl, and they found that even if the ads generated a lot of buzz, they didn't actually get people to buy the product.

Tide's Miracle Stain ad from last year's Super Bowl was a huge hit with fans. It featured a 49ers fan - of course, from San Francisco - eating chips and salsa and staining his jersey in the shape of a football great, Joe Montana.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIDE 2012 SUPER BOWL COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Dude, you got Montana on your jersey.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Joe Montana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Joe Montana.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It is. It's a miracle stain.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A complete miracle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's a miracle stain.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: See the miracle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Baby, I got Montana miracle stain on my shirt.

CHAKRABARTI: That Montana miracle, however, didn't really help Tide, because Communicus reported that the ad was one of the 10 least effective from last year's game, something to consider as the price of airing an ad during the Super Bowl this year reaches $4 million for a 30-second spot.

Now, onto something a little gentler. In our busy lives, we tend to overlook the simple acts of kindness around us. For the past few weeks, WBUR has been highlighting some of these as part of a series called Kind World. In this edition, we hear about an idea reporters at the Toronto Star came up with: Is it possible to capture the life fully of a person you've never met through their stories of their friends and families after their death?

Journalists spent weeks combing the obituaries in search of a random, ordinary person whose family might be willing to allow a team of reporters into their lives. They found one. And the story of Shelagh Gordon begins here.

CATHERINE PORTER: My name is Catherine Porter. I'm a columnist at the Toronto Star. I got a call from my editor, saying look at the obits today. It was Valentine's Day. And there, number 19 out of 56, was Shelagh Gordon's obituary. And something about it stopped me. So we spent the day trying to track her loved ones down.

HEATHER CULLIMORE: It was a very shocking phone call. But the funny thing was, I immediately felt like, well, of course, if you are ever going to look for a random person to write about, she's the one. The expression I used at the time was how stupid-perfect, because you've somehow stumbled across a person that should be recognized.

PORTER: I met Shelagh Gordon at her funeral. She was soap-and-water beautiful, vital. I could feel her spirit tripping over a purse in the funeral hall, and then laughing from the floor. She was both alone and crowded by love. In another era, she would have been considered a spinster - no husband, no kids. But her home teemed with dogs, sisters, nieces, nephews and her life partner - a gay man - who would pass summer nights reading books in bed beside her, wearing matching reading glasses.

CULLIMORE: I'm Heather Cullimore, Shelagh's older sister.

JESSICA CULLIMORE: I'm Jessica Cullimore, and I'm Shelagh's niece, the oldest of her nieces and nephews.

ANDY SCHULZ: My name is Andy Schulz. And Shelagh Gordon and I were best friends.

CULLIMORE: It all flowed through Shelagh, strangely enough. I don't think we really realized it while we had her. She was the interpreter. She made sure everybody understood each other's feelings.

CULLIMORE: She loved with a power that I can't even compare. It just - it was pretty unbelievable.

SCHULZ: I always thought I was lucky that she was my friend. You could put your heart on the table, and you know that she'd never step on it, because she took great pride and honor that you gave that to her. And I think that's what drew people to her.

CULLIMORE: She was just a magnet for people. And some of them really stuck.

CULLIMORE: Yeah.

CULLIMORE: And they're part of the family now.

CULLIMORE: Yeah.

CULLIMORE: That happened everywhere we went. You'd have somebody that you'd never met, some teacher from Jersey or some young kid from the Caribbean sitting at our dinner table.

SCHULZ: It was just her spirit. If there was somebody in the room that nobody was talking to, she would talk to them, and she would show an interest. And that's what made her special, because she was just a regular person who had troubles, but still shone a light and gave meaning to people. Shelagh always just could touch people and make them feel, you know, that they were just as important as anyone else.

PORTER: Her relationships were as rich as the chocolate pudding pies she'd whip together. She dashed off dozens of text messages and emails and Facebook postings a day, usually mistyping words in her rush to connect. Then, every afternoon, she'd soak for an hour in the bath while eating cut-up oranges and carrots and flipping the damp pages of a novel. But my sharpest impression of Shelagh that day, as mourners in black pressed around me, was her breathtaking kindness.

CULLIMORE: Most of the gifts, most of the kind things she did, weren't for public viewing. They were, you know, sliding something into someone's pocket or a quiet letter with a little something in it, or left even at their front door. I think she had almost a sixth kind of sense for people that were kind of hurting.

CULLIMORE: I was going through a tough time once, and I had no money, and I was in university, and I was stressed out and overwhelmed. And she left me a card with, I think, maybe $150 in it. And I knew she had no money at that time. So it wasn't coming from a place of, well, I have something to give, so I'm going to give it. It was like, well, here's a part of what I have, so I can share it with you to make your life a little bit easier.

That presence, myself and my siblings all kind of say she wasn't an aunt. The things that we got from her were way beyond, way beyond. And that's why we kind of say she was more like a mother.

CULLIMORE: Always bought a lottery ticket. She didn't buy hundreds. She bought one for each lottery. And she would sit there and make lists of who needed money, how much their mortgage was, and how she would divide it all up. So she had a plan. And she was so disappointed each time she didn't win, not because she really wanted the money, but she wanted to spread that out and get everybody taken care of.

And going back, when the kids were quite young, she won the lottery, but she won the lottery quite small. She was so excited, she actually took that money and split it all up the way she - the same way she would have for a million dollars.

PORTER: Shelagh made people around her feel not just loved, but coveted. That was the golden thread that stitched together the ordinary seams of her life. Sitting in the fourth row at her funeral, I could see myself in Shelagh. She lived a small life, as most of us do. Her struggles were intimate. But the world she carefully assembled was rich and meaningful in ways that she never grasped.

CULLIMORE: That way of living is such a valuable lesson. Not to be sort of saccharine and sweet, like, oh, you know, be a good-deed doer and give to charity, but pay attention to the people around you that are right close to you and love them and care for them and pay attention.

SCHULZ: The person that you're looking at sitting beside you in a restaurant, or on a bus or on the street corner, they all mean something to somebody.

PORTER: I also really wondered about what a life is worth. Because, you know, here we were, this huge team of journalists, examining this one ordinary life. And, you know, she wasn't Nelson Mandela. She didn't free a country. She wasn't someone who had affected massive change. But, in her own way, she really did intimately affect so many people.

She taught me a different way of living, I guess, in noticing the hours in the day and filling them with more kindness, and not necessarily looking at life as a means to an end and thinking about the importance of your life in the end goals of what you achieve, which is usually what we fill our obituaries with, but with the little acts that you do each day and how they can affect others, and how important that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHAKRABARTI: Shelagh Gordon died at the age of 55 of a brain aneurism. Our story was produced for the Kind World series by Lisa Tobin and Michael May. For more, you can go to our website, hereandnow.org.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.