The average human laughs a couple of dozen times each day but very few of them stick. I can remember all of the significant laughs of my life: the time a friend clutched his injured knee and for some reason yelled “my kidneys!”; the time I went shopping for my sister’s Christmas card and bought one that said “You’re like a sister to me” on the front; the time I ate a piece of cake that was so enjoyable I laughed for a solid minute. One of my all-time favourites finds me alone in my university library reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life – a warm, joyful memoir structured as a reference book. The instigating entry read:
How great is it to find a few stray bonus fries at the bottom of your McDonald’s bag?”
It’s difficult to express quite how profoundly I was affected by this sentiment. Stray bonus fries were a splendid part of my life, so modest that I’d never even thought about their existence before, and here they were sitting in a book, waiting for me all along. Look at what good writing can accomplish! My body had no idea how to respond to such a pleasure, so I started to laugh.
That moment in the library – in itself a stray bonus fry, modest and splendid – is one I’ve returned to again and again in the weeks since learning of Amy’s recent death from ovarian cancer at the age of 51. On the list of people to have been touched by the author’s death I’m easily some way towards the bottom. I’m not a family member, friend or collaborator. I never even met her at a book signing or replied to one of her tweets. She was just the writer of a book and I was just its reader. The emotional commodification of celebrity deaths lately has become numbing, but it remains true that most people have a few public figures that genuinely mean a great deal to them during some part of their life, and that figure’s death moves them like they weren’t just a face on a screen or a voice on the radio. When it happens, you find yourself surprised at the depth of feeling it generates. It hurts. Their death doesn’t belong to you just because you liked their art, but they were still a part of your history, a major factor in the way you came to identify yourself, a mentor, an old friend. I was sad when George Michael died; my sister was bereft.
With one sentence about French fries Amy Krouse Rosenthal changed my life. I’m sure that sounds like hyperbole but few writers have influenced me on such a fundamental level. Thank heavens she was funny. Amy taught me the extraordinary value of the ordinary. When I look at my life over the dozen years since that spell in the library, I see her fingerprints everywhere. If I hadn’t come across her work, would I count my best laughs? Would I understand the importance of rogue chips? Would I take the time to enjoy the feeling of grass beneath my bare feet, or slightly oily rainbows in puddles, or the way ice pings and cracks when you pour a cold drink over it? The finest writers endow you with their understanding of being alive, and it helps shape the world around you.
The impact of Amy’s work on my own ultimately has nothing to do with why I was upset. I was upset because I really liked her. There are many authors whose writing you adore, but few become like a companion in your head. You aren’t just fond of their flair for nouns, you’re fond of them. Amy was playful and wise. She had wonderful opinions about ambulances. The creative invention of her work was always driven by an earnest desire to connect with others. She seemed like the type of person you’d call if you received bad news, or for that matter if you received good news. I never got to meet her but I loved her company. I cared about her.
The first thing I did when I saw the obituary was retrieve my copy of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life from my bookcase. Inevitably, it was the most worn book on the shelf – it looked like it had been in a fight with an older, meaner book. Reading it after she’d gone was an odd experience: I was simultaneously heartsore and delighted to be reminded of how vivid she was, of how much life there was in her life. I came to an entry stating that it would be difficult to convince her that leaning has no effect whatsoever on the outcome of her bowling, and a fanciful but resolutely true thought came to mind: I met her in her words and she’s still there. She always will be.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight.