The Universal Notebook: Deleting the dead

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At 72, I am at a point in life’s journey where it is not all that uncommon to lose friends, family, and colleagues.

Back before the coronavirus precluded gatherings, I was attending as many memorial services as wedding ceremonies. All of which poses something of an existential editorial dilemma.

Edgar Allen BeemDo you delete the dead from your email address book or not?

As a general rule, and perhaps also as a matter of sentiment and superstition, I have tended to keep the deceased active even though I will never again correspond with them, at least not online.

But the other day, while selecting members for an artists’ email group, I became conscious of just how many addresses of the departed I was carrying and, reluctantly, I started deleting them. Not all of them, of course. In the etiquette of mortality, there are those you can politely let go of and those you want to keep with you always.

I’d guess I have about 2,000 contacts in my email files. Many of those people are from the art world because I have written about art in Maine since 1978. As I scrolled through the address book, it took reverence, resolve, and deliberation to delete painters Tom Cornell and Michael Lewis and art critic Philip Isaacson, but I found I wanted to hang on to contact information for the late Jon Imber, Robert Indiana, and Fred Lynch. Not sure why.

And though artist, furniture maker, and gallerist Duane Paluska never wrote an email in his life, I keep him active under his name and his wife Ellen Golden’s email address.

In the annals of family, I deleted two of my Uncle Gordie’s three wives, Peggy and Jeanne. But I kept Gordie’s and Peggy’s daughter, my late cousin Andrea, both because she was my favorite and because I like her “snoozie dog” address.

Among friends, I let go of church members John Knowles and Ellen Gardner, cousins Horace and Charlie Hildreth (both of whom commissioned me to write books for them), and soccer moms Eileen Minte and Ellen Wing from daughter Tess’s playing days. 

I confess I deleted a few of my lovely wife Carolyn’s L.L. Bean addresses, among them her late coworker and close friend Mary Rose, but I decided to keep my Maine Times colleague Phyllis Austin as well as a few of her last emails.

Phyllis’s final 2016 email reported that she no longer had any good days and invited me “to come down for a brief last visit.” I did. And then she was gone.

It’s not just the dead who must be weeded out occasionally, of course. There’s also a bunch of deadwood in my address book that I keep, at least for the time being, to remind me that I was once in touch with some big-name artists, especially photographers. So I’m hanging on to Alex Webb, Jeff Wall, Paolo Pellerin, Susan Meiselas, and Sally Mann a bit longer. I also kept Jamie Wyeth, although I’m not sure he ever answered an email personally.

Among late luminaries, I did, however, finally delete New Yorker writer and Dark Harbor summer resident Ved Mehta.

By far the largest batch of dispatches from the dead in my InBox are emails from my high school buddies Chris Couch and Earl Cutter. 

I don’t imagine I will ever delete their addresses. You know, just in case.

Chris’s widow Susan still uses his old email address as well as her own, so, gratefully, I do occasionally receive emails from beyond the grave.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.