Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Rainbows and Dust

Arthur Rothstein, Texas, 1936
Tonight I decided I didn't need to finish yet another so-so book. What sealed the decision was, of all things, a TV show—a rebroadcast of part 1 of Ken Burns's magisterial documentary The Dust Bowl, of which I'd previously seen most of part 2 when it aired in January. Riveted by the unstoppable tragedy, the dignity of its aged witnesses, the clear-eyed storytelling, with its sense of historical sweep and human consequence, I realized I was no longer interested in the rather inconsequential, padded, and self-involved contemporary memoir I was reading by Frank Bruni, a writer I otherwise admire. 

I expected Bruni to be a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize earlier this month, if not a winner (he was neither . . . this year) for his great New York Times columns in which, among other things, he determinedly hammers away on same-sex marriage and other gay issues. I loved his essay about his father's evolving acceptance of having a gay son:

"In the years before Mom died, I had my first long-term relationship, and I could tell that seeing me coupled, just like my brothers and my sister were, gave [my father] a new, less abstract way to understand me. I just wanted what they wanted. Someone special. 

"He welcomed the man I was with effusively. Took the two of us out to eat.

"Then Mom was gone, and all the parenting fell to Dad. He tapped reserves I’d never imagined in him. When I broke up with the man he’d been so effusive toward, he must have told me six times how sorry he was about that. It was a message—that he was rooting for my happiness, no matter how that happiness came to me."

But Bruni's memoir, Born Round, about his lifelong battles with weight and eating, doesn't have the feel of consequence that that single column has. So, thanks to The Dust Bowl, I'm not going to finish it.

Even the last book I read—courtesy of my old pal the Total Femme—felt more substantial than Bruni's: The Other Side of the Rainbow: With Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol, an out-of-print sleeper by the surprisingly not bad writer Mel Tormé. The book—about the making, and unmaking, of Judy Garland's one-season-long TV show, which Tormé worked on—illustrates the frustratingly sad fate of an out-of-control addict with mammoth gifts who has not a single person in her life really looking out for her (including Mr. Mel Tormé).

I've been on a bit of a Judy Garland kick of late (which perhaps the Total Femme intuited), having seen the fabulous Broadway show End of the Rainbow last year as well as, more recently, Garland's underrated final film, I Could Go on Singing, in which she plays, wittingly or not, a spot-on version of herself in the last, frayed years of her downward spiral.

What all of this rambling adds up to is this: We all deserve to have someone looking out for us, whether a loving parent, the government, a colleague, or a perceptive friend.

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Alma Mater

The weekend before last, I met a former teaching colleague of my mother's for coffee. But the story isn't as straightforward as that.

In 1968, when I was in second grade, my mother went back to teaching Latin part-time at a girls' school. She loved teaching, especially girls. (She had taught at two other girls' schools before she was married.) She worked at this school well into the 1970s, continuing even as she pursued a master's in medieval Latin, which she completed while I was in high school. I remember doing my own Latin and algebra and English homework at the same dining-room table where she'd be typing her thesis—a translation of a manuscript about gardening (another passion of hers)—on a turquoise manual Olivetti. Both of my parents loved language. Words were the stuff of dinner conversations—not just the means of talking but so often the subject itself.

The school where Mom worked eventually stopped requiring Latin, and she left for a time, returned briefly, then for a number of years tutored students from there and other schools. Her last students were in the mid-to-late '90s, just as signs of as her dementia started setting in. I seem to remember a rather abrupt end to her final tutoring job, instigated by the boy's mother for unclear reasons. I think Mom was beginning to get confused about appointments and the like, and who knows how much repetition or forgetfulness might have been going on during the sessions themselves?

A year and a half ago, I published an essay about my siblings' and my experience selling our parents' house—the home we had grown up in, where Mom and Dad had lived for 50 years before moving into assisted living (by this time, in Mom's case, "memory care"). In the essay, I mentioned the school where my mother had taught. After the article appeared, I received an e-mail:

Dear Billy:

I was reading your piece when suddenly I made a connection. On reaching the paragraph where you mentioned where your mom had taught, I glanced up to check your name to see if I recognized it. Of course—Florence!

I taught French in the Upper School from 1971 until 2003 and remember when your mother joined the foreign-language department. More coincidentally, however, I saw your mom at  S______ [her assisted-living facility] earlier this year. I had gone there with a friend and former math teacher, Susan, to visit yet another longtime former colleague and English teacher, Miriam. Miriam no longer speaks and probably does not recognize us, but Susan and I visit her and make conversation about the school and the past. 

On our last visit, Susan's attention kept being drawn to a woman nearby, and she finally asked me if I recognized her, someone who perhaps had been at the school at some point. She looked familiar, but I really couldn't place her. An attendant told us her last name, and then I knew immediately. It's Florence!

I went over to talk to her, as she seemed likely to be able to visit a little, and I told her who I was, what the connection was. Her eyes lit up and we spoke for several minutes. Of course, her speech is garbled and difficult to follow and I imagine that she didn't know who I was, but she did know we were talking about her teaching Latin there, and I believe she mentioned A.D., who had been headmistress. I remembered that she had several children and I asked her about that, and she talked at some length about you all, but again it was garbled. We pointed out Miriam to her and told her that they had been at the Upper School at the same time, but that did not register. 

It was a bittersweet discovery for Susan and me, both retirees, to find her there, and we were so glad that we had been able to recognize her. It has become more and more sad for us to visit Miriam, who has been in a steady decline after a diagnosis an early-onset dementia about ten years ago. There is a group of former teachers who visit Miriam, although much less frequently now that she is unable to know what is going on. Susan and I will go this September and we will be sure to look up your mom. 

Your mother is still a lovely person, gracious and kindly. I remember her despairing at times over some of the more difficult students, but she was a smart lady and persevered. Anyone willing to teach Latin to adolescent young women has got to have some steeliness as well. 

Thank you for reading this and I send you my best,
Tessa G.

I was deeply touched by this surprise e-mail and replied immediately. I remembered my mother talking about Tessa often; she was definitely fond of her, even though they fell out of touch when Mom stopped her classroom teaching.

Since that e-mail, Tessa has continued to visit the assisted-living facility every couple of months and to send me reports. ("I saw your mom this morning. She was napping in her chair, but she woke up and I chatted with her. At one point she asked me very clearly what my name was, but I am not sure if my response meant anything to her. She looked well dressed, and I told her that she looked ready to teach.")

Tessa's friend Miriam died just two months ago, and she has since been back just to visit Mom—someone she knew half a lifetime ago, far less well than her now-deceased friend. Yet she continues to go.

Other than Tessa, my mother doesn't see anyone outside of immediate family, caregivers, and medical staff. Tessa, her long-ago colleague, knew her as a working, intellectually engaged, professional woman, and she now graciously honors that person my mother was by listening to her  mostly incomprehensible words, touching her hand, speaking to her of memories and people they knew.

After wanting to thank Tessa in person for more than a year—and simply wanting to meet her—I finally arranged for us to get together for coffee. One of my sisters joined us, as did Tessa's husband.

The occasion uplifted me in a way that I'm having trouble finding words for. Both she and her husband are warm and funny. They were easy to talk to, even interested in the rest of my family. We talked about the house in France they own, their own kids and grandkids. A bit about the school where she'd taught with Mom, but the conversation didn't linger long in that area. Maybe next time.

I hope there will be another time. But I don't know. I don't even know for sure if she'll continue to visit Mom as often as she saw her friend Miriam. She may, probably will—but then again, the visits may also taper off. And I couldn't blame her if they did. She's given a lot of herself already.

I've been thinking I wanted to find out more about those years when Mom was teaching, what my mother was like, from someone who saw her in an environment I didn't. Then I realized: As much as I'd like to hear these stories, I'm the one who knew Mom better. There's probably not much Tessa could tell me that I don't know.

My father died last summer. Mom greets visitors with a smile and a tender touch and an almost unceasing commentary of words that curl and wisp into a kind of music, yet are as hard to grasp as candle smoke. Yes, there's a "steeliness" within her—not the first word I'd think of to describe a person who has always been characterized more, in my experience, by sensitivity and emotion. But someone who knew her a very long ago reminded me that it's an essential part of her. My mother endures.

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