Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rosemary

Dear Rosemary,

I’ve been planning to write to you for some time but was a bit shy about it given the nature of our leave-taking. I know you were disappointed in my choice of doctoral program and I thought you were also disappointed in me. Perhaps you were just trying to protect me from the repercussions of an unorthodox decision. I don’t know. I guess I’ll never know, but I wanted to tell you that it has turned out pretty well, all things considered. I’m teaching at a community college. It isn’t as nice as Wells with its ivy-covered buildings and its wonderful old traditions. It’s just adjunct work, but it is pretty steady and I know others who graduated from more prestigious and conventional universities who can’t get work at all. I guess one never knows what decision will work out best. I remember you telling me to go to Harvard. “Why?” I asked. “Will I like it?” You were honest with me then. “No. You’ll hate it.” But you knew that a degree from Harvard would have helped secure a job, success, a reputation. I chose to be happy instead and lost you in the process.

You wanted me to take the politics of academics seriously. I chose to be cavalier and dismissive. You scolded me when I refused to go to my graduation ceremony. I thought it was all a joke. You reminded me that though it was easy for me, it was hard work for others. “Those other young women worked hard for this moment. If you don’t attend, you are insulting them.” Not only did I refuse to attend, I stomped around campus in a WWI army helmet, combat boots and a circuit rider’s clerical robe with my shaved head with a shock of unnaturally dyed hair in the front. I literally and figuratively gave the finger to the college experience, but you knew I'd be back. You knew it was my life and I should pay it the proper respect.

I first shaved my head and dyed my hair right after you secured my position at the Undergraduate Research Conference. You called me into your office and told me to watch my temper and not to be too emotional. I could see you were afraid I would sabotage myself. “I had to go to bat for you…” you warned me. You needn’t have worried. I behaved myself and even found that speaking in front of large groups was something I’m pretty good at. Do you remember that paper? “The Usurpation of Goddess Power”…jeez, what a goofy title! But I was proud of it and I know you were proud of it too. It was my first venture into the field of feminist religious history, a field that would become the heart of my life as a scholar.

Do you remember that book, the one that got me started? I was in the library that day looking for study materials for my classes when I found it; The Serpent and the Goddess. God, I wanted to read that book! I picked it up and read the back of it, looked inside it, almost took it with me but I set it back on the shelf. I knew there would be no time for me to indulge my private desire to study such topics- not at Wells where we were typically required to write several papers, give multiple formal and informal oral reports, and to read a stack of books. No. With all my history, art history, and religion studies courses, there would probably be no time to read a book on the Goddess until after I was done with my formal education.

Hours later that same day, I entered your class and sat down in one of those solid, old wooden chairs around that solid, old wooden table. In the middle of the table was a pile of books and in that pile of books was that same library copy of The Serpent and the Goddess I had held longingly just hours before. I damn near began salivating when I saw it. Then you told us all to choose a book to use as the basis of our semester paper. “Pick whichever book you want,” you said to the class, “but not this one. This one is for Mindy.” And then you handed The Serpent and the Goddess to me.

You knew. You knew before I knew what kind of scholar I would be. You knew from everything I said and everything I wrote and everything I believed. You, like the best kind of teacher, read beyond my papers and tests, beyond my answers and my questions to the heart of my passion. You put the book in my hand and you pushed me out the door. You did that again and again and again throughout the three years you taught me art history and women's studies at Wells and then the five years you worked with me on my graduate program in women's spirituality.

I’ve always wondered if you knew just how much I loved you, how much I looked forward to our long talks in your office, hours and hours together talking about medievalism, and postmodernism, about feminist theory, and theology, art history, eco-feminism, scholarship and motherhood. I brought you my first papers, my first speeches, and after I was married, my first children. I loved you for the smallness and the femininity of you, for the sparkling-eyed Irish-ness of you, for the over-the-top, grandiose, intellectual drama of you. I always said that all you needed to complete your act in the classroom was a pink feather boa. You were magnificent and ridiculous and brilliant and I adored you.

One day I overheard you speaking to another student who was commenting on my performance in class (it had been a particularly good day and I had been particularly clever.) “I taught her that!” I heard you boast. “Oh no, she didn’t!” I thought to myself. “I taught myself! I’m nobody’s show dog.” But in a more tender and secret place in my heart, I’ve always treasured that moment. You were proud of me. That meant the world.

Another time, when we were discussing postmodernism and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, you said that he was my intellectual great-grandfather because you learned postmodernism from a teacher who learned it from Umberto Eco himself- a kind of academic Kevin Bacon game, but it meant more to me. If Umberto Eco was my great-grandfather, then you were my mother. And you were. You were the mother of my intellectual life and I was secretly pleased as well as distressed when you confided that your own daughter was a little jealous of me and the time you spent with me.

At the end, when you told me that you could not support me if I chose to make the unorthodox decision to study an unorthodox field in an unorthodox university, I grieved. I had to do what you and my other teachers, my parents and grandparents, prepared me to do. Whether it leads to failure or success by any traditional definitions, I am a scholar because it is the only way I know to keep the flame burning in my heart. I could no more choose to take a more traditional approach to scholarship than I could have failed to fall in love with you.

So I followed my heart and I lost you.

I think of you often, Rosemary. I can see you expounding on one of the finer points of some obscure theory with that mischievous glint in those dark eyes. (You made postmodernist feminist theory seem simultaneously naughty and divine). I can see the rosiness of your cheeks as you told us how deliciously fat you got when you were pregnant. “I was just ROUND!” you said throwing your arms out dramatically. I can feel your arms around me when I told you I was pregnant for my first child. I can hear the pride in your voice when you boasted about my work and my research.
I’m not sure what I could say to your family. I know their loss of you is keener than mine. May they find strength in each other and may their stories of you give them comfort. I know how very proud you were of your children. So many times you told me stories of their childhoods, and of your great pride in your daughter’s intelligence and grit, of your son’s uncommon gentleness. If your daughter was ever truly jealous of me, I am sorry. You belonged to her and to your son heart and soul and I always knew that. I was a bit jealous of them because I knew that I had you as long as I was your student and they would have you for the rest of your life. I did not know, could not know, how little time you had left.

I tried to find you on Facebook to reconnect with you. After all these years of feeling I had failed you somehow, I thought it was time to mend our relationship, to tell you how much you mean to me. That’s when I found your memorial page. You’d already been gone for four months. You died just after my daughter’s tenth birthday. Do you remember her? You were so pleased with her name, a name that means, “Goddess.” She saw me weeping and sat down with me, reaching out her slender little hand to comfort me. I told her that I was okay but that someone very important to me had died. “Don’t wait to tell the people you care about how you feel,” I told her.

My mother says that you knew I loved you. How could you not? I hope that is true. I was going to write something on your Facebook memorial page but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t think it would fit. I didn’t think it would be right. I couldn’t figure out where I would fit on the stage of your life. I have no right to grieve for you as a member of your family. I cannot count myself among your colleagues. I don’t even know if you would have called me a friend since our relationship was not one of equals-- and yet, I cannot bring myself to speak of you as if you were just my teacher. What were you to me? What was I to you? I don’t know. I don’t know. I write this here because I don't know where else to tell this story, with whom to share my grief. I have no categories for this loss, nowhere to settle my tears.

I guess it comes down to this: You pushed and embraced me in turn. You shaped my thinking and championed my work. You set my standards, kicked my ass and exulted in my successes. If I was less than you hoped I would become, I am sorry. I have tried to stand tall. I have tried to bold as you taught me to be. “Don’t you ever apologize for what you know!” was one of the first and most important lessons you taught me. I may not be, may never be, as successful as you hoped I would become but I keep my chin up when I champion the unpopular and politically dangerous subjects you taught me to love. When I am engaged in debate with someone who doesn’t know enough to take me seriously, I daresay that there is as much sparkle in my eyes as there was in yours.

I have tried to be to my students the kind of teacher I found in you. This is the second time I have lost you and in the intervening years, I have grown stronger, and fiercer, and more headstrong than I was when I was the eighteen year old who first tip-toed nervously into your office. The wheel has turned and now I am “Doctor” and “Professor” with eighteen-year-olds to come tip-toeing nervously into my office. I dare them to take on tougher topics, bolder fields of research. I give them books and recommend radical subjects if I think they have the stuffing to handle it. Then we have long talks about postmodernism and art history, and feminist theory, and I tell them how proud I am of their work and their passion…

I love each one of them in memory of you.

8 comments:

Mary Ellen said...

Your post brought back some of the conflicting feelings I had for women scholarly mentors. I had two primary intellectual "mothers" but never a relationship as close as you recount. How unfortunate - for both of you - that your beloved mentor could not stay supportive when you made a choice she didn't condone - or authorize. Keep the flame of audacious constraint-busting alive in your classroom - that is the truest tribute to the best of what she was for you.

Ali said...

Thank you for writing this. It reminded me both of the people I have loved, and those I have lost. I hope others are as touched by this beauty as I have been. And may your grief turn over, with time and much warm morning sunlight, into gratitude and joy.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for sharing this heartfelt reflection of your former professor and your own journey.

Daniel

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

"This one is for Mindy.”

Damn. I was tearing up right there, without even knowing that she had died.

How passionately we love one another, we mortals. And how little time we have to fit it in...

I lost my Rosemary, too--a man, not a woman, and not a professor, but also someone I lost twice, to a painful parting I could not help, and to a death I could not attend.

But I love him right down to my toes, and I always will. I know your understanding of Spirit is different from mine, Hystery. But I really do feel that, somehow, love is never lost, and something is still there, shining, outside of mortal time.

That may not help you or be true for you, though my heart feels comfort in it.

What I can say for sure is that I recognize the bright, vivid colors of your love, and I honor it.

Blessed be.

Hystery said...

Thank you, Mary Ellen, Ali, Daniel and Cat for your words and your kindness. I wasn't sure where to put this but I'm glad I put it here. Your comments mean much to me.

I know that Rosemary believed in an afterlife. This was one of the things we discussed at great length sharing personal and family stories. One of the longest projects I worked on in her care was one I completed during the months following my beloved grandfather's death and my daughter's birth. It was about life death and rebirth.

Mr. Bishop said...

You take my breath away. In describing your experiences as a student, you have put into words with such vividness what it is that makes being a teacher so meaningful. May I, at my best, serve my students with some fraction of the spirit and passion that Rosemary served you.

Sarah Teres said...

I'm not sure if I was ever specifically jealous of YOU per se, I can't tell from this blog what your name actually is, but yes, it was difficult to compete with the sea of nameless and faceless sisters I knew my mother loved and nurtured. A Persephone to her Demeter, she adored all the seeds she planted, all those that took hold and grew. I was perhaps her only daughter, but I shared her with her greatest passion—her students. I would guarantee you that you never lost her. That if she was disappointed in your choices, it was short lived. She would have, I am sure, loved to have known what you ended up doing, where you were, and all about your life. She was, after all, a teacher, hoping to send young women on their way to their dreams, however they found them. She was more "Glenda" than the Wizard. She couldn't send you "home" but could tell you that you had the power to take yourself there whenever you were ready. Sometimes we are only ready after the journey's end, and not at the beginning. It has been a very difficult year for children, for my family, and especially for me. But it is a comfort to know her passion for her students was not in vain. In that way, she is eternal.

Hystery said...

Sarah,

I feel it is a great honor to "meet" you here on this blog. Your mother spoke of you and your brother so frequently and with such pride and respect for the good and wise people she knew you to be that I have incorporated her love of you into my memories of her.

I was her graduate student as well as her undergraduate student. I took just about every course she taught as well as independent studies. I then did a graduate program through Antioch University with her as my primary mentor and instructor. She was my teacher for eight years.

I miss her. I thank you so much for letting me know she would not have gone on being disappointed in my choices especially since much of what I did bore her strong mark.

Sarah, you and your family are often in my thoughts.