A Few Mavens of Wisdom: What They Offered Me

As the rain started to spit and splash, I thought about the many women who have most impacted me. This came on the heels of an hour and a half long gab with someone I value: Beth, my mother-in-law. She lives in Florida; we live in the Northwest so long phone calls are the best we can do most often. The conversation engaged me while finishing laundry, then as I took my usual long walk. I am not a stationary phone user, no matter where I am but she admires that I can power walk and talk at once.

I imagine her in that worn, comfy chair in her living room, feet up, beloved books about her. I would rather be there to share tea and family updates, run errands for her, hear her current viewpoints on her passions of theology mixed with odds and ends of philosophy and psychology, as well as theories on education and youth. She has smart ideas about a wide spectrum of topics. We talk about nearly everything as I did with my own mother. Perhaps more.

She cleared her throat and said, “I find it regrettable that I have to search for words at times, and then have to make do with an inferior word, something not truly accurate. My faculties are slowing down.”

She stated this dilemma with acceptance, but I detected a dash of annoyance.

I suppressed a small laugh, as she was serious. “I have always admired your exacting use of language and still don’t find it lacking. I enjoy talking with you partly for that reason.”

“Well, with my education, all the reading I do, it’s a disappointment at times to face it. My memory is the culprit, I think. It hesitates, doesn’t immediately connect each word together, anymore.”

“Your birthday is coming up. I know you don’t expect to feel fifty or even sixty.”

“No, each decade is a little more slowing down. We aren’t meant to last indefinitely in frail flesh. I’ll be eighty-nine.”

I had forgotten what age she’d be in January– mid-eighties, I thought. I don’t think of her age as we converse. On her birthday I’ll send a specially picked card and gift card to Portland’s fine Powell’s independent bookstore.

I did not say with a chuckle: You’re entitled to have a little loss of memory or razor-sharp language skills!  It would seem irrelevant and inane to her. She is used to having her faculties working very well. Now her eyes are worsening, too. Beth made her point and the truth of it presented itself shortly after: a pause and fishing for the perfectly placed word. But we moved on from there without any difficulty. She is remarkable. Not only because she is one year from ninety and mostly intact.

I was on my way to admiring her from the first time we met although my husband, her son, was not close to her then. It seemed she was okay with me. Still, I was half-hippie even in my late twenties, didn’t have a decent job as I was back in college, had two children already from a failed first marriage and a new baby on its way… before even quite marrying her son, father of unborn child. It was terribly embarrassing to me, hard to be in her home. In my parents’ presence, even worse. So I wasn’t sure what to expect at all. But she, as well as the attending and formidable Grandma Suzy, were sociable enough. Perhaps they were too polite to indicate they had doubts. My parents certainly had some and said so. But we did get married and Beth was around here and there, more clearly for than against me. Us.

Who Beth is has begun to slowly unfold over time. I knew she’d received her B.A. degree from Michigan State University in the late nineteen forties and taught elementary and middle school students. After additional education, she taught those with “special needs” as it was designated. She had long ago met and married a Black man in college; it was a nearly forbidden interracial marriage. This was well before most would even consider marrying outside one’s own race. It was hard though they had two capable sons; the marriage ended after some years. She had studied classical piano and still exalts in fine music. A lover of literature, she now reads only nonfiction, a voluminous number of books, even as her eyesight fades and falters. She told me today that she has ordered ahead, to make sure she has what she wants to yet read–before her sight utterly dims. In time, she also became an amateur scholar of Biblical text/translations and is drawn to arcane theological tomes. Religious and metaphysical discussions go deep, are esoteric. My husband and she can go on for a long while on the subjects. I simply share my faith without such critical dissection–which she also appreciates–as truly, I could not compete with her knowledge, her powerful recall of text.

But she has also been a mother-in-law who secretly bought me the perfume called “Anais Anais” after I announced it a potpourri of delights. She didn’t blink an eye but supported me as I tackled complex duties and needs as a stepmother. She has cheered me on as I’ve pursued writing and my career as a social services/mental health provider–and other adjunct passions–rather than chastise me for not being more domestic in orientation. (Neither of us is a happy cook.) I can talk to her about writing better than with most of my peers; she knows the worth of a word instinctively, is a stickler for syntax and grammar. She said the other day that she really enjoys learning about my process; it made my afternoon.

Beth calls to chat if she doesn’t hear from us for awhile and always answers my phone calls with pleasure. But she is as much defined to me by what she does not do: offer advice unless sought; interfere with our decisions; criticize. She is a person who listens, who hears. Her lightning quick mind can impart extraordinary insights, along with a dose of practicality. I have been blessed to have such a mother-in-law. I know she has had painful twists and random downturns in her life, yet she remains open to possibilities. And her frankness can at times startle me off as well as prompt laughter–they both are welcomed in conversation.

As I have also aged, she has frequented my life with considerate gestures, like a beautiful china tea set I use a few times weekly, crystal bells for the Christmas tree. I send her pretty postcards from everywhere we travel and real letters. She remains a champion of a deliberate, thoughtful life and now encourages others to do the same. Her examples of what everyday courage and hope can look like makes me thankful for knowing her. I know she has her faults as we all do–she is not expecting sainthood–but I live a distance away so behold her loveliness easily. The son I married is reflective of some of her attributes as well as interesting quirks. It is fun to hear them chat in full steam after years of warmer, more frequent connection.

It is a wonder that I have rarely felt entirely alone as I’ve trod the proverbial highways and byways. Many of my best teachers were ones I may not have recognized as such at the time, as surely can happen, as we can’t anticipate when a messenger or guide may show up.

But some we do. One was my own mother. I have written much about her here so will not dwell long on her life and ways. Her industriousness, curiosity, creative spirit and zest for life were examples not lost on me. I can still hear her laugh at an absurd incident as well as just for plain old joy, but I also recall how quickly she wept for those who suffered or from her own hurt and frustration. I never saw this as less than a rich humanness and it moved me. Her intuition; love of beauty; grace in grappling with disasters. Her tireless capacity for helping; the take charge attitude and organizational talents–all these strengthened me, prepared me better for my own dreaming and doing. Her deficits only served to make her more uniquely complex, as is true of all people I have known and loved.

Some people speak little or less ably, yet manage to instruct well. When I was in elementary school and my mother taught other children, I from time to time walked after school to her best friend’s house to wait for her. Mom had to drive home from a distance and do errands. Winetta Titus’ house was half a block from Eastlawn Elementary. As soon as I entered her foyer I was, well, at home. My second home, with my second mother. The air was aromatic with food–dinner, snacks, bread or other baked goods–and furniture polish, plus a hint of nail polish or perfume from the hallway where Jo, her daughter’s room was. (Jo was eight years older  so I spoke little with her. But stacks of movie celebrity magazines were shared with me. They were considered useless, even tawdry by my parents so I felt a guilty pleasure gawking at the stars.)

Mrs. Titus’ spacious, orderly living room had a back wall comprised of huge windows. I could immediately view the big yard and extravagant garden. Not just a few rows of veggies, but overflowing rows of flowers, many of which seemed achingly beautiful, almost mysterious. Gardening was Mrs. Titus’ happy hobby; she had to have had magic hands, secret knowledge. She also fed birds from various bird feeders attached to windows or on long poles. She tirelessly battled bandit squirrels and sometimes lost; since then I’ve not much fondness for the fluffy-tailed rodents. But just having time to watch all that in play, to wander beyond the elegant French doors that led to patio and yard with nary another pressing thing on my mind–that was heavenly. The birds were like friends of hers, then mine, and she could name them all. I learned to recognize a few of them as well as their songs. And I helped her pick and arrange flowers for colorful bouquets–sometimes got to take a bunch home, a gift I never found less than fabulous. Our own yard had flowers (irises, tulips, gladiolas) lined up at attention alongside the house and garage but not such exotic profusion.

Like my mother, she sewed well and often. I might sit in her sewing room and watch her turn fabric into something useful–memorable quilts, for example. She might ask me to help in the kitchen or at least keep her company. To dry dishes or help make dinner for her daughter and husband, even if it was handing her a measuring cup or peeling a small potato. In my own house there were so many people and such tight schedules of activities for all that I rarely had the luxury of hanging about a kitchen or watching out windows. Mrs. Titus would ask about my day, what I was learning, how my skating or cello lessons were going. It felt a bonus to be asked to stay for dinner. Yes, it was different from home–it was emptier, quieter–but often seemed calmer. When my mother arrived it was a surprise that so much time had passed. I loved how they greeted each other, with hugs and chatter.

If you had met Winetta Titus at a community meeting or in a store you might have said she had a prickly personality, even a bit of severe quality which seemed written on her face with sharp nose and pursed lips. She could be sarcastic, I realized, was quick to fuss at her daughter. She and her husband could have loud fusses–strange to me, as my parents disagreed privately, almost unknown to us. Her sadness floated about at times but there was contentment with her skills and tasks, real joy in her birds and garden. She did volunteer work for many in our city.

Whatever was brewing under the surface of her life, there was a wellspring of kindness. I felt I got the best of her; not once did I doubt her true heart. Some years later when I was furious and aching, adrift and seeking relief in substances, she never judged me, never scolded. I’ll not forget when we crossed paths in church. She silently embraced me and I held on; she whispered she loved me and that life would be good again. That alone carried me forward a long while. I accepted her love and believed that she knew the truth of pressing onward, of surviving.

Mrs. Titus was one who showed me how to be more inclusive, helpful, and appreciative–all by being that way with me. I felt safe with her those early years when her home was a friendly sanctuary.

I, of course, had teachers who mentored me and neighbors were fine examples of accomplished adulthood. Friends of my parents at times seemed more like older aunts (and uncles) and I also enjoyed caring blood aunts. I had more good examples than many.

Often it was female (male, too) writers, artists, dancers and musicians who held powerful places in my life. They might local artists or visiting from afar–we welcomed them in our home, at times–but also those I admired from afar: cellist Jacqueline DuPre; dancer Martha Graham; painter Georgia O’Keefe; folk singers Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Buffy Saint Marie; writers Madeline L’Engle, Flannery O’Connor and poet Muriel Rukeyser–to name a very few. I once heard the opera singer Leontyne Price perform. Afterwards, via my father’s contacts, I went backstage and got her autograph. Her patient smile lifted me as much as her soaring voice.

Denise Levertov was among the extraordinary poets whose writings I savored, memorized, aspired to learn from as I studied her work. She sadly died in 1997 at age 74 after an illustrious career. It was in 1964 when I bought Levertov’s poetry book O Taste and See, also the title of one of my favorite poems. I still have the book with its yellowed pages, the corners dog-eared for poems I especially liked, phrases check-marked. I would share one here if copyright allowed.

Her deep sensitivity to the natural world soothed me. Her few words revealed a sense of separateness reassured me. Her spiritual quandaries and finally peace helped guide me. Her politics were very personal. As I grew up her work for feminism echoed my own inclinations. I had an ally even though she was just words on paper–they were another real person’s  experience, this woman who had done with her life some of what I longed to try. She knew what I wondered over–knew very much more. As she moved through the world she found there sacredness–this resonated with me. I knew someone else saw what I saw, transcribed it exquisitely as I struggled with my own voice as a young writer. She also was honest about many things unjust and ugly; it was painful yet liberating: I was a person who craved to understand the whole picture, all truths of it. Reading her was a small mercy and provided another seed of hope. I regret I never attended a reading. I hadn’t even know until too late that she lived in Seattle, where I might have driven within 3 hours to hear her speak each careful word.

There are so many to whom I feel indebted; they were there at the right moments to aid me on my path. There are those who will never know fame but truly are noteworthy. Those better known can always use one more thank you. I need to praise others often, recount blessings received from their labors, time, creativity and patience. The few mentioned today remain among a large group who gave without fully realizing what they did for the searching, idealistic, wounded and hopeful youth I was. I took with me their probing questions and wide-ranging answers. Their rebellious streaks, prayerful spirits and a compassionate desire to enhance life, not underestimate or denigrate it. I can only hope my living has begun to reflect well on what they taught me. Happily, the learning and my evolution aren’t yet finished.

But I must tell you: I am booking us a flight to Florida. It is time to see my mother-in-law, Beth, face-to-face again, to take her hands in mine and tell her how much I care.


Whims of Fortune

Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net
Photo by Leysis Quesado Vera. Source themkphotographyblog.net

The light is failing or it is my eyes. Treetops and meadows blur. I am staring at something I cannot quite pinpoint, far off. Maybe it is only the changing of seasons, dark months torn open by sun, a shock that threatens to blind me. I blink a few times and scenery disappears even when my eyelids stay open. But another second or two and eyes refocus; I identify all I know so well. I am tired despite being up only four hours, since six o’clock.

I sit here after I scour the third of five bathrooms as always on Monday mornings for Idina. Sometimes for her husband, Richard. The room needs airing. This house is ancient, walls have absorbed everything that has been here, which is not to say the place smells badly most of the time–I wouldn’t tolerate that–just full of markers from past and present. It has all been updated, more or less. But still, it bears history heavily. Every room is the same. Vast, crumbling more than not yet exquisite to us all. Damp, yes, marred even when I am done. It’s what you would expect after over almost two hundred-fifty years.

The weather is dry today so I will open every window I can manage unless Idina snaps her fingers at me, gesturing at the shutters. Some days she feels ill with dyspepsia and cannot bear breezes carrying varieties of earthy scents. Some days she is just irritated with life. Then all is haunted by shadows and all the old things here and her family. But usually she smiles or nods in passing, hair swaying. She knows I am excellent at housekeeping, better than she could ever be if fortune turned and she had to take up my duties. But that won’t happen. Richard keeps her secure and can still make her laugh when he isn’t travelling. I help this aging place survive.

I see the cat, Tip, sharpening his claws on a fig tree. There is a bird not far away but Tip is lazy. He watches me all day long as I scurry from one task to another, his long black tail curled about his rotund body. He yawns at me when I try to get him to move so I can sweep. He is like many men I have known, comfortable and arrogant enough to ignore his duties and often me. But Tip’s small white-edged ears turn this way and that, tuning in to my whereabouts. He follows me from room to room, often. Unless he is captivated by mice, only as he pleases.

The grazing cows in the upper pasture send out their throaty moo,moo into warming air, their very simpleness making me glad the sun is shining and that I have ten minutes to sit. I close my eyes and listen to them. Bees (or is it those mud wasps) working hard. The creek tossing and turning its silvery sounds.

We were friends once. Idina and I. My parents farmed down the road and her parents travelled. They left her and brother, Anton, with Carolina, the nanny. There was a good-sized staff that ran the house and until Idina was eight she believed (or acted as if she did) they were extended family members, there to help out. I had to tell her the truth. She looked up at me–I was and still am taller–and frowned as if I had given her a sour candy that she had believed sweet. She asked Carolina to explain it.

“Right, as usual,” she said the next day. “I don’t know how you know things, Celia.”

“It’s because I get to live with the animals and climb trees. Living in a big house keeps you from real life.” I tossed a rock. “Ma says, anyway.”

“Your ma is sort of funny and smart but don’t tell my mama.”

“Why not?”

“Because your ma milks cows. She’s a farmer’s wife.”

I didn’t like to think what she meant but she took my hand and pulled me along to a small pond where we watched salamanders appear and disappear under water. Then we had tea all our own on the side terrace. Never once did she act as if I didn’t belong there despite my ma being a farmer’s wife. Her parents tolerated it as long as they didn’t have to witness much, I thought later. I kept her occupied, whereas the older Anton, the heir, had a friend from private school he brought home during vacations.

We played together into our early youth, usually when her parents were gone. Caroline was like a big sister and let us roam, one eye on us and one on either her books or the gardener. Idina had her studies in the library and I went to village school half-days because my father liked that I could read so well and do maths. But it ended when mother bore her sixth squalling, soft-skinned infant and they needed help with him. I was fourteen and lucky I had managed classes that long.

At seventeen, I was asked if I would be interested in assisting the estate’s two older housekeepers. It was easy, so I stayed. I didn’t like farming very much and was not about to marry anyone I knew. This despite my father’s obligatory lectures on advantages of a reasonably friendly wedded life–he knew someone who had a nephew or a grandson or there was a visitor at the neighbor’s, why not be introduced? But he did like the added money I gave them. My mother said nothing, knowing as I did that, either way, I would not be free. At least at the estate I could have my own neat, tiny room overlooking the wild wooded acreage. I saw the sun spread its vivid palette along the tree line in morning. My few tattered books were stacked close by, my trusty companions. Peace at the end of the day rather than the chaos of half-raising my mother’s children. I promised to visit the farm every month or two and have managed that overall. I do love them.

Idina left a few months after I began my work. She married and spent the better part of a year in Italy with her husband, Richard, a businessman and vineyard owner. Soon, it was just like her parents, as if she couldn’t find a true spot to roost. We chatted less easily and frequently; that was natural. Our childhood days were far behind us.

I am the same, strong-bodied, curious-minded but she has become someone else. An even richer man’s wife than her own mother (who then was more often staying in Paris with her husband while he invested in a resurrected perfume business. Perfume!). Idina has lived twenty miles away at Richard’s manse sometimes, and then at the family home for reasons about which I speculated. Richard is still not as attentive as I know she needs. I watch her face when with him and it ripples with longing and disappointment. After her father passed away last year, her mother stayed in Paris. The house was to be sold. Idina refused to go along with that, arguing with an officious, portly Anton and their mother, now white-haired and distracted. After that she returned here for months at a time.

Of course I knew why but I never give away anything. They were never that well suited, Richard with his minions holding forth at their place all hours of day and night from what I’ve gathered from others; Idina with her rebelliously empty womb and passion for art, music and need for order. She seems more frail each passing year. It makes me uneasy but I can’t help her now. And would not be asked.

I know my work beckons, but Tip is playing with a grasshopper, I think, and the light has turned caramel, the air balmy. It seems as if I would rather neglect things. Idina won’t fuss, as long as I get tasks completed by the time I turn in.

Perhaps it’s because my birthday is coming up. The thirtieth. It had long ago seemed a fairy tale age, a time when one would have settled in once and for all. Children gathered as they did around my mother, soon to be replaced by grandchildren. But beyond that, a purpose that offered tangible and other rewards of some kind. A more incandescent quality to living, does that sound ridiculous? It might have unfolded like that but the possibilities shrink. I embraced the position of housekeeper at eighteen and in three months knew the work so well I could do it without thinking. So I thought of what I had read before breakfast or what I wanted to jot down later, poetry coming in quick groupings of imagery. Wondered over the insects and birds that claimed plants and trees as I hung the wash. The nature of God as I surveyed the workings of our celestial realm yet had few names for all I did not understand and needed to know intimately.

Now I feel empty-headed too often. As if no one resides there, only a shadow of who I was. It terrifies me.

The latest thoughts have been of finding a way out. But how? To what? I haven’t met one suitor in well over four years. The ones that came and went were dull-witted, irresponsible, even unattractive. The one man on staff who is single and closest to my age is turning silver-haired. He is prone to jokes that grow longer and worse with each telling. He would be overjoyed by my company if I had any small part to give. I cannot bear the idea.

I am not content, anymore. If I ever was. How do I know what I want when I have never been given the chance to seek more than what I have? Yet I dream that I am educated, perhaps a teacher and also writing and if there is love it comes with interchange that uplifts mind as well as heart. How many other women feel the pull like a sea tide must feel? I worry it will drag me away and leave me with no good fortune at all.

Tip rolls over in the grass and gazes up at me, sinuous tail dancing, then is up on all fours and gone. I hear someone calling for another, a cook’s helper perhaps, for luncheon. The breeze skims my arms. I close the shutter in time to bar an interested wasp from entry, then  move on.

The hallway is still. At the end and to the right are Idina’s rooms. I hesitate, then straighten my shoulders and set out to see if she is up yet, will tell her I am ready to clean her washroom. As I round the corner, she opens the bedroom door, hand to chest as if deep in thought, then looks up and stops in her tracks.

“I was just thinking of you.”

She held out her hand and I went to her.

“Did you need something?”

Her face is pale and her slender hand is at her throat. “Come in my room.”

The drapes are drawn as usual and her bed is a mess, twisted sheets revealing her night of sleeplessness, pillows on the floor.

“Sit down, Celia. I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

She’s always had a thin face with sallow skin that made her deep brown eyes seem larger, irises warmed with a cast of gold. But now her skin is more antique ivory, her lips pale as well and quivering. I look down at my folded hands. She is not well.

“We never talk anymore.” She leans toward me a little.

I give her a small smile.

“Well, I don’t like it. We were best friends for so long, then we were not even allowed to see each other, anymore. Foolish of our parents. The older generation always thinks it knows the best thing. When it’s all just what they are comfortable with, what is correct in their eyes.”

I don’t disagree as that would be rude but she was much less interested in being a friend, too. My mother thought it sad I had lost Idina’s friendship and vice versa. But this is a first in some years, her being personal. I sit still.

“I want us to be friends again, Celia. Can we find a way to do that in this house, these times?”

I start, sit up straight and stare at her so hard she lowers her long eyelashes.

“Maybe I’ve made a mistake.”

“You’ve made a mistake? No, not at all. It’s just. Well, it’s been twelve years since I came to work for your family. You. I’m not sure what you’re needing from me.”

Idina gets up from the chair, walks to the window, parts the sumptuous blue curtains, a swirl of dust entering a stripe of sunlight that appears. I feel a twinge of embarrassment, my cleaning not being up to standard. She doesn’t notice. She opens the curtains and her face is flooded with that rich light I love this time of year.

“I’m pregnant. And I’m afraid.”

“Oh!” I feel a surge of giddiness and then unease.

She stays at the window, but turns back to me. “I don’t know how I can do this. I’m quite alone. Richard doesn’t seem that desirous of children or of me, anymore. He doesn’t know yet. He’s travelling again.”

“Ah. I see.” Energy traverses spine and neck, turning into a shiver.

“Do you? Because I’m not sure I even can! It’s a mess, really. He’s gone all the time, he may have other….interests…I can’t bear to think how I will manage.”

Idina sits down again and reaches for my hands. I cover hers in both of mine and feel her deflate, her body crumple against the chair.

“Is he…?”

What do I want to ask?  Do you still love this man? Are you having other health issues? Are you going to be alright? Of course not, she is a wreck as well she should be. After all the years and here we are again, our childhoods so gone we can barely see them. Yet she needs me.

I try again. “What is it you want?”

Idina’s head lowers to her hands. “I just need a true friend.”

Now, you might think that after all these years I would have heard these words and felt once more welcomed, been relieved, look forward to her company. Instead, I release her hands and pull myself up tall. I am filled with sadness and anger.

“Now? You now want me close, Idina? When trouble strikes you feel I should come running as when we were ten? These are adult complications that intimate friends share… I don’t know you, really, not at all. I have been a housemaid passing, soundless, while you have come and gone, lived your rightful and separate life. I agreed to this, the money has made a difference; I have had some good times here. But it has worked because we set a boundary long ago. We have kept to our separate stations. It is too late to be such close friends as you desire, way too late.”

She begins to cry, hiding her face in her hands. How small she looks in her periwinkle dress, her finely woven grey shawl. I have to root my feet to the floor to not reach out to her. I am not the carefree child who has boundless love. I am a pinched and aching and restless woman, given to flights of fantasy, given to dreams that may never come true for me. She has had choices, not so many, but more. She has had love, not the best perhaps but years of companionship. She now has a baby coming. To nurture and cope with day and night. I know all about that after years of being my mother’s hands and feet.

All I want is out.

“I’m sorry, truly I am. I can’t be a nursemaid, caring for your surprise child. I can’t hold you up through thick and thin now. And I don’t want to clean toilets and dust libraries whose books I cannot even take the time to read even if they were available to me. I have to take my own life into my hands. I must do just that when you find my replacement. You were a good friend, once. We were there for each other, once. But now we live lives so far apart that they do not intersect in a way that has meaning for me. I’m not a friend for hire, Idina. You do need care and help. But that help is not me.”

I touch her shoulder–I want to put my arms around her and cry with her even as I want to go–but she bats my hand away. Uncertain and fearful of what I have done, I hesitate. Then Tip scratches at the door. I let him in. He trots in with a small brown mouse in mouth and carefully lays it at my feet. I am glad to see his efforts have paid off and more so that he has brought his victory to share with us. With me, in fact. I turn to Idina but she is still weeping as if she will never stop. But she will.

Tip is at attention, looking satisfied and neat as a pin. He purrs as I smooth that fine old head.

“Good job, old fellow. Quite the catch. But I have my own work to do. You’ll have to show your mistress.”

Tip picks up his mouse and walks out the door with me, then runs down the winding stairs. I pull it shut and hurry to the next room, chin up, chest opening as I catch the heady scent of spring from somewhere beautiful.


Artifacts, Ibsen and Me


                         (“Flowers in Stone” by Paul Klee, 1939)

We didn’t understand Gene’s strange habits but we all had our quirks. He was studying archeology, a somewhat arcane but respected field. Our college home was a haven for creative types, thus our tolerance of “differentness.” Most of us were wrapped up in  practicing social activism, discovering love’s fruits and follies or mapping the most powerful trajectories to success. Also partying, more for some than others. I chased a few highs when I wasn’t studying film and theater but my main goal was to be discovered as the next magnetic ingénue.

The household was big enough that we had rotations for cooking, cleaning and organizing entertainment nights. Ten of us lived there at one point but six to eight was a better number with five bedrooms, two of them smallish. Gene nabbed one of the latter, a corner room with two large windows and a sweeping view of the neighboring house but a glimpse of street. He outfitted his place with a twin bed, an antique desk and three tall bookshelves.

We seldom visited him there. You could barely get in. The floor space was eaten up by folders of torn out articles, oversized books, personal notebooks and Mason jars of pens and pencils, random items like a tall floor fan even in winter and a stack of blankets because he liked to be toasty underneath them while the fan blew frigid breezes. I only peeked in a couple of times when the door was ajar. As a general rule it was shut. Keeping the community at bay. He made a sign in very small red letters: All ye who enter will be taxed according to hierarchical law. Who knew what that meant? Gene wanted his refuge free of disruption.

I was responsible for vacuuming every five weeks and I admit it scared me when he refused to allow it. He did own a dirt buster handheld vacuum. But one time his half-opened door allowed a glance. The room was teeming with objects. The first caught my ear: a wooden chime that hung from a nail on the door. I saw a nicely framed print of a Paul Klee painting atop a set of dusty speakers. Four fat pillows slouched in a corner, next to an upturned crate. Inside it was an assortment of snacks, wrappers, an old transistor radio and candle stubs plus new votives. A box of matches was in a coffee can along with two ripe bananas. I nearly called a meeting to discuss fire hazards but I trusted Gene. He had a half-dozen votive holders beneath the crumpled cellophane. I deducted that he lined them up on the windowsill, as I had seen the flickering glow from the sidewalk. I backed out.

Travis, his one decent friend, told me that under the bed Gene stored shoeboxes of labeled items. Inside were a motley gathering of stones and insect specimens and mosses to political and religious pamphlets he picked up around town to a variety of buttons that had come off from random clothing, some of them his own. I wondered if my missing aqua sweater button might be in there. When you’re a scientist everything must seem collectible, something to categorize.

I didn’t dislike him. On the contrary, he was polite, dry humored, and full of lightning-quick ideas. He was okay to look at. It was clear he was brilliant. He irritated a few when he brought home unknown mushrooms and some metal odds and ends in one of our new coffee mugs. Gene thought it a strange thing to be mad about. I bought him his own mug. It had three golden pyramids gleaming against black and cost me two dollars at a second-hand store. I left it at his door.

One fall day I was debating whether or not to see a Truffaut film or practice my lines. I’d just landed the role of Nora in Ibsen’s play The Doll House and it weighed on me even though I was thrilled. Nora drove me to despair with her quiet suffering, her willingness to be her husband’s “pet” until she could bear it no longer. How could I find her secret strength?


Gene entered the patio, sat across from me on a bench, leaned back and yawned.

“Taking in the sunshine?” he asked. “I feel like a mole  out here.”

I was taken aback that he was talking to me, a lowly actress. I hugged my knees. “I’m pondering a part I got.”

He sat forward, hands dangling between his knees. “Oh. What?”

“Nora in Ibsen’s famous play. Her subterfuge unnerves me and it takes her three acts to leave her husband, all the while letting him minimize her value. Then he was appalled by an error in judgment  she made–and for his sake.”

“Ah,” he said.

I could see he knew little of Henrik Ibsen. I was leaning toward seeing the film.

Gene  stood and paced. “You do know it premiered in 1879. Ibsen believed women had no freedom to become themselves fully and were misunderstood. It was based on the life of his own friend, Laura, a writer. Only she was committed to an asylum thanks to her husband.” He cast me a sad look. “But the play grants Nora some dignity in the end and she makes a terrifying decision. Ibsen’s friend later became a well-known writer, did you know that?”

I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I knew the basic sociological facts; I’d been studying the play. I didn’t know abut Ibsen’s friend, how her plight moved him to write the play. That Gene knew it all was astonishing to me, yet not quite as amazing as his speaking to me.

“You really appreciate Ibsen?”

“I appreciate most art and science, and see history as a vast compendium of tales and treasures. And I admire Nora’s bravery. The cost it carried.” He stopped pacing and sat down on the edge of his chair. “But what I really wanted to do was say thanks for the mug.”

“The mug? Oh, sure. It was nothing.”

“But it was. I love the pyramids, those times. I plan to visit. It was kind of you to think of me. No one has bought me such a thing before. ”

He slouched in his brown T-shirt. His shaggy hair was ruffled by a whirl of wind. But his eyes were focused on a wooly bear caterpillar between us.


I felt foolish. How I had laughed over his habits, said nothing in defense when gossip flew. And he was grateful for an old mug, one with faded gold pyramids. I got up and knelt by the caterpillar.

“It should be a very cold winter–look how fluffy, and that big orange stripe. That’s what I always heard.”

“Could be,” Gene nodded. “Old wives’ tales can be accurate, which is why they have survived over time.” He stroked his whiskery chin and nodded, it seemed, at the caterpillar. “Well, do your best by Nora.”

He stood up and walked away. Did not look back or wave. He didn’t say anything much to me later. I caught myself watching him at times but soon gave up.

The snow arrived early and heavily, and that was the reason why I poked my head into his room the second and last time.

“Well, what about this weather?”

“I know,” he said, “our wooly was right.” Gene had a Cardinals’ baseball cap on backwards and tipped it at me, then went back to his book.

I almost walked in. There were things I wanted to ask about. Tell him. But he was taking notes and there was no room for me to sit. I closed the door just as he glanced up, eyes questioning.

Soon after he moved to a studio of his own. I missed him behind that door. I hoped he’d attend the play but never asked. Nora had become a valiant creature but also a symbol of the dangers of being held hostage by a lie. I wanted to live truthfully.

I often wondered what good might have come from a friendship with Gene but life went on as it does, rough but generally manageable. In the end it worked out well enough.

Years later, after I’d joined a theater company in San Francisco, I was in a newly found bookstore. The bookseller recommended A Collegiate Compendium for the Less Likeminded: Essays so I read the author’s blurb on a Eugene Masterson. I sat down. It stated my old roommate had a PhD and had published articles on Mongolian and Egyptian artifacts. In the photo he was seated at a cluttered table in a tent. In his hand was the mug with three golden pyramids on it. He was lifting it up as though making a toast with an unseen person, and he smiled just enough at the camera. At me. I held his book close, then took it home.

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