Friday, February 24, 2006

Sic transit

A look backward

I broke a link the other day. I hadn't meant to break it. More likely, it was already broken and I finally realized it. Sometimes you don't fully comprehend that a connection no longer exists until long afterward. This is such an occasion.

The memorial service was noted on my calendar a number of weeks ago and I fully intended to go. On the day in question, however, there was a flurry of distractions at school, papers to grade, and classes to teach. Although I was heading toward my home town with enough time to make the service, by then I had forgotten about it. Only hours later did I realize what I had neglected.

The memorial was for the last surviving offspring of my former landlady, the only one to share (in some measure) her mother's longevity, although not quite in the same league. My old landlady made it well into her nineties, while her daughter had to be content with reaching the eighties. My connection with my former landlady and her family was forged back in the 1970s, when I came to town to attend graduate school at the local university and began what turned into a residency of several years in the student quarters in her basement.

“Miss Jane” was a widow who had come west with her husband when he took a position at the university. She had the southern-tinged hospitality of a border-state native and never quite seemed comfortable as a Californian. She had been on her own for decades when I met her, but she was comfortably set up with some investments, survivor benefits from the university, and her own pension from service as a university administrative assistant. Many of the buildings on campus bear names that she knew as living people. Miss Jane rented out a room for company's sake and the presence of a young person who might lend the occasional hand when a petite elderly woman needed something from a tall shelf. The rent was a wonderful bargain for me, especially since my landlady's house was close to the university and made commuting almost nonexistent. A short stroll sufficed to get me anywhere on campus.

I gradually discovered that living with Miss Jane had all the advantages—and disadvantages—of living with one's grandmother. She tended to spoil her student residents, sometimes offering meals (not part of the rental agreement) and always inviting me to join her when grandchildren were visiting for dinner. She also had copious amounts of advice and kept close tabs on her residents. Like I said, it was as if you were living with your grandmother.

Although I stayed with her a full year beyond grad school (during a part-time teaching appointment at the university), Miss Jane still seemed a bit miffed when I moved into an apartment at the beginning of the legislative job I obtained in 1979. I continued to visit her on a nearly weekly basis while a succession of new students occupied her basement rental. By then I had a thoroughly ambivalent role to play in Miss Jane's life scenario and family constellation. I was part of the bulwark she had erected against the world.

Miss Jane was a fierce little woman in many ways and often at odds with the community zeitgeist: a conservative Republican in a liberal college town, a semi-southerner in a western state, and a senior citizen in a relentlessly young population. (If you're a teacher, you already know that your students' youth is renewed each year while you keep getting older. Living next door to a university gives you a similar experience.) Miss Jane was not a cheerful person, and the passing years did not give her much reason to become more optimistic. She had already outlived her spouse and one offspring when I met her and would soon outlive another of her children. She seemed always alert and on guard against the further shocks that she expected life to mete out.

As someone who existed inside her defense perimeter, I gradually became one of her trusted few. Miss Jane particularly liked having a resident mathematician who could easily balance her checkbook to the penny every month. It was a simple favor to do for my landlady and soon I took care of it as a matter of course. Miss Jane's surviving daughter had a husband who was more than eager to be helpful with her accounts, but my landlady seemed to enjoy teasing her son-in-law by telling him it was all under control. It was entirely natural that he began to regard the resident grad student as an interloper, especially when I was no longer a resident and Miss Jane continued to save things for me to look at when I would make my next social call. She was using me to maintain a modicum of independence from those who had the actual responsibility to look out for her in her advancing age, but I didn't clearly perceive it that way at the time. I wonder if she did.

After I had been out of Miss Jane's home for a decade and she had to move into a residential-care facility, she had faced the necessity of putting her affairs under the management of her daughter and son-in-law. I was always able to maintain casually friendly relations with Miss Jane's daughter, who gave me some piano music from her mother's collection when it came time to shut down the house. Unlike her husband, the daughter's pride was apparently not pricked by the knowledge that mother preferred to have a “stranger” balance her checkbook.

I last saw Miss Jane's daughter at the drugstore late last year, when we coincidentally arrived at the same time to pick up prescriptions. As I said my name to the clerk, I heard her say her name just as clearly to a different clerk. When I made my purchase and turned toward her to say hello, I saw that she was already walking away with prescription in hand. It was not until I saw the obituary last month that I learned she had become nearly deaf and had vision problems. She hadn't heard my name at all and she probably hadn't even seen me. (Besides, I have changed a little in the fifteen years since I was enmeshed in that family circle.)

The daughter's death notice and memorial service announcement informed me that she had herself recently become a widow. I resolved to go to the service and offer my condolences to her children and the various nieces and nephews—Miss Jane's grandchildren—who might be there. Instead, as you saw, I did not go. How could I forget something that was my last connection to a big chunk of my college life? I guess it was already over. I just didn't know it until now.

Requiescat in pace.

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