That Person

by Anita/Musette




I had a perfume-related post almost ready for today.  Then Life (and its mirror, Death) stepped in.




All of us has That Person – some of us are fortunate to have more than one – but sometimes One is all you need.  That Person is the one who, by an action small or large, maybe a steadying hand or an ongoing friendship, somehow validates you beyond your own reasoning.  They are jewels beyond price and even if we don’t stay fully connected to them we are, somehow, never completely disconnected – that connection helps our continued growth.  Sometimes they come to us in our youth, sometimes as we wade through our later  life.  But no matter when, they are instrumental in our ability to appreciate who we are and who we struggle to become.

I grew up in middle-class Chicago, going to Catholic grammar school in the early 60s.  Rough times.  I was  the Smart, Slightly Weird one.    BVM nuns and the cool kids tortured me with equal abandon.  You know this drill – we’ve all got stories to tell.   Geek before Geek was cool – and back then it most certainly Was Not Cool.  The social/academic missteps  (if she would only apply herself...) went on and it looked as if I was headed for a Sleepwalk  through undergraduate school (the most wonderfully indulgent, slipshod place )  – until I came under the tutelage of Dr. Reta Madsen.  A brilliant scholar (Yale PhD – how she ended up at our little artsy- bonky college is still a mystery), she managed to take a passle of smart, underachieving psychopaths and turn us into some vague version of critical thinkers.   None of us had a thought in our head about why we were there  (this was in the 70s, remember).  Sloppy, silly, entitled kids.  This should’ve been Bad Match 101 but somehow it worked.   Our admiration for this woman was borderline cultish.  At a time when everyone else attended class in  pajamas (when they attended at all), we Dressed, like 50s throwbacks,  for 19th Century Lit with Dr. Madsen.  Not her idea.  Ours.  That, plus our classroom civility and attempts to actually pay attention was the only way we could show our appreciation for her.    We were all ridiculous but somehow, the approbation of this brilliant, eminently sane woman validated us – and in doing so, lifted us out of the quagmire of an undisciplined approach and set us (even if it was just a toenail) on the path of rational adulthood.  She abhorred a lazy mind – you could be less than brilliant, but you couldn’t be lazy.  Not with her.  So we strove to align our pinball-bouncing synapses, clean up our syntax, just try to use our minds a little bit.  Sometimes it only lasted for the duration of her class but sometimes that’s all it takes to help rewire a mindset previously hell-bent for mediocrity.

She didn’t hang out with us.   She wasn’t a pal.  She was Dr. Madsen (again, our idea.  She preferred Mrs.).  We were always Mr or Miss.  She taught us, by example, how to behave with courtesy and grace.  We should’ve been wild to challenge and upend the tone she set in her classroom, instead we snatched at it like starving lions.  After graduation, for those of us fortunate enough to become friends with her, time spent together  meant that you sat up a little straighter..and thought for a minute before you opened your mouth. Dining with her was always a sparkling occasion, full of wit and down to earth humor, resisting all efforts to freeze her in Time (she was the first to get the OED on CD.  I was scandalized!!! “oh, get over it.  I’m tired of lifting that damn thing” she said, in her soft, Middle Tennessee drawl) .  She was something else.

Our friendship grew from those first, shaky steps (have you ever tried to write a letter to a PhD in English?  Punctuation checks nearly did me in)…to a comfortable, deep regard.   I couldn’t imagine a time when she wouldn’t be sitting across the table from me at Duff’s, glowing like a beacon and laughing at some weirdness.  Alas, that time has come.  And I am devastated  But not sad – at least not now, when I’ve had a chance to think about it.    I haven’t lost anything except the corporeal.  Every moment I stop to actually THINK  I owe to her.  She will be with me forever.


So I’m sorry it’s not a perfume post.  But what started out as a sobbing mess of a post is actually a paean to That Person – for all of us.    I would love to know who has made the kind of difference in your life that Reta made in mine.  Names aren’t important, if it’s inappropriate to identify them thus.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that they matter to you.


photo:  Ocracoke Island, Outer Banks.  Reta’s retreat.

  • Terry Sidell says:

    Anita, this is a wonderful tribute to Reta. I had tears in my eyes as I read it. Dee and I have been talking about organizing an online tribute to Reta from those former students for whom she was an organizing principle in life. Dee (and I) would welcome hearing from you about this and other issues in memorializing Reta. Contact dee at deeladuke@yahoo.

    • Musette says:


      This is just the worst way to reconnect isn’t it? I will write to Dee anon (just got back in town) – I think that’s a wonderful idea.

      And I wanted to offer both of you my condolences as well – this tribute is about Reta, of course, which means there are scores of people who were touched by her greatness. I think you both know how very much you were admired and valued by her. I certainly do – because she told me!

      xo >-)

      • Terry Sidell says:

        I’m going out of town for a few days, but do email me at (email deleted). Do you still have the email address Reta gave me some years ago, the earthlink one? Yep, bad way to reconnect but let some good come from her passing.
        Back at you because Reta told me how much she enjoyed your friendship and respected and admired you.

        • Musette says:

          Hey, doll – I sent you a reply via email and am going to go in and erase your email so you don’t get spammed to death.

          xo >-)

  • maggiecat says:

    I think “That Person” is the one who sees who you could be, not jsut who you are. I’m very sorry for your loss, and yet happy that such a soul has touched you and given you so much.

  • mary says:

    Anita dear, thank you for sharing your beautiful friend with us, and for causing me to pause and remember my own long lost dear Mrs. Joslin, who helped me in so many ways. My chorus, choir, madrigals teacher. I hope she knee how much she meant to me and so many others. Take care Anita!xxoo mary

  • HemlockSillage says:

    You honor Dr. Madsen with your lovely writing. I am so sorry to hear about your loss. I’m so glad you knew her, and learned so much from her. What more could a teacher and friend ask, than to be remembered with such thanks and love? Sounds like a life well lived. Be well.

  • Tom says:


    That’s really lovely.

  • Wordbird says:

    My condolences on your loss and congratulations on having had such a wonderful teacher and guide. These people truly are blessings.

  • minette says:

    sweet, sweet tribute. thanks for the introduction.

    when i briefly wrote obits for the dallas newspaper, i was struck by how many truly cool people i had missing getting to know. it made me feel good to share what i could about them in the paper (although newspaper obits in america are completely whitewashed). i hope you feel good about sharing her with us. (i do.)

    do you recall the smells of her house, her entertaining, or her perfume? just curious.

    • Musette says:

      The only things I remember about her house was when I used to sit for their son, John. They lived a classic academic life – their entire house was a library (Dr.W. Madsen – oh, don’t get me started on the Milton library)…anyway, John had a little red chair, by the fireplace. The ‘Little Dorrit’ chair. That and the books are the only things I really remember. She was such a huge force of nature that she lit up the room. Tall, elegant, with snow-white hair….I don’t ever recall a perfume.

      I felt a little nervous about sharing my thoughts on this, when I first posted. I thought you all might be cranky that it was a non-perfume, sort of downer post. But I underestimated my Posse and your incredible capacity for caring. I am ashamed.

  • Sherri M. says:

    What a beautiful tribute and I can only echo I am also so sorry for your loss. Sending more hugs your way…

  • DinaC says:


    I’m so sorry for your loss of Dr. Madsen. She sounds like a woman I would have greatly enjoyed knowing and listening to. Like you, some of my significant people have been teachers. I have had three English teachers that were each amazing in their own way.

    My eleventh grade English teacher had blonde hair with a greenish cast and wore pant suits that dated from the early 70s — and this was the 80s. She may not have been stylish, but she was sharp as a tack and riveting in class. She won awards for the way she demonstrated diagramming sentences. Nobody who ever had her would ever forget proper sentence construction.

    My twelfth grade English teacher was also an award-winning teacher who actually handed out a syllabus (in a public school, no less!), and treated us as highly valued individuals. She collected ghost stories, and would reward our good behavior by sharing one with us.

    And finally, in college, I took several classes with an English professor, Dr. Gerda Taranow, whose petite frame housed an enormous intelligence and mischievous wit. Her eyes sparkled and flashed as she quizzed us about the dramas that we had read. Nobody ever wanted to come unprepared to her class because participating was such a joy, such a breathless carnival ride of fun. I came out of her classes feeling so alive, and so exhausted. :-)

    Your tribute was beautiful and heartfelt. I could feel the great waves of emotion behind the writing — she is obviously still with you and always will be.

    • Musette says:

      I thank you for sharing your People – what you said about my feelings for Reta is how I felt reading your recollections. Isn’t it amazing how much power these people wield? Thank Floyd they use their power for good!

  • Dionne says:

    One of my “people” came into my life for only a short time, but had a huge influence on me. Merrill moved to our small northern town when I was twelve, and was a friend of my parents (they said she was “sharp,” which in the parlance of my parents was the greatest compliment you could get). She really was a class act, gracious and refined and devastatingly intelligent. For some reason I’ve never fathomed but been forever grateful, she took me under her wing.

    I was also a geek before geek was cool, and awkward as anything at that age, and it was a huge boost to have this amazing lady be my friend. She was warm but strict, and praise only came when you really deserved it, but you knew she MEANT it.

    She taught me a lot, including how to be gracious about receiving a compliment – I can still hear her voice now, “Dionne, when someone tells you you look nice, you don’t tell them why they’re wrong. You just say ‘Thank you.'” (A very good lesson to learn, I might add. I’ve met women so uncomfortable with compliments they imply you’re stupid for giving them.)

    She was only in my life for a couple of years, but I’ve never forgotten her. I wish I’d had the chance to let her know once I’d grown up what a huge influence she’d been, but she died of cancer before I got the chance.

    Just this last month, I was talking about her influence to a group of friends, and you can imagine my delight and surprise to find out Merrill was one friend’s aunt. She had tears in her eyes as she told me that Merrill had never married and had a family, even though she’d wanted to, and at the end of her life struggled with the thought she’d never made a difference. It was a special moment as I let my friend know that she’d been a defining person in my life.

    It reminded me that our efforts to be kind and warm and just plain decent to each other make a difference, even if we don’t realize it.

    • Musette says:


      That is a beautiful story. I’m struggling with those ‘weird tears’ reading it(you know, the ones that make you feel silly because you aren’t sad.) You both gave each other a great gift!

  • Victoria says:

    I am sorry for your loss, dear Anita. It is such a beautiful, moving homage to this woman who meant so much to you.

    Sending you lots of hugs!

  • Suzanne says:

    What a lovely and even uplifting homage you have written to this scholarly woman who meant so much to you, Musette. I’m so sorry for your loss but so glad you had this woman in your life.

  • sweetlife says:

    I am sorry for your loss, A. And so glad that you had this person to begin with.

    I am very lucky to have had several such persons. I met another just a couple years ago and they have made all the difference. As we get older, it makes one want to pay attention to all the up-and-coming whippers snappers, doesn’t it? Just in case we can do a little something, if not be The One…

    • Musette says:

      Yes. It’s amazing how many young people are starved for approbation. Then again, I dunno why I am surprised. I was, myself.

      You know who I’ve been giving a little bit more attention to? Old people. With my pop in the nursing home, I notice that so many of the elders there just want somebody to make eye contact, say hello and acknowledge that they are still on the planet. Seriously, just saying ‘hello’ can light them right up.

  • fleurdelys says:

    You are so lucky to have had this woman in your life, and you have my sympathies for her loss. But she is always with you, in every action you take that was somehow influenced by her.

    I have a close friend who has been “that person” for me. She was the first person to let me know that I had value. She pointed out the positive things about me. She made me feel that I was OK, neither worthless or a loser. Sometimes you just need that one person believing in you to begin to pull yourself out of the mire.

    • Musette says:

      Oh, honey. SO yes! There are many things that bug me about the Internet but one of the things I love is that one can write about things like this feeling, perhaps, that you were the ‘only’ freak-kid out there….and then all sorts of fabulous people share their stories…and it’s all just so much better.

      Thank you for sharing. I’m so glad you had That Person, too.

  • March says:

    Honey, I already emailed you, but >:d< and @};-

  • Dee says:

    I’m trying to pull myself together — as well as so many memories– and write, but not yet. I’ll start to fill this deep hole of loss I can’t satisfy otherwise when I do. In the meantime, thank you for writing such a beautiful tribute and to Terry for bringing us together again. And to Reta for connecting us in the first place.

    Sorry we reconnect under such sadness.

    • Musette says:


      Dang. You’re right. This is a sad way to reconnect. But you know, Reta would find the humor in it (she always was pretty upfront about dying, at least she was with me. I don’t think she expected to go quite so soon but I’m so glad it was quick. Lord, that sounds so trite. I hope you know what I mean.

      Perhaps I’ll see you at the memorial? I suspect you are still West? I was describing you and your wonderful 50s vibe to El O, as we were hurtling towards the wilds of Kansas City today. It was the first time I’d smiled in awhile, remembering your gorgeousness.

  • Bruce says:

    “[Y]ou could be less than brilliant, but you couldn’t be lazy. Not with her. So we strove to align our pinball-bouncing synapses, clean up our syntax, just try to use our minds a little bit. Sometimes it only lasted for the duration of her class but sometimes that’s all it takes to help rewire a mindset previously hell-bent for mediocrity.”

    Yep. That captures Reta.

  • Kathryn says:

    The grace and depth of your writing, Musette, are a wonderful tribute to Dr. Madsen’s impact on your life. I am so sorry for your loss. I think your memoir *is* about perfume, too, in its deepest sense. Perfume have a way of condensing all those memories, hopes, and feelings you write of so well. They’re not just smells but an unwritten language that connects us to the things we hold dear. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    • Musette says:

      oh, thank you SO much! I’d not thought of my writing in connection to her, but you are so right! Everything I write is connected to her in some way.

      thank you!


  • Nava says:

    Oh, Antia, sweetie…

    I feel your pain on so many levels.

    As a product of the New York City public school system, it wasn’t until my second go-round at secondary education that I actually found a teacher who left a lasting impression on me. He is an English prof with whom I took 7 classes with; his scholarly expertise is coupled with a love of baseball, which made him “human” and “accessible”. Overall, he’s what we Jews like to call a “mensch”: a good guy; a decent fellow. Meeting him was exactly what I needed when I re-entered academia.

    I am so sorry for your loss. But, the memory of Dr. Madsen will live on, and hopefully inspire others to excel, and never aspire to laziness.


    • Musette says:


      I am SO glad you had your mensch! Those People are such gifts! Her cult-like status amongst us, her psychofreaks, resulted in an endowment at the University some years ago. I suspect we will redouble our efforts to keep endowing that, both financially and in our interactions with others.

      xoxo >-)

  • Shelley says:

    “I’m tired of lifting that damn thing.”

    You’ve got to love somebody who actually has intercourse with the O.E.D., and doesn’t just keep it as a deified relic, used only for special occasions a couple of times a year. That it itself speaks (pardon the pun) volumes about Mrs. Dr. Madsen.

    One of the hardest things about being a teacher, I think, if one is any good, is trusting that you are indeed having an impact, and yet never expecting tangible proof. Because, even if immediate positive feedback is offered, the pudding that offers the proof is years away. And by then, the student oftens feels too distant to say so. (Or, in the case of earlier childhood experiences, may never fully grasp just what that teacher helped set into motion.)

    I am always profoundly sad when I meet someone who never had a The Person in their life. And am always profoundly grateful and happy when I hear a tale about a successful relationship with One. I am so sorry to hear of Mrs. Dr. Madsen’s death, the sadness marks the turn of the earth I know you feel. But in the end, the story of your relationship brings happiness and hope. A toast to one Dr. Madsen…and another to all the Ones out there.

    • Musette says:

      I suspect that you, as a teacher, have been The Person on many occasion.

      And I adore you for the unflinching, correct usage of the word ‘intercourse’. I’m imagining repeating that sentence in mixed company ;))

      I miss my OED – it got ‘misplaced’ in some book de-accession (I’m blaming my ex [-( – he never did like that thing. I would get it on CD but I actually enjoy the process of turning pages and using the magnifying glass (am affectation then, a necessity now)

      xoxoxo >-)

  • Ann says:

    What a lovely post, very touching. I am so sorry for your loss, but as others have said, she will live on inside you and that, in itself, is a kind of comfort. My inspiration was a lady I worked with at a bank during my high school years. When my deeply troubled (drugs and alcohol) mother decided she no longer wanted me at home, this woman stepped up, without hesitation, and brought me home with her to live and to finish my senior year of high school. Heaven knows what I would have done without her; I was a mature, responsible kid, but still, it wouldn’t have been easy trying to make it completely on your own in the world at 17. She’s long since passed, but I will be forever grateful to her.

    • Musette says:


      What an incredible gift, Ann! And you, in turn, have repaid that gift by becoming the lovely, caring person you are. I’m sure she is very, very proud of you.

      xo >-)

      ps. my friend M did that (a friend of her son, with similar home issues. When asked ‘why’ she said “how could I not?”. Simple as that. @};-

  • Francesca says:

    All I can say is, what a beautiful tribute. And thank you.

  • Joe says:

    Aw, I was so sorry to read about your loss earlier today. I definitely understand about the people who’ve made a difference in ways large or small. I have two:

    First, a Bengali sociology professor at a junior college who really changed my life when I was sort of driftless, having quit my first undergrad attempt, art school. She sort of opened a world to me through her classes and I ended up transferring to the University of California with big thoughts of doing Third World Development.

    Second was sort of my UC mentor (though he may not have realized it), a Scottish professor of African anthropology, former Cambridge department head, who was probably the most passionate and well-prepared lecturer I ever had.

    I should really write to both of them. Thank you, and hugs.

    • Musette says:

      Yes you should, darling! I didn’t reconnect with Reta until a decade had passed – and that was just sheer, weird luck (or was it :-?…but the resulting 20 year friendship was one of the most rewarding I’ve had. It’s never too late, but sooner is better than later!

      xoxo >-)

      and thank you, sweetie. >:d<

  • Masha says:

    I had an amazing English teacher named Rosie Sleigh in high school. She took a bunch of lazy, arrogant, gifted kids and made us work, hard! No more taking it easy and still getting As for our group. This was the Preppie 80s, and she wore old sweaters and pink fuzzy slippers to school! She didn’t always comb her hair before class. She didn’t think greed was good. She tore up our papers if they weren’t the best we could write. In other words, she was completely amazing and totally counterculture, as Dr. Madsen was in your time.
    I’m very sorry you lost your Dr. Madsen, your eulogy is beautiful.

    • Musette says:

      Thank you! Masha, Rosie Sleigh did her job well. I was IN that classroom, reading your comment. 🙂 She sounds like a ball o’ fire (how many times in life do you get to write that phrase and not sound totally ridiculous. I hope this one is that time. :”>

      What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing!

      xo >-)

  • Aparatchick says:

    Anita, that’s a lovely tribute. And you’re right; she will always be with you.

    Funny how often That Person turns out to be a teacher. Mine was Mr. Reynolds, the history teacher who saved me from not only the usual misery of junior high school, but as the first person to tell me that I had value – that I mattered – saved me from a lifetime of thinking of myself as a lesser human being.

    A big hug to you, {{Anita}}

    • Musette says:

      ^:)^ to Mr Reynolds. And that’s exactly what Reta did. I think so many people go through their early lives feeling like lesser human beings. So many psychic lives saved because of people like them.

      A little levity here – I knew a young woman (back in my Young Woman Days) who had serious image issues. Her validation came from one of the most beautiful drag queens I’ve ever seen. They became great friends and I watched her blossom under his friendship and ‘her’ tutelage.

      An Uplifting Story – With Great Clothes! =p~

      xo >-)

      • sweetlife says:

        Love this, Musette. I have learned a great deal from drag queens, and even more from femme lesbians.

  • Kristin says:

    Love and condolences to you Anita.

  • Kristin says:

    I have had many throughout my lifetime. Some are gone and some are with me daily. The ones I pay homage to, I do so on a daily basis. Giving to those I can, in ways I can manage, because of those whom gave to me.

  • Singlemalt says:

    You have my thoughts and love. yes, I have a friend from high school. Years can go before we see each other. It is as though we were last together yesterday. As I’ve gotten older I think of the people that we don’t see often. Enough. I hope we all have a chance to spend more time with them. Taake are of yourself.

    • Musette says:

      Thank you for your kind thoughts. I know what you mean about those friends – Reta was one of those and I am blessed to have many more – where you sit down and within .04 seconds its as if you’d never parted!

      xo >-)

  • dianawr says:

    I’m sorry for your loss, and I know something of how you feel.

  • (Ms.)Christian says:

    I’m glad you had her, Anita. With those memories, she will never really be gone.

  • dissed says:

    Ah, I’m sorry. I know how that feels. My favorite high school teacher seems to have disappeared. She’s in my head, reminding me that writer’s voice still can’t trump content.

    • Musette says:

      oh, I do hope you find her. I found Reta on a whim – traveling to St. Louis for business, decided to stop in at her former office. 30 years of friendship later…:x but even if you don’t find her in person, she’s still with you (and she’s right, btw 😉

      xo >-)