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.