Monday, March 15, 2010

in the garden

it must be the time of year. i haven't thought that i saw her in a long time.

she retired the year before i became a stay-at-home mom, in plenty of time to enjoy the long life she no doubt had ahead of her. she traveled and gardened and loved on her grandchildren and seemed always to report some new delight or some new joy in her post-work life. indeed, even in her work life, she had always seemed to find delight, in spending time encouraging fledgling writer students; pouring her heart into fundraising work on behalf of female coworkers and students; or taking a lunchtime walk with an eager, young coworker (who now realizes what a gift it was to have spent that time with her). i will never forget discovering beauty with her at the butterfly house or her generous offer of a secret snooze on the loveseat in her office where no one could find me when i was pregnant and sick and exhausted. she is inextricably intertwined with my memory of september 11, 2001, which is another story entirely...

(we all have our i-remember-where-i-was-when stories, don't we? i remember hearing my parents' stories of where they were when jfk was assassinated; for my generation, these are the stories we'll tell.)

i was 23 years old, a baby, in my second year teaching students twice my age with four times my life experience. i was a youthful vigilante for good writing, determined to grace them with grammar and impart to them my joy in a carefully-crafted thesis statement or a finely-tuned outline. they were, for the most part, amused by this little yankee girl, fresh and energetic and so in love with proper syntax, so fond of thorough proofreading, so enamored of yet-another-draft. i didn't always know what i was doing--no, in fact, often had no idea what i was doing--standing in front of these students who knew so much more of the world than i: one who, with his whole family, had walked barefoot out of liberia, a political refugee; one who had given birth in a public restroom stall to a child she didn't know she was carrying; many who were working multiple jobs and single-handedly raising children and even grandchildren my age.

on september 11, 2001, during one such grammar-filled early morning class, my students took a break from their computer lab work and headed out for a drink or a snack or a smoke. as one student left, she pulled me aside and pointed out to me that one of her classmates was carrying a knife. this was a large thirty-something man, struggling to get by in school, sweet and determined and utterly danger-less; he had his hunting knife strapped to his belt, no doubt just one of many tools he considered innocuous as he carried it with him that day. it was a large knife, certainly carrying the potential for danger even if its owner wouldn't hurt a fly (so to speak), and weapons were forbidden on campus for good reason. so as the rest of the students enjoyed their five-minute break, i took this student aside, foolish baby that i was, and explained to him that he would have to leave class with the knife. he was confused, upset--he needed so badly to be in the class, eager struggler that he was--but i urged him to get rid of the knife and meet me in my office after class so i could explain further and catch him up on what he missed. i learned later that i should have called security and had him escorted off campus, but i'm glad i didn't. he was so sweet and so utterly not guilty of anything but naievete.

but i was shaken by the experience, yankee baby that i was, having never even seen a hunting knife like that, much less confronted an understandably-frustrated and armed, as it were, student.

it was near 9:00 when the rest of the class returned with stories heard in the halls, some of a plane crash, some of a building collapse in new york. to them as to everyone else south of the mason-dixon line, as i have learned, new york is new york is new york: never mind that i grew up five hours by car north of the city: it must be my very own neighborhood. knowing nothing of the magnitude of the snippets of the story they were reporting and still quite literally trembling from the encounter with the student with the knife, i directed them back to their work.

after class ended around 10:00, i rushed back to my office to meet the knife-carrying student, fully expecting to find my immediate supervisor in her office next door and to ask her to meet with this student with me. but before i made it to my office, i found the conference room door open (it never was) and the large screen television blaring. i couldn't resist peeking in to see what was going on. of course, the images on the screen were of the tragedy we all know simply as 9/11. and i found her there, watching. breathlessly, still unclear as to what i was seeing, i asked her (my supervisor's supervisor, she was) to come with me to meet with the student. she explained to me briefly how the world had changed even as i had been engrossed in my little developmental writing world that morning but then quickly accompanied me to my office. i remember little of our conversation with the student, anticlimactic as the episode turned out to be, even though just an hour earlier it had felt earth-shattering. i do remember her explaining as simply as possible to the poor man what had happened in new york and how his carrying a knife (he still was) on campus at that moment in history was particularly threatening. he was unable to understand why she had to call security to escort him off campus, perhaps even to drive him home, i think, as he was accustomed to riding the city bus. i remember her calmness, her gentleness with the poor man who would never understand why his carrying a tool could cause such a stir. she was firm but gentle, confident in what needed doing even as she was understanding of the student's inability to comprehend. and she modeled for me compassionate leadership, good parenting, mercy and grace, stern discipline, and appropriate communication all in that moment.

all of which--that story, and all my memories of her--is to say nothing of her service to her church and community, not to mention her writing. she was, in so many ways, and encouragement, an inspiration, and a delight to me and everyone she met.

after i left work for my own new adventure in the fall of 2003, spending much of my time searching out new stroller-friendly distractions, i found myself seeing her regularly if infrequently at duke gardens. we would laugh when we'd run into each other there, both remarking what a while it had been since we'd been there and what a lovely coincidence to find each other there again. we would catch up, she sharing her latest adventures, i sharing news-less news of life at home with baby luke.

she always wore delicious jewel tones, which accented her stylishly cropped white hair so well, that hair that held the spot that would be her calling Home so much sooner than anyone ever could have imagined. it was jewel-tone-dressed white-haired women walking the garden last week that made me think--twice in as many hours--that i saw her there.

bonnie gray vick stone died on april 29, 2008, almost two years ago. that spring, her last, i didn't see her in the gardens anymore. she was home, sick and dying, even as the world was being reborn yet again. so i went to duke gardens--this time with baby eliza in the stroller--and took pictures, went to the azalea gardens and tried to capture what she should have seen, and sent her those fresh sights by mail instead, along with words describing the smells and colors she knew so well. she wrote back with thanks, sharing her joy even in the midst of her suffering, and we both delighted in the opportunity to exchange real letters in this modern world of electronic communication.

i was at the gardens again this spring, stroller-less now, taking pictures of flowers again, when i repeatedly thought i saw her. this is the place she inhabits in my memory: not her sunny corner office; not her cozy, book-lined house; not her church or her murder vigils or any of her other places. it's in the garden where she belongs, jewel-toned clothing complementing the spring-tones of rebirth. "God Almighty first planted a Garden; and indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures," declared sir francis bacon, words immortalized on the sundial in the very garden where i found her so often in her life and now find her in my memory.

the purest of human pleasures. i am so glad to have delighted in the same with her and to have again another spring in which to find her memory here. i am so glad for the reminder, even as the earth is reborn, that her rebirth is eternal and sure and Good.


Kerry Cantwell said...

This was a tough post to read for a lot of reasons. I remember that day so well. I remember that student. I remember leaving you behind early so I could get home to call my folks in DC. While you remember sharing that day with her, I remember sharing it with you. Much love.

Patricia Berman said...

Beautiful. And once again, I am in tears!

Daniele said...

Oh, Kerry, that's right! What a crazy day that was...I remember thinking it felt like it had been nearly a week by the time we all left.