Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Collision of Lives

Yesterday I had a head-on collision with the several lives I've lived since I went to college. You know how you measure your life by the time you've been in a place, or the people who have been in your life for a period of time, or the things you've done with your life? Well, that's the way it is with me at least. And while I'm the same person in all of these lives, I'm completely different in all of them. Changing, growing, shaping and being shaped. I'm always the same, and all the while different. A paradox, full of contradictions.

Yesterday, thirty-three years' worth of living came together in one place, and for one reason: to honor a woman who had made her mark on each of us for all those years and more. Dr. Ottilie Stafford was remembered first through poetry and music in a memorial service. It wasn't your typical memorial, with a life sketch and remembrances shared. Instead, her children read poems either they or she wrote, and friends did the same. Three of my cousins were involved, as were a former student of mine, a one-time heart throb, two former professors, and the wife of a former principal. And that was just the beginning of the connections. There was a singing group with another student, another professor, and a (theatrical) husband (!) in it.

The congregation was also filled with friends, former students, an ex-boyfriend, former professors, colleagues, pastors, and former European tourmates. Everywhere I looked, there was someone I knew, someone I had ties with one way or another. I knew beforehand that the gathering would be interesting. I had no idea, though, how shaken up I would feel seeing so many people from various parts of my whole adult life coming together in one place like that.

The service lasted about 45 minutes, but the aftermath went on for hours, literally. I wanted pictures, but it didn't seem appropriate to do that, so I refrained, even though I had my hand on my camera several times, itching to preserve this most extraordinary experience. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy all the conversations afterwards. Every few minutes there was someone else to catch up with. It was such fun!

Some looked so old! Gray or sparse hair, gaunt faces or packed-on pounds. Almost none looked the same as when I last saw them. Even me, I suppose, although people often tell me I haven't changed a bit. Probably they are just being kind. I know I'm hardly the same...

My youngest sister went with me and she confronted some of the "demons" from her past...teachers who had intimidated her at the time but who she found, to her surprise, no longer had that affect on her. That amazed her so much that she mentioned it several times.

I had the chance to talk with two women who had a part in shaping the kind of teacher and "boss" I am. First the woman who directly supervised my work in the college library for several years. She was Swedish and married to an Italian history professor. They both had heavy accents when they first came to the college and both were challenging to understand. But each made an impact on my life. Her husband passed away within the last year or so. I was able to tell her how sorry I was, and thank her for their influence on me. The other woman was the one I did my student teaching under. She is now a divorce lawyer, but she was a very fine and demanding teacher. I think of her now and again when I say or do something in my classroom that I learned from her. I was happy to thank her for the time she spent with me, guiding and shaping how I would operate in my classrooms ever afterwards.

The new editor of The Review, our world church paper, and I had a fairly lengthy conversation. I congratulated him on his new position, and he seemed genuinely pleased for me about my "new" position as principal. It ended with him asking me to write for him. I said I would, but who knows if I'll ever find the time to write and submit something I feel worthy of a readership of millions, literally, all over the world. Nice to know I have a likely acceptance if I do, though.

And I had several delightful conversations with former students. All the ones there hold dear places in my heart. We had so much fun together, in and out of the classroom. They (and others) are why I stay in teaching. It's all about relationships...

It was hard to break away from the gathering, but I had a project to work on with my sister, so we finally left, both of us amazed at how one person had brought so many divergent groups together that way, and at the joy we found in what was, for all that, a sad occasion. But as one person said, "she would have loved this day, too." Yes, she would have.

One of Dr. Stafford's oldest friends and colleagues closed the service by reading an excerpt from a Thanksgiving Sermon Dr. Stafford had given some 13 years ago. In part, it reads:

I drove home thinking of the people I should thank and the things I should be thankful for. My parents, for giving me a sense of being free to become myself....My students, who taught me much more than I ever taught them. The books, music, geography, adventure, sorrows and hardships that mix in every life to give it its texture and values. And, most of all, the vastness and magnanimity of the Creative God, whose love demands nothing of us, except our response.

Photos: Cemetery in Concord, MA; Haskell Hall at AUC; Haskell Hall again (would you believe I can't find any photos of the White House (English Department) at AUC?), Founder's Hall at AUC.

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