Less writing today on a day that was still literary. Friend James and I went to the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst. The volunteer guide told me nothing I didn’t already know from reading her poems, scholarship on ED’s work, and Alfred Habegger’s excellent biography. Still, it was something to see a facsimile of the dress she wore daily (so petite) and a giant oak tree in the yard, planted as a sapling when Emily was born in 1830.
The idea that shaped the docent’s talk was that “how Emily Dickinson,” the girl who stayed at home, “ever became a poet is a mystery.” Huh? Has anyone ever heard of… imagination? James suggested that the docent’s take on the poet’s life had to do with the docent being a historian, a seeker and interpreter of clues and artifacts.
Perhaps that the docent was a historian is what prompted me to take out an abandoned, unfinished memoir piece, called “Dead and Gone,” and do some work on it. This is its (drafty) beginning, some of which I wrote today:
The photograph, candid, shows him on his bicycle. He’s smiling, and his wavy hair blows back from his high forehead. These are the days before helmets and specialized bike gear became ubiquitous. Riding up the hill to Green Hall, he’s relaxed on the seat and makes it look easy. His look is collegiate: corduroy jacket and pants, sweater, low hiking boots.
That the photo is black and white makes it look older, and paradoxically, makes him look younger. Aren’t black and white photos usually from personal archives of our younger selves, before color? I suddenly realize that, when I knew him, around the time the photo was taken, he was younger than I thought he was.
I was a college student, and he was my history professor. He seemed, at that time, in the realm of “grown-up.” I vaguely knew that he was married, had children. Perhaps he or his wife had even responded to the ad I posted in the Campus Employment Office under “Babysitter Available,” and I couldn’t help them because I was busy babysitting another family’s child.
Because he was grown-up – a man, professor, scholar – this was also a large part of his attraction for me. I was infatuated with him. I loved him as much as you can love someone you admire from ten feet away, three times a week, for the 70-minute class period.
I had not, however, thought of him or my crush for more than 10 years when I came across this picture and a long, glowing obituary of him in my alumnae magazine. This was 1999 and I had been out of school since 1987. I hadn’t seen him or taken a class with him for two years longer than that. Suddenly, though, I was overcome with shame. The obituary described his devotion to his children, scholarship, and students. The colleague who wrote the tribute, who obviously knew my former professor more deeply and steadily than I had, praised his service to the college and generosity to his students.
“I am such an asshole,” I muttered. My heart stabbed at itself contritely. I thought back to a meeting with him in his office when I, it seemed as I looked back, misjudged him. He was a nice man, and I thought he was hitting on me, and I am such a jerk. Such a jerk. An obituary might cast a life in certain light, illuminating and enlarging it. The grandeur of this one made my memory of that meeting seem overplayed, pathetically. At the time, it had all seemed so clear to me, so black and white. And it turns out I knew him not at all.
After our visit to the Emily Dickinson house, James and I found her gravestone, as well as her sister’s and parents’, in a nearby cemetery. Strange to think of her bones under there, that scruffy patch of grass.