We’ve been seeing, over the last two weeks, some of our colleges and universities caving in, with administrators devoured by the clichés they have been content over the years to flatter and leave unchallenged. My late wife, Judy, was for thirty-eight years the Director of Academic Publications at George Washington University. Everything published under the imprint of the University had to come under her hand, including the courses offered for instruction.
I recently came across a memo she had written in the mid-90s, in which she recognized that she could not finally “stand aloof from the canon wars.” She was dealing with proposals to create new doctoral fields for “African-American or Asian-American literature.” “Would we not be suggesting,” she remarked, “that the somewhat thin body of work in Asian-American lit is analogous to the several centuries and endeavor that span Beowulf and the works of Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon, Webster, Jonson, Milton, Donne, Dryden et al.”
It struck me later that these were all writers she had studied intensively herself. But if the university were open to grand new fields so narrow, she had another suggestion: “Let’s open it up really wide and add a field in the works of Viennese expatriates who lived within a mile of the University of Chicago, 1945-55.”
That short note caught the sensibility and sardonic humor of my Lady. Since she died, I’ve been trying to recover that sensibility a bit more fully by reading again the books she loved – notably Middlemarch, and even some of the novels of Angela Thirkell, essentially giving us a taste of what Jane Austen would have sounded like if she had been writing about life in the English countryside during the post-war Labour government. I also read the book that made Judy cry not long before she died, Mrs. Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers, a moving and finely crafted story.
But I’ve also come across caches of letters, and my own family journal, from the 1970s and 1980s and even many older ones from the 1960s. I don’t know why it took so long for a simple truth to break through: I spend so much time reading books, including biographies, and so wouldn’t it make sense that it’s time, with Judy’s death, to start reading closely the book of my own life? Thinking back quickly, the 60s and 70s may come as a blur. But those years were lived day by day, and as I look again at those letters and notes, I find myself living Judy’s life again day by day.
There was Judy’s letter to the principal of the public school, writing without rancor but with sharpness, pointing out that our first-born had been saddled with work in math so elementary as to foster boredom and, with boredom, mischief. My own notes brought the record of a fight between our boys, and our older one, Peter, age nine, drew on his favorite Tin-Tin Stories and protested: “I’ve given a proper apology. . .I demand a proper insult.”
I could feel Judy’s sense of desperation as I found a package of about forty letters, crafted separately. She was applying for jobs in editing in all kinds of enterprises as the children were taken up all day in school themselves. She sought a job in Washington when I’d won a fellowship to spend a year at the Smithsonian. But how could she offer herself for a substantial job if she’d have to give it up after one year to return to Amherst and “idleness”?
As it happened she did find that marvelous job, and the solution, for a short while, was to commute: to fly back every weekend to the boys and me in Amherst. That imparted its own strain for her, in being away from the family even for a few days. A note on the fly: “Distribute kisses from me and send my love (for yourself as well). Love, J.”
Eventually I would do the flying. The last time she dropped me at the airport, I told her that we had only three more runs to the airport and I’d be with her all the time.
We’ve just had the anniversary of her death, on November 13, with Fr. Arne Panula doing a lovely midday Mass for her this past Friday. But it was on a Thursday that she died. I was preparing this past Thursday to go to a black-tie dinner, when I realized that this was precisely the moment when the news came crashing in on me a year ago.
I had flown from Amherst, and arrived at the hospital at 6:30, only then getting the hard news. And suddenly I could feel it in my stomach: what it was like to return that night to our apartment – dark, empty, and silent.
I plead the indulgence of our readers in mentioning all of this now, for we’ve had a week filled with the tumults of the campuses, the killings in Paris, and the resounding troubles of the world. But I couldn’t give primacy to any of them right now, when set against this anniversary, so long anticipated, and leaving only scraps of significance for everything else.
What I can report is that, in this year on unfamiliar ground, trying to make my way without her, I’m reliving Judy’s life with those letters and notes, and she remains vividly with me every day.