In her prime, she had long flowing gray hair. And flowing skirts and capes. I want to say capes but it was probably sweaters or shawls, it was a time when everyone wore flowing things. She had the look of a dispossessed queen coming back to reclaim her throne from an evil pretender. She was robust and confident and very beautiful.
And she was one fearsome professor. She taught sociology, having hewn academic credentials out of vast piles of grit. Married very young, she slogged through college and graduate school, earning a Ph.D. and becoming nationally known for her first-hand, anthropologically-oriented research on Los Angeles gangs. She was a tough one.
So I avoided her. Somehow, I got through my entire graduate program without ever being in a class she taught. Oh, my friends were in her classes, they were entranced by her, swept up in all of her flowing. I was just intimidated, even through I had a pretty good flow game going myself. It would seem a natural to affiliate with her but I steered so clear as to pass on an elevator when it opened if she was standing in it. That’s how fearsome she was to me.
Two male professors mentored me through graduate school, an African American geography professor known for his intense classroom questioning of students, and a pipe-smoking, story-telling, poetry-writing Irish sociology professor. They both were very well-known in the academic world – at polar opposites in terms of their world views, methodologies, and personal styles. But they both, for whatever reason, believed in me in a way that never sniffed of charity or political correctness. Such gifts to me, both of them.
But back to the flowing professor. Toward the end of my program, after I’d taken my preliminary exams, and been qualified to begin my dissertation, her son was killed in an automobile accident in northern Wisconsin. He was returning from a ski trip, very icy roads, a single car accident, a terrible tragedy. Word spread among the students – even though this was in the 80’s – we still seemed to communicate pretty quickly. And then the notice came that because she and her husband didn’t really know anyone in our town save the people at the university, particularly young people, whom they badly wanted around them, there would be a gathering at their small apartment to remember her son.
So, not being able to say no to such a request, I went. And she sat, her hair flowing, of course, wearing a long skirt with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders, her husband sitting on the arm of her chair and the group of us sitting on the floor and we talked about things. I don’t remember what things. I just remember that she was soft and serene, sometimes smiling, and so clearly glad that we had come. I felt terrible for her, being a mother myself, at the time, a single parent of an eight-year old daughter. I couldn’t fathom her grief, the weight of it seemed terrifying. But she wasn’t terrifying, not anymore. She was no one to be afraid of, she probably never was.
I remembered all of this yesterday when I saw a notice that the flowing professor had died. She was 90. And in the picture, she had cut her hair but it still flowed and she was still beautiful.