Sometimes FB has its uses. I discovered last night my mentor, my friend, my hands down favorite professor died on December 26th. I had not spoken to her in many years. For numerous reasons an awkwardness had developed between us. But that did nothing to dampen my own feeling of love for Alice.
Alice was a magnificent presence. There are many people, too many as I get older, whom I have a hard time picturing without photos. But Alice is etched into my head. I can close my eyes, and see her standing outside whatever building she's teaching in, often with a gray cloak or sweater wrapped around her short, plump body. Her big old fashion glasses framing piercing eyes that knew how to pin an obnoxious student with one glare. She often wore long simple skirts, wool socks, chunky shoes. Her hair was gray, cut into a page boy. It doesn't sound like anything memorable but she was. She'd look at me and say in her husky voice "Let's have a fag." And then she's pull out her Benson & Hedges and scrounge around her entourage for a light. It always reminded me of one of those old 40s movies, the way we all scrambled to be the one who lit her cigarette.
In the classroom was where the magnificence really shown. I remember when we were reading Beowulf, and she fell backwards onto the desk at the front of the room in a swoon over the language. There was an uncomfortable laughter but from those of us who often swooned over language it was a permission to be in love with text. Alice's love, her passion, for literature came with her everyday to the classroom. This is a woman who taught for many years. This passion never dimmed in the entire time I was privileged to know her. She tolerated no disrespect for the literature, herself or her students. She did not know any trendy educational methods, and when she learned of them she scoffed. I am sure that her teaching methods were utterly boring to many students who took her classes but for me, and for many others, her teaching was an inspiration.
Alice had no tolerance for fools or complainers. She was by no means unsympathetic. She herself was the daughter of a working class man, and she brought compassion to her teaching. But she expected hard work and thought from her students. What this meant for me was someone who pushed me but who also encouraged me. Anyone who received one of Alice's typewritten notes knows what I mean. Often I received a little note stapled onto a paper, or slipped into a book. She would tell me what I was doing right, and offer pointers in what I could do better. I learned to read because of Alice. Really read. And I learned to not be ashamed of my words, my thoughts, or the excitement I felt when reading an excellent novel. Alice defended me, nurtured me, berated me.
She wasn't perfect which no doubt was part of her inestimable charm. She hated new things. Refused to touch a computer. Didn't like much literature written after Joyce. Was a total Anglophile with a sharp dislike of literature outside of that canon. She and I had one of our sharpest disagreements over the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. I defended the novel against her attacks, and she finally snarled at me "Why don't you just read a book about butterflies." She hated feminism (even though I'd argue she was quite the feminist), and was not overly thrilled about my "defection" to religious studies. She had sharp criticism for those she deemed unworthy. She was often a sarcastic bitch in the classroom, and the sting of her tongue left many in tears (we became friends after she tried this method on me and I lashed back). Sometimes she was fickle. It was easy to fall out of her graces, and painful. She was uncomfortable with me as mother, and the last time I was with her was an uncomfortable dinner with U who was about one at the time. Her distinct disapproval of how I parented was apparent, and she ended up snubbing me for much of the night. It hurt but I loved Alice, and love stands those moments.
I hold all these memories of Alice. I don't just wish to remember her as the good, wise woman. She was more than this. She was not a character in a literary novel. As she often reminded her students, life is not literature. She was human, fallible with magnificent talents and faults. She lived too grandly to have minor faults. Her gift of friendship to me has left it's mark. I am a Bloom student. Her support of both my professional and personal life kept me going when I wanted to quit. I enjoyed lunches at her house in her wild English garden. I met her husband and her children. I enjoyed glasses of wine with her and her stories. I cherished those type-written letters, and the little gifts she offered me. And when it ended, as it should, I took away much more than I lost.
One day Alice and I were talking in the courtyard at UMF, inhaling our fags. We talking about teaching, literature, people we knew. It was a few days after a rather strange evening, the beginning of our distance. She had already forbidden me from taking any more classes with her ("I have nothing left to give you."). Any time I spent with her was now a treat laced with sadness. She looked at me after a few minutes of chatter. It was the look she gave when she had something big to say. "You remember in Beowulf after Beowulf defeats the monster?" (I always loved the way she said "the monster" in reference to Grendel....with a hint of malice and evil in her voice). I nodded. "What does Hrothgar give Beowulf." I had to think for a moment "Treasures, " I remember. "Yes," she said, "but there is something more important. Does he offer Beowulf a place to live?" "No," I answered laughing. "No!" she spits, "He gives him horses so that he'll get the hell out of there. He's not going to risk his throne to a young man. He gives horses so that he can leave." She's quiet again, and then she looks at me, and this time is gaze is as piercing but it's sad, "This is what a good teacher gives their students, horses." And with that she threw her cigarette down.
Thank you Alice for the horse. It's carried me far away but never too far to forget.