Life is absurd and beautiful and funny. I tend to focus on the absurd. My whole life I’ve been laughing at my own mistakes. Pointing them out early on saves me the shock of the old lady stranger in Costco coming out of nowhere to tell me that 90% of the warehouse heard me fawning over the adorable baby 7Up cans. I like to control the roast and throw the softballs.
But lately I haven’t controlled much of anything and the laughter is harder to come by. I’ve watched a lot of people tip their hats and cross over into eternity before I was ready for that to happen. I’ve been to more funerals in the last two years than I’ve been to weddings. My oldest son graduated high school by e-mail. I’ve cried as much as I’ve laughed. And I no longer have any control over who I cry in front of. The best I can do is keep a napkin on hand. I can’t even seem to manage Kleenex.
The most recent of somber events was the death of my 12th grade English teacher, Sara Lamar. She was a giant of a human being. This was evident when I was 17, but even more so during the service that honored and remembered her life. She was 91 and had been fighting dementia for many years. I decided to drive up to Tallahassee to attend, because my kids are old enough to set alarms and go about their routines without a lot of supervision or fanfare and because I’ve regretted most of the funerals I didn’t attend. Even the ones I skipped for good reasons I have come to regret.
I expected this service to teeter on the edge of irreverent, and maybe be a little bit humorous. After all, Sara Lamar was the best of all things irreverent and funny. I did laugh during most of the speakers. Everyone did. I didn’t expect to cry.
After the service, which was lovely and entirely appropriate, I spoke to exactly one person: Janice McLain, who taught me English during my 10th grade year. This poor woman inherited me as a student when I had one canvas sneaker still anchored in puberty. I dressed like a hobo. I had an afro. And I hadn’t woken up to the fact that an A on my report card might actually do more for me than save me from a harshly worded lecture. By the time Sara Lamar got ahold of me, I was at least savvy to the power of an A. What I remember most about Janice McLain’s class was her dry wit and the book A Separate Peace. I didn’t want to read it. I think I actually tried not to. But one chapter in was all it took for me to make Gene and Phineas my brothers. I was all in. I’ve read it at least 3 times as an adult.
I was 15 when Ms. McLain had me in her class. I’m 51 now. I walked up to her after that funeral knowing she was not going to remember me. But her eulogy was moving and beautiful and perfect. And it was her words that made me cry. I needed to thank her for that.
I walked up feeling awkward, vaguely aware that at my age, awkwardness should not be a thing.
“Hi.” I said. “I wanted to speak to you because I loved what you said up there. You won’t remember me. You taught me in 10th grade.” I had already given her a pass.
“Thank you,” she replied graciously. “You’re Missy, right?” I mean, I was. I am. But I think I about forgot my language skills when she called me by my first name. How did she know that? How? Really. I still can’t quite get past this.
“Yes!” I said in shock. “How do you remember that? I was nobody in your class. I wasn’t a great student.” Maybe she remembered me for all the wrong reasons. I mean, there were some wrong reasons to remember me. Especially in that phase of my life.
“Knowing student names is a survival mechanism for teachers,” she said. I’m certain that’s true. I just couldn’t have imagined it remaining true 35 years later.
I thanked her for her remarks and for the poem she included. She ended her eulogy by reading “When Great Trees Fall” by Maya Angelou. I had never heard it before. Hearing it read almost unraveled me, especially in light of all the loss of the last 6 months. When I got into my car later and pulled it up online, I cried all over again.
When Great Trees Fall
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants lumber after safety.
When great trees fall in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance, fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance of
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
I took some time to reflect on this and on my time with Mrs. Lamar. I remember being in physical pain on the green carpet of my bedroom as I read James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man well into the night. It was awful. AWFUL. I hated it so much. Every word was an unmedicated root canal. But I read every word, because that’s what you did in Lamar’s class. You did it because you respected her. And you did it because she’d bust your chops on a test if you didn’t.
A few weeks into my first quarter in her class, Sara Lamar gave me a new name. I was a big gum chewer. I spent a ridiculous amount of money as a kid on Dubble Bubble, Super Bubble, and Bubble Yum. I wasn’t picky with my brand as long as that burst of sugar was present and I could blow a bubble with a single piece. I blew a bubble in Lamar’s class, but only the one time. I popped it like gunshot, got reprimanded and handed the trash can, and then was forevermore renamed. She named me Bubbles. She never called me Missy again. By the end of the year, she had forgotten why that was even her name for me. I liked being Bubbles. It felt like a perpetual private joke between me and someone I truly loved and respected.
I loved Mrs. Lamar. She knew I loved her. But after I left Tallahassee in 1995, I never really went back. Until March 28, when I went back to celebrate her life. And though it’s been forever since I was in her classroom, I was among her students again that day, listening to her words, their words, and Maya Angelou’s words.
Following that final class, I ate lunch with a friend and then immediately climbed back in my car to go home. The lessons I learned that day kept me company on my drive home.
I learned that people are not necessarily who you think they are in high school. Maybe they never are. Some people got up to speak who were high school peers of mine but to whom I never spoke a word. They wouldn’t like me, I assumed. I wouldn’t like them. It would be awkward or embarrassing or impossible to befriend them. It wouldn’t be worth the effort. I now know it most certainly would have been worth the effort. And I should have made that effort.
The world is full of giants. Sometimes they are the ones being eulogized. Sometimes they are the ones delivering the eulogy. Sometimes they are both. Giants are easy to see. But you do have to be looking for them.
Remembering someone’s name makes them feel like a giant, even when they are not. I learned that one from Sara Lamar 33 years ago and from Janice McLain 4 weeks ago. I had forgotten what an understated luxury it is to be known and called by name.
You can never go home again. I’ve always known this, but never fully understood it. It’s because home is not really the place; it’s the people. The morning of Mrs. Lamar’s service, I was staying in the hotel across the park from the church where I’d need to be. At daybreak, I walked out of the hotel wearing my running shoes and walked from there to Florida State to the Old City Cemetery to the downtown Public Library and back to the hotel. I walked past all the old haunts. My old memories were fresh. All the places were there. The people were not. It’s not home anymore. Not to me.
Nothing is forever. After a morning of ruminating on the wisdom and wit of Mrs. Lamar, I walked back across the park to my car to text my friend, Georgia, about the lunch we had scheduled. I suggested Barnaby’s. I mean, who doesn’t love Barnaby’s? It’s closed, she replied. Closed? Like on Mondays or FOREVER? At this text, I felt my world go very hot and dark. I was a little lightheaded at the news. I was already there to say goodbye to a favorite teacher. Evidently, I was going to have to say goodbye to my childhood as well. Barnaby’s was the place everyone went to after a baseball game or on a Friday night. A place with frothy root beer and old-fashioned arcade games. Barnaby’s was the Sara Lamar of pizza joints. Their pizza was the Sara Lamar of pizza. And yet, there I was in downtown Tallahassee agreeing to Chicken Salad Chick because nothing is forever.
It is a weird feeling to look around for the people and the places that made me who I am and not find them. The people are not there. The places are overgrown or boarded up or living new lives with new people that have nothing to do with me. If the one who called me Bubbles is gone, am I still Bubbles? If everything around me changes, where does that leave me standing?
I wondered for only a moment, because I’ve spent a lifetime doing my reading. I know the answer to this one.
It leaves me standing here–
still my mother’s daughter,
still Jennifer’s friend,
still all the versions I’ve ever been of myself
–with the essence and lessons of all the ones I’ve lost,
and forever changed by them.
“They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.”