Wednesday, March 10, 2010

sunt lacrimae rerum

When news came through the post last week that my thesis advisor was dying, I knew then that I had to put aside whining about the career choice I made and finally sit down to write her a long apologia on my lovely ecru engraved Crane's stationary. Not a fun night that was, perched crosslegged at my table thinking of my darling, diminuitive (in size only), highly pedigreed Bostonian professor who set me on the path to a fulfilling lifelong career in Latin Paleography. I failed my major professor by ditching my promising graduate career because "I'd rather work outside." So I sent her a long apology last week for failing her, an apology for being an ecologist, a single page handwritten note that turned into a veritable love letter to one of my favorite people. My letter arrived in her hands a matter of days before she died.

She had the patience of Job with many of her students, almost coddling them (especially the ones with weird parent issues or unwieldy emotional problems). In this past week, I've heard from several students who reported that on days when they had, for example, overslept for her Latin class, she would march across the street to the dorm, rouse the sleeping student, and when, finally, the student would appear in class, she would offer him coffee. And she meant it. She would fetch coffee for the student who overslept and interrupted her class. Ah, she'd never have done that for me.

I was in the camp of students she pushed to perform to the best of our abilities. I whined a lot to her, explaining to her that I'm not that smart, that I really "don't like" reading Caesar and I'd be much better served if we "only read Ovid, Horace and Vergil." She rolled her eyes a lot, slaughtered my papers, explained that she had no patience for my vehemence about my own ability. At one point in 1994, a bright sunny day in her office, she finally allowed me to explain in great detail why I don't like reading Caesar or Tacitus, and that perhaps I would "perform better" if we settled in on Vergil. We read lots of Vergil together that year, so much Vergil that I fell in love with him to the point that she trusted me with untranslated medieval glosses of the Aeneid to translate for my thesis. Early medieval Latin is really coarse, base Latin, but couple base Latin with my clunky translations and you'd have my thesis advisor reaching for wine as we sloughed through my assignments. Lots of placing her head in her hands, elbows on the old oak desk. Once, while having class in her darling Craftsman home (with two boisterous hounds named Mongo and Zulu), she instructed me to "go outside and run a few miles, then come back and let's try it again."

Ironically, years later, I was stuck reading Caesar again in graduate school. I wrote a voluminous paper on Caesar's clementia (which the author always bragged about -arrogantly- on the battlefield). If my thesis advisor ever showed clementia towards me, it was allowing me to only read Vergil and Ovid in my junior year. For that I'm grateful. (Give me Ovid, Horace, Vergil anyday. Beautiful Latin.)

She had a wonderful knack for obliterating my academic writing. One paper I wrote on Roman brickwork patterns (a topic which I love), she tore apart my translations, awarded me a B (which killed me), but didn't advise me to "find another major." So I kept at it. Maybe I'm as persistent as she is? And perhaps that's why she wrote a letter of recommendation to the Pontifical Institute that must have claimed that I can not only walk on water, but I can also turn well water into a fine, aged Chianti. There is truly no other way the Pontifical Institute would have accepted me without her blessing. I excelled in the paleography courses in my graduate career, and I never would have were it not for her persistence.

Over the course of the past week, my esteemed Medieval History professor told me that my advisor really cared for me, and had great hopes that I would excel in the field of Latin Paleography. I still have my enormous Classics library, and I can still read Latin and Greek proficiently, but I'm not excelling in any field, really (though I make a great that my advisor would love, actually.). So in my long letter to her last week, I explained how dear she was for having great faith in me and how terribly guilty I still feel for dashing her hopes of molding me in her model. My advisor was a brilliant woman, a remarkable cook, a classy Italian-American from Tufts and Harvard whose amazing character I can't even try to capture in this medium. She's larger than life, a wee, 4'8" woman whose fluent Italian comes with a Boston accent, but didn't hesitate to use all the expletives in and out of the book when the government ticket sellers at Hadrian's Domus Aurea tried to stiff us on the group rate.

I'm grateful that I had a thesis advisor who pushed so hard that when I finally made the grade, she wasn't congratulatory about it because she expected it from me all along. If only I could positively impact half the lives she did in her life.

Sadly, no one has posted plans for a big Roman bonfire/wake. The memorial service will be in the little Norman Episcopal church which she attended only during the Bless the Beasts Sunday when Mongo wiped his dirty paws on the face of a prominent lawyer's wife. Honoring her in a church is a little like using holy water for dishes. She deserves more than that.

This came through today, a link to an article published about her and her husband and gun ownership. It's lovely to see her smiling, to read her one line comment about guns, and to see her tastefully appointed house where I spent most of my senior year. It's a sad day when someone like her dies prematurely.


James C. Trager said...

This is lovely, Allison. I similarly went my own way, disappointing a potential PhD advisor once, and was able later to partially redeem myself. So, I really took your obituary for this interesting woman to heart.

And, at another time and in another medium, since you've revealed this aspect of yourself, I will want your thoughts on some Latin (or Greek, about which I know very little) names I'm coining for new species in an ant genus revision.

(I'll just leave you with the thought that I am considering ahenus as one of the species' names, and I hope it means what I think it does...)

Allison Vaughn said...

Thanks, James. I once explained to her how very valuable my extensive knowledge of Greek and Latin has been regarding botany, mammology, and all things Linnean.

I would suggest using the older version of "bronze"--Romans didn't really use "h" much, so go with the more classical "aenus"--what's nice about this word is that poetically, it can mean strong and brazen, esp. regarding personality. But you probably want the color bronze as the descriptor. By the way, I think tiger beetles have the best names!

Travis said...

i just have so many jokes about that ant species name that i can't pick one!

James C. Trager said...

Actually, I was thinking in this case of the "brazen" meaning. Perhpas using the spelling with h will help distinguish it from the more literal meaning? (I admit, I'm such a literalist about spelling, I never connected this to "aenus".)

Travis, just hurl those humorous slings and arrows. They'll just bounce our anty exoskeletons.