Sunday, June 3, 2012

Dinner With Margaret

Margaret called me a few days ago--a voice from the past. I was embarrassed that I hadn't gotten in touch with her since my move. At that point I'd expected to be seeing a lot of her, and no doubt I would have if I had just informed her that I had moved to Hoboken.

I knew her in college, oh those many years ago, and got in touch with her when I was househunting and had all but decided on Hoboken. I remember asking her if people in Manhattan were still as reluctant to venture off the island and see their friends in New Jersey as they were when I lived in the city in the 1960s and 70s. She assured me that there were plenty of people in the city who went off the island all the time. Luckily, she was partly right about that. On the other hand, I still find some resistance when I try to pull those entrenched New Yorkers out of their nests. Some don't  even venture out of their neighborhood (say, the Starbuck's at W. 92nd St.) very often at all.

But I was remiss in ignoring Margaret. I had a good long natter with her about living in New York when we had dinner in 2007. We talked about our college days and about Jerry Newell, our mutual friend from the art department, a unique and extremely entertaining person who lived larger than life and who left us in death some ten years before. Margaret was on the periphery of my life in those days, but was very close to Jerry and we both missed her terribly.

I remember when an upperclassman commented about Margaret that she had the face of a Modigliani, hence the reproduction here. She had a long, strangely beautiful face, glorious, flowing, honeycolored hair, and a tendency to be in the background, observing everything. She was very scholarly and made perfect grades. She could whip out a Dorothy Parker epigram when she felt it was needed, and, like me, she was fascinated by Jerry's wit and boldness.

It was Jerry we had in common. Maybe that was why I hadn't contacted her; the association was and is still a little painful. But Margaret received the alumni bulletin that had my name and phone number, and she called to see if I'd like to join her in an art opening Thursday. I realized I could and that I wanted to, so I met her at the gallery on 21st Street and 11th Avenue and we went to dinner afterwards. She suggested a nice restaurant on 10th just off 23rd, which had good food but was noisy and crowded as New York restaurants tend to be these days. It wouldn't bother me except that such places require screaming, especially if your companion is 70 or older, may have some hearing impairment, and you have a lot to talk about.

What we talked about, mostly, was our college days and the people we remembered. I went to that school for only one year; Margaret had stayed on and graduated, so she had acquired a larger following, which included many faculty members. She reeled off names of some of the people she had kept contact with, including my old English 101 teacher, Walter Coppedge. She had spoken to him on the phone recently.

"You ought to get in touch with him," Margaret said above the din of shrieking 30somethings accustomed to eating in the midst of clamor and chaos. Mr. Coppedge was one of those people who ignited me and set me on the road to writing. I remembered his class vividly. He taught us how to read Shakespeare, drilling down on all those light/dark, moon/sun, day/night images of Romeo and Juliet, and arranging a showing of Olivier's sterling film of Henry V at what he called the "local cinema palace." Coppedge was working toward his Ph.D at Oxford and affected an overlay of a British accent on top of his Rosedale, Mississippi cadence. It worked.

My best memory of this professor, however, was when I selected as a topic for my weekly essay, "What I Really Want from Life." My friends in the dorm were more than skeptical. This was a tall order. I was sure I could do it, and sat down and whipped off a rather snappy, as I recall, three-page, handwritten on lined paper, treatise on wanting a glamorous life which included the requisite husband and 2.3 children plus the ability to be my best self at many endeavors. I remember that the prose flowed rather easily, but when I turned it in I had no thought that the essay itself would change my life.

Mr. Coppedge was a rather cynical man at that point. He knew he was meant for better things that teaching mediocre minds at an obscure little college in Alabama. He was discouraged because he hadn’t been granted his doctorate from Oxford. He was hard on us. But at the beginning of the class, he said, “Miss Timbes, will you meet with me briefly after class?” My girl friends turned their heads to look at me; I didn’t know what to expect that he’d say. Had I gone too far, reached too high?

After an anxious class, Mr. Coppedge said to me in the hall, “ I’ve been having a rather bad time since I got back here. I haven’t seen much of interest in this class. I’ve been thinking I may have made a mistake to come back to teach. I had come to dread the reading of the weekly essays. I sat in my home going through piles and piles of absolute drivel , and suddenly I came upon your theme!”  At last he took a breath and tried to think of what to say to me. 

 “You can write.”

 He handed me back the paper, with a 94 grade on it, no blue-pencil marks on the margins, and simply the comment, “Damnation! You can write!” scrawled at the bottom. At the top was an A-.

From then on, my fate was sealed. 

The day after dinner with Margaret I inscribed a copy of The Fair Hope of Heaven to Mr. Coppedge, wrote him a fan letter, and put them all in the mail to the address I found for him on the Internet. I also directed him to my website and gave him my home address and phone number. I hope he gets in touch with me. Most of all, I hope he likes my book.

And yes, I'm looking forward to many more dinners with Margaret.


jacques mullet said...

Reunions are sometimes nice. Apparently this one provided a
spark for ML. Reflecting on days of yore and how those turned into today are interesting, . Ya can't help making comparisons of yourslf to others. For some , goals come too easy. For others goals are left behind for one reason or another. I found early on that
"You can be anything you want to be " is crap. I wanted to be a pilot. For most, it's more like, "You are what you are by luck, good or bad." Or,
"You are what you are because you have to be, innately or by learning.
Montevallo is my hometown. I could do volumes of trivial interest about growing up there. Others already have.
It was like Mayberry but with a small high-brow State
teacher college, all girls until 1957. Two of my college degrees come from the effects of the town, college, and their combined interest in the arts. Willie Lee Trumbauer was the most energetic, fantastical,
creator of mental imagery for children that I was captured at pre-school age. Her hub was the long time theatre prof for the college. He designed Palmer Hall, 2000+ seat domed ceiling w/ balcony auditorium. The stage house had 2-to-1 fly system, trap door, orchestra pit, large wing space. Beneath the stage, dressing rooms.It held the President's officies.It has
a large multi-door Greek revival lobby. It is still an awesome theatre. A soft voice can be heard in balcony or back row. I learned theatre there. W.T. Chichester was my Coppage. He told me I would make an A-1 theatre man. He taught me as did Trummy.
Their names were my golden recommendation for grad school assistantships. There were several offers due to them most likely. I love them dearly, though they are long passed. I can hear their voices when I am in theatre, whether directing,designing, or reading for play selection.

I understand what you wrote from Coppage's comment, "You can write."

Howard Coward said...

A fittingly fine piece of prose praise for Coach Coppage. I have to wonder what makes an ancient english teacher proud: is publishing enough? Do you have to make the best seller list, or does he draw simple satisfaction from knowing you've succeeded in using the written word to evoke more than smoke and semaphores? What makes one a successful writer, anyway? Publishing? Blogging? And who is to say, beyond the writer themownself? Bankers? Parents? Critics? Anyone? Who do we trust to reveal our self to our self if not our self?
It's a highly personal pursuit, writing. I believe the beauty must belong first to them what wrought it, else the thing never gets airborne to begin with.

But. For what it's worth, you can turn out intimidatingly fine work Miss Timbes Such as this stuff here.

Mary Lois said...

As of this date I have not yet heard from Mr. Coppedge. Just hearing his voice or reading an email from him will thrill me to my bones. HC asks legit questions about the rewards of writing, and I don't have any answers. Ideally, you have a little more than the 50-odd-year-old assurances of a college English teacher, but sometimes that is enough to keep you going.

Howard Coward said...

I still feed regularly off of Mrs. Rathjen's comment on the back of my 5th grade report card: "Howard expresses himself well on paper." During an extended mimeographing session in the cramped, windowless "mimeo room" later in the week, I asked Mrs. Rathjens if she was aware that paper was so yesterday – that digital ink would become the commodity du jour in the wink of a monitor. She looked at me like I was on drugs.

"Are you on drugs?"

"What are 'drugs', Missus J. Silverheels?" I asked.

All I remember from there is I ended up in Mr. Hooper's office shouting "This is no way to treat the artist!" and I've had trouble gettting published ever since.

Mary Lois said...

Good one, Howard! I wonder how much of it is apocryphal.

Steve said...

I'm glad you were able to meet with Margaret. I wish I'd been able to meet with you too that same day. But my plate was already pretty full, and it sounds like yours was also. I hope you and Margaret stay in touch from this point on.

Your recounting the time you were praised for your writing reminds me of similar occasions during my own school days. In fact, there was a time when writing and basketball were about the only things I felt I could take pride in, until my basketball days unceremoniously ended and there was only my writing.

Unfortunately, unlike you, I never did anything with whatever modest writing talent I may have and recently lost my inspiration to write anything at all beyond Facebook comments, often rhetorically chastising President Obama for his "wimpiness" or denouncing regressive Tea Baggers and Republicans in general.

But your perseverance with your books and blogs in the long wake of Mr. Coppedge's encouragement and your writing about it here has helped sparked my own desire to write more, no matter what does or doesn't come of it. If it's the only thing I can do even moderately well, there's no sense in hiding it under a bushel.

Mary Lois said...

Good for you, Steve. Welcome back to the club--I hope you stick with your resolve. It's not an easy kind of work and there is very little reward, as a rule, but writing itself is satisfying.

As to the rest of the Margaret story, I had every intention of calling her when I heard from Mr. Coppedge. That hasn't happened yet, so in a week or so I'll call her anyway and plan to get together.

jacques mullet said...

Put your mast at half... One of your own has passed ..Good bye Ray Bradbury.
I use the idea of his Martians in many things. 'Shapeshifters' according to thoughts nearby. You never really know until you see the truth.

Mary Lois said...

Never a fan of science fiction. I know Bradbury was one of the greats, but I never read much of him.