Sunday, May 24, 2015

on being a work daughter

I've been thinking about her a lot recently -- Mary of the wild hair and sometimes surprisingly wicked humor -- as I went through the process of applying for, being secretly sure I would get, and then not getting a library job I thought should be mine.  I've found myself wanting to take my humiliation to her, to drop my hurt and disappointment at her feet and demand of her, "What the hell happened?"

For years Mary wanted me to do more with my life, to pursue a higher level of librarianship, to live up to a potential she saw in me that, for whatever reasons, I didn't want to fill. Last fall, after her death, a colleague referred to me as her "work daughter," and though I scoffed at this at the time (as though I had some claim on her!), I wonder if in some ways I didn't turn her into a work mother.

I started working for Mary when I was twenty-three years old, grew into true adulthood on her quiet but observant watch, went through heartbreaks and joys in the world she so carefully kept an eye over. I think she would have been proud of me for leaving, in the end; for following my heart even if it was a misguided heart, for trying to decide what was true. Mary was a woman of formidable practicality, after all, and the idea of wallowing in stagnant unhappiness would not have appealed to her.

Is it ever too late to eulogize a person? Months after leaving her world, months after her leaving ours, she's been so close to the surface again lately, demanding the good solid cry I couldn't give her back in the autumn time.

We worked together for fifteen years, watched each other with reserved affection through illness and loss, through depressions and accomplishments and the giggling fits of just life. I spent her last days at the library shredding documents for her and wanting to say, "You are dying." Wanting to say, "Mary. No one cares, no one will ever care, about documentation for your travel expenses from 1995." Wanting to say, "Please stop. Stop shredding, stop hiding, stop protecting us, stop building your walls of privacy. You are dying. Be here with us now."

But I kept shredding decades old papers as she gagged and drooled, her weakened fingers puzzling at handfuls of handkerchief. We loved each other, she and I, but we were not a demonstrative pair, and I had made a promise to her weeks before not to make her cry. It just made her already difficult breathing more so, and I didn't want to be a part of that.

At the end of her last day I helped her put on her jacket and gathered up her bags and walked with her through her library for the last time. I looked on as she smiled graciously at everyone we passed -- our staff of so many years, professors whom she'd known forever, students who didn't realize she wasn't coming back. We walked across Amsterdam Avenue, across campus, across Broadway in the October dusk and finally into her apartment, me carrying her bags and not really knowing what to do with myself during those moments when she had to pause to rest, to catch her breath.

I wish that I'd understood then that she was down to weeks. If I'd known (I tell myself now), I would have forced myself awkwardly through our reticences.

Later, after finding out that she had died -- at home in her beloved Columbia apartment, surrounded by her siblings -- I would obsess over never having gotten a job recommendation from her. When I finally realized last summer that I would be leaving New York I went to Mary's office and told her of my unplanned plans for heading west. She asked then if she should start working on a letter for me and I said no, not yet, I'm not quite there yet. She just got weaker after that, needing more and more days off, causing ever increasing busyness on the days she came to work, and I never brought it up again. Later, I felt like The Outsiders' Two-Bit obsessing over losing his favorite comb in the rumble that led to his best friend's death. It felt easier, of course, to obsess over the lack of recommendation than to obsess over the lack of Mary.

Now, as I am dealing with the fall out from failing to get this library job I'd been banking on more than I'd quite realized, I am missing her good sense, her support, her forthright trust in my abilities and my judgment.

I'm trying to believe (to steal a phrase from a feel-good view of the world I've never quite bought into) that the library thing is 'just not meant to be.' The library thing is old school, my old life, and maybe not what I'm supposed to be doing out here on the western rim, in my new life, in this new world. Maybe it's time to let that go, to dive perhaps into writing, to get more serious about my fiber work, to throw something creative and achingly beautiful out into the world.

I'm not entirely sure that Mary, in all her good sense and solid practicalities, would approve of this, and I am missing what surely would have been a righteous indignation on her part when she heard about this job fiasco. But I know she would have appreciated whatever beauty I come up with, and would have loved watching her work daughter finally spreading some wings and daring something new.

No comments: