Spring 2006

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Sue Rosowski's Many Gifts

by Elizabeth Turner, Professor of English, William Rainey Harper College, Palatine, Illinois

On December 11th I joined the dozens who gathered at the Rosowskis' house in Garland to celebrate Sue's life, but before I arrived I went with friends to the Germantown Cemetery where Sue is buried. I slowly got out of the car, gathering a hanky and my camera, and I walked up the hill to the gate. It was cold, but not too cold, and the sun was bright. I looked around at the bare trees, the rolling hills, and the brilliant sky.

I was reminded of the Cather Seminar class tour to Red Cloud in 1991. Sue brought us to the Cather prairie, and after we wandered a bit as a group, she insisted that we separate and walk alone through the grass. I was amazed by the strong rolling hills, by the sounds of insects, by the clarity of the air, and by the fact that I was there at all. The day before the class trip my mother was hospitalized. I called Sue to tell her I was too upset to go to Red Cloud. Sue, patient as always, listened. Then she urged me to go, saying that it would be good for me to be with the Cather group and to get away from the worrying. Finally, she asked me to go. I reluctantly agreed. Throughout the trip the next day Sue kept checking in with me in very gentle and subtle ways. She didn't push me to talk, but she wanted me to be there in Red Cloud. When I walked alone on the prairie, I was so glad I had followed her advice-that I had come along on the class trip.

I felt that same way when I walked into the Germantown Cemetery. However, as I approached the grave, the freshly turned soil and Sue's name on the stone left me choked. Like everyone else, I wanted Sue there-alive-and I knew that could never happen. There are so many things I still want to tell her (I got my promotion, Sue! Thanks for encouraging me to apply for it.), so many questions I want to ask (Are there any connections between Abraham Lincoln and Cather?). I have relied on her advice and approval for so long that it is hard to accept that she is dead.

I first met Sue when I went to Nebraska in 1988 to begin my Ph.D., and within one week of having met her, I asked her to chair my dissertation committee. She excitedly agreed, and from that moment I knew I had found the support that would see me through to my degree, which I earned in 1994. I can honestly say that Sue is responsible for so many of the things I enjoy in my life: she made me a better teacher through example and direct instruction; she taught me how to write when I worked on my dissertation; she helped me to create opportunities to connect with other Cather people when I went to her in 1990 and asked her if there was a Cather Colloquium and she said no but that I should start one; she said yes when I suggested that the Cather Colloquium should have a newsletter (which turned out to be The Mowers' Tree, and for six years under Sue's guidance I wrote and edited the newsletter, mimeographed the copies, and addressed each envelope); she helped me prepare when I had job interviews, including the one that landed me my job at Harper College; she encouraged me and my partner when we were considering adoption, and now our daughter is two years old and another baby is expected later this year. Sue taught me so much. I mention these things-my promotion and my daughter-not in the spirit of self-approval but because Sue is responsible for encouraging me to take risks and to be open to new possibilities.

Image of cemetery

On December 11, 2004, as I stood at Sue's cemetery, I realized that Sue is still teaching me. The memorial service, the Rosowskis' open house, even Sue's grave were, in many ways, her gifts to us. The service on December 10th that Jim Rosowski so lovingly put together gave us a chance to celebrate Sue's life and to share our deep-felt grief. It gave me comfort to see so many old Cather friends and UN-L associates as we visited over a Cather-themed meal in the church. I especially enjoyed looking at the photos that were out on the table by the door. I studied them, seeing Sue in that familiar khaki skirt and a crisp white blouse with her turquoise necklace; I can hear her walking down Andrews Hall wearing that outfit, her pumps tapping on the floor. At the memorial service surrounded by those who knew and loved Sue, particularly her students, I surrendered the grief that I had been holding.

Sue's tombstone is perfect-from the quotation from "Neighbour Rosicky" (we, her students, sometimes called Sue "Neighbour Rosowski") to the beautiful etching of the Rosowskis' Colorado cabin. In my will I ask to be cremated; I don't want a grave. At the Germantown Cemetery, however, I was profoundly grateful that Sue has a grave, that there is a place we can go, a place that so appropriately reflects Cather and Sue. After my sobbing slowed down at the cemetery, I kissed my hand, and I touched that kiss to Sue's name. I whispered her name, told her I loved her and that I was so sorry she wasn't here. Then I sat next to her tombstone and thanked her for her many gifts.