Spring 2006

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Conversations

By Mary K Stillwell, Ph.D. recipient, UNL 2004

Conversation: the action of living or having one's being in a place or among persons.

--Oxford English Dictionary

Rain. Lots of warm rain this spring: grass in thick green clumps and the scalloped leaves of wind-blown tulips-seams of red, pink, yellow-readying their launch into the new season. Six months ago a cold rain smacked the windshield as Frank and I drove to the Germantown Cemetery to visit Sue, and once we arrived, a sharp wind whipped our coats as we leaned against each other for warmth and comfort.

Even as I stood there yearning for that "something permanent," I was comforted by the many conversations I had had with Sue over the years. Some took place face to face, and others appeared as comments on the margins of my papers and the pages of her books. Taken together, Sue offered me a new organic paradigm by which to live, one that acknowledges the principle of relationship in conversation, challenges the idea of plot, and suggests the primacy of place. The voyage out is, as Sue wrote in Birthing a Nation, also the voyage in.

August 1998: Dappled afternoon light shifts across the seminar tables as the wind catches the leaves of the trees outside Andrews Hall. Literature of the Environment, my first course with Sue. Dr. Rosowski quickly enters the room like the tide that races up a sandy beach, but she does not recede like the tide. Instead, she moves carefully around the room photographing us before settling into her own seat in front of the blackboard. Conversation begins.

Broad flakes of snow leisurely make their way past the window of Sue's Andrews Hall office where we sometimes meet for a sack lunch. Sue peels an orange, a bright sun in the middle of winter, to share for dessert, and that reminds me of my former student from Russia. "Pomegranates are about the size of an orange," I say aloud, and Sue draws out my student's story, about his pleasure at eating pomegranates when he was homesick. When he came to my office to pick up his portfolio, he handed me a round brick-colored Christmas ornament with the hanger missing: "You have to know pomegranates." he said. I took it home and I admired it for several days before I slowly peeled its thin skin and made my way into the tallow-colored honeycomb of garnet kernels, blood corn from across the sea.

Sue listens, reminds me of a story Father Latour told, and pulled her copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop from her bookcase: The way of the "early Franciscan missionaries through the wilderness had blossomed with little miracles. . . . they were traversing a great plain, and were famished for water and almost spent; a young horseman overtook them and gave them three ripe pomegranates, then galloped away. This fruit had not only quenched their thirst, but revived and strengthened them as much as the most nourishing food could have done, and they completed their journey like fresh men."

For Wil, a trip to Sue and Jim's means another adventure with the pin ball machine in the basement where Jim supplies him with an endless supply of quarters. Anna brings along her Raggedty Sisters who converse with each other as Sue and I converse. "Conversation," Sue writes, "models the give-and-take at the heart of every moral system: social reciprocity means taking turns, listening as well as speaking." The pin ball machine clangs, whistles, and rings; closer, the Raggedtys whisper their secrets.

Another a sunny afternoon, the light moving south, Sue jumps from her desk chair and pulls a black and white cardboard storage letter box from her bookshelf. "Look what just arrived, and there's something you'll want to see," she exclaims. "Old Mrs. Harris," she says and places the manuscript in my hands, tracing Edith Lewis's handwritten comments along the typescript margins.

We are walking from one place to another: Sue laughs, "When I was teaching at the university and still working on my dissertation, all I earned barely paid for housekeeping."

Late in the October afternoon, we rode the tour bus to the Desert Museum outside Tucson. Sue begins her story: When I was a teenager in Topeka babysitting for the Menninger children, their dog snuck into the kitchen and pulled Sunday's dinner from the counter top. I scooped up the ham, patted as best I could into its original shape, strategically repositioned the cloves to sprout from the tooth marks, and hoped for the best.

On the way back from dinner at the Mesa Verde Cather Conference, Sue and Jim, Frank and I, bathed in the orange light from the setting sun, pause to watch Wil and Anna racing their matchbox cars in the dust along the walkway. "I remember when our boys were young," Sue observes, "they played with their cars for hours."

Sue's idea of "plotlessness" took on more and more meaning as I read about the heritage of the plains, and I began to think of both place and poetry along an unfolding continuum that only in retrospect seems to afford a plot. This organic process replaced the static history that I had carried with me since grade school, wreaking havoc on my neatly organized, scholarly dissertation. About half way through my fellowship year, I gave Sue the first 80 pages of my dissertation and waited for her response. Sue telephones: "I don't know what you're doing here but keep going; it will become clear."

Sue and Jim give me a botanical print of the pomegranate, the trumpet of its flower, a sweet red call to light. Punica Granatum, each red kernel a garnet, wine of Venus, boil its bark to cure tapeworm, to cure a fever, to relax the throat, insure conversation, which is communion.

Autumn coming on too fast and the wild scent of winter in the breeze, I drive out to visit Sue. I think I hear Mr. Rosen's voice as he reads to Vickie: "The end is nothing, the road is all." By the time I arrive, Grandma Harris and the Templetons are with me, Mrs. Rosen, too, and Mandy. Other friends pull up into the Rosowski drive with a batch of cinnamon rolls made from Sue's mother's recipe. Sue turns a piece of a roll in her fingers and then holds her fingers to her nose. "Oh," she says, "the scent of yeast, the memories it brings back."

"Oh, I'm so glad we had this conversation," she says the last time we spoke.

I am grateful, for all the conversations with Sue, the ones that are recorded and all of those that go unrecorded, that come to me when I'm thinking through a problem, reading a poem, writing an e-mail, passing through the dining room where the pomegranate print hangs. Conversation continues.