After I finished teaching a seven-week technical writing course this summer, I began an internship in the publications division at my church’s historical archives. I’m interested in archives as a source for my dissertation research and for learning to research in them and handle them. My research is also heavily informed by women’s issues, so this internship turned out to be the perfect fit. It is the women’s discourses project, which requires us to look through a newspaper from the late 1800s to the early 1900s called the Woman’s Exponent and a magazine that took over from that newspaper. There are also several other periodicals that other interns are working on. The documents, among others, are the results of women in my church who crusaded for suffrage, attended national women’s meetings, became doctors, and who led the church women’s organization, the Relief Society. As fascinating as these sources are and as much fun as I’ve had chasing down additional information through old leather-bound minute books from the late 1800s, that is not what today’s post is about.
It is about my supervisor on this project (and my supervisor on another project, but we’ll get to that later). Jenny is a beautiful person, and two weeks after I began working with her, she had a relapse of leukemia and had to step down. She has been back in the hospital being treated in the hopes that she will survive and the cancer will not. She’s downright cheerful about it all. And it breaks my heart.
I’ve not known her long, but I can say that she’s magnificent. She has a Ph.D. in history, which she earned in April, and she had just started at this job in the church history department where I met her. She had just begun decorating her office, complete with a beautiful poster of an early women’s leader, Emmeline B. Wells, (the long-time editor of the Woman’s Exponent, in fact) who is famous for saying, “I believe in women, especially thinking women.”
My supervisor also has many books on women and history lining the walls of her office. A few weeks before her cancer relapse, I pulled off the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich books and told her how much I loved them. I also asked her about the intricate pink quilt that hangs above her desk. It is one her great grandmother made, and she told me about how she had written a chapter of her dissertation on quilts and quilting.
My ears perked up. I was reminded of another beautiful person I have known. My thesis adviser for my master’s degree, Judy. She also writes academically about quilts, and I told Jenny this. She then told me that she had quoted Judy in her dissertation. It was quite the coincidence and a happy one.
And then I found out that Jenny was going back to the hospital for chemo. I had had no idea before then that she had dealt with cancer before.
And I was reminded of Judy again. You see, once, at the end of a semester a few years ago, our class had gathered at Judy’s house for a final party. We were all eating food, making conversation, and trying not to allow any awkward silences. We had also brought a cake, for it was Judy’s birthday. I can’t remember if it was a surprise or not, but I remember feeling like we were surprising her. Anyway, we eventually ate cake and wished her a happy birthday, and she proudly declared her age, somewhere in her 50s.
I was somewhat shocked. For at that time, I was struggling a bit with turning 30 in the next year or so (now I look back and think, “Really, Emily? Really?”) Anyway, aging was a concern of mine at the time, and I shared it with the group. Judy then replied in a way that I’ll never forget.
She said something like, “When I was in my twenties, I had cancer. So every birthday now is a blessing and another day that I’m still alive.”
I remember that statement and the feeling I had when she said it whenever I want to complain that I’m “old” or that my wrinkles seem a little more prominent around my eyes or when my metabolism seems to be slowing down and I can’t eat that dessert I once could.
In those dessert situations, I also remember something Judy taught me: “Don’t waste your calories!” If I do eat sugar, it has to be something good, not something waxy.
Judy also taught me that it is better to give. When she advised my thesis work and we were meeting regularly, she saw my interest in forgotten women, especially novelists, as that was what my master’s thesis focused on. She also saw my desire to go on for Ph.D. work (and she walked me through that situation, writing letters when I needed them and giving me much-needed advice and strategies when I couldn’t find the right place for me).
One day, I arrived at her office for a thesis session, and there was a large stack of books printed by Virago, a now-defunct publisher that had specialized in reviving forgotten women’s literature in the 1960s and 70s. She explained that those books were for me. All of them. She had bought them long ago with the intent of writing her own dissertation on them, but she had changed her subject and never used them. She brought them to me. I cherish them.
And I share some of those titles with you today.
My favorites so far are these:
Frost in May by Antonia White
The Way Things Are by E. M. Delafield
Women Against Men by Storm Jameson
That’s How It Was by Maureen Duffy