Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “April, 2014”

Excavating a Life (Los Altos TOWN CRIER April 2014)

Pix of Dimi

 

My husband’s mother, known to friends and family as “Dimi”, died at 102, and I went with my husband to help arrange funeral services and reacquaint ourselves with family. We stayed in my husband’s boyhood bedroom in his mother’s abandoned house.

The house had been rented out for a few months to a family connection who had used mostly the first floor. Almost all Dimi’s belongings had been moved to the second floor. They included a couple of bedrooms’ worth of furniture, plus boxes and baskets of documents, oddments, gewgaws, and bric-a-brac.

As a relative by marriage only, I enjoyed going through the boxes, bins, and dresser drawers which had been jumbled together, and the closer relatives seemed relieved to have an unemotional eye sorting through the accumulation. It was exciting to explore, as if I were doing an archaeological dig through the strata of a life.

I found a newspaper clipping with a picture of Dimi at about 18, as she starred in a college play. At her 90th birthday she had listed as one of her regrets that “I never acted on Broadway.” We had thought she was joking. Was it a real dream at one time?

In a drawer of a bureau upstairs I found a wedding photo. We had thought that my husband’s parents had not been able to afford a fully costumed and documented wedding in 1933, the beginning of the Depression. Yet here they were, he looking dapper and debonair in a suit, vest, and watch chain, she glamorous in a swooping hat, full length white lace gown, and sporting an enormous bouquet.

I found a letter from a soldier dated April, 1945, thanking Dimi for a newsletter she had sent as a class correspondent. He said it was like a breath of spring to hear from her, and asked to be remembered to the college professors he had admired. Did C.E. “Dutch” Eby, Lieutenant on the USS Barron, survive the last few months of the war?

I found a note from a young woman who had been a childhood friend of Dimi’s daughter, saying that she had always thought of Dimi as a ideal parent, and she had tried to model her own parenting after Dimi.

I found notes from people whom Dimi had met on her travels, from Guam, and Australia, and Hawaii, and Norway, with whom she had kept in touch and in friendship for decades after their chance meetings.

I found notes written between Dimi and her husband of 40 years, including the last heartbreaking one when he was in the grip of his last illness, knowing he was near his end, just before his death.

I found lists of Christmas presents which Dimi had given year by year. In later years, many of these presents were ludicrously inappropriate, mis-sized, or obviously pre-owned. We laughed with other family members about the too-small shirts, the ladies’ sweaters given to grandsons, the tarnished necklaces with missing stones. Yet these lists showed how much thought and care she had taken so that no child or grandchild or even great-grandchild would go unremembered as her family grew.

On my return home I looked at my cluttered closets and crammed desk drawers with a different eye. I knew Dimi so much better since I had delved into the strata of her life. Maybe one day my children will learn to know me better also thanks to the clutter I leave behind.

 

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A Student’s Success (Los Altos TOWN CRIER, March 2014)

I was watching a PBS documentary on the Old West – you know the type.  Lots of historic photographs, lots of historic documents, and some expert talking heads explaining it all with their names and credentials briefly headlined.

Suddenly I shouted in amazement.  An unusual name, familiar from my remote past, had flashed ont he screen.  Through the changes years had made I saw a familiar smile. “I know that guy!”

A quick Google search on the name turned up additional photographs confirming my recognition, an impressive list of awards for academic and journalistic excellence, and an email contact.  I fired off an email:

Subject: Wow!  My former student is a PBS pundit!

I was watching the PBS show on Butch Cassidy and saw you as a historical authority. There could not be two Ken Verdoia’s in the world!  And you look like yourself, only in 1967 you had no need to shave. I am so excited that my star 9th grade student in my student teaching year at MVHS has risen to eminence!

Maybe you remember me as the insecure Stanford intern who wore a fake hairpiece to make myself look older and taller.  I remember you in the freshman talent show lip-synching as Harvey Johnson looking for a prom date,

I’m  living in Los Altos and doing some writing for the local paper and my own entertainment. I see you are affiliated with the U of Utah (my parents’ alma mater, as it happens) I am so delighted to see what you have become!

Best of lives,

Allyson Johnson (formerly known to you as Miss Young)

The next morning I had this response in my inbox”

Allyson:

Through forty years in journalism, nearly thirty of those contributing to PBS, I have received many, many messages after a report or program. None as surprising and delightful as yours waiting for me this morning.

I am quite stunned that you would remember a student in such a manner. Particularly one so closely resembling wallpaper. But, yes, you do accurately cite the mime-like 14 year olds pushing their way through “Bye Bye Birdie” at Mountain View High School!

How wonderful for me…and what a thoughtful, inclusive gesture by you. Your memory is a generous gift that has started this day on a particularly happy note.

Next time you gather with friends, I hope you share this recollection. And, then, confidently inform them it was your insightful tutelage that launched a career!

All my very best wishes,
Ken Verdoia

In a later exchange of emails, Ken told me, “Every step along the way… elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate studies… there has been a kind and generous mentor who has made a difference.  Not ‘steering’ me, but demonstrating how courage, strength and ability are born of purposeful education.”

Since I was a girl I had always planned to be a teacher, but in the end I only taught high school English for seven years.  Teaching is a hard job, and I was not particularly gifted.  Still, I feel honoree to think that my blundering enthusiasm for good reading and good writing all those years ago might have earned me a small place among those who “made a difference.”

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