March 5, 2017

CNF/Essay by Stacy E. Holden: The Present (Not So) Perfect

Stacy E. Holden is an Associate Professor of History at Purdue University in Lafayette, IN.  Her research and teaching focus on the modern Middle East and North Africa as well as American engagement with these regions.  To understand how Americans have imagined the Arab world, both in the past and the present, Dr. Holden is now traveling in the footsteps of Edith Wharton, who visited Morocco in 1917 as a guest of French colonial authorities.  You can learn more about Dr. Holden at, and her email is   

The Present (Not So) Perfect
I am a professional historian, and a nearly obsessive eye for detail serves me well as I reconstruct, for example, systems of urban labor in nineteenth-century Morocco.  And so, as I grieve the loss of my friend Maryclaire in the weeks following her unexpected death, I find myself examining our thirty-year friendship with the keen eye of a practiced expert.  I search, desperately at times, for tangible evidence--documents, photos, material objects--that reveal something of the ways in which my life connected with that of Maryclaire.  As I focus my professional skills on my own past and its intersection with that of my friend, however, I feel an unskilled amateur unable to record our friendship in anything but the present tense.
In one instance, only days after Maryclaire's passing, I spend an hour, maybe more, searching for a worn navy tank top that I had borrowed from her in mid-1980s, maybe even the summer of our high school graduation.  It would be a coup to find something physical that could be touched and passed to our other friends from high school, Susan and Cindy.  But I can't find it.  Its size, I vaguely remember, much too small, had taunted me, reminding me that I had gained seventy pounds.  I am forced to conclude I had relegated the t-shirt--carelessly, I chastise myself--to the rag bin.
Finding solace in the skills of an historian, I am determined to channel my messy and inarticulate explosion of grief, regret and shame into a coherent narrative.  This cataclysmic moment has shifted the world and my place in it.  I must process this tragedy and understand Maryclaire's influence and effects.    So I ask our friends for photos, letters or other relics that reveal my life as it intertwined with hers.     
Historians typically mark the passage of time according to major events.  Maryclaire and I became friends in our senior year of high school in suburban Connecticut, and we graduated from Trumbull High School in 1985.  After graduation, we both tried, unsuccessfully, to go straight through a four year college.  We then moved to the Boston area and shared bachelorette apartments, first in Somerville and then in Cambridge.  While we worked full time and went to school, I introduced her to her husband Jay.  In 1994, I would serve as Matron of Honor at their wedding.  A few months later, they showed up in my living room and informed me and my husband of that time that they were expecting their first child.  Sarah was born on 2 June 1995, and I may have overdone the flowers and balloons with which I filled their house as Jay drove the new mama and their baby home for the first time.
However, a chronological discussion of such markers in our personal history does not sufficiently explain the depth of my feelings when I learn that Maryclaire has passed away.  She was a "witness to my life," a term so intimate it is usually reserved for a spouse.  She was there when I first took my first steps on Mr. P's dive bar dance floor and stayed next to me during times so emotionally tough and so private that I hesitate to discuss them even with my therapist.  No matter the emotional ups-and-downs that I experienced, Maryclaire, like the winsome fairies she collected, had that magical knack for making me feel worthwhile and special.     
In seeking out the archival sources that will allow for our narrative to emerge, I turn to our friend Lynn who possesses the equivalent of the Alexandria Library.  For readers who do not study the Arab world, this Egyptian institution held the most significant set of manuscripts of ancient times.  However, it was destroyed by a fire at some point--within fifty years or maybe four centuries--before the birth of Christ.  The destruction of this library and its holding is a metaphor for irreplaceable loss.   
Lynn had also been Maryclaire's friend in high school, and Facebook--thank you Mark Zuckerberg--brought us together after her death.  As we message back and forth, Lynn tells me that her last memory of hanging out with Maryclaire consists of watching Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” (1989), a movie filled with magic that Maryclaire always loved.  Lynn regrets that she had lost track of Maryclaire.  
I identify strongly with this sentiment, since my contact with my friend had been relegated to irregular emails and texts, one of which, my treasure and my talisman, was sent by her only weeks before Maryclaire died.  “Hello Dear One,” her text of 125 words began.  As I read her rambling words to me, I can imagine her tapping in those words, the black glasses perched on her nose offering such a contrast to her blond features and colorful fashion proclivities.  “I’d really love to see you,” she writes, and types in her final words communicated to me in this lifetime: “Bless.”      
A ping on the computer brings me back to the present, and I read that Lynn is now an accountant.  I had remembered Lynn as a practical young woman, but our high school yearbook shows her as well to have a sentimental streak, for she cited lines from "Dreams" in which poet Langston Hughes exhorts us to hold fast to them.  Lynn is now the mother of three children, and she claims to be "busy, tired, and happy," which, I believe, is just about right for the mother of two teenagers and a pre-teen.    She reminds me "how you two did Broken Shells?  I still have my copy."
Broken Shells...Broken Shells...Broken Shells...  I repeat the term in my head, because I don't want to admit that I can't dredge up the significance of her reference.  And then it hits me: Maryclaire and I had co-edited the literary magazine of Trumbull High School our senior year.  One month later,  a cascade of notification chimes comes through Facebook’s Messenger, letting me know that Lynn has sent eleven photos of rare and precious pages from Broken Shells, the 1985 edition.
Time travel, I note, moving from the role of historian to author of science fiction, is both frightening and invigorating.  I suspected Lynn had interesting material, but I was not prepared for a set of texts that in fact I would not trade for the lost scrolls of the Alexandria Library.  These eleven images take me back to the classrooms of Trumbull High School as surely as the smell of goulash places me at my Grandma White's dining room table.  In displaying our titles as Editors-in-Chief of this literary magazine, the title page of Broken Shells reminds me of how Maryclaire and I had first met and become friends.  Since I had struggled that last year of high school with what would later be diagnosed as an eating disorder and comorbid depression, I did not hold onto the happier memory of our work together.
The Trumbull High School Yearbook of 1985 has a photo of the editorial staff of Broken Shells, and Cindy sends it to me.  I want a glimpse of Maryclaire and myself together back at that time.  I feel some trepidation due to the strong memory of unhappiness that year, a memory I fear will be etched in my face or my body.  I examine the photo of the ten students who put together that high school publication.  I identify myself third from the right and see an adolescent precursor of myself having an easy smile and clear eyes.  I must have dressed for this day, because I remember that favorite gray checkered skirt with the bibbed blouse with modest kimono sleeves.   I am pleased that my gaze does not shy from the camera and am somewhat surprised and relieved at how normal I look.  Lynn and I are there, but Maryclaire--perhaps in class, perhaps with her boyfriend Dan--was absent that day.  
Systematically moving through the yearbook as I would an archival text, I turn to our individual photos.  I smile at how Maryclaire's fashion sense reflects the preppy trend of the 1980s.  She wears a pastel checked cotton blouse with pearls, and her blonde hair is cropped in a pixie cut that she would never choose to wear after this particular era.  In its caption, I see my initials SH and read "cheers to life."  This brief phrase suggests I shared some sense of my unhappiness even back then, or else why would she construct such a wish.  This seems an accurate interpretation when I see below my own photo, to "MCW, thanks for too much to mention."
My poem in Broken Shells is titled "For T.R.S.," and I wonder if I refer to my next door neighbor on Woodfield Drive.  In fifth grade, twelve-year-old Tim had asked me to the Tashua Elementary School Fair, my first date, and his boisterous family of four siblings had always been a charismatic draw.  In retrospect, I am surprised at the nostalgic depiction of childhood created in a poem written when  I remember myself in a severe emotional slump.  I am retrospectively thankful for my unexpected adolescent ability to perceive the quotidian enchantment of childhood:

On frozen ground
I wait
to catch a glimpse.
Blue screens recall...
Deep thoughts
by muppet minds
beneath an ice cream
Paper clip chains
of Skateboards
and pilots;
arms locked
we whizzed
down Alpine road
happy hour ended
and Mom called,
bases you created:
fir tree, dirt spot, sidewalk;
No home plate--
we just knew
where home was.

The poem generates memories: the Blizzard of '78; the neighborhood children with whom I played; watching John Denver speak with Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy; and, yes, as identified in the poem, playing sports in the front yard of our mustard ranch in the suburbs.  It was wiffle ball in the spring, and touch football in the fall.              

"Yesterday's Children" is the title of Maryclaire's artwork.  I find it a poignant title, since she became a teacher, and so the steward of many of tomorrow's children.  After all, although gone, she remains the nurturing mother of four.  And when we lived together, she did get her BA and then an MA in early education in order to teach primary school.  Maryclaire's image is a woodcut, whereby ink is spread on a carved surface so that the final print appears in relief.  I find it a surprisingly dark image, given the lightness and the bright colors with which I associate the grown-up Maryclaire.  I am drawn to her distinctive signature, a sweeping yet legible scrawl.          
Maryclaire's contribution fascinates me, and I am eager to see what she makes of it now, more than thirty years later.  The historian's craft is briefly set aside in a wave of grief as I recognize my inability to call my friend and pursue this conversation.  And so, instead, I send the image to Susan and Cindy, our friends from that time, so we three can interpret the significance of this lost treasure.
There is temporal confusion as relics from the past infuse the present, and the use of the past tense seems tacitly understood as having no place in the ensuing conversation.  Verb tenses locate actions or situations in time, and we are stuck in the simple present.  "Amazing!" Susan exclaims, and then pays tribute to the heartbreakingly beautiful belief that "Claire's art is gorgeous and a premonition of her future life."  As a verb tense, the simple present expresses "general truths," and Susan's statement constructed in it--awkwardly phrased as if Maryclaire were still here--expresses our loss more profoundly than an entire scholarly treatise on grief.
© Stacy E. Holden

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