A Halloween Apology
First we’re all going to die. We don’t like to think about it. The concept of our mortality is too big for most of us to believe, process, or comprehend. But it’s coming. Maybe we should face our fear of death. At least once a year. Mortality is a mirror; we should let it reveal and allow ourselves to recalibrate in light of it.
Second, most of us have lost someone. They are our loved ones, our ancestors, our mentors, and our friends. Famous or not, no matter the creed, they are our “saints.” They are ours, bound by love.
Rituals are important. Many world traditions have rituals to honor the dead. It’s a good idea. Mexico has the Day of the Dead (Nov 2). Many Christians celebrate All Saint’s Day (Nov 1). Oct 31 festivities in the USA have roots in paganism well before they were acquired by Christianity. So the idea of Halloween is very, very old. Surely it endures in part because of our common concern with mortality and loss.
For many reasons, I get giddy about Halloween. There’s oodles of fun and very little pressure. No rules. No one expects much, no hoopla over gifts or cards. Costumes can be as simple or as fussy as one desires, and they are optional. There’s the rush of filling a bucket with nonsense, sneaking around with my kids, ringing a doorbell and running, boo-ing the neighbors.
With such low expectations, suddenly I find myself willingly and enthusiastically doing the things I’ve always criticized about Christmas–decorating the house and baking for hours.
But the real reason deep deep down that I love Halloween is because I really do love certain people who are now dead. And this is the moment I celebrate them. I have a little alter with photos. I’ve carved pumpkins in their likeness. Occasionally I stop to talk about these loved ones with my kids.
Sometimes I write about them. Writing helps me through grief, loss, and remembrance. I’ve written about each special person in the past, and perhaps I will again in the future. But this post is about just one person.
Right now I’d like to introduce you to Reta Jane Carter. If you already know her, I’d like to conjure her with you for a moment. I can almost hear her voice now, jolting in bursts of enthusiasm, even glee, and a faraway quality as her thoughts trail off.
Reta Carter was my English teacher my freshman year of college, her last year of teaching at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas. Mrs. Carter began each class with a hard look at us students and a looooong siiiiigh. She would shift her weight and siiiiiigh again.
I think I understand now how it is hard to begin a great subject. I have big feelings about her. In her case, though, she had done so much research, and the topic was vast. I think she saw a classroom full of completely blank, clueless faces and thought, “with you kids, ugh, where do I start?”
I called her Mrs. Carter back then. She loved classical literature and ancient Greece. She stood in front of the class like a marble sculpture. She was tall, and she dressed with effortless style, usually a long skirt with a white linen shirt, and a sturdy silver bracelet. Her white hair piled behind her head like a crown. She stood with her weight on one leg, or leaning against the podium, casually regal. Full of grace. She was stunningly beautiful.
I remember once we studied a Shakespearean play, and she went to great lengths to discuss the lineage of the real-life nobility depicted in the text. It was an English class full of history lessons. She spoke urgently, like it was vitally important that we LIKE this stuff. This dusty ole stuff was INTERESTING, she seemed to convey, with fervor. I’m not sure our blank faces staring back at her were a worthy reward. Nevertheless, she taught about 27 years. I’m sure she had many mentees. I’m one of her fans.
After she retired, Mrs. Carter gave me advice on a piece of creative writing, and encouraged me to propose a creative writing honors thesis, rather than the traditional critical approach. I did. She continued to give me feedback on writing for many years.
I remember sitting on her couch, a warm color with straight lines, not overly stuffed, going through my first manuscripts with her. There was a large, beautiful indoor tree in the window, with a lush lawn beyond. It was like being in a garden within a garden, a safe and verdant place.
Originally I went to her because I knew she’d be honest in her critique. I wanted rigorous criticism. She gave it, she shot straight, and she left me whole. I didn’t expect how great, how affirming, that would feel. I had no idea just how much I’d learn from her.
She asked me to house sit a couple times while she and her husband, Bob, traveled. What a treat to get out of the dorm! I watered her plants and fed her dog, Peggy Sue. In the evenings sometimes I’d return to pet Peggy and attempt to “study.” But it was all a ruse. I loved Peggy Sue. I loved being in Mrs. Carter’s home. Pretty dreamy.
She had tapestries hung as wall art on either side of the fire place. A grand piano at the back of the living room. A sense of space, ease, and refinement everywhere.
She threw a dinner party for the entire honors program—all the students and faculty—every year, even the year after she retired. She entertained with signature elegance, and she made everyone feel at home. She was completely unpretentious. Our conversations were always lively. There was a searing realism in her perceptiveness and a delightfully wicked twist to her humor. I loved it. I was lucky to be on her “nice” list. Most of the time.
She did get on to me a couple of times. Just out of college she asked how I was getting along, and I may have mentioned my penchant for canned green beans. That was a mistake. Oh, the railing. Nothing from a can! The preservatives! The processing! “We are what we eat!” she later wrote me. As with everything, though, she conveyed nothing but love and concern. Even her admonition came from a place of caring. It was always welcome.
Once I wrote her a letter complaining about grading papers. It must have been after graduate school when I taught high school English. I found grading volumes and volumes of essays a bit tedious and tortuous. I was tired and very, very low. She replied: “Dear Mandy, I am SHOCKED. Listen, kid, if you’re an English teacher, you’re on a mission.” She went on for two pages, passionately—who would guard the English language?!–and so forth, and ended with, “Buck up, kid—duty involves boredom, etc.! Best wishes and love, Gray.”
After many years, Mrs. Carter asked me to call her “Old Gray,” a nickname from her adoring and equally witty, irreverent kids, who teased her in mid life for going gray so young.
Once Old Gray put together a speech for her ladies’ group, the P.E.O. Having recently completed 27 years as a university English professor, she was asked to speak about education. Education. She began like this: “since I don’t know anything much about that subject, I took advantage of being a wicked old lady, and decided to give you a wandering talk about TRAVEL.”
Old Gray shared this story with me at about 73 years old. Her speech was to a room full of women more or less her age. She described flying over Greece, a large peninsula called the “Peloponnese.” She wrote, “At one point in our flight, the pilot came on the intercom announcing that we had passed the heel of Italy and would be almost immediately over the ‘Pelopenis!’ All us passengers gasped, looked at each other and giggled, and I wondered naughtily if this land had ever been governed by the equally ancient fabled King Erectheus…Oh, well, excuse me.”
Eventually Gray’s influence on my life went far beyond academics. I married a quiet man whose interests lay far outside art and literature largely because of the apparent harmony Old Gray created with Bob. In August 1998 Gray wrote about her travel with Bob, “Such energy we had….And how amazing that we concurred in the kind of travel. After all, Bob and I are so different and he knew nothing whatever about Greece—its literature or its history (degree in engineering, doncha know)…”
Gray’s life had many outward conventions, a long marriage, raising four children, cooking three meals a day, living in a small town in West Texas. The relative quiet of her life was juxtaposed by her piercing wit, astute perception, and intellectual independence. Even thought the landscape was plain, and few in her community shared her interests, she delighted in her work. She invested in her children, teaching, and study. She volunteered. She nurtured her curiosities. She took care to inspire them in others. I was lucky she spent so much time with me. She gave me permission to be a thoughtful woman, and to have strong opinions, even if they go against the grain.
I enjoyed so many lunches with Old Gray, always on elegant white plates. So I put white plates on my wedding registry. I think of Reta Jane Carter every time I open my kitchen cabinet. Mine aren’t an exact match, of course. But I try to honor the spirit of her influence—serve good food, make great conversation, and nurture meaningful ties.
My dear sweet mentor, Old Gray, passed away in September this year. Twelve years ago, in Feb 2004 she wrote:
“now that I approach the end of my time here, I wonder what the whole thing is about, anyway. [Except, of course, the possibility that we should value each moment, each relationship, etc, to the fullest with our full selves.] But here we are on this minute planet in a universe so vast that its dimensions are unknown—and I can only wonder what it’s all about anyway.”
I bet sentient beings have wondered about the meaning of life always, possibly before human beings were human beings. I mean, way back, when the first hairy upright human-like creature felt tired, grew weary of its young pulling on her, got fussy with demands of dinner over the fire, felt lonely, small, bored, afraid, sad, overwhelmed, underwhelmed, brokenhearted, or mortal.
The meaning of life’s a big question. Gray led by example when she said we should value each moment, each relationship, to the fullest, with our full selves. Frankly, whether my life or my thoughts matter or not, I loved her. She meant a lot to me. I’m deeply grateful to Gray for her love, and for her guidance.
In September I drove to Boston to remember Gray, and to hug her family. After we memorialized Gray, one of her daughters showed me this card she had found. Gray would write the darnedest notes on the tiniest, most random pieces of paper. She often scrawled lesson plans on the backs of used envelopes from her mail. This tiny scrap turned up: “to celebrate what we share, our unique privilege of being human.”
Gray was incredibly clear-eyed, and so in love with her kids–a great example. I’m lucky to have friendships with Old Gray’s children, to know her granddaughter, and to have met her great-grandson and namesake, who I can’t help calling “O.G. Mini.” Many of Reta’s legacies live on in her family, especially love, intelligence, and wit.
I refuse to toss up my hands and assume that when a heroine diminishes, the world dims, and that’s that. For me, Reta’s legacy inspires action. The best way to honor her is to be the best human being I can, to follow my path, to pursue curiosity, to work with purpose and energy, to nurture relationships, and to love deeply. Plus she inspires me to be irreverent, to be self-critical, and to cling to good humor.
Perhaps most of us walk around with our eyes on an even level. We see what we expect to see. We make assumptions. We operate in a world we know. Then someone smiles, points, and says, “hey, look up there!” Our eyes follow and, voila, something new. Something unexpected. Something inside us shifts. We gain a new perspective, deeper knowledge, a brighter view, expanded possibilities, and a new habit of looking up. It changes everything. Reta did that for me.
I made many life choices modeling after Reta Jane Carter. I idolized her in many ways. I could never have known as a young girl in college just what a great example she set for me, especially in how to remain intellectually and creatively independent, even while following someone else and raising children.
Whether others shared her passions or not, Reta lit her own fire. She was kind. She had the most wickedly smart sense of humor I’ve ever seen. She carried herself with unparalleled grace and style. She studied what interested her. She was incredibly generous to me. She encouraged me whenever I felt lost or stuck. It made all the difference. Writing about her might be my refusal to let her go, a way of cherishing, of rubbing the edges so the form doesn’t disappear.
Dear reader, I hope you connect with someone you love this Halloween–even someone who has passed. I won’t tell anyone if you stay up late, looking through old photos, crying, maybe staring into a flickering candle-lit pumpkin, imploring, “Tell me something, please. Any advice for me now? I miss you. Please tell me something…”
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