Friday, January 3, 2014

The presents - and presence - of the past

   This was my column in the Claremont Courts two weeks ago. The holidays and the new year are often a time for reflection. I must admit, however, that, at least when it comes to thinking about the future and a new year, I am much more of an one-day-at-a-time guy. As my friend John once said, I don’t do New Year’s.


   Two women. Both were about my age. And both, like me, grew up in Claremont.
   One of them, I knew well, with her a few houses down the street for years and our families very close friends. The other, I didn’t know, but I heard about her and met her two or three times.
   Devon Williams Bishop and Amy Gusman Miller. It was sad to see their obituaries in these pages in the last month. Both succumbed to cancer. Both were 50 or so, and both left behind husbands, children and at least one parent.
   I already knew that Devon - Devon Williams, as I knew her for much of my life - had died (I was the one who gave the news to the rest of my family, living up north in the Bay Area for many years now), but seeing her obituary, with her picture, was a hard jolt. It was even more of a sad surprise to see the obituary for Amy, who I knew as Amy Gusman when her mother, Harriet, listed as a survivor, was my teacher.
   These deaths, even coming after long illnesses, were bad shocks, earth-shattering in their sadness. As when anyone who dies leaving behind both or one parent (not to mention relatively young children), as when anyone my age or younger dies, they were especially upsetting, more of a tragedy. Furthermore, their cold similarities were heart-aching.
   But these deaths also brought forth a flood of warm memories.
   With Devon, there are memories of being in a group of families who went to the same church and whose fathers taught at the colleges. There are memories of shared birthday parties and Easter brunches, of spending a weekend together in Idylwild every year when there was snow, of going caroling and having a party with a pinata at Christmas. I also remember my older sister and the girls in the other families spending hours and days and nights together.
   Later, I was thrilled to see Devon in an episode of “thirtysomething” on TV (okay, I was a fan!), and I have enjoyed exchanging Christmas cards in recent years. I think the last time I saw Devon was something like ten years ago in the Village when she had a baby in a carriage and was in town visiting her father. Or was it a year or two later in Memorial Park on the Fourth of July?
   In the case of Amy, it is her mother that I remember. Mrs. Gusman was one of my last teachers at Danbury School, back when Danbury School was still at Danbury School (where the Hughes Community Center is and where, if I’m not mistaken, Amy had attended earlier when there was a wing for non-disabled students).
   There was something unique about her. Although my other teachers at Danbury expected much of me despite my considerable disabilities, Mrs. Gusman pushed me even harder. She made it clear that she had high standard and had me doing a steady stream of reports and projects - never mind that it meant hours at a typewriter (this was long before personal computers). There were many times when I wasn’t happy with this, but, in so doing, she was a big part of why I was successful when I was mainstreamed at El Roble and went on to the high school and U.C Riverside, where I spent days at a typewriter, and have thus been able to work as  a writer. (Years later, I laughed when Carol Schowalter, another teacher with high standards who I had for English at El Roble and who died a few years ago, groaned that Mrs. Gusman had “stole” her Greek mythology unit and taught it to me, probably when Amy was in her class at El Roble.)
   Like all the bright lights that have been strung up everywhere this month, these memories give me light and warmth when it is dark and cold. Yes, it is sad, tragic, that these beautiful, bright, energetic women have passed on, passed on too early, but their presence here and the memories that their presence brings  enriches the life I have in this community.
   We saw this most clearly and dramatically with the death of Nelson Mandela a few weeks ago. While Mandela’s death was sad, although expected, and left South Africa with challenges, it was an opportunity to celebrate, even with singing and dancing, his tremendous impact and legacy in South Africa and the world. Not only that, it was a time to re-commit to his ideals of equality and reconciliation.
   Yes, Mandela was a leader who ended up having great world-wide impact, but these two women and their lively creativity and caring have had an impact, adding to what makes life here unique. In this season of gifts and hope, their lives, filled with love, and the memories of them leaves a warm, glowing sense of gratitude for all the good in life and inspiration to make the best of it.
   This is the same lively creativity and caring that we see and cheer when the students perform at the colleges. There was last weekend’s performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the Claremont Concert Symphony and the Claremont Concert Choir, with students from Scripps, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer colleges, as well as the Claremont Chorale, under the direction of David Cubek. So many found these performances, celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Garrison Theater and the tenth anniversary of the Performing Arts Center at Scripps College, inspiring that people had to be turned away.
   There was also a recent Wednesday evening performance by the Pomona College Sea Chanty and Maritime Music Ensemble. Who knew there was a Sea Chanty and Maritime Music Ensemble at Pomona College? And who knew the students were learning sailor songs and how to play the concertina and hornpipes?
    This was essentially an open class, with the director, Gibb Schreffler, very much participating and noting that this was the first sea chanty class, not only at Pomona College but perhaps at any college. The students sang their hearts out, performing a slew of songs such as “Walkalong, You Sally Brown,” “Stormalong John” and “Pull Down Below.”
   I can only hope they keep singing.

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