Brand building through storytelling

Age cannot wither her

I recognized her by her clothes—flowing layers of russet, mauve and black that billowed as she walked. She used to stand a little straighter in the old days, more than 35 years ago, but she still had a lilt in her step, as if her feet were keeping time to music she alone could hear. Only she would wear wild striped socks and clinking silver jewelry in the same ensemble—and somehow carry it off. There she stood on the subway platform, almost close enough to touch.

Maybe our paths were meant to cross that day. Maybe I was simply mistaken, as I usually am with familiar faces-like the one across the table at a recent awards dinner. “Ann!” I exclaimed. “It’s Nancy,” my tablemate replied, a little tartly. “Don’t you remember? I used to work for you for five months.”

I didn’t want to botch another greeting, but neither did I want to miss out on this connection. Minutes later, the lilting woman and I were clutching the same pole in a subway car jammed with dour commuters. I tapped her russet shoulder: “You’re Patricia, right? You taught me English back in 1970.”

She was. She did. And she remembered me, along with most of my classmates in English Drama to 1642. She smiled as if she’d just received a rare and exquisite gift. In the rush-hour press of backpacks and strangers’ elbows, she and I were suddenly a world unto ourselves, united by the pleasure of finding each other.

It’s not always such a joy to encounter a face from the past. People I remember as lithe and blooming now look disconcertingly crumpled. I find myself babbling excuses for my failure to recognize them. “It’s your haircut,” I say, when in fact it’s, well…everything. Then I think of the folds in my own changing face. Must we lose all the lightness of our younger selves?

Maybe not. Patricia hasn’t.

When we first met, she was in her early 30s—too old to be trusted, according to a mantra of those times. But how could anyone not trust Patricia? Unlike the men who taught us, with their world-weary, middle-aged faces, she exuded delight in her students and her subject.

She often talked about “the dark world of the play,” as if we were setting forth together on a thrilling but perilous adventure. People in those plays were always falling victim to invisible threats—if not the schemes of their enemies, then the cravings of their own crooked hearts. Her own heart brimmed with hope, and she was disarmingly clear about this. One day she told us how her wedding would look, when the right man came along. She was going to dance down the aisle barefoot, to her favourite Brandenburg concerto.

I never felt I had to please her; she seemed so pleased already to be darting at the front of our classroom. She was one of those teachers who answered dull, rambling questions with the same respect she gave to my aggressively penetrating questions. At the time I found this vaguely disconcerting. I liked to compete for attention and Patricia—no doubt unwittingly—was sabotaging my game.

I forgot almost everything I learned in Patricia’s classroom. I raised a son, earned a living, buried both of my parents. With my husband of nearly 37 years, I bought and sold a few houses. I saw shadows appear in my face. I saw the world turn dark in the shadow of threats that had once seemed unimaginable. After 9/11, I dreamed that the familiar cityscape outside my window was just a painted backdrop on a stage. Invisible hands pulled it up, revealing nothing but smoke and fire.

I remember wishing I could live forever. Now I’m starting to think it’s just as well that I can’t.

When I spotted Patricia on the subway, I hadn’t thought of her for years. But I think every day about the moments of grace that bring people together, when so many forces are pulling us apart. I felt a sudden hunger to know my teacher’s story (she always called herself a “teacher;” the men preferred the loftier “professor”). So I followed her off at her stop, where I learned the broad outlines. She was married for a while, and raised a son. She retired reluctantly at 65, mourning the connection with her students, but then she found new pleasures—painting and singing.

I headed home feeling cheered by the sight of her, a woman so indelibly herself in her seventieth year. That night she e-mailed me to say that she had just found my name in her 1970 roll book. “I’m glad you remember my clothes!” she said. “I always tried to make each class an occasion…physically as well as intellectually.”

We talked about meeting for coffee, but she was going on vacation and I felt a startling need to honour our connection right away. So I found my collected works of Shakespeare (untouched for about 20 years) and opened to the juiciest play I remembered, Antony and Cleopatra. The lovers in the play aren’t getting any younger, and this gives their passion a poignant grandeur that I couldn’t quite grasp as a student. Propped on pillows for the sake of my complaining back, I began to read.

Posted by Rona 

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