Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for kindness. Lucius Annaeus Seneca
The dinner with Professor Smith was something of a momentous occasion. My parents rarely dined out with acquaintances, having very few left with whom they might socialize, even if they were able or so inclined; I had only one friend left in town from the old days. I had orchestrated the meeting as it seemed likely to entertain my parents, my mother in particular, without overly imposing on Professor Smith, who was a long- ago colleague of my mother. I had my motivations as well, although I did not consider them predominant. Professor Smith had arrived first at the restaurant and was seated at a table in the middle of the room. As my parents and I made our way into the entry of the faux hacienda, I caught a glimpse of him looking straight ahead as if lost in thought more than on the lookout for our arrival.
I had not seen him for several years and before that only once briefly since I had been a student in his class in the late 1970s. I took a Humanities class with him, but his specialty was Shakespeare. He lectured, rather than leading a discussion, and was consummately prepared. He stood with notes on the lectern at the front of a classroom of thirty or so chairs. He had not embraced the bohemian ethic of the 70s campus. He wore a suit and tie to class. He was a little overweight, which gave him the chubby-faced aspect of a large boy. I took careful notes, read the texts, over-studied for exams, wrote thoughtfully crafted essays, and (so he said years later) made an impression as an earnest and capable student. I had always remembered the day a student’s black retriever rose from the floor (at that time dogs, most of which must have worn bandanas, were not forbidden classrooms) and circumambulated the room. Professor Smith’s serious and youthful face slightly registered the disturbance, but he carried on with the lecture without suggesting that dog cease padding around the room. I cannot remember any word exchanged between us before, during, or after class. He must have known that my mother was his colleague in the English Department, but that did not inspire conversation, which suited me, being shy and awkward at that time. All the long years later I had remembered him as erudite, stolid, and reserved (perhaps from his own brand of shyness). I had also conceived of him as a kind and caring person—it must have been from things my mother had said in passing about him. She had expressed such a view of him in some off- hand comments. The effect of the statements linger but the precise words have scattered like the details of a dream in which much was said and done but only the sense that something happened remains. Most importantly, she liked him and her good opinion became mine.
My mother was not only his colleague, but had established some kind of mentor relationship with his wife—or with the woman who became his wife. That woman had been a graduate student, specializing, I assume, in Victorian Studies to be under my mother’s professorial aegis. My mother had helped her to a great degree, and I was aware of many demonstrations of gratitude—notes and letters and a pointed statement to me when we met once about how kind and helpful my mother had been to her. That face to face expression of thanks took place at a party at the home of Professor Smith and his wife. That was when I renewed my acquaintance with my erstwhile professor and spoke to him for the length of time proper to cocktail-party conversation with the host.
In the human dichotomy of the helpful and kind versus the not-to-be-bothered, I could not have thought about placing him anywhere but with the former half. In addition to my mother’s good opinion, I must have unwittingly attributed to him qualities of my mother, as his fellow English professor. She throughout the years acted as if a professor’s duties included general academic and intellectual support of any needy student. Graduate students writing dissertations became household names as my mother spent years fostering versions of dissertation drafts in search of a compelling thesis. There were the students from years before who still called. There were students in whom she had taken a personal interest and had introduced to me or my brother: one became a good friend of mine and one eventually married my brother. Such a close connection to students was a legacy for her; she had had such a rapport with one of her professors to the point that we paid this teacher, Dr. Davis, a visit in her home twenty years after my mother graduated. Further, my mother had arranged for Dr. Davis to teach as an adjunct at the University, believing that she, a retired single woman, would enjoy the experience.
Leading to the dinner, I barged into Professor Smith’s life out of the blue via email. As an “independent scholar” I am cut off from intellectual peers. That term nicely connotes unemployed and also expresses a large degree of isolation. To establish some rapport with an English professor would be a small surrogate for the loss of my mother (who is alive but whom I have lost intellectually). I yearned to have peers (if I could call such an august personage as Professor Smith my peer) to take a look at my book on Emily Brontë and to convey to me some impression of it. Professor Smith was not a Victorian scholar, but he would certainly be able to read it with the understanding of a man of the English scholar’s cloth. Might he also take it under his wing and exhibit it to others in the department? I embarked on my multi-purpose email: introduce the topic of my little book and suggest meeting for dinner when I was in town, not only to possibly establish some rapport between us, but also to give my parents an all too rare outing with an old acquaintance.
I took the chair across form him, a vantage point for studying the contrasts of past and present. His light brown hair was mostly grey. He was thinner overall. The chubbiness was gone, but the notably small nose still hinted at a choir boy’s face and one that had not entirely succumbed to the insistence of sixty-five. The conversation fell to us necessarily more than to my parents. His manner was formal at times and I heard the lecturer still. Then, all reserve would vanish when he ventured an occasional smile that cast a hue of joviality and approachability. His tone was above all earnest and our conversation flowed with all the force of true interest. Whether naturally, or developed as a technique, he interjected my name from time to time while keeping the most sincere eye contact. I was concerned not to appear mercenary and did not mention my book, directing the conversation to topics that my mother and father would share and then to his work: a long-term and soon to be completed exhaustive work on Shakespeare. We talked at length about his having judged an oral interpretation contest of a Shakespearean soliloquy. I felt the joy of conversing on topics of interest and not superficial politeness. As I had done oral interpretation contests in high school, I really did want to hear what the contestants were like and how he evaluated them. We ranged into more personal territory, to topics sad and shared. I felt a complicity in dealing with painful change — “the bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” I could only surmise that he must feel lonely. As a man without children, recently having lost a close brother, and with an ailing wife, who spent much of her time seeking treatment in another city, he perhaps found my invitation welcome and not an imposition. Then he brought up my writing and asked about the thesis of my book. No one had ever posed that question to me before and I relished considering the answer. He listened intently but was non-committal verbally, which was certainly preferable to specious exclamations of interest. I did not need him to gush over the concept and he couldn’t know of the execution of it. I was quite satisfied with the rare opportunity to consider what I had written and to discuss it, however briefly, with an English professor. As the evening came to its close, warmth and good will settled around us. I thought getting together again when I visited my parents again, or at some future time, was not beyond reasonable speculation.
Continued good feelings about the evening and the success of the dinner accompanied me home the next day on the long and all too familiar plane ride. Throughout the week I expected, to the point of not even considering the alternative, that I would receive an email thanking me for dinner and reflecting that it had been an enjoyable evening. Professor Smith was certainly proper if nothing else. A full week passed and though nothing was really hanging in the balance, I was puzzled about the absence of some polite following words, if not an expression of warmth and enthusiasm equal to my own. Finally I wrote to say how much we enjoyed the dinner and to say how glad I was that we got together. Professor Smith wrote back to affirm that my mother was one of his favorite colleagues and he wished me luck on my writing.