Summers in Charlottesville are a delicious kind of haze. The heat hangs heavy and days roll by as slow and deliberate as the drawl of a Virginia gentleman.
“Jeeee-innn-ee-uh-fuhhhh,” was how my third-year “History of Virginia” professor pronounced my name, as though it had double the amount of syllables it normally carried in my clipped mid-Atlantic elocution. He’d invited all of the students in his consistently packed seminar to his beautiful colonial home off route 250 for dinner at the end of the semester, when it wasn’t quite peak summer humidity, but we’d all gotten a taste of it and were buzzed with its promise, wearing sleeveless dresses and Rainbow flip flops amidst the mounting frivolity of the dawn of summer.
The professor was deeply kind — the type who actively listened when you spoke and made you feel as though you were the only person in the room, even when reciting a fact from Virginia’s history he’d heard oh, four hundred and eighty-eight times. His wife had organized a buffet-style dinner and we filed in and around their beautifully-appointed Southern home looking for spare folding chairs, perches on the arms of overstuffed sofas, and familiar faces. He made a toast and we ate homemade lasagna and the bolder among us carried on a polite debate on some political subject du jour, though it was the kind of cooled and courtly exchange you rarely see these days, marshaled, in large part, because we were all desperate for the professor’s approval, and he wasn’t one to tolerate shouting matches. We knew it without having to test it. He was polite and deliberate and well-spoken — but you could tell a whip-sharp intellect lay just beneath that composed exterior and we were simultaneously intimidated and humbled by him.
I watched him gracefully shepherd the debate, offering points to consider, and eventually he said: “And wuh-hut do you thee-unk, Jeee-innn-ee-uh-fuhhh?” I cleared my throat in surprise and offered up the point I’d been refining in quiet preparation for the prior few minutes, my face burning and my voice stammering. He nodded thoughtfully, courteously, seriously, and then deftly folded my point back into the mix.
I sat with the urgent compulsion to ossify that moment in memory. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad, who I knew would be touched by this professor’s hospitality and class (“in the true Virginia tradition,” he’d say, being a Wahoo himself), and I beamed at the thought that I’d contributed something worthy to the conversation, and that he knew my name and wanted to hear what I had to say–or so I chose to fashion it in my own mind, as I also realized he might have invited me to participate simply because he was a skilled and inclusive facilitator. And so I dangled halfway in and halfway out, in awe of the moment and eager to share it. I knew from its contours alone that it was a golden moment in formation.
Mainly, I was plain grateful to him for soliciting my opinion.
About a week later, on the eve of finals, I developed a horrible pain in my lower back. It had seemed to start after a long session on the elliptical and so I massaged it and put ice packs on it and took Advil for it but still it throbbed and ached. As I pored over pages and pages of hand-written notes on the history of Virginia, I found myself shivering, then sweating. I realized I hadn’t eaten all day, but the thought of food made me nauseous. I continuously grimaced in pain. I took a hot bath to stop the chills and felt a little better. I called my mom, who advised I take Tylenol and pour myself into bed.
“But my exam is tomorrow!” I cried. Unsettlingly, she had no solution for this.
“You have to take care of yourself,” was all she offered. “Go to bed.”
I fell in and out of fitful sleep, waking with uncontrollable chills and then shirt-drenching sweat. At some point, my roommate came back from studying at the library, took a look at me, and wordlessly retrieved a thermometer.
“OK,” she said, calmly, reading the digital side. “We need to go to the ER.” I had a fever of 104.6.
At the hospital, they gave me fluids and informed me I was suffering from a kidney infection. I was terrified and relieved and also in a panic about exams — for myself and my roommate, who was at my side the entire time despite the fact that she, too, had finals the following morning. I was prescribed medicine and discharged fairly quickly thereafter, and I kept apologizing to my friend as she drove to get me Gatorades and then took me home and tucked me into bed.
“It’s nothing,” she said, waving her hand as though to dismiss my concern, acting entirely unphased by the fact that it was well past midnight and I’d ruined her study plans. She took my temperature again and as she left the room, flicked off the light and said, “I’m here if you need me.”
The next morning, I woke early, having sweated through my pajamas, and realized I was still feverish. I understood the medicine would not kick in immediately, but had hoped for a miracle.
Brushing away tears, I wrote to my professor explaining the situation and asking whether I could complete the take-home exam later in the week. I was not one to ask for extensions or special clearances. I had once written a midterm paper while sobbing over the death of my grandmother, wracked with grief but determined to submit the work. This was not so much emotional fortitude as it was fear of disappointing my professor and breaking the rules. And when you are nineteen and in the fortunate position that your academic performance is the only stressor in your peaceful and padded life, requesting an exception felt like the biggest thing I’d ever done on my own, without outside counsel, in my life. I was a rule follower through and through, and a people-pleaser to boot.
This was hard for me. It still would be.
I am sure all professors dread the flood of sob stories that materialize with curious consistency around exam time, and I was disgusted he’d think I was one such, especially after his kindnesses throughout the semester in asking for my opinion in class and at his home. I couldn’t tell if it was the fever or my nerves that left my stomach in knots and my hands jittery as I clicked “SEND.”
I went back to bed.
When I woke, I had this waiting for me:
“My dear Jennifer,
Do not apologize. Life happens. Email me when you are recovered and we’ll work it out together. Until then, please rest.
A few weeks later, while down in Charlottesville for Midsummers, Mr. Magpie took me tubing down the James River. I wore my favorite pink Lilly Pulitzer bikini and we drove “into the sticks” in Party Girl with Tim McGraw blasting and his hand in mind and my bare feet on the dashboard. There was a little outfit off Route 20 that rented students tubes and even mini tubes to hold coolers filled with “soda.” I put soda in quotation marks because there were rules painted in black hand-writing on an old piece of wood at the little hut where you rented your tube that read: “NO ALCOHOL,” and yet the young local boys who’d rent us the gear would decorously turn their faces while students would load beers into them. “Soda,” the boys would say, grinning like cheshire cats. I’d always preoccupy myself in the car while this was happening, afraid of getting caught, busy — always — constructing elaborate scenarios where I’d get in trouble some way or another.
That day, I watched as Mr. Magpie moved a small pitcher of cosmopolitans he’d mixed me at home using fresh lime juice — not that stuff that came out of a green lime-shaped squirt bottle — and Grey Goose vodka into the cooler, and then nestled an actual glass tumbler in alongside the Bud Heavy beers he’d packed for himself. This was peak Sex and the City territory and I was at that stage of young life where anything more expensive than rail liquor — or maybe Smirnoff — felt unfathomably fancy. I was so overcome with love for this man and his thoughtful, extravagant caretaking of me that I sucked in a big gulp of air, smiling ear to ear, my shoulders scrunching up around my ears in the universal mime for excitement. He looked over at me, using a fraying rope tether to tie the cooler tube to his tube, and momentarily paused to take me in.
“Thank you,” I said.
“It’s nothin’,” he shrugged with an easy smile.
I floated down that lazy river, through the sticky stillness of a Southern summer, feet in the air, hand tangled in his, a cool drink waiting for me in the cooler, safe and weightless.
Oh, it is good to be loved. It is good to be cared for.
When I sat down this morning to write, the above tumbleweed of memories came rolling out, unfiltered and unremitting, and when I finished, I sat back in puzzlement. What was this amorphous tangle? Did it hang together? What was I trying to say?
I’d started, I think, with the desire to burnish some golden moments in the face of these uncertain times, longing for the warmth and ease of college summers and young love. But usually, when I write, I have an endpoint in mind, or at least find myself circling in on what I really mean to say midway through, whirpool-like — the words, the memories pulling me towards the heart-sinking center. Often, I write to know what I think, and am pleasantly surprised to find a full and intact idea somewhere in there that I then brush up and gloss while editing at my little white desk in front of the broad, double-wide window that looks out on a busy street in the upper 80s, from which I can see a little sliver of park between two red brick buildings, and the branches of its trees — red-speckled, then brown, then bare, now with the first hints of green — remind me, daily, of the passing of time and often leave me contemplative, whether wistful for first and lasts or aware that this, too shall pass.
But it wasn’t until I re-read this post ten or fifteen times that I realized it was all about the different kinds of goodness and care from people close to me and not that I have enjoyed in the face of menaces big and small. Well, mainly very small, to put a fine point on it, compared to the pandemic we are currently living through.
And I thought of a young man at the grocery store on Sunday morning who — despite the chaos and bare shelves around us — had stopped to help an elderly woman select yogurt flavors out of her reach.
“No, not strawberry — ” she had chastised him, and we’d locked eyes and smirked at one another. But he still stood there, patiently assisting her, and at the end: “Thank you, dear,” she’d said.
“It’s nothing,” he said, in so many words.
But it’s everything, isn’t it?
+More lessons from UVA faculty. WAHOOWA.
+Like every other parent at home with children for the foreseeable future, I am doing my best to pretend to be the Pinterest mom I’ve never been. HA! I’m hoping some of you creative ladies can share some suggestions below. I tried that pepper/soap experiment that everyone is posting and said: “Wow! Isn’t that cool?!” and mini looked at me and said: “No.” Welp. You win some, you lose some. I have a couple of other projects I’m stealing from more creative moms I know / follow in Instagram, but a few “ready-made” activities we’ve loved (both recently and over long afternoons in the past):
+Currently in my cart for my next infusion of activities:
+We have been taking one family walk each day to Central Park (we’re one block away) to play on the grass. Mini has been so obsessed with this t-ball set — we bought it for her last summer in the Hamptons and she can’t get enough of it. We also always have bubbles, sidewalk chalk, and a playground ball.
+Love this dress. Can’t decide between that cool khaki or the on-trend ditsy floral!
+Pretty, Liberty-esque floral smocked dress for well under $30.
+This bubble is so precious for a little boy.
+OOO — H&M is releasing their gorgeous Sleeper-like dress in the cheeriest red color!!! Perfect for the Fourth…
+Love this pretty sky blue color — would wear it with white jeans exactly as styled on the site.
+More on Mr. Magpie…a reader recently wrote to tell me that “Mr. Magpie has a fan club,” and — well, pshhawwww. He should.