Delia Proctor (not her real name) has been around to say her goodbyes. Don't ask me how I know; some things one just does know. This is one of them, and the other thing I know is, I love her as deeply as ever. She must have been near 90.
She was a high school teacher of mine, a small, wiry woman who wore straight skirts and matching shirts (not blouses), with high heels mandatory in those days, and red lipstick. Her black hair, prematurely tinged with gray, was brushed back into a hairdo then known as the Ducktail, meeting in a small, upward sweep at the back of the head. She had enormous, brown eyes.
And she didn't really relate to any of us; that was the striking thing about her. Of course there is always that line between teacher and students one does not cross, but that was not the point; at least the other teachers did relate to us as human beings, while Miss Proctor never did. She ever wore a mask, like the Queen of England (of whom it is said that when her visitors are delighted to have caught her in, as they suppose, a candid moment, even that has been scripted and staged). She was formal and stiff, with great dignity of bearing, seldom if ever smiled. I even wrote a poem about her once, that was published in the school literary magazine, and its title was, "The High, Hard, Cold Wall".
It bothered me greatly, to see a person like that, who, I felt sure, must be someone wonderful, trapped in that tough rind. If only she could blossom, could bloom, could learn to feel easy around us, could enjoy other people! What sort of handicap could this be? In retrospect, I feel reasonably sure most of the other kids understood it, but I, though I observed her narrowly every chance I got, was baffled. All I knew was, whatever the obstacle, I wanted to do my bit to overcome it. I became downright determined to dismantle that barricade. I never really did; you may as well know it now; but this story is about the efforts, perhaps misguided, perhaps not, that I made. It became my mission in life, almost an obsession.
I began bringing gifts for her, but lest she think me ill-motivated, I recruited the whole class to act as the givers. We gave her daffodils on Ground Hogs Day, chocolates on Valentine's Day, and I cannot remember what else, but there were frequent gifts. She never knew how to receive them; the first time, she asked if this were some joke. After that, she usually exhibited a sort of embarrassed pleasure and moved on as quickly as possible to other matters.
Sorting through photographs for the school yearbook I came across a lovely one of her, head bowed in three-quarters profile, eyes downcast, looking unusually dainty and even pretty. I kept it and drew, in pencil, a large portrait from it with which I was tremendously pleased, although of course I would never dare show it to her.
Two of us Juniors were candidates to become Editor of the school newspaper the following year, and Miss Proctor decided to take Steve and me both to a three-day high school journalism conference at Columbia University in New York City. During that trip, I got to know her slightly better; she told me she and her roommate, Bobbie, had recently returned from a two-year stint as missionaries in Japan. Of course I was enraptured to hear this, and it confirmed my good opinion of her.
If, some evening, you were to find yourself in the bedroom of the Queen, would you watch her sleep? Of course you would, because it would be a genuine candid moment, and I did the same, just watched this queenly person for as long as I could stay awake. It made her seem more human, or something. You cannot hide behind a mask while asleep. I feel asleep with happy prayers.
I was vaguely amazed and surprised, when we got back and someone mentioned to me that there were rumors I was a lesbian. I didn't have a boyfriend at the time, but not from lack of interest. (The guy I was interested in was dating my next-door neighbor.) Anyway, after my initial annoyance, I found the rumor rather amusing, and laughed it off as being about as far from the truth as you could get.
I still didn't make the connection.
At the end of the school year, Miss Proctor apparently felt sufficiently at ease with our class to invite us all to a cook-out (barbecue) at her house. It was a small, suburban home with a very high privacy fence all around it. The inside, as she showed us the kitchen, dining room, living room, was sparsely furnished, altogether quite Spartan, and I thought at the time I admired that; there were no unnecessary gew-gaws around. She kept referring to things as "our sofa", "our dining room table, " etc. It sounded crazy to me. "You mean every item here belongs to both of you?" I asked When she nodded, I blurted out, "Then how will you ever divide up your stuff if either of you ever decides to get married?" - which of course was something I dearly hoped would happen for her. She laughed and said, "Oh, well, then we would be in real trouble!" One of the other kids gave me what I knew was meant to be a significant look, but I was at a loss to decipher the significance.
What I knew was that it was a bittersweet evening as we played games, sang around the campfire, signed each others' yearbooks, and said our farewells. My farewells were to be forever, as my dad, an Army officer, had received new orders and we would be moving in a few weeks. I don't know what I had expected Miss Proctor to write in my yearbook, but all it said was, "It has been good working with you this year. D. Proctor".
I only ever saw her twice again after that. We moved back to the same area after a year, and I went, one Sunday, to check out some experimental, interdenominational church, and there she was. Our conversation after the service could have been between two strangers who had just met. I came back the following Sunday. I was leaving the early service as she arrived for the late service, and all I said to her, as we passed one another, was, "Oh, here you are! Here, I have something for you," as I passed her a brown paper bag and went my way. In it was the portrait I had once made of her, and had cherished so long (and sometimes wish I still had).
Ridiculous as it sounds now, it actually took me 10 more years to see through the mystery that surrounded Miss Proctor. It was a considerable relief when I did, as the solution to a vexatious poblem always is. I still regret that the human contact we had was so slight and so brief. But now she has been 'round to say her goodbyes, and I am at peace, and fervently pray she may be, too.
Do not, ever, call me a homophobe.