She was among the first wave of feminists in the early 1960s as she asserted her place in a male-dominated profession. Instead of playing bridge at the country club with the other wives of lawyers, Marjorie Sullivan went to graduate school and became a professor in the local college. She had raised two children, found an academic position, and now she also took time to mentor me, in addition to her work tasks.
I was sixteen, the last child of a railroad worker, of mixed Native and British Isles heritage, and deeply depressed. I was bookish. We entered into an informal contract of literary relationship of mentor and follower, a family-like structure not yet diagrammed by sociologists.
Mrs. Sullivan—I would never use her first name—first helped me with poems when she was ending a stint of teaching high school English. In her classroom she stood amidst orderly rows of desks. She was highly manicured, with a coif of tightly curled reddish-blonde hair. A high forehead dominated her face, and below it her icy blue eyes shined. She wore proper pearls with her tailored suit. She was the opposite of my own mother, whose wispy hair never showed any kind of order.
Mrs. Sullivan’s suit reminded me that we once had crossed paths at the local Congregational Church. One Easter my mother had sewn me an unfashionable but fine jacket, of houndstooth wool, which I wore reluctantly. Mrs. Sullivan stopped me in the crowded vestibule hallway and noticed the expertly sewn garment. “Did your mother make this?” she asked, as she fingered the perfect pucker at the shoulder seam. I nodded, surprised. “It’s beautifully made,” she said and walked away. Her interest in the well-crafted jacket comes back to me as characteristic of her interest in finely wrought objects, whatever the medium.
In our first meeting at the high school she agreed to look at poem drafts if I would read other poets. I was disappointed. Even as a youngster, I wanted someone to proclaim my work spectacular. Approval was my goal more than developing skill. Now that I have some accomplishments in the writer’s universe, and especially as a state poet laureate, writers of all ilk have engaged with me for exactly the same purpose. I understand all too well.
Reluctantly, I submitted to Mrs. Sullivan’s suggestions and was the better for it, as my solipsism and depression slowly lifted. We began irregular meetings that would last twenty years.
The summer before my senior year in high school was especially important. Every couple weeks, I walked to Mrs. Sullivan’s house. Rather than dismember my poems, she scanned them politely and suggested corrective readings. We read Albert Camus’s The Stranger, which introduced the idea of an indifferent universe. This concept of randomness was an antidote to my self-pity. Next was The Plague, set in a locked-down town that echoed my own sense of imprisonment in our isolated Kansas domicile. Looking back, I can see that my mentor was augmenting my ability to place characters in historic contexts. French existentialists speak to the situation of land-locked United States citizens in the aftermath of the American Indian Wars of the Great Plains. These wars, had ended just a generation before Mrs. Sullivan’s birth, and I was the next generation. She chose books strategically.
During that hot summer poetry appeared in in my journal in its own stream of meandering lines. I can remember only one poem in any detail: an attempt at absurdism with a metaphor about orange slices exchanged for slats in a shopping cart. I had read Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” and was inspired, although I was not yet an effective crafter of words.
Mrs. Sullivan loved the Latin American writers, especially those of the surrealist strain. She impressed upon me how far advanced in their ideas of human consciousness were Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gabriel García Márquez. She celebrated their connections to Indigenous cultures, perhaps as a way to help me connect my own mismatched heritages. She loved the inventions of magical surrealism. This was radical in the mid-1960s, a peak time of the British literary canon.
In her artfully composed living room, Mrs. Sullivan’s talked about recent Cuban immigrants, refugees from Castro, who filled her college classes. The Cubans had been driven away from their homes through the upheavals of revolution. Like Camus, she imparted no judgement. She took them to local theatrical plays and concerts. To me she stressed her role as a bridge between cultures. “They need someone to help explain the noisy cicadas,” she said one day. She smiled and added, “How do you begin to explain William L. White?” This son of the famous journalist William Allen White was the bête noire of the town. I laughed with her at this insider joke.
An abstract painting of a jazz trio stretched over the wall opposite the couch where I sat, and it influenced me as much as the informal lectures. Its lines did not exactly meet, but rather suggested forms. I learned a lot from that visual prompt, as well from Mrs. Sullivan’s library, about how to live my odd-shaped life with many blanks to fill in.
As that summer drew to a close, and my departure for college neared, the huddles in Mrs. Sullivan’s living room became even sweeter. A great unknown space lay before me, but cherished books from my mentor’s tutelage would accompany me into that future. I tried to keep up with her recommendations: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, with a few scenes filmed in our town. Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Joan Didion’s Run River.
Those last months, my mother allowed me to take over the kitchen and experiment with baking. One success was a cinnamon-and nutmeg apple bread. In an inspired moment, I thought to take a gift of bread to my mentor. I loaded the last of the borrowed books into a grocery sack and laid a loaf of the warm bread on top. This was the first time I considered her perspective, how she had found time to talk with me despite her duties as wife, mother, and professor. Teachers are hired to instruct, but mentors choose to take on that apprenticeship with no remuneration nor other tangible reward.
I climbed the stairs to her split-level doorstep, knocked, waited, and no answer. I almost had descended when she opened the door and found the fragrant apple bread. Her face lit up. That was worth everything. We were not demonstrative people, and it was years before hugging became an accepted practice in Kansas. That moment, however understated, was when I learned the glow of reciprocation. On that faraway porch and in a small way, I learned to be an adult. Indirectly, I learned to be a better writer as I learned to shift points of view from my own ego.
While I was in college, Mrs. Sullivan moved to Kansas City to a swanky assisted-care place. She simultaneously nursed her mother, who lived to be a hundred, and her disabled husband. At my first visit, when my children were darling toddlers, she explained women’s life cycles, how women spend more time caring for aged relatives than rearing their children. She was right, as I learned with my own parents.
In the city, in between caretaking, she thrived. She had access to art galleries, drama, and a symphony. I visited every so often and enjoyed the same abstract jazz painting from her former living room. We went to art galleries and dined at an art museum’s Italianate restaurant. We discussed women’s work, writing, and books. She loved fantasies of Italo Calvino like Invisible Cities, with its allegories that invoked the Great Chain of Being and subverted it. We talked through its layers. She liked Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and encouraged me to savor its details.
In time, she moved to be near her grown son in another state. The last time I saw her, I treated her to high tea at a fancy hotel, which she relished. We discussed Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, with its blend of factual and imagined history. She emphasized again the importance of Fuentes. When we parted I was too young, even in my thirties, to understand how much I was losing. We corresponded intermittently until she died in 2006, at ninety-two.
Mrs. Sullivan shared a cosmopolitan approach to literature as she led me through works of master writers. She understood the challenges I would face as a woman writer and professor. She had two sons and no daughter, so I imagine I reciprocated her generosity in the simple fact of my gender. In turn, I have become a mentor and a teacher of many students, and I continue her teachings in my own fashion. A living river of relationships parallels the literature of written texts, equally as rich. Mrs. Sullivan chose to invest herself in a lonely teenager with few prospects. I am so grateful.
Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-09, is winner of a Red Mountain Press Award for Shadow Light, poems. Other recent publications are Jackalope (fiction, Red Mountain) and a memoir, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival (U. of Nebraska Press), a finalist for the Hefner Heitz Award. At Haskell Indian Nations University she founded the creative writing program. Currently she teaches for Baker University’s School of Professional and Graduate Studies. She recently relocated to Sonoma County, California. www.deniselow.net