Monday, May 09, 2005

Memories of Times Lost . . .

In an article on Milton that I published about a year ago, I cited Dorothy L. Sayers. She's known to most people familiar with her as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, and in Britain, there's a society in her honor: The Dorothy L Sayers Society. (Yes, there's no period after the "L" in British usage.)

I first learned of Sayers when I was living in Atherton, California from 1981 to 1984 as a "Turtle." That's what Mrs. Elizabeth S. Rosenfield called us -- "us" being the long line of poor history graduate students whom she took into her home for a nominal rent (only 50 dollars per month in my time), so long as we were willing to help her with her shopping and gardening.

Mrs. Rosenfield was one of the first female graduates of Stanford University's Law School (JD '24). Because of her generosity to history graduate students, her memory has been honored by Stanford's History Department, which offers an annual "Elizabeth Spilman Rosenfield Prize for Excellence in History Writing" for the best-written doctoral thesis (cf. pdf: page 24).

Mrs. Rosenfield was a dignified lady with a wicked sense of humor. She enjoyed an evening scotch despite the protestations of her brother-in-law, an eminent research doctor, who warned her that alcohol kills T-cells and thus weakens the immune system. To gently spite him, Mrs. Rosenfield would pour herself a scotch each evening and recite a little 'poem' that she had composed:

"Scotch kills
By the trillions."

Then, she would smile. She was 86 years old, still healthy, sharp, and doing editing work for a medical research firm in San Francisco. She seemed to have T-cells to spare. Brain cells, too.

Despite her name, she was not Jewish but a nominal Protestant who had married a Jewish man from her Stanford Law School days. She had first noticed him because some days in class, he had sported two legs, but other days, just one. She had found this annoying and recalled thinking, "I do wish he'd decide how many legs he wants!" What he really wanted, it seems, was her, and his alternating states at least got her attention. When she became acquainted with him, she learned that he had lost his leg in The Great War -- as WWI was then called -- and that the stump was sometimes still too sensitive for his prosthetic leg. Eventually, he gave up the leg entirely and resigned himself to using crutches.

His hero status served him well. At Stanford in the 1920s, law students were required to learn a foreign language. Mr. Rosenfield hated the requirement, but he discovered a solution. French was being taught by a lady from France whose Gaulic nationalism and hearty disdain for Germans earned Mr. Rosenfield an "A" just for having fought in The Great War as an American soldier against the Germans, and thereby for the French. He took her course for every required semester, finished with a perfect record, and didn't learn even one cedilla of French.

Mr. and Mrs. Rosenfield never had any children, but they did have a cat that lived 26 years and could understand English well enough to do whatever Mrs. Rosenfield suggested. I say "suggested" because as a cat-lover, she was never one to order a cat to do anything. One time, during a particularly hot day, the cat just couldn't get comfortable anywhere and was lying sprawled out on the kitchen floor, wilting in the heat. Mrs. Rosenfield noticed this and suggested, "Well, why don't you just go lie down in the bathtub? It's probably cool in there." The cat promptly got up, went down the hall, and did exactly that.

I never met Mr. Rosenfield because he had died years before, but Mrs. Rosenfield told a lot of stories about him and obviously missed him despite the passage of time. We Turtles served as surrogate family. Some of my 'siblings' were a bit odd. One had worked as a scientist in the Sleep Lab at Stanford. No, that's not like L'il Abner working at the mattress factory by sleep-testing every mattress! This particular Turtle measured people's R.E.M. patterns -- that is, the rapid eye movements that people display while dreaming. He and his wife, a history graduate student, had been living with Mrs. Rosenfield for some time, and one of his household chores was vacuuming the house. One day, he didn't finish the vacuuming.

"What's wrong?" Mrs. Rosenfield had asked when he stopped and unplugged the machine.

"The vacuum cleaner isn't working anymore," he declared. "You'll have to get a new one."

"How is it not working?" she inquired.

"There's no suction," he told her.

"Have you emptied the bag?" she asked.

"The what?" he said, baffled.

This scientist then had to be educated on the inner workings of vacuum cleaners. Having never cleaned house before staying at Mrs. Rosenfield's place, he knew nothing about cleaning. I thought it odd that a scientist wouldn't have some curiosity about where all that dust was going, but perhaps he believed that the interior of the vacuum cleaner was linked by a wormhole to a deep space vacuum, where the dust from millions of vacuum cleaners was incrementally forming a new planetary system for eventual colonization when our own world dies.

Or maybe not.

Anyway, as I was saying, I first discovered Dorothy L. Sayers when I was living with Mrs. Rosenfield. On weekend evenings, Masterpiece Theatre would sometimes feature the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. I had never heard of Sayers, but Mrs. Rosenfield had the whole collection, so I took to reading them in my spare time. Only more recently did I discover her other works. She wrote a book on Christian orthodoxy, The Mind of the Maker, in which she compares God's creativity with human creativity. Here's what Jacques Barzun says about it:

"Its thesis is that the ordinary experience of making anything -- creating art or applying workmanship to any object -- corresponds to the meanings symbolized by the Trinity. First comes the creative Idea, which foresees the whole work as finished. This is the Father. Next the creative Energy, which engages in a vigorous struggle with matter and overcomes one obstacle after another. This is the Son. Third is the creative Power of the work, its influence on the world through its effect on the soul of the user-beholder. This is the Holy Spirit. All three are indispensable to completeness as they unite in the work" (Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present (New York: Perennial, 2001), page 742).

I haven't yet read this book by Sayers, but Barzun makes it sound interesting (and Platonic). Alongside this, she began and nearly finished a translation of Dante but died suddenly at 64. A friend, Barbara Reynolds, finished the remainder. I also have yet to read this work of hers. Plus other works that she wrote.

I suppose, then, that this post is not just about memories of times lost but a reminder of time still to be found -- for more reading.


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