Miss Payne, Mildred, and Madame Curie
Irene is my brother’s wife; his widow, for sixteen years now. We keep in touch. Yesterday she drove down to the beach from Mt. Hood to “bring me some things.” She had finally cleaned out her attic, and Tim’s boat shop, and Tim’s storage area above the garage.
The “things” turned out to be a painting done by Grandma Shultz when she was in her nineties, about the time she was teaching Tim to paint with oils. Though covered with a thick gray scum, I could make out three men on camels, white desert headdresses trailing down their backs, headed across a vast sand expanse. Probably three wise men, I thought. And, she handed me a heavily tarnished silver tray, engraved with something in the center. I rubbed the tray hard with Wright’s Silver Crème, until the engraving emerged:
Clatsop County Tree Farmer of the Year
Travis T. Shultz
There were deep scratches X’d across the surface—Dad, ever practical, had used the tray to cut cake, or pizza.
I picked up the painting, saw that it was done in oils, and took it to the sink, where I sprayed the surface and the gilded frame lightly with warm water. After I patted it dry with paper towels, I set it upright on the counter and stood back. Three wise men, indeed, and now I could see the star gleaming in the upper right-hand corner. And what had looked like distant ocean surf on the far right turned out to be a small luminous town, Bethlehem. The painting now was light-filled—glowing with pale yellow light.
I turned to Irene. “Thank you,” I said. “I’ll call it ‘Looking for the Light’.”
Because, we all do. That distant promise. And the intuition that says, “There. Look there.”
Finally, Irene handed me Tim’s high-school yearbook, 1960. He’d have been a sophomore. I had graduated four years earlier. We paged through, commenting on names and people I recognized, Tim’s friends, people she had heard of, or met. Relatives. The faculty page. Mr. Guttridge with his one walleye that kept us in line because we could never tell where he was looking. And, Miss Payne. One of my favorite teachers. There was her picture, her wavy white hair styled close to her head, that tentative smile…
Miss Payne, a trim maiden lady of a certain age, often fled her English classroom in tears, humiliated by the antics and practical jokes of a few rough, rude boys who delighted in making her cry. I hated those boys. And yes, I still remember some of their names: Bill Stuller, Larry Campbell, Gus Garber, Larry Hanlon…and others…though it’s likely that when they became adults they mended their cruel adolescent ways. Miss Payne was my hero in eleventh grade, because she loved literature and saw in me the yearning for independent accomplishment I had tried to hide. She assigned me more challenging books for book reports: Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, for example. I was fascinated by the shy, club-footed orphan Philip, and identified with his escape into worlds more exciting than his own, through reading. But the love of Philip’s life, Mildred, also fascinated me. Mildred was my grandmother’s name, my mother’s middle name, and my unfortunate baby sister’s middle name, which I had always associated with dampness.
Philip’s Mildred changed that association. She was a slutty waitress, he was in medical school, and he fell hopelessly in unrequited love. Mildred’s tawdry escapades of illegitimate children, prostitution, and utter faithlessness nevertheless prompted Philip’s hopeless pursuit and rescue time and again. The book was unsettling, startling, and completely alien to anything I had known so far, living on a small struggling farm on the Oregon coast. This view of the world outside my own expanded my understanding of human personality and its odd perversions.
Miss Payne gave me an A+++ on my book report, which I read aloud in class, enduring a rain of spitballs from the Mean Boys, whom Miss Payne was helpless to control. And an A++ on my next one, on Madame Curie: A Biography. Madame Curie, who died—on Independence Day—five years before I was born, was denied a teaching position at Krakow University simply because she was a woman. Returning to Paris, she became, with her husband, a pioneer in the field of radioactivity and the first person honored with two Nobel Prizes—in physics and chemistry. She was also the first female professor at the University of Paris. She always published her findings quickly, before men could take credit for it. She knew that the scientific world would find it hard to credit a woman with such breakthrough discoveries.
Marie Curie, with her husband, discovered radium and laid the foundation for radiation treatment for cancer. Yet, she deferred to Pierre and stayed in the background in their scientific partnership. After Pierre was killed in a street accident in 1906, the Sorbonne physics department decided to retain the chair that had been created for Pierre Curie and they entrusted it to Madame Curie together with full authority over the laboratory. This allowed her to emerge from Pierre’s shadow. She became the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne, and in her exhausting work regime she sought a meaning for her life.
“Life is not easy for any of us,” Madame Curie said. “But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
At the age of fifteen, I now had four female role models: my mother, who wrote stories and memoir every day of her life and thus gave me the vision of a writing life; Miss Payne, who introduced me to literature, giving me a window into an expanded world view; Mildred, the passionate, snobbish slut who challenged my church-based ideas of what a woman could become; and Madame Curie, who blissfully spent her life in laboratories, breaking ground for women at a time when women scientists were few and far between. (I could be a writer! Or a scientist! Both! And I could have a sex life!)
I have been all of those women. Perhaps every woman is.