Saturday, August 7, 2010


PHOTOS: internet

I met Miss Margaret Mead once, when she lectured to all the Anthropology classes at Ole Miss. I was an English/Lit major, but, having taken a course or two, I was interested in the evolvement of societies and their mores and customs, and their marriages and birthing rites and how-in-heck did all the different ways of the world come about.

I hurried from a class WAY across campus to the lecture hall, rushing to the Ladies' Room quickly before going in to find a seat. I was standing at the sink, washing my hands, when I became aware that a stall door had opened behind me, and the occupant was just standing there, watching me.

I registered a small, huddled form---a really tiny woman holding a cane of immense proportions to her height, almost like a kindergarten Shepherd in the Christmas Pageant. She stood for a moment, regarding me, and I saw a dark serge-ish dress with a collar pin, small stumpy old-lady shoes, a small pleasant face beneath somewhat-Bette-Davis bangs, and what looked like a large dog across the arm not holding the cane.

I was so startled at her presence, I felt a shock of it’s HER! it’s HERRRR! which vanquished even my mental grammar. I think I had a flash between stage fright and specimen-on-a-slide. Dr. Coming-of-Age-In-Samoa was staring at me!

Between that, the still, silent regard, and how-the-heck-did-she-get-that-dog-into-that-tiny-stall?, I know I was mute for a moment. In the instant before I could summon at least a friendly smile, she spoke. And I remember every word with a clarity not allowed to many of the REALLY important moments in my life---I wish I remembered my first wedding as well, or my Mammaw’s last days---but somehow, this tiny moment in an insignificant day is still with me.

My Dear,” she said.

Yes, Ma’am?” I said as I finished drying my hands.

May I ask something of you?” she continued.

Of course,” I replied with my brain fizzing like Speedy AlkaSeltzer---did she need directions to the lecture hall? Did she need my help? Was she going to ask me if Anthro were my major, and be disappointed at my leanings toward prose?

May I touch your hair?” she asked. And I tried, I really did, to hide my astonishment. I really did take good care of my waist-length ponytail, curling it on rollers every night, and keeping it very neat, so I didn’t hesitate.

Yes, Ma’am, if you’d like to.”

Taking no notice of the several other girls gawking from different spots in the loo, she transferred the huge dark fur coat into the crook of the arm holding the cane, and reached out as I turned a little sideways. Then she gently ran her hand down the great length of my hair, making a soft ‘hmmmm’ sound---kinda between an evaluation and a cat’s purr, as she crumpled it a bit between her fingers.

Then she said, “My Dear, don’t you EVER wash that beautiful hair more than once a week. All that washing takes out all the good oils and minerals and makes hair grow old.”

Astonished NOW to the point of knee-quakes, and very glad I’d already used the restroom, I answered, “Thank you, Ma’am. I'll remember that.”

Then I helped her into her coat---I’ve wondered about that the most, I think. She was just going down the hall and up onto the stage, but into that heavy fur she went. She murmured her thanks, I held the door, and she went out to meet the two professors escorting her, that woman-sized mink almost trailing the floor behind her.

And a few minutes later, standing on that stage, she’d grown three feet taller, with a presence which filled the pin-silent hall.

A tiny conversation, of no more consequence than a raindrop, but still I have it.


Bev said...

Just very cool Rachel!! I would of had knee-quakes too.

Tonja said...

Oh, my! How exciting was that! I always though of her as someone who really knew what life was about. All that time in Samoa...what she must have witnessed and discovered and learned. How wonderful she could share it. I read several of her writings at an age when I really could not understand most of it. I knew I was interested in what she had to say. And, I knew I was interested in what she had gleaned from her time there. But, it did not all make sense to me. I have, however, always thought of her as a great mind of the age. And, she liked your hair. Don't you wonder what she was comparing it to? I mean that in a good way, by the way! My Granny used to say the same thing to me when I was a teenager and had to wash my hair everyday. She'd fuss everytime, telling me I was taking all the oil out of it! And, I tell her, that I knew I was...that was why I was washing it! To get all the oil out!
Wonderful post!

Linda J. said...

What a wonderful memory!

Keetha said...

My goodness! That is tremendous. Thanks for sharing!

Southern Lady said...

What a wonderful story, Rachel ... to meet and visit with such a "larger than life" lady on such a sweet and personal level. I know it's one of your most treasured memories, along with meeting Miss Eudora Welty and sitting at her knee. What a thrill!

Maggie Norman said...

What a marvelous story! I can certainly imagine her wanting to touch your beautiful hair. I'll never forget the picture of you that hung in the living room with that absolutely glorious long ponytail.