farrandy: (Randy and Dogs)
[personal profile] farrandy
As many of you may know, I lost a dear friend last week. I wrote this with the intent of posting it, then realized that I was writing it more for myself. But here it is anyway, if you're interested.

Suzette Haden Elgin; A Few Memories.

“The fountains of my great deep are broken up and I have rained reminiscences for four and twenty hours. The old life has swept before me like a panorama; the old days have trooped by in their old glory, the old faces have looked out of the mists of the past; old footsteps have sounded in my listening ears; old hands have clasped mine; old voices have greeted me and the songs I loved ages and ages ago have come wailing down the centuries!”
-----Mark Twain

Gosh, has it really been over thirty years? Where did the time go? Oh yeah, where it always goes; into the past, reachable only by memory….

If memory serves (though lately I find that memory does not deserve the generous tip it used to get), it was at a convention in Kansas City in the early 1980’s that I settled into a filksing. There in the circle was a woman with salt and pepper hair in a long braid who somehow radiated grace just sitting there. When her turn to sing came around, I was delighted to find that she could sing and play the guitar with a skill that surpassed most of the filksingers I had ever heard (and I include myself among that number—tragically, whenever I play and sing, I also have to listen to myself. I later learned that her musical talent was honed by the fact that she had been performing in coffeehouses since before I was born). Sometime during the evening, she sang The Song of the Bridgewraith, which was her take on the old folktale of the Phantom Hitchhiker, so I followed with Bringing Mary Home, another variation on the same tale. The woman looked at me and said “I didn’t know there were other songs about bridgewraiths.” To which I replied, “I didn’t know they were called bridgewraiths.”

And thus I met Suzette Haden Elgin, and like most people who had the pleasure to know her, I am a better person for it.

This is not going to be the story of Suzette’s life (you can find that elsewhere); just a few of my memories of her. Do not seek for any order—either chronological or of importance—or meaning in them. I’m just writing them down, partially to share and partially as catharsis for a deep loss. I shall try my best to keep it light.

Of course, much of our relationship centered around music. I was—and still am—musically illiterate. I play by ear (though I prefer to think of it as playing by heart). I can listen to a song and, if it’s not too sophisticated (read: hard), I can usually start playing along by the second verse, provided that the person is in standard tuning (not always a given in those days). Since Suzette came from the folk music scene, and “borrowed” a lot of the tunes she set her songs to, I was already acquainted with the music, and was able to accompany her immediately. I am reminded of a line from a song (I think it might have been by T.J. Burnside): “There’s not a word yet, for old friends who’ve just met…”, it sort of sums up what happened. I’ve only had that happen a couple of times in my life. When it does, you feel as if you are touching magic.

So we played a lot together. It even led to our putting out two tapes of songs and accompanying songbooks. The first was Dragons, Cows and Kudzu and the second was Soon to be a Major Embarrassment. Suzette came up with that title and I still think it’s one of the best titles ever (for anything—it would work well for most movies and be an honest political slogan). I pulled them out and listened to them not to long ago. They’re not half bad—by which I mean Suzette’s part is really good. The later tape was recorded at Suzette’s house by her husband George, a man who is every bit as charming as Suzette—and just as talented. Not only musically talented, but he could build just about anything, including their house, which, by the way, was an underground house.

Yeah, that’s right. Suzette and George lived in a hobbit hole, filled with books, musical instruments, sturdy furniture (much of which was built by George), home grown vegetables and a couple of large friendly hounds. I remember coming out of the house one day just as the sun was going down and surprising a herd of deer in their front yard. Realizing we were there, they bolted for the nearby woods without making a sound. Suzette muttered something about how hard it was to keep them out of the garden, but only after she, like I, had gasped at the utter beauty of the scene. She and George had lived there for years, but had never taken it for granted. They lived there until just a few years ago, when age and health concerns made taking care of the house and property too much of a burden.

I have a feeling that a lot of people thought that Suzette was older than she actually was. I know that I did before I learned better. This might have due in part to that salt and pepper hair, and the fact that she walked with a cane. The cane was due to the fact that she suffered from post polio syndrome. Try as it might, it did not slow her down. I remember one time after a convention; a group of us were going to go to a restaurant across the street from the hotel. Suzette, George and I walked across the street and when we arrived at the door to the place, we looked back at our compatriots, who hadn’t made it across the street yet (though we had all started out together). Suzette just leaned on her cane and said, “Well, I guess we’ll just wait for the young people to catch up with us.” But I think that another reason that people might have misjudged her age was, well, her wisdom. And I suppose that is why I (and so many others) will miss her. I’m sure she gave many people advice. I know she gave me some. I’ll give a few brief examples.

She once gave me piece of advice which kept me from making what would have been the Biggest Mistake of My Life. I won’t go into detail about it; this is about Suzette and not me (and admittedly, it still embarrasses me some to this day). Ask me about it. Maybe I’ll tell you. Maybe not.

Once I was chairing a convention while dealing with chronic pain. I had seen several doctors about it to no avail. Still, duty called. I put on a happy face, didn’t complain and no one was the wiser. Well, not quite no one. The day after the convention Suzette e-mailed me and said “Alright Randy, what is the matter with you?” Realizing there was no point in denying my problem to a Ph.D. in linguistics who was an expert in reading body language, I told her about the pain, the doctors, etc. She asked what was going on in my life. I told her, and she wrote back saying “I’m not a medical doctor, but I think your problem is…..and what I think you need to do is….” I decided to give her advice a try (hey, she’d kept me from making the Biggest Mistake of My Life). The pain abated immediately and has never recurred.

Once I had just gone through a really low point in my life. Much of it (though admittedly, not all of it) was due to things that others had done to me. After talking to
Suzette about it, she said “Well, you should be proud that you made it through this with your dignity intact.” I’ve tried to make sure I do that ever since. I don’t always manage, but I do try. I think of it as stumbling toward grace.

In my house there is a lot of art on the walls, but not a lot of photographic portraits. But in my lab (where I play music and work on art) there are three. One is myself and my family. The second is the last picture taken of my Dad and myself together. The third is a picture of Suzette. I’m not sure she would like the picture very much. She is not really smiling, but rather looking as if she were about ready to give someone some important piece of advice. Whenever I have found myself in what Suzette would have called a hard patch, I ask myself, “What would Suzette do?” The answer is usually “Probably something a lot smarter than what I’m going to do.” Like I said: stumbling toward grace.

Finally, Suzette was always trying to make a change—make the world a little better. Her Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense books are probably the best example of that. But she never stopped. When I learned of her death, I called George and he told me that even through her struggle with Alzheimer’s, she was writing a book—about what it was like to live with this horrible disease. So more people would know. So something can be done about it. He said he was going to put it together and publish it as a limited run hard copy and then as an e-book. So maybe that’s the way to honor Suzette: Never stop fighting what is wrong.

But don’t you weep, and don’t you mourn!
Don’t you wish that you never were born!
Keep your hand on that plow—hold on!

Hold on! Hold on!
Keep your hand on that plow—hold on!

Gonna come another brand new day!
The world ain’t agonna be this way!
Keep your hand on that plow –hold on!

Hold on! Hold On!
Keep your hand on that plow—hold on!
----Suzette Haden Elgin

Date: 2015-02-04 05:12 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] naamah-darling.livejournal.com
I never knew her except through very brief conversations and the words of others, and that saddens me, because I'm certain I would've gained much from her acquaintance. I know I gained much from her books.

I am so, so sorry that you have lost such an extraordinary friend. There's no soothing that pain.

Date: 2015-02-04 03:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] fmullen7.livejournal.com
Thank you ever so much for sharing your experiences with Suzette. And I'm sure there are more - it would fill a book, no doubt.
I really miss her too; she was so encouraging of musicians like me. I too will dig out the songbooks and review the songs. Singing them at future filks will be like singing new songs, as there is mostly a new generation out there that has never heard her songs. This is how I will honor her...


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