In the picture of our 7th grade class that I carry in an envelope to show to her, Mrs Buchanan, our beloved 7th grade teacher, stands a bit apart from the class in the bright Arizona sunshine, over my right shoulder, but surely within striking distance of Tom, who has his mouth open then, as he does now, with some smart-aleck remark for the camera. You can see, just from the picture, that if she remembers any of us, she is going to remember Tom first.
We stand nervously on the front porch of a low-lying, log cabin sort of house in Payson, Arizona that could easily be the western set for the film adaptation of a Zane Grey novel. Mr. Grey is a long-time friend and neighbor of our teacher. It looks like the home of a Western writer, except for the…well, unusual…sculptures about the place. I marvel at what looks to be a yellow water cooler that might have been manufactured in the 1950s, hanging in a macrame sling in the branches of a nearby pine tree. We learn later, when we ask about it, that Roger, our teacher’s son, is a Western artist. “Ah,” we all say, smiling at her.
Now we knock, and knock again. Is this the right day? Finally, there she is, throwing open the door to us. She steps onto the porch to greet us. Same sharp nose and fierce eyes, but now, at 93, half the size she was when I was a boy. Oh, my goodness, it is nice to see you!
The search for Mrs Buchanan germinated as an idea several years earlier, at our 30th high school reunion. A number of us from the old grade school neighborhood attended. As I was leaving to return to Colorado, Tom gave me a book. “Here,” he said, “this is a book by Mrs Buchanan. I think you’ll like it. She lives in Payson now.” I put it into my bag, and then onto my bookshelf when I got home, and promptly forgot about it. The book was entitled Filaree, by Marguerite Noble, her married name. It was no surprise to find she was an author. We all learned just about everything we knew (or at least remembered) about the English language from her.
I found the book again on my shelf several years later as I poked around for a book to read on a family New Year’s vacation to the mountains. “Humm,” I thought to myself. “This would be an interesting book to read.” I had no idea.
Not only was it a good read about the pioneer lives of women in Arizona around of the turn of the century, it was suppose to be a more or less factual account of Mrs Buchanan’s mother, who had come to Arizona from Texas by wagon to be with her husband as he labored with others to build the Roosevelt Dam. According to the book’s jacket, Mrs Buchanan was born in 1910 into this rough life in the Arizona Territory. “That would make her 92 years old now,” I thought. “It’s possible Mrs Buchanan is still alive.”
So, when I finished the book, I typed the name “Marguerite Noble” into the US West search directory of my computer, and up pops a name and address of a Mrs Noble in Payson, Arizona! (Please note the use of an exclamation mark in the previous sentence. It will figure prominently later in the story, and I wish to prepare my defense in advance. I will say this: I was really surprised.) Since this squared with what Tom had told me several years earlier, I decided to write a letter to say how much I had enjoyed the book. I also wanted her to know how much she had meant to me over the years. She was one of the best teachers I ever had.
I wrote the letter while I was at the cabin, dropped it into my briefcase because I didn’t have a stamp, and then managed to forget about the letter, too. Sigh…
At about the same time I was writing the letter, I was unexpectedly put in contact with other grade school classmates via e-mail through the Classmates web page. I reconnected with Lois, and through her with Pam, and Peggy, none of whom I had seen in nearly 35 years. These three women had also been in my 7th grade class. I was going to be in Phoenix again in about a month to visit my mother. Pam was going to be in town then, too. The four of us and Tom, made plans to get together.
By coincidence, Lois e-mailed me within a week of returning from vacation. In my reply, I mentioned I had read Filaree and written Mrs Buchanan a letter to an address in Payson. “Payson?,” she said, “My ex-husband live in Payson. I wonder if he knows her.” About 10 minutes later, the ex-husband called Lois out of the blue, and she asked him. “Know her!,” he said, “She is a long-time family friend. Do you want her phone number?” Wow. Small world.
So, naturally, Lois calls her and asks if she has received my letter. “Letter!? No, I haven’t received any letter.” Whoops! I quickly retrieved it from my briefcase and got it in the mail.
“Well, anyway, several of us are getting together in a couple of weeks. Can we come up to see you?” “Yes, of course you can. I’d be delighted”, etc., etc. So, after several weeks of growing excitement from all hands, Tom showed up with a bang at 8 AM at my mother’s house with his usual ruckus. He was in the midst of a bear hug of my mother, when Peggy drove up.
“Oh, my gosh! It’s Peggy!,” both of us shouted together as we trooped out to meet her and her husband, Ben. Goodness, do people really not change all that much in 35 years? Apparently not. We climbed in my mother’s car–one of those big, Sun City cars–for the … what? five hour? … drive across Phoenix to meet Lois and Pam in Scottsdale. (Where do all these people get the water, I kept wondering. The consequences of lack of snow back home in Colorado began to seem even more ominous to me now.)
Right away, Peggy put a damper on things. She said she was feeling nervous about meeting us again after such a long time, but that we seemed pretty “normal” to her. “Normal”!? Tom and I looked at each other. You can call us a lot of things, but “normal” is not one we expected to hear. And just to set the record straight, Tom is not normal now, nor has he ever been normal, at least in any ordinary sense of the word. I think she probably meant that we didn’t appear to be in some advanced stage of Alzheimer’s, even though we had obviously aged a little over the years.
Peggy and I had strategically placed Tom in the back seat of the car so we could talk, but this turned out to be a mistake, since his “good ear” (the one not completely damaged by rock and roll in the 70’s) was not optimally located. We quickly got used to the “Huh’s”, craning our necks around and saying everything twice, the second time much louder than the first. We somehow managed to avoid an accident on the new 101 over towards Scottsdale, as we became reacquainted with one another.
Lois and Pam were waiting at the McDonald’s in Scottsdale. My gosh! They looked the same, too. We all piled back into the car, careful to put Tom’s ear in the front seat and in a better position to hear what was going on, and everyone immediately forgot my warning to please remind me to get gas before we got on the road to Payson. So, of course, with all the “How are you?”, and “Where do you live?, and “You look great!” exclamations going on in the car, we were nearly on the Beeline Highway before anyone noticed that the car was breathing fumes.
We stopped at the last available gas station, where a huge argument ensued about what side of the car the gas tank was likely to be on. No matter, we would find it. I jumped out to pump gas, Tom jumped out to wash windows, and someone–no one will admit to this (I’d guess Peggy, who’d had additional time to consider her “normal” remark)–pushed the panic button on the car’s alarm system. “HONK, HONK, HONK.” What the hell!?
Let me be clear about this. This is not meant as criticism. This is simply an observation of fact. Tom talks a lot! Well, Tom has always talked a lot, but you might think that as you grew older there would be less of interest in the world to comment on, but no such luck. So this was a very lively ride up the beautiful, new Beeline Highway to Payson, with one or the other of us trying to shout Tom down long enough to get a word in edge-wise. It was, in a word, a lot of fun.
I’m always amazed at how time doesn’t even seem to exist for old friends. Here are people I haven’t seen in over 35 years, and I immediately feel comfortable and at ease in their presence. We are still old friends after a very long time. This was, indeed, a pleasant ride on a beautiful morning.
When Mrs Buchanan suddenly appears in front of us at her front door, we are all pitched back to the 7th grade, ready to resume our roles for our favorite teacher. Much talk and hugging and excitement, all at once. She, too, hasn’t changed as much as you might expect, although I can’t get over how much smaller she seems to me now than she did before. But still alert, and still with those same penetrating eyes and sharp nose that can see or smell their way right through to your soul. Even Tom (or maybe especially Tom) felt his heart beating a little faster. Don’t play any tricks on this woman!
We all sit down. Mrs. Buchanan is overwhelmed. She doesn’t remember us, of course (although Tom will tickle some memory cells before we leave), but you can tell she is thrilled to see us. She gets up to get name tags for us to wear, so she can remember our names. Lois writes them out in her best 7th grade penmanship. She gazes at the 7th grade picture I’ve brought for her, and at the faculty picture on the cover of the picture. Old friends appear there. Her eyes mist with memory.
Her eyesight is still good, in fact she can still read without her glasses if she wants to. But her hearing suffers. A new hearing aid is on its way, should have been here by now, to replace the one the dog ate. We look at each other. Is this a joke? No, the truth, apparently. This is shaping up to be a good day.
We ask about her book. How did she come to write it? Was it really about her mother? Yes, indeed, as factual as she could make it. But it was hard getting it published. “The–pardon the cowboy expression–damn copy editor at the big publishing house back East didn’t have the faintest notion of how to write English. Kept wanting exclamation marks thrown in where they didn’t belong!” Didn’t know how to compose a sentence, etc., etc. Those fierce eyes seem to linger on me.
Oh, oh. “Uh … could I have that letter I sent you back for a moment? I just want to make a few changes before I turn it in for the final grade.” She is astonished that I have written a book, too. “No exclamation marks in it,” I say helpfully.
After an hour or so, we decide to go to lunch. The locals (and Mrs. Buchanan is certainly a local, having lived in this part of the country most of her life) eat at the Beeline Cafe. We all pile into the car again, Pam drawing the short straw (Tom had rigged it) so she has to sit between Tom and me in the front seat. Imagine! Pam curling up next to you in the front seat of a car!
They see us coming at the cafe and toss the tourists in the corner booth out so we can be seated comfortably. They believe in big portions at the Beeline Cafe, so we eat slowly. Lois downs several portions, I believe, explaining that they don’t feed her at the printing place where she works. Whatever. We cast glances at her out of the corners of our eyes. The rest of us are just glad our reunion diets have ended, too.
After lunch, Mrs. Buchanan wants to show us around Payson. We head off in the direction of the new library the Volunteer Ladies have built with the money they raised. Where is it? No one seems to know. Mrs. Buchanan doesn’t get around much anymore, and can’t see well sunk down as she is into the cushions in the back seat of the car. No one else is familiar with Payson. I don’t care. I’d be content to drive around all day with Pam by my side. Although that little hoochy-coochy move she is making apparently has more to do with the seat belt clip poking into the back of her leg than it does with affection for me, since she is now glaring at me and complaining about her lot in life. Oh, well, I drive distractedly and dream on.
We end up, eventually, at the Payson Museum that Mrs. Buchanan was instrumental in organizing when she first moved here from Phoenix. The ladies at the front desk know her well. This museum is in some sense about her life in this part of the country. She explains to the ladies that we are her 7th grade students. They eye us dubiously. Right. (“I didn’t know she was that old!”) They comp us through anyway. No one is going to argue with Mrs. Buchanan.
As we leave, the museum ladies have retrieved copies of Mrs. Buchanan’s book. We all purchase one for Mrs. Buchanan to sign when we get back to her house. Although, when we get there, Mrs. Buchanan wants to give us another one. She signs all of them. We will leave happy, with plenty of reading material for the trip home.
Outside the museum we walk around to the Marguerite Noble Research Library, named in honor of our beloved teacher for her contributions to the Museum and to the local community. We press one of the locals, riding through on his bike, to be our photographer and take a picture with the Library’s namesake.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. After giving Mrs. Buchanan our addresses and promising we would write to her, we drove back to Phoenix leisurely. Even Tom was somewhat subdued, which allowed each of us to talk about our families and give a brief outline of what we had done and where we had been in the past 30 years. Tom and I were dismayed to find Pam happily married.
We dropped Tom off to go home to his wife. The rest of us went off to dinner together, where I got into some long, foolish story about something or other and forgot to eat my chicken, and Peggy enjoyed one of the two margaritas she allows herself each year. Everyone but Lois (what!?) enjoyed a dessert with the meal, to extend it even longer into the night, to keep on talking, to keep remembering.
All in all, I’d say this was about as good a day as any I have ever spent, rivaling those glorious summer days of long ago, hanging out with friends, talking about nothing at all, thinking we would never grow old. I wish my fifth grade teacher, Mrs Dunham, was still alive. She is the one who made books come alive for me, and I never told her so. I wish I had.