I had a not-so-singular experience the other day. Coming out of Waldbaums, head bent against a slanting cold drizzle and trying to right a bum cart heavy with groceries, I noticed two people in a white S.U.V. pointing at me. This is not the “not so singular” part.
Pulling out of their parking spot they continued to stare at me and then waved. I waved back and then checked myself for embarrassing things drawing their attention, like toilet paper streaming from under my skirt.
Satisfied that I wasn’t presenting a spectacle to the world, I put my groceries in the car and started pulling out of the parking lot. I looked up to see the man from the white car running toward me and motioning for me to roll down the window.
I didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t imagine what this could be, but what happened next I should certainly have expected, for as I said this was not a singular experience. He offered his hand, now damp with rain, and said, “My wife told me that you are Barbara Bologna’s daughter and I had to come back and tell you how much she meant to me.”
He went on to extol mom from hoof to mouth and I listened, nodding, all too familiar with mom’s accomplishments as a teacher, mentor, and friend. What I wasn’t expecting was what he next said. “I drove your parents to the airport that year your mom didn’t come back from Italy, so I guess other than your dad I’m the last person in East Hampton to have seen your mother alive.”
I continued to stare at this man who I’d never seen before and he apologized for making me cry, for my eyes had begun to well, which I hadn’t realized. And when a cab behind us honked its horn he pulled his hand from mine, as I was still holding it, which I also hadn’t realized.
He ran back to his car where his wife waited and watched. I reparked the car for I was not shaken but quite stirred. Stirred by images and voices and notions. Yes, notions. Of how one human’s life can intersect and change so many other lives and they in turn and they in turn.
I had a similar experience years ago in a shop in New York. I was paying for my purchase and the young clerk who took my credit card said, “How odd, you have the same name as the teacher that changed my life.”
Without a doubt of whom she was speaking I answered, “I am her daughter.” I have heard many people over the years tell me their Barbara Bologna stories but when this man felt compelled 11 years after her death to park his car and come tell me his story I began to feel the impact of what she had accomplished with her life.
It put me in mind of one of the stories my mom and aunts would tell us over and over again, stories that have gained the status of folklore among me and my cousins. We would sit around the kitchen table and ask to be told again the stories that would make us laugh, always in the same places, but they never grew less funny. The story I thought about the other day is this one: My young newlywed parents were quite poor and they would save change so they could be able to buy standing-room-only tickets to the Metropolitan Opera House. My mother, barely 20 years old and heavy with child, needed a maternity outfit to wear to the opera.
As I said, they were in dire straits financially and, possibly inspired by the gumption of Scarlett O’Hara, she tore down her dark brown barkcloth curtains and fashioned for herself a rather stylish opera-worthy outfit. Off they went to the opera. It was during intermission when mom and dad were mingling in the magnificent lobby that something went terribly wrong with her design and her skirt fell to her ankles in a brown puddle.
It would be at this point in the story that we would fall about with gasping laughter thinking of my mother standing in the Met in her slip. My father casually bent as mom stepped out of her skirt and he handed it to her and with all the dignity she could muster she walked across the lobby to the ladies room where she repaired the tie that binds, as it were.
What I found so hilarious as a child I find absolutely inspiring today. I don’t know a 19-year-old today who would handle the same situation as my mom did. I think of my young parents saving their pennies to experience a life beyond what they knew. She never stopped striving to make a better life for herself and thus for everyone with whom she came in contact, including the students who strove for a better life because someone told them they could do it and indeed deserved it. And they in turn will inspire one person and on and on.
I think of generations from now, of a young person who has an acquired confidence and love of knowledge who has never heard my mother’s name but in a sense is a descendant. This is how it happens; this is how we live on forever. The gift of a great teacher is truly the gift that keeps on giving. As Albert Pine said, “What we do for ourselves, dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
Chucky Bologna grew up and lives in East Hampton, where her mother taught English in the East Hampton schools. She has written a number of memoirs about her life here, several of which have been published previously by The Star.