Her gravestone sits in patch of melted snow, suitably gray and mournful. No different than any other within a stone’s throw, this one is adequate with its standard religious symbols. It’s just a modest grave with no adornments. No parapet or pitched roof— there’s just the stone and no more.
There are the words you see on any grave, garden variety words that designate someone’s wife, or run-of-the-mill mother. Those words are there by protocol and so meaningless. Those are not the words that count, at least not to me, someone in love with words.
Like a speed reader, you’ll need to sift the chaff from the wheat to find the words that matter, the words that chipped into the hard gray stone, when spoken, feel like velvet on the tongue. “Devoted Teacher.”
Those are the words that describe her essence.
Just A Job?
For most teachers, it’s just a job. Even performed well it’s a job well done but probably not noteworthy or stellar enough to be chipped into stone for the ages.
It was different with Mrs. Marcus. Being a teacher defined her.
That’s why those words are on her gravestone. She was a teacher more than she was anything else.
I asked my friend Bernie, the one who went to the cemetery to take the photos for this piece, “What made her your favorite teacher?” and he talked about her size, her voice. It was what I had been thinking too and I told him so. He said, “You’ll have to figure out a way to say that without making her sound fat.”
No. Not fat, but well, commanding. Her large frame standing behind the desk at the blackboard compelled you to stay with her, to listen and really hear. She was proper and regal and always a lady. She had beautiful large eyes and the big hair of those times, shellacked into place and blacker than black, always coiffed and perfect.
You wanted to look at her, even though she wore the same few dresses, alternating them day after day, year in, year out. Her teacher’s salary wouldn’t have allowed her to indulge a taste for shopping, especially not with the need to provide for the education and care of a daughter with intellectual disabilities.
The “R” Word
Back then we used the “R” word.
But no one ever teased or made rude comments about Janice, Mrs. Marcus’ daughter. We sensed the tragedy there: possessed of intellectual greatness, Mrs. Marcus was tied to the needs of a daughter who could never be a match for her gifts. Tied is not the right word. We knew she loved her daughters, both of them, Janice and Gayle, though she never spoke of them to us. There was no need.
Her voice, too, was a part of her presence. Low and mellifluous, calming even to pre-teenagers beset with angst and hormone overload, that voice could bring you around from your school-induced stupor and bring you back to the immediacy of the classroom, with tough love or humor, often both:
“You’re so funny you ought to be on the stage. There’s one leaving in 5 minutes.”
“Why didn’t you do your homework? Must I send you an engraved invitation?”
She could right you somehow, put you back into your surroundings when your thoughts were a million miles away on the he-said, she-said of adolescent squabbles and puppy love.
Even then, I liked to write—liked to play with words and set down my thoughts for public consumption—hoping for a pat on the head like a dog with a well-learned trick. I didn’t ask for that. But I needed it. I needed that pat on the head, that encouragement.
You Never Know
I got it from my mother. All mothers do that for their children. But you never really know if you’re good on the say-so of a mother. You need to hear it from your teacher.
I remembered this the other day, when I posted a blog that hit the right note and generated lots of likes and talkbacks. I felt like a rock star that day. And then, unbidden, I remembered something.
I dug out my old Hillel Academy yearbook and flipped frantically through the pages until I found it: a page dedicated to Florence, smack dab in the middle of the yearbook. Someone had gathered our thoughts about her and printed them there, below the visage of her smiling face.
On the final day of school that year, I’d approached Mrs. Marcus, yearbook in hand, opened to that page. I asked her to write something there in that spot for me. I imagine I wasn’t the only one.
I’m expecting great things from you. When you become a great author, remember me with an autographed book, O.K.?
Have a wonderful summer.
And there it was, laid out for me in black and white: I could be a writer, even a famous one. Because Mrs. Marcus had said so.
And on all the days I thought it would never happen, when I cleaned toilets so I could keep on writing and when I wrote about toenail fungus so I could keep on writing, I kept in mind that Florence Marcus believed in me.
And because she believed in me, I believed in myself.
Rest in peace.
Varda Epstein is an expat Pittsburgher now in Israel 33 years, mother of 12, blogger, and Communications Writer at Kars For Kids