Mid-September, a friend wrote to let me know that one of our professors at university, Russell Stratton, had died. He had been retired for years and had moved away to Mississippi, a place far from where I knew him. He was 81 years old, and I hadn’t seen him in twenty years. Still the news pulled something out from deep beneath all the layers of self that accumulate day after day across the years.
Russ taught the first class I ever attended at university, an honours section of English 110. It was in a classroom in the library and it was in that class from Russ that I first heard about Virginia Woolf (“Good god, don’t read a novel. Read a few pages of “The Death of the Moth” and you’ll get the idea.”) and heard my first story about William Faulkner (Russ meeting him when he was an undergraduate). It was the kind of class where you made friends, and I kept mine for years after.
Four years later, I sat in that same room in the library for Russ’s Chaucer seminar during my first semester as a grad student. I wasn’t supposed to be there that day. I’d been accepted to Lewis & Clark in Oregon and was supposed to be there studying law. But less than a month before I was supposed to leave, I’d run into Russ outside the campus post office in front of the ugly turtle sculptures. We’d kept in touch over the years since that first class, and he asked me my plans now that I’d graduated. I told him where I was off to. I also told him that it was a huge mistake, that I didn’t want to go but that couldn’t see a way out of it. Without any hesitation, he offered to pull strings and get me into the English program even though the deadline was long past. And he did, and so there I was a month later sitting in that same classroom again and again making friends that I’d keep for years.
Russ was one of the first people I came out to in my final year in Alaska. Looking back now with the benefit of age and from the vantage point of being now, like he was then, a teacher, I realize what a delicate moment that would have been for him. We didn’t actually know each other that well, and I was a peculiar and fragile charge. But he gathered me up under his wing as best he could and showed me a bit of the way forward.
I have an especially strong memory of the day he brought in a few handcrafted fragrances he’d collected from Parisian perfumeurs. He’d show me a bottle, spray it on the inside of his wrist, wave it dry, smell it, name it (“Saddle leather, pine.”) and then hold out his wrist for me to take a whiff. The Beav laughed real laughter when I told him that story a few weeks ago, and I get it. It is a ridiculous, funny story in the mold of “Old Queen Trains Hopeless Case,” but it was also a beautiful, generous moment that cracked open the door at the back of the wardrobe. Looking back I feel like it was a genuine act of love and think Russ meant it to be.
Like I said, we didn’t know each other very well. I never met his family, and I learned more about him than I ever knew from his obituary. But I know he cared for me and helped me, and in a crucial set of years, I grew up around that support. All these years later, his support is still there underneath the layers, incorporated into who I am. It’s not doing heavy lifting anymore but it’s still there, like a small encouraging voice echoing through the woods. And that voice aches now with a great deep sadness.
When I sat down to write this, I hadn’t meant to write so much and it’s been sad tearful work doing it. But it’s also been strangely joyful work too. It’s good to remember people you love and who loved you and the places you were together. Russ was folded into my life and into the lives of my closest friends, and I’m grateful for that.