- Historic Sites
Forty years changed almost everything—but not the author’s gleaming, troubling memories of Miss Clark. So he went looking for her.
December 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 8
The kids meant PTA, sports to take them to, courses, special this and special that, and her husband served a term as undersecretary of a cabinet department while the fortyish matron took classes at American University. At Wisconsin she had played, but now she was ready to do something, and got a fine arts degree as it came to her that she could do something for a living and enjoy it. “Europe has its things, we have our things,” and she got involved in folk art and antiques: weathervanes, furniture, decoys, stoneware, quilts, and primitive paintings, one of which she bought for a few hundred, soon to turn down an offer for forty-five thousand.
She felt restless in her marriage. “Did you have affairs?”
“No. I knew bored women who did that—secretive romances. I had other things. The antiques business is allconsuming, shows, promotion, travel, setting up booths; it’s very challenging and very pleasant.” The kids were in college. She had some money from the sale of her dead parents’ house. “I told my husband, Tm leaving.’”
She went to Bucks County in Pennsylvania and opened Louise Clark Antiques, lived over the shop, opened and closed when she felt like it. She met and married an executive from Princeton. After a few years he became very ill, and she gave up business. She departed his sickroom for work with the inner-city children, classes in pot- tery and ceramics, weekly participation in a water-testing program in the area around Princeton, and tennis.
Hours passed as we sat in the Tap Room. References I made to her University of Wisconsin appearance and the impression it created never elicited a response. She didn’t seem very interested. She hadn’t even kept her copy of The Badger . The week I once spent following Joe Louis around came into my mind. He’d had no interest at all in talking about his fights but spent hours reading The New York Times , asking me from time to time the meaning of words he didn’t know.
Like Joe Louis, she seemed a demon newspaper reader. She appeared to have gone through every Times story of the past ten years. She had questions about what I’ve been doing since Madison days, with far fewer about what I’d done in college although she politely listened and laughed when I described my adventures in the Delta Delta Delta house as a waiter. Sir Gawain, the Kitchen Knight, I had called myself. That to enter by the front door and not the basement meant instant dismissal was a matter frequently brought to the attention of the waiters by the Tri-Delt housemother. I violated the rule by defiantly going in to pick up one of the sorority sisters I’d been seeing unknown to the others, and then quit before the witch of a housemother could can me. I told about the time when it seemed to me best for all concerned that I grab a large paintbrush sitting in a filled can and with it slap in the mouth my volatile friend Polly G. “I gained the impression,” I told Weezie, “that it is not entirely pleasant to get your teeth covered with green paint and then have me sit on your chest and remove it with turpentine.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” she said thoughtfully. Twilight fell upon Princeton outside the Tap Room as indeed it is falling, and has fallen, upon those who knew the Langdon Street and University Avenue of the Madison of forty years ago and shopped at Renny’s and drank sodas at the Pharm and martinis at the Manor. A couple of months ago I was in an elevator with Joe of Cynthia memories, and a very pretty young woman probably born during Kennedy days came in. She struck up a conversation with us and continued it for a few minutes in the lobby. She likely would not have done that if we were of her day and her place in time, but we seem harmless now.
So it is that there isn’t a bar in the world today where Miss Clark’s entrance would stop guys dead, and as I looked at the friendly and intelligent woman, it was almost impossible for me to see the awesome girl. Yet she was there, a little. I felt rather proud of myself for being with her, tell you the God’s honest truth. I once read that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years. It’s one of those things you read. So the cells of that boy whose Social Security number is mine, whose signature still looks the same, whose writing style despite all these years of professional experience I have not improved by more than 10 percent—his cells vanished long, long ago. Yet to a certain extent I was still at his beck and call, for I could never look quite dispassionately at the Miss Clark of my youth. Did I think of what might have been? Not a bit of it. Flaubert doesn’t get Elisa. If he does, there’s no Sentimental Education .