In June of 1963, Tina and I were separated by the summer break. Tina worked at the University of Rochester library, and I was at the Cornell University cyclotron, “tuning up the beam.” It was hard on us to be apart. Letters helped.
A fellow graduate student, Charlie, was nice enough to agree to give me a ride to Rochester one Saturday, in return for Tina’s finding him a date for that evening. Coming out of the library that afternoon, Tina saw me and ran toward me, and that vision took my breath away. Lovely, beloved, loving—Tina was all that and more.
We could hardly wait for the fall and her return to Ithaca.
Fall semester was wonderful. Was this to be our last year together?
TINA’S SOPHOMORE YEAR, MY SENIOR YEAR, 1963– 64
I have saved all Tina’s letters to me, as she has saved the Chanel No. 5 perfumed powder I gave her almost fifty years ago. More foreshadowing?
We knew we might only have our three semesters at Cornell to be together. Near the end of the second of these, that fall semester, for my birthday in December, 1963, she wrote:
You asked me what I would think of these sixteen months a few years from now. My reply –now, after one year, after fifty years:
[She then quoted much of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” including the following lines]
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
Interassured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.”
Happy birthday, darling.
Donne’s “Valediction” is a favorite of mine, but a poem I haven’t read for many years. I recently found my copy of Donne’s collected poetry. “Valediction” is there among scores of others, including some other favorites of mine, but its page was the only dog-eared one. I had read it to Tina at our wedding in June of 1984.
Toward the middle of the poem, Donne likens the connection between separated lovers’ souls to “gold to airy thinness beat.” The thin gold foil may lengthen and attenuate, but it never breaks apart. He ends with the metaphor of a circle-drawing compass, with its moving foot representing the lover who must travel away, while the central “fixed foot” always leans and “hearkens after it.” The poem ends, in our case prophetically,
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
As Helen Keller wrote: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we have loved deeply becomes a part of us.”
Phi Epsilon Pi
I have on my bedroom bookcase a group photograph labeled “Phi Epsilon Pi Spring Weekend May 1964.” Among two-score college students in various stages of inebriation, Tina and I are present, dressed somewhat more formally than the average. Tina is in a Chinese high-collared dress, and I am in a white shirt and tie, the tie thrown over my shoulder, in an attempt to look less formal. We are obviously happy, even though we were due to be separated within a month.
We were at Phi Ep through the hospitality of the fraternity brothers. During freshman year, the fraternities and sororities “rush” the newcomers, inviting a selected subset to their houses to hear why they should join, “pledge” the group, then selecting, from those still interested, the students they would invite to join.
I think there were fifty-odd such organizations at Cornell. So far, so good. Not so good was that they were fairly distinctly divided into Christian and Jewish houses, each perhaps having a token few of the other, “minority,” members. Phi Ep was almost wholly Jewish, as were my roommate at 5406 University Halls, Jerry Baker, and another friend and fellow debate-team member, Al Berkeley. Only a few fraternities showed an interest in me, and I preferred Phi Ep partly because this pair would be in it and partly because I did not want to pledge a non-Jewish fraternity, on principle. Quickly into the post-pledge period, I realized I had neither the money nor the interest in alcohol that would make joining appropriate. The fraternity brothers took my withdrawal graciously, and I attended an occasional party at Phi Ep, when no longer a member.