“Excuse me, Dr. Thrasher.”
Frowning, I glanced up from the jumble of papers and books cluttering my executive desk, where I was busily jotting down some last-minute agenda items for my upcoming meeting with the five administrators I supervised.
“Hi, Janet. What’s up?” I tapped my pen on the sheet of paper in front of me. Hopefully, Janet, our inexperienced director of nursing, would take a hint for a change and be brief instead of monopolizing my time and creating yet another headache.
Beside her stood a short woman I’d never seen before. The newcomer’s large, round, beige-framed glasses emphasized her steady gaze, and her thin lips turned up at each corner in what seemed to be a sympathetic expression. The pens in the pocket of her white coat made her appear ready to get to work and somehow suggested that she understood the type of pressure gripping me.
Suddenly, I felt more grounded, less harried. How had this stranger made my hectic world slow down and smooth out for a precious moment? I took a deep breath and let my tight shoulders drop a fraction.
“I just wanted to introduce our latest addition to the staff. This is Connie Ward. Connie, meet Dr. Shelley Thrasher, our interim vice president for academic affairs.”
I stood and rounded my desk, smiling and holding out my hand. “Welcome. I hope you enjoy teaching here.”
After a firm handshake and a few no-nonsense remarks, the new member of the large nursing faculty at our small community college left my office. Here’s what she looked like back then.
Mired in office politics and working for a president I neither respected nor admired, I didn’t run into Connie Ward often during that spring of 1991. A permanent vice president replaced me in June, so I left town and enjoyed part of my summer break in Colorado studying writing at a small Buddhist university. Then I toured Southeast Asia with my cousin for a couple of weeks.
That fall, I returned to my former roles as chair of the liberal-arts division and professor of composition and literature. The nursing department on the second floor of our main building was worlds away from my liberal-arts stronghold downstairs. However, my faculty office was located just three doors away from the only women’s restroom on the first floor.
Connie Ward stopped by my office from time to time, always smiling in a way that made me notice her high cheekbones and rounded cheeks. I’ve always been a sucker for the type of apple cheeks she has. She wore her spotless white lab coat, its pocket still filled with a fistful of pens, and never lingered. She would simply say hello, ask how I was, and wish me well.
She wore her brown hair, flecked with gray, in a short, neat style. Mine, once brown too, was showing more gray than hers—probably the result of my tenure as vice president. Our similar hair color formed a link between us, though hers usually looked a lot less messy than mine. I did wonder why she used the first-floor restroom instead of the one closer to where she taught, but other than that, I thought of her as simply a nice person.
Here’s how I looked back then, sitting in my office and chatting with her.
If I had known Connie better at the time, I would have realized that she was working hard to adjust to her new position, just as I was struggling to cope with my change of status. I learned later that she’d spent most of her career as a high-level nurse consultant and administrator in Austin, Beaumont, Houston, and Terre Haute, Indiana, near the small town where she was born, so she was accustomed to being the boss.
Janet, her new supervisor on our campus, had much less professional experience than Connie did, as did I, and later I realized how patient Connie had been with both of us. Working for volatile, hard-headed Janet maddened her at times, but her students benefitted from her expertise, and I had a chance to meet her.
As the first and only woman to serve as a top-level administrator in our three-campus system, I’d often felt overwhelmed, lost, and isolated. Gradually, I began to enjoy the camaraderie of working with the other faculty members throughout the college again rather than supervising them. Connie helped me make that transition because she seemed to understand both worlds. So as the fall semester progressed, I began to relax and focus on my personal life for a change.
I started looking forward to Connie’s brief appearances in my office doorway on her way either to or from the restroom. But why did she keep showing up? Finally, I decided that maybe she preferred to walk around the building and get a little exercise rather than stay on the second floor. Or perhaps she enjoyed visiting a wide range of people. That was it. She probably wandered around campus and dropped by to see everyone for a minute. She couldn’t possibly be singling me out. Most likely, she had a husband, kids, and grandkids, like my women friends in town that I played tennis and bridge and shopped with.
One day she skimmed my bookcases and told me how much she liked to read. “I wish I could have majored in English or been a veterinarian,” she said, “but my mother wanted me to be a nurse because that’s what she always wanted to be.” Another time she asked about the little statue of the Buddha sitting on a shelf in my bookcase, and I opened up to her about how I’d learned to write poetry from a hip group of Buddhists in Boulder.
“Allen Ginsberg? Wow,” she said. “Even I know who he is.” She frowned. “I like poetry too, but Rod McKuen is more my style.”
“That’s neat,” I said. “McKuen used to read his poems alongside Allen Ginsberg in San Francisco clubs.” Connie must be a romantic, I thought. Mmm.
One autumn day, we ran into each other in the faculty break room, as we did from time to time. The room featured a coffee machine and a round table, as well as a copy machine where we teachers could make our own handouts for class. Cabinets full of office supplies—pens, pencils, gradebooks, paperclips, staplers, etc.—stretched along one wall, while another one was lined with open stacks of wooden boxes where each of us received our mail and memos. It always smelled like coffee, ink, and chalk in there.
I was standing in front of my box pulling notices and envelopes from it when Connie walked in, wearing her white lab coat and laughing with one of the other nursing instructors. We said hello, as always, but when she strolled over to her mailbox and looked at me, something strange happened with her eyes. Behind her large, beige frames, they twinkled and pulled me into their depths almost as if she’d reached out and grabbed my shoulders. They were so full of mischief and wisdom that suddenly I knew that’s where I wanted to swim. We talked for a while, but I couldn’t concentrate on our conversation because I couldn’t think about anything but her eyes. They were hazel, a combination of brown and green that suggested both autumn and spring to me, a season for budding and growing and a season for ripening and appreciating life’s harvest.
That Halloween, she left two iced chocolate cupcakes in my mailbox, which surprised yet warmed me. A few weeks later, when I turned fifty, I spent the night of my birthday at a faculty party. I looked around for Connie all evening, interested to see who her date to the party would be, again wondering if she had a husband and what he looked like, but she never showed up. I’d gone alone, and our president asked me to dance. Being in the arms of a man you despise isn’t the best way to spend your birthday, especially one as important as your fiftieth, I told myself.
A few days later, I found a mug in my faculty mailbox that read, 50 is five perfect 10’s. With it was a card.
Sorry I missed your birthday, Shelley. I’ve been sick, but I thought about you and hope your day was special.
Looking back, I realize how typical of Connie those chocolate cupcakes and the mug were. She definitely has a sweet tooth, our mug collection already fills a large cupboard and is still growing, and she considers birthdays one of the most important events of the year, right up there with Christmas.
But at the time I didn’t realize how much Connie’s gifts had just told me about her. I knew only that she made me feel special and that I wanted to learn more about her. So our leisurely courtship continued, Connie adding more and more color to my monochromic existence.
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