May 24, 1942
South Lawn, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY
Dorothy approached the South Lawn from Mead Way. After leaving her room, she decided that what her butterflies needed was a nice, quiet walk down the tree-lined street that ran along the southern end of the campus. The sight of an expanse of green grass crowded with ruler-straight rows of light brown wooden chairs brought a memory. Without thought, her fingers found the fold of ribbon on the collar of her graduation gown. Against the somber black of the heavy material, its shade of red darkened further, to almost a blood-red. The image tendrils in her mind was of a storm on a summer’s day. The emotion that tinted the faded image was of sad nostalgia, the melody of a tale of discovery and loss. Since the day in August, three years before, Dorothy found the two emotions linked in such an intimate way as to make them one. She smiled to herself, as she’d come to understand that life almost always involved leaving behind the comfortable familiarity of youth and over-coming new challenges. And, if those two elements of life are not a prescription for creating a state of mixed emotion in a person, then nothing is.
The temperature approached 70 degrees when she left the dormitory. She was the last resident in the building, her friend and roommate Eliza, had invited Dorothy to stay with her at her parents home in Philadelphia for the summer. Dorothy thanked her friend, but remained in the room at McCracken Hall.
The atmosphere on the, small, private campus in the suburbs of New York City was one of subdued excitement, if for no other reason than the influx of strangers and near-strangers as families and friends arrived for the Commencement ceremony. Dorothy decided to put on her gown, her mortar board under her arm and get away from the last-minute chores of the day.
Commencement was scheduled to begin at 1:00 pm. The guest seating formed two rectangles facing the most imposing building on campus, Westlands. Three stories of brick and mortar, it’s triangular gables divided the slate roof into three, almost equal sections; it was the effect of the last gable that the architect had been most proud of, one roofline extending to the side, almost to the ground. It provided the sense of an anchor to the earth, the soaring peaks bound and secure. The impression was of many more spires than it possessed, a castle in the wooded shadow of the city, Westlands was the very heart of the campus.
A fieldstone wall divided Westland’s formal patio from the expanse of manicured grass of the South Lawn. A growing line of cabs waited, in Sunday politeness, as family and relatives arrived. Like a chance dam of fallen branches across a spring-swollen stream, people gathered at the entrance gates; once through, the guests would spread out in multiple streams, across the lawn towards the seating area. Children, siblings of the day’s graduates found their own, preferred seating, among the trees and hedges that formed the boundaries between campus and the surrounding residential neighborhood. While these future Sarah Lawrence students ran and played, their parents reacquainted themselves with the grounds, pointing out changes to the campus to their spouse who would often feign interest, lacking any emotional investment in the small collection of tudor style buildings. The real prize for the returning students-turned-adults was to encounter former teachers, who walked among the guests, regaling spouses with tales of their students greatest accomplishments and most embarrassing moments, with an all too frequent disregard for the distinction between the two.
Dorothy walked towards the center aisle that divided the rectangle of wooden chairs, now beginning to fill with family and friends of the graduating class. As she passed the rearmost row of chairs, she felt an arm insinuate itself inside the crook of her right elbow, a man’s voice, with the confidential tone of a person trying to secure a favor, came from slightly behind her,
“I wont’ be any trouble because I don’t eat a thing…and I won’t try to manage things because I can’t think. Won’t you take me with you?”
Dorothy turned to see Hunk Dietrich smiling at her.
Hunk was holding hands with a young woman who Dorothy felt she should recognize. She stood to shoulder height of Hunk, had a good figure, short brown hair and dark eyes that blazed with intelligence; she also wore a wedding ring on her left hand.
“Hi, Dorothy It’s me… Becky. Becky Stillworth? From the Circe Free Library?”
She smiled with a friendly confidence that seemed beyond her apparent years, looking to be all of twenty years old.
“I’m sorry,” Hunk spoke quietly, “Dorothy, this is my wife Becky. Becky, this is…”
The two young women were already in an embrace that spoke of a connection that made the social niceties of a formal introduction altogether unnecessary.
Dorothy stepped back and looked at the young couple. Becky’s hand had already found Hunk’s and they stood together and smiled back at her in way that spoke of a relationship still in its formative stages. Hunk, easily four inches taller than Becky, his posture broadcasted a surprising assertiveness and, less surprising, pride in being very obviously bound to the woman at his side.
Becky, for her part, presented a quiet watchfulness, looking up at her husband when he spoke, yet never in a way that implied that anyone else was ignorable. It was an attitude that was both protective and totally confident in their relationship.
“So, what have you been up to?” Dorothy spoke to a space somewhere between the two. A glance at their inter-twined fingers made clear that two people had become parts of something more than, and different from, merely a man and a young woman.
“Becky is finishing up her residency at the university in the Fall!” Hunk’s voice conveyed a pride, not simply in the former Becky Stillworth’s accomplishments, but a pride in the fact that she was his wife. Becky smiled quietly, again, with a confidence that was softened by the way she looked at him, as he answered Dorothy.
“And, you, Hunk? I’m ever so happy to have you here at graduation, but what are you doing and why, since clearly I must ask, are you in the uniform of an Army Lieutenant?”
Dorothy did not miss the change in Becky’s face at her mention of Hunk’s clothing. The girl showed a subtle, yet clear withdrawing. It was as if the topic was not something she wanted to discuss, or for that matter, even acknowledge.
“I’m going overseas as a special correspondent.”
“A war correspondent?”
“Well,” Hunk laughed. That he leaned slightly towards Dorothy, which required that he lean slightly away from Becky, spoke volumes. The hours of discussion between the young husband and even younger wife over the merits of a bold adventure, surely nights of carefully parsed pleading arguments against risking a future, played out on Becky’s face, “…more as an author correspondent.”
Dorothy raised an eyebrow, wanting to align herself as neutrally as possible, the topic was clearly highly charged, yet her curiosity out-weighed her caution enough to encourage Hunk to explain further.
‘Well, you remember how I ended up here, on the East Coast after I left Circe and, how before she left that summer, Eliza promised she would mention me to her father. Well, once I completed the last course I had for my degree, I went to his publishing house and, well, I asked for a job.”
There was a fierce humility in Hunk’s voice. It hinted at, (since it was humility), the courage it took, not merely to ask the wealthy owner of a Philadelphia publishing house for a job, but rather the courage necessary to ignore the part of him that insisted he was a simple farmhand from Kansas. The voice that said, ‘you might have a brain, but you don’t have any right to associate with successful people the likes of Theodore Allen Thornberg… the 3rd!‘ And yet, Hunk Dietrich had done just that.
“He said yes, absolutely! Well, to say I was surprised would be an understatement. It was a very good day. Better than I realized, because it wasn’t more than a year after starting, when Ted told me he was opening an office in Chicago and he wanted me to help get it up and running.”
Dorothy watched as Hunk went from looking directly at her, to slowly, a glance and then a longer glance, to looking at the young woman at his side.
“One day, during a quiet lunch by myself on a bench in Washington Park. At any rate, I was sitting quietly one August day when I heard a beautiful girl’s voice,”
With a private smile, Becky pushed her elbow into Hunk’s rib cage, he laughed and looked down at her with such intense and un-conditional love, that Dorothy stepped back in surprise. Not surprisingly, neither noticed.
“…Hunk? Is that you?”
Hunk looked back at Dorothy, his expression full of the grace of emotional integration that some few, lucky couples experience. It showed in the intense pleasantness of his smile, anchored in some undefinable way to his love for the young woman.
There was a soft swell of music from the loudspeakers just behind the dias at the far end of the lawn.
“Is that for you?” Hunk looked around, there were now more people seated than there were empty chairs.
“Yes. It’s time for me to get ready. Don’t you two go anywhere afterwards. We need to catch up on so much.”
Dorothy walked quickly away, her robe streaming out behind her, as she headed towards the dais.
“We conclude today’s Commencement Ceremony with the Valedictorian of the Class of 1942, Dorothy Aurora Gulch,” President Warren announced to the family and friends sitting on the South Lawn of Sarah Lawrence College.
The applause was strong and solid as Dorothy rose from her seat at the edge of the dais and walked to the podium. As she shook hands with the College president, the applause was punctuated by a very enthusiastic whistle, from the last row of the black-robed ranks of the Class of 1942.
“Aurora!! Give ’em hell.”
Dorothy looked up and immediately spotted Eliza, her classmates leaning outwards away from where she sat, grinning. Dorothy smiled and gave her friend a thumbs up.
“Thank you, President Warren. Thank you, Class of 1942. It’s an honor to be here and I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on this most special of days.”
Dorothy scanned the crowd and saw Emily Gale, seated in the middle of a row, two rows back from the graduating class section. She was sitting, the Commencement program clasped to her chest, and staring up at the stage. She was wearing her gold wire-rim glasses and an expensive, but very conservative dress. ‘Easter Morning church service clothes,’ Dorothy thought with a smile. At that moment, Emily Gale noticed Dorothy looking back at her and, as Dorothy watched, her adoptive mother reached out her left hand to the empty seat to her side. She began to turn in her seat, her face showing a memory of something forgotten and let her hand return to holding the program. Dorothy felt a twinge of something like sadness, and, for reasons she had learned to not bother trying to understand, remembered a day in Astronomy class during her Junior year. The professor mentioned ‘star pairs’, of which increasing numbers were being discovered as the science and telescopes improved. Standing at the podium, looking at the woman who raised her, she heard his voice, ‘there are rare, but, we suspect quite numerous, given the size of the galaxy, what we call companion stars. A pair of suns locked into an internal orbit with one star always the dimmer of the other.’
Dorothy thought about how inseparable Emily and Henry Gale were, and how the woman looked so much smaller with the seat to her side empty. In the pairing of Henry Gale and Emily Sauvage, a union as permanent as any joining of celestial bodies bound by their own gravity, Henry was immediately identifiable as the companion star. He did not feel, nor did he act as an inferior to his wife; he simply accepted the fact that she was the dominant member of the pair.
Emily Gale sat alone, with an uprightness that managed to increase the impression of space between her and the people around her, all sitting in matching wooden folding chairs. There was nothing in Emily Gale’s face that would make a person hesitate to smile hello, seeing her as being of an age to identify her as a parent of a graduating student. She would look around at the other parents and they would smile a greeting, Emily would nod in acknowledgement. And remain sitting, very much in the center of her chair. She viewed her role as necessary to the process, a child could not graduate from college without having a parent to make it all possible. In her form of modesty, Emily accepted all friendly greetings as acknowledgment of her success in raising a daughter to adulthood.
Dorothy put the papers she carried in her left hand on the slanted surface of the podium. Only Constance Warren, President of the College, in her slightly elevated chair, could see the papers. As she watched the young woman prepare to speak, a whisp of wind caught the top edge of the sheets enough to lift them, held at the bottom by Dorothy’s quick reflexes; she saw the pages were completely blank, smiled and made a mental note to follow this woman’s career.
“We of the Class of 1942 face a world at war. A world that appears bent on self-destruction. We look around and realize that, although we are still very young, we are called to stand up with the people who, only a short time ago, sheltered us, picked us up when we fell down, and soothed our fears when night’s terrors came to visit. As women enjoying the benefits of attending a very special institution of learning, we have all worked hard at our studies over the last four years. The hours of study and preparation often left us, at the end of a long day, feeling worn down by more than a girl should be expected to bear under. And yet, we do not have to look far to see how many others, women and men, are being asked to labor under much, much more difficult and dangerous conditions.
However, my address is not about the work we face as we leave the campus of Sarah Lawrence. Most of us are from gifted and privileged families and though labor is a relative term, we will enjoy opportunities not available to many young women in this country. Women, girls really, who are working in factories and mills, meeting the demands of the war effort.
My address is not about war.
My address is not about opportunity. All though those are surely what we will be confronting tomorrow and the days that unfold as we leave the safe and secure campus here in Bronxville.
My address today is about love and it is about family.
We read each day about the increasing casualties of the war overseas. And, if we read carefully, we will see the casualties echoed here, in our country, safe from the ravening armies, the bombardment from invisible planes flying through the night to destroy people and cities.
Life seems especially full of tragedy and sorrow in this new decade. Families are torn apart, by bullets and bombs, by fear and by hate.
When I was a young girl I thought I was alone in the world. I knew I had a family because they were there and took care of me and I worked and did what any daughter would do, work and share in the family life.
But I thought I was alone and I had to go to another world to find out that I was not alone. It was only by going to another world and finding people who I could help and be helped by to achieve what we needed to, only then did I begin to realize that love is not something that we get from another, but it is a feeling that is given to another.”
Dorothy paused and looking towards the back left of the audience caught Hunk’s eye. He smiled.
“I have a family. It is a family I know and it is a family that I learned about only after time had passed. I thought that family and home were a place, a group of familiar faces. I once believed that I had found my way back to home after being taken away by chance and the forces of life and nature.
Home and family, I found, were more than addresses and names. I searched for a mother that I did not know I had lost and when I found her, believed that I was losing her. She taught me, in a very short space of time that love is not a thing to be held on to,”
Dorothy reached up to the collar of her white gown and touched the ruby-red ribbon that she’d pinned there.
“…love is a quality that makes up who we are. Love for another, a father or a daughter, is not because they are sitting at the family table or sleeping under the roof or, ”
she looked around at the faces arrayed before the stage,
“gathered together to celebrate a transition from childhood to adulthood. Love is within the person and nothing can change that. And although it is better to be able to reach out and touch and hug a loved one, when that is not possible, through the intervention of others, the love itself is not diminished.
I once said ‘Theres no place like home’ and it meant a lot to me. But I’ve come to realize that no matter what home looks like, the people in our lives that matter cannot be taken from us, at least in the way that is important, our love for them.
Remember that as we go out into a world seemingly bent on destroying that which makes it most wonderful, that the love of the family is the one thing that will transcend death and distance.”