January 27, 2018
In college, I wrote better essays in German than English, mentored by a brilliant professor, tall and spirited with curly black hair. I recall exact phrases Julie used to introduce Poetic Realism. Set in fairytale landscapes, this movement portrayed life as it was but brighter, bound by social conventions with occasional glimpses of magic.
To help make sense of stories, Julie offered us themes to track. I chose Schein gegen Sein. Literally: Shine versus being. In other words: Appearance versus essence.
Simple, right? Maybe that’s why it echoed so powerfully.
Once as a sophomore, I helped a friend with his essay for German 3. Grammar had never come easy for him, whereas I was a rising star in the German department, delighted to share my expertise. We sat at his computer, talking things through, and eventually I took over the typing. It sped things up immeasurably.
Soon afterwards, my friend tracked me down.
“Julie asked who wrote my paper.” Worry lines creased his forehead.
I shuddered. “What did you say?”
“I said Amy Hallberg helped me with German. We wrote it together.”
My heart sank. Dishonesty was never our intent when I sat at his computer and typed my German translation for his English. Once Julie understood, she’d asked him to write a replacement essay on another topic, one that demonstrated his true German fluency level. Nevertheless, I went into high alert, knowing I’d betrayed Julie’s trust, wondering what she must think.
Miraculously, our paths crossed on campus that evening. Julie accepted my apology on the spot.
“I’m happy you came to see me,” she said, after pointing out better approaches for nurturing growth.
Julie helped me navigate more terrain than I can recall. She hosted students at her home in the woods, where an actual tree grew up through the floor and out the roof. Her pacifist German husband read the words of Chief Seattle, about living in right relation with the earth, and she served us organic vegetarian dinners. This all felt delicious but unfamiliar. None of my awkwardness daunted Julie.
Once as a senior German major, I stalled while greeting her, using basic German — “How are…” What did I call her? Yes, we were on a first-name basis but German has formal and familiar addresses. And she occupied the space in between.
Julie prompted me. “You.” The familiar version of you, used for a friend.
Weeks later she brought a pot of strawberry herbal tea and donuts midway through our comprehensive exam. For years afterwards, I turned to Julie for letters of recommendation. I once asked how I could ever thank her enough.
“You’ll carry it forward,” she said. “Nobody does this alone.”
At my reunion last June, I never made it to the faculty meet and greet. I was organizing other events. Plus Julie retired nearly a decade ago. That evening people told me she had come looking for me.
The following day, we sat at a patio table, shaded from the sun by an umbrella. A curly black wig framed Julie’s gaunt face, eyebrows drawn on, brilliance apparent as ever. A stillness descends when you step into your essence. I listened as Julie described the fullness of her life, nearing its end. I shared how seeds she planted populate my winding path. She reminded me of the Amy I always was.
Such meetings don’t happen by chance. They’re divine.
Julie crossed over last Saturday. As in June, I’m grateful for the benediction we shared. Pure magic.
I’ll carry it forward.