My left hand went on strike this week and refused to write a blog post. It had worked overtime to create this letter that I delivered at a Women Writing Letters event on Sunday. Four artists wrote letters to their First Bosses.
Achtung Herr Doktor Professor Harold Grimm,
After all these years, I thought it was time to acknowledge that you, Professor Grimm, were my first…ever.
It was July 1964. Sunny. There was a slight breeze as I walked across campus to meet you. I was feeling all goose-bumpy happy. And why not? Here I was right at the heart of my absolute favorite place in the whole city of Columbus, Ohio. The Great Ohio State University.
I was born a Buckeye. All my family, not a one of whom attended this fine school, were avid fans. Ohio State was our team. We grew up with the myths of great victories and my mother’s tales of her teenage exploits when she joined crowds of students as they snaked their way down High Street after a win over Michigan. The fight song was our lullaby.
Besides that, it was beautiful here. Old brick buildings, chiming bells, a lake, books…and a healthy supply of really cute boys.
And if you, Dr. Grimm, said the right words that day, I, Annie Eyerman, could really truly “belong” here. (well…sort of.)
I kept walking until I reached the crumbling, ancient cement steps of University Hall. The oldest building on campus so the perfect place to meet my destiny. Creaking floorboards carried me down the hall and around the corner to the double doors that protected the domain of the Department of History.
I was on time. You kept me waiting. The receptionist ignored me. I was nervous. Your secretary finally came to fetch me. Then there I was in your corner office. The windows were open. I could hear voices, see glimpses of the trees outside. It was perfect. You were older than I expected. White haired. Grandfatherly. I could imagine you writing fairy tales…
I looked good that day…even professional. I had on my white-graduation pumps and my sister Susie’s blue-and-white seersucker suit. The outfit made me look so much more mature than my 17 years. I thought you’d approve.
While I waited, Herr Professor, I mentally reviewed Sister Hilda’s last lecture in Office Practice on The Proper Etiquette for Interviews: do not cross legs, place hands in lap, sit up straight, be polite and wear white gloves and hat. (My older sisters nixed the last two…thank goodness.)
Finally, you looked up and said there were two of us who you were considering. We each had equal skills, you said, and not a smidgen of experience between us. My heart dropped. I knew who the other person was: it was my best friend Margaret Whelan. Yesterday, while I was being interviewed at the School of Agriculture she had been here. Today she was there.
Feeling a tad guilty…I started a silent litany. Please. Please. Please choose me! Don’t send me across the river with the cows and future farmers of Ohio. Keep me here. History was my best subject. Please?
Then you said it. You told me you were choosing me not because of typing speeds and my Gregg shorthand skills. No, it had nothing to do with me at all. You chose me because you admired my sister, Mary, who worked in the bursar’s office. It’s always been about who you know. (Later, I thought maybe it had something to do with my German name…but that was afterwards.)
And so, thanks to you, I began my career as a poorly-paid Clerk Typist I, Employee of the State of Ohio. I was ecstatic.
Dr. Grimm, you had no idea of the Pandara box of a world that you were opening up for me. How could you? I didn’t have a clue. From my first day in that big room inside the double doors with Mitzy, the quiet receptionist, my life changed. You have to understand that before that July, my world had been limited to my big family, my parochial schools and St. James the Less Catholic Church. This was going to be very very different. I wasn’t sure I was ready.
Mitzy and Margaret, your secretary, tried to make it easier for me. But I was so shy those early days that when they introduced me to this person or that one, I couldn’t even respond. Except to you. You were my friend.
That is until you decided I should type all your library requisitions. You tested me first. Gave me a letter to your rotary club members to type. You were the president. I followed all the formatting rules Sr. Hilda had taught me. I thought it was perfect. But you gave it back to Margaret to re-type. I was crushed. Especially when she handed me the stack of your scrawled list of books you wanted the library to order.
They were all in German.
Dr. Grimm, the only German I knew at that time was “IST DAS NiCHT EIN SCHNITZElBANK? Ja das ist eine schnitzelbank”. Which, as you know, has nothing to do with the Reformation and Martin Luther. And, there was the real problem of me trying to fit those 16 syllable words onto that little piece of paper with 3 carbon copies. Herr Professor, there were no umlats in my world. I confess, now, that sometimes I, woops, threw one or two away. Did you notice? (It must not have mattered since I read recently that you had amassed a library of hundreds of volumes on The Reformation. I’m proud of my contribution!)
But even with the “fürs” and “unds”, I loved it there. I met people who didn’t exist in my world — New Yorkers, Jews, Southern gentlemen, Persian speakers, Canadians and even Protestants.
And, if that wasn’t life changing enough, then, Herr Professor, you gave me the greatest gift ever, an hour and a half for lunch so I could take classes. They were free. Thanks to you I got to know Chaucer and Homer, found out all about Beowolf and Olde English. And discovered the doo-wah girls of the Greek Chorus. And it was there that, for the first time in my life, someone with letters behind her name told me I could write. (Just so you know, I did finish that degree…28 years later.)
Then there was my love life. Don’t blush, Dr. Grimm. I don’t think you knew that Mitzy and I always checked out the CVs of the new teaching staff and graduate students before I filed them away. We wanted to know who was available. It was like a precursor to internet dating. I don’t think you would have approved, especially since you probably guessed that I was pretty naive when it came to boys. My heart was out there ready for breaking.
At first, it was just going out to lunch with the guys from the bullpen, Sam and Bill, Ed and Austin. (It was the 1960s so there weren’t a lot of women in the department). My sister Susie would always come too. It was just fun. But then Ned came along and asked me out on real dates and my 18-year old heart thought it was love. You should have protected me, Dr. Grimm! But by then you weren’t around as much…probably living in Deutchland uber alles or somewhere.
So, Herr Doktor Professor, do you see now, that your choosing me was my destiny. Everything that happened in my life afterwards started there in the history department. My move to work for Sam at the Smithsonian. The job in Germany and then living in Europe for ten years — and writing a book about it. And, 30 years later, marrying (then divorcing) Ned which brought me here to Toronto — and writing this letter to you.
It’s time that I finally say to you, Harold,
Vielen dank und Auf Wiedersehen,