Today a dear friend of mine, Susan H. Barr, is being memorialized in Virginia. She died the day before Thanksgiving. You’ll probably not recognize her name unless you went to one of a number of educational institutions in Southwestern Virginia such as Stuart Hall Preparatory School for Girls, Southern Seminary, Virginia Military Institute, and University of Virginia. She worked at these throughout the last 30+ years as an instructor and administrator. I knew her when she served as Dean of Stuart Hall, where I was a boarding student.
She was profoundly no-nonsense, able to compassionately and succinctly tell truths that could be hard to hear. I have no idea why, but she took a shine to me at my messiest, neediest, twelve-year-old best. For the following four years, she made decisions that ended up keeping me out of my way as she dealt with everything I dragged into her office. I remember very clearly one time when angry at my family, I asked her to be my mother. I muttered this over tightly clasped arms sitting on the divan in her office, and I didn’t think she heard me. I noticed the sound of her writing stopped; I glanced up to find her looking at me intently. After a pause, she said, “No, I will not be your mother. You already have one. You just need to grow.” It was the first time I felt genuinely respected by a full-fledged adult, and I could not have loved her more after that.
I was rather dramatic back then, many tears and dramas. Susan was never moved to pity, never let me use any difficulty as an excuse. More than once she’d respond to a whipped up bit of teenaged theater with practical affection and advice. There was one phrase she’d said that I wrote and rewrote into the inner covers of several successive journals: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off. You have so much more to offer.” I told her of this years later and she said she hoped I still believed it.
I learned to expect myself to achieve from Susan. She was the first person to frame a piece of my artwork; she may even have paid me for it. After becoming a fine art printmaker, I sent her a copy of every piece of art I made throughout college, grad school, and my professional career. She always kept up with my travels through my mother and sister, occasionally telling them to tell me hello during the long periods of silence as I made my way. We always picked right up where we left off when we did catch up with one another.
I got to see her one last time this June–I drove down and spent an entire day with her. For seven hours, we talked until we were exhausted. She had out every piece of artwork I had ever sent her and asked me to tell when, where, and why I made each one. She chose that first one she’d framed for me to hang in my daughter’s room, along with several of her childhood books for us to read. We filled in gaps in our shared narrative, details we’d missed over the years. She thanked me for wishing her a Happy Mother’s Day: she confessed she’d always seen me and several of the other Stuart Hall students as her daughters. She looked at all we girls had done and felt such pride in having had some positive effect. We cried together at that point.
She was more open than ever that day, answering all the questions I could think to ask. We laughed a lot, as always. In the end, Susan was simply grateful: for the chance to see friends, for time away from all the responsibilities and trust she’d carried all those years of her career. I was grateful I got to tell her I loved her. When I left that day, I made it about a quarter mile before I had to pull over to collect myself, sobbing on a little road surrounded by the gently rolling Virginia hills. We spoke on the phone regularly enough afterward. In late October I let a few weeks pass after my last call, only to hear she’d died peacefully with her husband and mother at her bedside.
I cannot attend the service for Susan today, which is excruciating. I still cannot believe she is gone though I’m glad her suffering is over. I will instead celebrate my daughter’s fifth birthday here in New Jersey. Tonight, we’ll begin to read Susan’s books together. We’ll burn a candle as well, a touch added by my wife. I cannot fully articulate to my family how important she has been to me; I can only move towards becoming the person she always knew I could be.
I hear from cherished sources that there is so much more I have to offer, so I better get to work.
Susan Hignite Barr