Unbidden, I Conjure Up My Great Uncle Noah in the Ablative Case

by | Aug 9, 2022 | CNF, Issue Twenty-Eight


I love your white dress shoes, the double-breasted white suit buttoned up against a striped tie, how you are still so dapper at age forty-nine. You hold the hand of your seven-year-old niece Helen in the backyard of your brother’s house in Brockville, Ontario. She also wears white — both the dress and the bow that complements the dark tresses. As a teacher and assistant headmaster at The Blake School in Minneapolis, you had summers off, but I don’t know how often you visited or if Mr. Carter came with you. Was he at your side in July 1968 when you were dying at the Brockville General? I have no memory of seeing your face, only the colour and shape of the hard candies in a round tin on the bedside table. Had I already learned, as a five-year-old, to distract myself from difficult emotions? I hope someone held Mr. Carter’s hand when his time came. I have no photos of him, and few of you. In the one of you and Helen holding hands that day in July 1937, she typed “Je t’adore” as a caption because she wanted love remembered.


You love the elegance of Latin, how its roots are woven into English like the invisible threads in your three piece suits. For forty-two years, you instill the same conjugations into an ever changing parade of unwilling minds. You see it as a living language with a timeless beauty. Is that why you fling erasers at anyone who dares glance at the clock? When the boys are old men they will remember your dark, unbuttoned jackets, your snowy hair and pince-nez, how your six-foot frame lumbered through the halls, bent slightly forward as if pushing a wheelbarrow. They will conjure up, unbidden, how to express love in the ablative case. They will call you old, crusty, intense, formidable, intimidating, feared, strict, gruff. They will recall your thunderous sermons in chapel on Tuesdays, how Noah Foss always read from the Old Testament. I wonder if you imagined room for otherness on the ark.


He loves your intellectual rigor, this graduate from 1939. How you read Tonio Kröger in the original language, the novella that begins with Tonio’s infatuation for his schoolmate Hans. I wonder if you also read Mann’s Death in Venice in German, taking pleasure in reversing the subject and verb to make sense of it. Perhaps the foreignness allows you to hide in plain sight like that boy in the 1940s who secretly likes cross-dressing. In the Trophy Room, you praise his performance as the mother in Gas, Air and Earl, a compliment he will treasure. Do you see past the clothes into his heart? In a later play, the French teacher and organist, Howard Filson Jones, will cast this same boy in another drag role. The boy will adore your colleague’s direction and coaching, how he does the make-up. He will appreciate the teacher’s quick wit, matinee idol physique, impeccable attire, even his affected theatricality. Before the play opens, on a Monday morning in chapel with the organ silent, the school will announce Mr. Jones is no longer a member of faculty. The abrupt departure will mark the teenage transvestite, amplify his fear of discovery. Years later, when he spies Jones selling clothes in Rothschild’s department store, he will not speak to him. I want to believe you sought out Jones to tailor your suits. As he chalked the hem of your trousers, fussed with your collar, and drew the tape around your waist, you switched between Latin, French, and German, revelling in language that onlookers could not understand.


We love you, they write, in so many words. Because while they fear your wrath, they also call you perfect, patient, soft, kind, even charming and gracious. In the upper years, you taught military battles of the Romans alongside the poetry of Horace. Did you toe the line, using Latin to obscure the homoerotic desire of Pyrrhus in Ode 3.20? I like to think you crossed the Rubicon.


You love each other. How else to explain the matching pewter ashtrays with your imbedded initials — N.S.F. and M.J.C., the gentle indentations in the metal to hold two burning cigarettes that meet in the middle. Did you share a quiet smoke in your room when Jones was let go, watch the ashes grow and mingle?


They love you best. In 2001, The Blake School publishes Treasures in Our Lives, a celebration of its teachers over the past century, and the twenty-nine entries against your name in the index surpass all the others. Twenty years later, the editor will reach out to your descendants through the school, and find me, your great nephew. The anecdotes date from the 1920s into the 1950s, but they feel fresh, unlike the mildewed photos of your retirement party that I once sent to the Blake archives. Even more than their memories, I am moved by your students’ projections. One suggests your Old Testament sermons were a small gesture of inclusion towards Jewish students given the antisemitism in Minnesota during the 1930s and 1940s. Another says you had no family, and the school was your entire life. Still another sees suffering in your face at the thought that students are too afraid of you to learn. A 1938 graduate asks, “Can anyone forget this man”? Yes, I want to tell him, anyone can. If I could summon the right words, I would give you a future tense.

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