Last summer my college adviser's out-of-the-blue email said, "I am not dead yet, and I would like to hear about your memoir." A professor emerita in the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature, Nancy Struever is at 93 as smart and sharply funny as when she was my adviser and I was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1970s.
As an undeclared sophomore, I wasn't one of her grad students building an academic career, but I was quirky and wide-ranging in my interests, and she steered me in fascinating and sometimes obscure directions. When I was in a seminar on the development of ideas of language, she said, "Check out the 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico." She was petite, with big glasses and a chirrupy voice, and I was tall and shy and sat across from her desk piled high with books and papers.
When I did find my passionate interest in studying Homer's Odyssey, she wrote a recommendation for me to transfer to Harvard as an undergrad. But six months later, when I dropped out, she wrote me a note: "I am delighted that you find parts of Harvard unstimulating, as this, of course, is a highly sensible response and shows you are on the right track ... Of course, we'd welcome you back."
After I graduated from Hopkins with a bachelor's degree in humanities, she invited me to house-sit at her farm in Maine and weed her vegetable garden during her month of research at the British Museum. Her trust in my gardening abilities dimmed after she studied the garden on her return. She admonished me, the same way she might have when editing a paper, "You have to be ruthless when you thin corn to make sure you get a good crop."
Decades later, while walking through a museum, a dynamic petite woman called my name. It was Nancy, and I was amazed that she remembered me. I visited her farm again. Each visit we inspected the gardens, the sheep in the meadow, and talked about her research and my memoir about the collision of modern architecture and madness in my family.
COVID-19 prevented our summer visit last year, but after her most recent email, I set a date to visit. I updated her on my new manuscript about my perilous year at sea on a square-rigger when I was 18. As Nancy told me about her research for her book-in-progress, she was as luminous and inspired as when we talked across her desk at Gilman Hall. I started taking notes, ("Hegel is quite bad on art"), suggestions of books ("W.G. Collingwood's biography of Ruskin is the best"), feeling for a moment, at nearly 70, just as I did in college. What a joy it was to still learn from my mentor.