A really lovely tribute to a lady and a scholar, by her husband. Her story is as remarkable as she was:
She had grown up in Lake Providence, Louisiana, a small town in the northeast of the state near the Arkansas border, in what was and still is the poorest county in the United States. Her father was a businessman and the editor of the local paper, the Banner-Democrat; her mother was a Latin teacher. Ginny had learned her Latin, literally, on her mother’s knee. As a girl, she attended the proverbial one-room schoolhouse, St. Patrick’s Catholic School, where she was educated by nuns. They must have been excellent teachers. The only other member of her graduating class, George Lensing, known as ‘General’, also became a scholar, ending up as a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and a major authority on Wallace Stevens. But at St. Patrick’s he always graduated in the bottom half of his class.
She went on to become a professor for many many years at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto. I met her once and still remember her warmly, as it seems was everyone else’s experience:
Ginny’s love of learning was a love that overflowed in a wonderful generosity towards others; she possessed a bonum diffusivum sui that was perceptible even to those on the edge of her orbit. A librarian at Houghton Library wrote to me the following:
“I did not know her well, but every time I saw her, even for the briefest conversation at Houghton, I could feel the effect of her sweetness on my own mood and spirits for hours afterwards. She was not only somehow instantly lovable: she seemed to make the whole world more lovable somehow because of the way she was in it — her way of talking, of taking an interest in people and places, her calm brightness.”
Ginny’s career is a reminder that great scholarship is as much a matter of the heart as of the intellect. Another friend sent me a passage from St. Augustine that communicates something of what I think is the most meaningful legacy of her work. Augustine writes, Scientia vero aedificat; adde ergo scientiae caritatem et utile erit scientia, non per se, sed per caritatem. “Learning builds us up; thus add love to learning and learning will be useful – not through itself, but through love.”
The tribute, God bless it, conveys in its form precisely what it preaches above.
Thinking of her husband’s grief, I am led back to some thoughts from Wendell Berry, quite relevant:
Love, sooner or later, forces us out of time. It does not accept that limit. Of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here. It is not explainable or even justifiable. It is itself the justifier. We do not make it. If it did not happen to us, we could not imagine it. It includes the world and time as a pregnant woman includes her child whose wrongs she will suffer and forgive. It is in the world but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.
Maybe love fails here, I thought, because it cannot be fulfilled here. And then I saw something that a normal life with a normal marriage might never have allowed me to see. I saw that Mattie was not merely desirable, but desirable beyond the power of time to show. Even if she had been my wife, even if I had been in the usual way her husband, she would have remained beyond me. I could not have desired her enough. She was a living soul and could be loved forever. Like every living creature, she carried in her the presence of eternity.” (p. 249, from Jayber Crow)