The Last Page

They Still Live On...

By Mary Ann Weil Sternberg '65

No one knew what became of Phyllis after freshman year, although we’d heard sometime later about her suicide. She existed as a watery memory—a red-haired young woman from the first floor of Lathrop who had disappeared from our lives.

Then she reappeared.

The organizers of our 50th class reunion decided to break with tradition for the memorial service, to replace the usual necrology with a small program containing personal information about each of the 38 women who had died.

None had been a good friend, but I’d blundered into being asked to be memorial storyteller because, in outlining my life for the 50th Reunion booklet, I had noted that in my 40-year career as a freelance writer—in addition to magazine and newspaper articles and nonfiction books—I’d also penned an odd assortment of other writings, including the obituaries of two close friends.

After reluctantly agreeing to the project, I realized that it fit neatly with a line in the Jewish prayer book I’d long treasured: “They still live on earth in the acts of goodness they performed and in those who cherish their memory.” I’d hoped this had been the case for my husband, who had died 25 years earlier, and I realized these mini-profiles could do the same for Phyllis and the others, whether we’d known them well or not.

The AAVC sent bulging files in manila folders: a list of names and dates of death, newspapers clippings, copies of obituaries, notes from family members, and other miscellany.

Some of the women had led very public lives; their obituary profiles were easy to craft. One had popularized Spanish cuisine for the American public; another was a leading feminist writer, another a nationally recognized physician, administrator, and public servant. One was a groundbreaking leader in the field of childcare. A newspaper clipping revealed that one of our two African American classmates had been told at matriculation that, though academically qualified, she was also there “so the white girls could have the experience of knowing a Negro.” There were attorneys, doctors, mathematicians, professors, nonprofit leaders, philanthropists, community activists, and women whose family life was everything. And a former Vassar president who had been made an honorary class member.

Some women’s lives were quiet and local, so a next obvious resource was digital sites. There I discovered a few articles and obituaries from online community newspapers that offered details, or at least clues to what had mattered through their families’ obituary requests for memorial contributions—to the Center for Grieving Children, to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, to the Handel and Haydn Society.

Then I sent a blanket email to every classmate on record, requesting information or memories about the remaining 15 women for whom I had very little. Reminiscences trickled in, many of them touching. They remarked on “grace and remarkable strength” or an “ability to bring good-humored creativity to any problem.” Another had had “a love of mathematics.” And one alumna’s favorite question was “Why?”

I included many of these. Which left three women about whom I knew almost nothing: Phyllis, Betty, and Mary.

I had known Betty slightly so remembered that she’d married her Princeton sweetheart after graduation, moving to his hometown. But I couldn’t track him down. In desperation, I contacted a friend from the widower’s class who unearthed a lead to him. He was delighted when he learned we were remembering Betty and sent her obituary and other loving comments about her life. Mary had married and assumed her husband’s unusual last name, but he had seemingly left no clues.

I had only Phyllis’s date of death, but when I Googled her name, an obituary appeared. It was, however, for her mother who had died much more recently, at age 90. Listed among her successors was a son, Phyllis’s brother. But the search for him led to his recent obituary. Feeling insensitive, I nevertheless tracked down his widow, emailing her to ask about her late sister-in-law. She told me she’d never known Phyllis and told me that “Phyllis’s mother could never bear the pain of talking about her daughter.” Since this became the most concrete information I had, I included the sister-in-law’s words in Phyllis’s profile, saddened that I’d failed to “find” her.

I skipped the Reunion memorial service because I felt that I grieved for each of these classmates privately as I learned about them and had grown to care about each one. And I had been made so acutely aware that, but for grace or fate, I might have been among them instead of having the privilege of being their memorialist.

Mary Ann Weil Sternberg, a lifelong South Louisiana resident, has been a feature writer and nonfiction author for more than 40 years.