I suppose it’s kind of late in the day to be impressed by coincidence. But last night I met a woman in Jacksonville, Fla., whose aunt was my fourth-grade teacher in Somers, Mont.
We were talking in the forced and meaningless way people do when they’re at a cocktail party attended by 200 people: How about this weather? What do you do? Where are you from? I am an introverted man and it is usually at question three that I feign pressing business elsewhere and repair to the bar.
But when I mentioned Montana, it turned out she’d spent some time there too. Had relatives there. Not just Montana, but northwestern Montana. Not just northwestern Montana, but Flathead Lake. Not just Flathead Lake, but the tiny town of Somers.
Against all odds, the conversation had become interesting. I told her I attended school in Somers, first through eighth grade. She said her favorite aunt had taught in that very school. Her name? Jean Gies.
I probably blinked. It was an odd moment. From a distance of 2,600 miles and 50 years, I saw Mrs. Gies as close and clearly as if I’d just come back in from a long recess on a November day in 1960: Standing by her desk, slim and fashionable, with short, blondish hair and jeweled cat-eye glasses on a chain. She wore bracelets, too; I remember how they would reflect the classroom light. When she moved between the rows of desks handing back papers, an attentive student might catch the faintest hint of perfume – mixed in with the scents of floor wax and pencil shavings and those big pink Eberhard Faber erasers.
Yeah, maybe I had a thing for Mrs. Gies. In those days there didn’t seem to be a lot of pretty teachers, so maybe her looks and style made her more memorable. But I also remember that she could be made to laugh, and that she could be made to write encouraging things in red ink if one would put forth a bit of extra effort. I liked that about her. She was a pretty good teacher.
No doubt I’m idealizing this somewhat. But over the years you wander far from home and sometimes you think you’re the only one in the world who remembers a certain day, a certain time, a certain person. When you meet someone who shares that distant memory, even in a peripheral way, it’s like a validation of your life. You didn’t just dream it. You still haven’t strayed so far from your origins that it’s all lost forever.
Last night I tried Googling Mrs. Gies using every spelling and criterion I could think of. But I ended up none the wiser. Evidently she didn’t go on to write a best-selling book or win a Nobel prize, or even sell a lot of real estate. That’s OK. I’m just glad for that last vivid glimpse of her I had last night.
Here’s to Mrs. Gies. And here’s to coincidence.