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  • (Photo taken Oct. 1949, when Sarah was 51 and received an honorary degree from Smith College. Life photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Photo available for personal, non-commercial use through Life Photo Archive hosted by Google.)

    Sarah Gibson Blanding, a native of Kentucky, was the first woman president of Vassar College. She was a visionary. In 1946 she admitted male GIs to the school, she strengthened the arts departments, built new buildings and in the early 1960s picketed a Woolworth's because they wouldn't let blacks eat at their lunch counters.

    In the mid-1960s, she and her sister Ellen retired to a house down the road from me. She became a friend and mentor -- someone who'd give me a straight opinion but wouldn't judge -- her faith in me didn't waiver. She had an engaging sparkle in her eyes, liked jokes and loved bourbon, cigarettes and reading, in no particular order.

    I worked summers for her, taking care of the yard and gardens, though she and her sister were at odds at how best to use my time. Ellen would have me clean the garage and put some of "Sarah's junk" into the station wagon to take to the dump. Sarah would come by, howl, and tell me to empty the car. "Don't listen to Ellen," she'd say.

    On hot days, Sarah invited me to eat lunch in the shade of her porch where she had lemonade and plenty of books. She taught me Faulkner. And Welty. And Steinbeck. Sometimes we'd talk about the writers, or their stories. Sometimes we wouldn't talk at all. Often, when I’d get up to return to work, she’d say, “What’s your rush? Stay and read.”

    Each summer she had me prune her lilac bush. It was more a tree than a bush -- it stood 25 feet tall and was the most prolific lilac anyone had ever seen. She had me carefully snip the dead blossoms at the outside of the "Y" of the stem. A lilac has a double blossom, and her theory was that a new blossom would come from each side. "From two will come four and from four will come eight," she would say, "and that's why I have so many blossoms." Who was to argue.

    I moved away after college, but we kept in touch by letters. Then, in the early 1980s she developed Alzheimers and moved to a nursing home. In 1982 I stopped to see her. She was confused. "How do I know you?" she kept asking.

    I would tell her, but nothing worked. Finally I said, "Miss Blanding, I'm Geoffrey. I used to take care of your lilac tree. Remember? From two will come four, from four will come eight …"

    "Geoffrey!" she shouted. A thin, silk veil seemed to lift from her bright blue eyes. She beamed. “Oh, Geoffrey.” And then, just as quickly, the puzzlement returned. A frown. "How do I know you?" She died in 1985.

    Sometimes, when I write, I imagine that she is my audience.

    (Note: Anna Roberts-Gevalt on banjo.)
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