The Most Important Lesson—
Freshman Year 1979
I’m going to tell you about my freshman roommate, Lily*. Because when I was seventeen, Lily taught me an important life skill that I am still trying to master.
We roomed together at Littlefield Dormitory at The University of Texas at Austin in 1979-80. The residence hall assistants named Robin and Ann had done the pairing for that year. Lily and I were paired together because we had the same initials.
Lily and I did have something in common beyond initials, though it wouldn’t have been evident at first. She was from St. Petersburg, Florida, was Jewish, and majoring in Accounting. I was from Austin, Texas, was Catholic, and majoring in Liberal Arts—Undetermined. (This undetermined is not a joke. If students had not yet picked a topic within Liberal Arts, it was called undetermined. And that pretty much summed up my undecidedness about what to focus on at the university. Lily, meanwhile, knew exactly what she wanted to study.)
We spent the first night giggling.
Even after we turned out the lights to sleep, we kept chatting. We told each other about our families, our cities, our high schools, including the class structure at our schools (similar everywhere in America: cliques of jocks, cheerleaders, snobs, nerds).
We even began to recount stories about funny teachers and what we had learned in school, including periods of literature and history. Edgar Allen Poe’s melancholic, morbid “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” trotted forth, and Poe’s having married his far too young cousin. We listed the endless wars covered, including the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and then for some strange reason, we backtracked to British History and got caught on the topic of Samuel Pepys and his life during The Black Death and the Great Fire of London, and how you really pronounce Pepys name like “peeps”, which of course can make one laugh for hours.
The next day, we toured our dorm.
Littlefield Dormitory was built in 1927 but resembled a Victorian mansion, with a first floor that included a commodious entry room with fireplace and couches and antiques and the only public TV, a lovely wide hall, a library with window seats, and a sprawling living room that seemed to me similar to ones in the houses of rich people in Russian novels, complete with grand piano, fancy carpeting, numerous couches with pretty pillows, and lots of large double glass doors facing onto patios and gardens. Afterward, Lily and I seldom ventured there as we were busy.
Meanwhile, on our second floor, was one of the huge old fashioned laundry rooms, where in addition to some modern washers and dryers, stood wall-length, indestructible looking iron sinks for washing clothes by hand, a big contraption with rubber roller for wringing wet clothes, and metal lines to hang from.
Our un-air-conditioned rooms were a nice size with a huge window, and well maintained with walk-in closets with built-in mirrors and cupboards. Some rooms had bunk beds; others had hideaway beds. Lily slept on the upper twin, and I slept on the twin we pulled out from underneath. Our room, like all others at that time, had one sink, and we walked down the hall to the communal toilets and showers. The Littlefield Dorm rooms cost the same or less than rooms at the other womens’ dorms, which were air-conditioned and where the dorm furnishings and décor was modern and relatively spartan. Littlefield was the smallest girl’s dorm with about 220 students, almost all of them freshmen.
The dorm organized several welcome ceremonies.
The first was in the large living room, where ALL the girls convened for an address by the ageing matriarch who was head of the women’s dorms at the university. She told us Littlefield was her favorite, that we should come to her or the resident assistants with any problems, and wished us a great year. Further, she told us we were allowed to repaint our own rooms if we didn’t like the color of the walls. The choice: white or pastel yellow, pink or blue. Lily and I repainted ours white, I believe. The yellow was too oppressive.
Our second ceremony was candle lit and held on our hall led by our resident assistants, who were sophomores (second years). These meetings were held in the later evening, attended by many girls wearing long nightgowns and slippers, and gave opportunities to announce important happenings, including dorm-wide parties or even, engagements to be married.
Just to add, if the Littlefield Dorm sounds terribly grand:
The University of Texas was founded in 1883. But lands had been set aside for income purposes as early as 1839 by the state of Texas. On these lands, oil was later found. Thus, the university education system was heavily subsidized by oil money, known as the Permanent University Fund (PUF Fund). So tuition in 1979 was incredibly cheap at $125 a semester.
Still, many of the students were from families who could barely afford to send their kids to college, many had scholarships, grants or loans, or work-study programs. Lily was one of those. She had grants and worked part time at a university office to help defray costs. I was helped by my grandparents.
Lily and I began to explore the forty-acre university campus.
And because we noticed most people didn’t greet in passing, we started a campaign to say hello or good morning. We’d recount our success later: that most responded in kind. And as days went by, we’d pass some of the same people at the same time, and they would often smile and greet us first.
Lily was a born diplomat.
She smiled a lot, in spite of serious family worries that haunted her. We formed a little circle with girls mostly from nearby our room. Vicky, Kathy, Karen, Lynn and more, and greater circles without. There were a lot of friendly girls. No one was snobby. They were from all over Texas, some from Mexico, some from other states. And Texas being big, it was a spread out group. Girls were from Houston to Lubbock to El Paso, and all points between.
Lily taught our close group of friends, who were a Catholic-Baptist-Methodist-Episcopalian mix, about her faith. Now and then we sat in a circle on the floor of our room, and Lily made us matza balls and fed us a Kosher meal. She explained about Jewish holidays. We all enjoyed the good food and learning what she taught. Lily was a good teacher.
Our regular meals were catered downstairs in a large, pleasant high-ceilinged canteen.
We were joined by the students from Simkins, a boys’ dorm down the street. Many of these boys seemed to be engineering majors, perhaps because their dorm was close to the campus engineering department. Their presence certainly livened up the place. We’d tell stories, laugh, flirt and have big discussions.
Immediately, Lily stood out. If a discussion was proceeding, and she was not in accord, she was able to keep the situation cheerful. She told me she did the same in class, when a professor said something she disagreed with. She would do this: she raised a hand while smiling, said in a happy tone, “I disagree,” and explained why she thought different. The professors really respected her for that.
As time went on, Lily found a boyfriend.
She spent more time away from our dorm room. I became depressed, mostly because my father was very ill. And lonely because I missed my family, as many do that first year away, even though my own were living close by. But I did not like to visit often. That was a hard time for me.
Unfortunately, my strange behavior pushed Lily away, though she never became angry with me. When I finally told her the truth one day, as I lay on my bed weeping, that my father was an alcoholic, was in very poor health, and might die, she was very compassionate. On my beseeching request, she promised to explain to our friends that my father was ill but not to tell anyone that he drank. And she never did.
In spite of this drama, we still went on a trip we had planned for Spring Break. We had a lovely time driving to west Texas and meeting some of my family. I am glad I could give her that tour of Texas landscape and Texans. My grandparents and great-grandmother were all very welcoming to us.
As the college years went on,
it turned out that I too began to study not only Liberal Arts—English but also Accounting, and Lily and I began meeting for lunch now and then. She had always done very well in her studies, and I had determined myself and was doing well too. We had cheerful, kind and civil conversations, and when she announced she would move to the northeast for a job after graduation, we exchanged addresses, though we did not write much. There was always a little constraint, perhaps because of my strange depressed time when I was a freshman. I do regret that.
I tried to look Lily up later through the internet and was very glad to find that she seemed happy and had done well. She had married and had a child. She had a successful career, eventually becoming a head management team member at a top Fortune 100 company.
I wish her well.
And again and again through the years, I remember Lily. I see her smile, I see her honest practicality and steadiness, her friendly greeting, her friendly path, and how she could disagree with anyone, while being agreeable, while recognizing that we are all part of this shared rooming, this life, this human family.
Thank you, Lily!
*Name changed to protect privacy.
First come, first served.
Signing up for Littlefield Dorm room in those days, was by phone, in the first week of January. My mother called almost first thing, maybe 8:30 am, and signed me up. By later in the week, the dorm was full and there were fifty names on the waiting list. My mother had lived at Littlefield as a freshman; my sister lived there four years after me.
And once I met sisters who had lived there, around 1930. They had probably used those big old iron sinks in the utility room, the roller-squeezer contraption and the swinging metal hanging arms, when washing and drying clothes. They told me that on the weekend, they would make a picnic and walk over to Mt. Bonnell, and most of the way was through countryside, pasture and thicket. It took them all morning, then they ate and looked out from on high, then turned back towards the dorm. Grace Fox was one sister’s name. I met her in a writing class I took. She was 72, never married, and still wearing high heels! A nice woman, she was writing a historical novel. I don’t know about what.
To read more of my stories,
click here for You Can’t Keep The House Your Daughter Was Born In
click here for Houston and New York and Budapest.
click here for The World Through the Hole in a Hanging Sock.
click here to read the first story in Laura Grevel’s Luddite tales: the Texas Ranching Adventure series.
Credit and thanks to Pixabay for this blog’s photo. StockSnaps.