Everyone longs for intimacy—to be known and know. It’s that delightful part of falling in love when you spend long hours swapping stories and learning new things about each other.
But, as a single woman with no romantic prospects on the current horizon, I’ve gained the most intimacy with two men I have never met.
My first long-term relationship was with Jaro Hess (1889-1970), a Czechoslovakian engineer, handy-man, jack-of-all trades, artist—and the subject of my honors project in art history.
I spent two years with Jaro—reading his letters, talking to his grandchildren, tracking down his paintings, and watching his creepy little illustrations prance through my dreams.
I got to recognize his style—his whimsical, wacko visuals and verbals, the way he liked to turn everyday events into stories, the way he talked about people he didn’t like, his love of music, his sense of humor.
My summer 2016 fling has been with Vernon J. Ehlers (b. 1934-), a physicist, professor, Kent County Commissioner, Michigan State Legislator, U.S. Congressman, and the subject of my most recent foray into the rabbit hole that is archival research.
For ten weeks I’ve poured through seventy-plus boxes of memos, speeches, articles, newspaper clippings, congressional records, bill drafts, editorials, press releases, news flashes, YouTube videos, interviews, good reviews, and bad reviews.
I know all of the favorite stories Vern likes to tell. I watched how his interests developed as I flipped through the magazines he saved and the words he underlined and the notes he wrote to himself.
Now I see Vern everywhere. Often, researching is painfully lonely and boring, so when I enter into normal, flesh-and-blood company, I have plenty of helpful Vern anecdotes to offer in any situation.
- While driving down M6 (Did you know Vern made sure it was named the Paul B. Henry Freeway?)
- While passing a billboard for the new Gerald R. Ford Museum downtown (Guess what? Vern was Jerry Ford’s science advisor before he became vice-president. AND later, when Vern was in office he made sure Congress awarded Jerry and Betty a congressional gold medal—the highest honor Congress can bestow.)
- While hanging out at the beach (Vern helped pass legislation that improved the cleanliness of Lake Michigan. As he would say, “There’s a conservative in every conservationist!”
- On trash day (Have you heard that Vern helped solve Kent County’s solid waste disposal problem in the 1970s?)
- While watching a movie (So Vern really loved the Star Wars movies—he saw the first one with his fam during its first box-office week—before it really became popular.)
- While getting drinks at a local bar (They serve a drink here named after Vern here! Whisky and Vernor’s ginger ale, I think.)
- And, of course, during all conversations about current politics (You know, Vern was always such a scientist. He tried to stay out of political games and stick to cold hard, facts. He was far more interested in issues than in lambasting the opposition. How times have changed!)
By the end of the day, my nearest and dearest wish they had hearing aids so they could turn them off and ask me to kindly put a sock in it, for Pete’s sake.
In a strange, platonic sort of way, delving into the ephemera of another person is highly intimate.
If you like the research, you can bubble on about it like a besotted lover. This is different from fangirling over a celebrity or reading a Wikipedia article. Sure, I’ve read the public statements, but I’ve also read the vulnerable hand-written letters to friends that Vern hurriedly wrote between flights at the airport.
I’ve seen flaws and much to admire. In this summer of one-sided dates, I’ve built a relationship. I’m doing the interpreting, framing and storytelling, but Vern’s words teach me new things every day.
I remember watching an interview with David McCullough (the guy who writes door-stop biographies of presidents) in which he claimed to have spent so much time researching John Adams that he could detect Adams’s voice among other written voices.
I remember thinking, That’s creepy—and cool.
Now, I would add that it’s a bit miraculous. We are all such piles of jumbled hopes and fears, public statements, private confessions, the things people say about us, and the things we say about ourselves. Some of it’s true, some of it isn’t. It’s amazing we ever know anything about anyone else—absent or present.
I want to hear and understand Vern’s voice and get his story right. But I hope that I’m also learning to take the time to get other people’s—flesh-and-blood people’s—stories right too.
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.