Yesterday morning, after receiving news that I had been accepted into the PhD program of my dreams, I sat down to write a love letter to Mount Holyoke. I wrote it in a state of raw emotion, overwhelmed by the memories of a place that had given me so much. I wrote it because I knew I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Mount Holyoke. I wouldn’t be in New York City, surrounded by the love of friends old and new, learning about language and history and art and feminism, spending every day face-to-face with the raw and often overwhelming vicissitudes of the human heart.
I chose to write to Mount Holyoke, rather than about Mount Holyoke, because my alma mater has always been so much more than a college, or an institution, or even a place. Mount Holyoke has been, and continues to be, a series of encounters, what performance art curator Dan Fishback defines as “who I am because of who you are, and who you are because of who I am.” Every one of us who has walked through Mount Holyoke’s gates has learned who we are because of what Mount Holyoke is. But I too often forget that the opposite is also true – that Mount Holyoke is what it is because of who we are – that we are just as much a part of this encounter as the beautiful place we called our home.
The reality of this truth hit home for me today, as I was walking through the streets of my neighborhood. I looked down at my phone, surprised to see a message from a name I didn’t recognize. Reading it, I learned that Margaret Bishop Brehmer, a Mount Holyoke alum from the class of 48’, had recently passed away. I wept as I walked, remembering her story, overwhelmed by the long legacy of Mount Holyoke women who have lived impactful, generous and uncompromising lives.
Margaret Bishop Brehmer lived a life of adventure, courage and integrity. A woman whose first forays into education took place in a one-room schoolhouse, Margaret was a shining student at Mount Holyoke, where she – like me – received her degree in French. After writing her senior thesis on the works of Albert Camus, Margaret traveled to France to teach English. Faced with the poverty and destruction of post-war France, Margaret strove to make a positive impact through her teaching. After her marriage to Frank Brehmer in 1950, Margaret went on to work for a non-profit organization called World Education, as well as to write both letters and poetry throughout her lifetime.
I never had the chance to meet Margaret. By the time I first heard her name, she was already living in a retirement community for Alzheimer’s patients, her memories of Mount Holyoke no longer accessible to me or anyone else. It was during my sophomore year of college that I learned I had received a scholarship in her name. I was asked to write a letter, thanking her for her generosity.
Dear Mrs. Brehmer, it read.
As I sit at my desk in South Mandelle Hall, I look out at a hillside covered in snow. I have often looked out at this view, wondering how many eyes have studied it – how many Mount Holyoke women, throughout the years, have climbed it, drawn it, written letters to mothers, fathers, friends and strangers with its image in mind. Across the span of years, walking from the obscured distance, I see a woman waving to me. Thousands of Mount Holyoke women pass her by, and yet she reaches out her hand to me. In her hand is a gift, which I grip tightly as she recedes into the distance, unknown to me but for her name.
Though I may not know the words you murmur while waving, the memories you manifest in the hand you hold out to me, or the experiences that have inspired you to untold generosities – though I may not know anything about the story behind that hand, I reach back out across that distance and give you at least a small glimpse of me: the gripper of that gift, the smiling viewer of that blurry wave.
I go on to describe a day in the life of sophomore me… the way I would drink my coffee in the mornings in my small room in South Mandelle, watching the trees change outside my window. The way I hurried to my first morning class, cradling thick volumes of French poetry in my arms, my pen poised to capture as much as I could of this place and of the people who surrounded me. The way I would meet my friends for lunch at Prospect, swapping stories of our busy days, hugging each other generously, though we would see each other again only hours later.
The more time I spend at Mount Holyoke, I wrote, the more time I want to spend at Mount Holyoke. I want to get to know every face, learn from every professor, memorize every tree, open and sniff every book in the library. What you have given me is the chance to continue my education here – an education that is beyond value.
Three years after writing that letter, I feel the truth of its words more than I ever could have at the time. When I think of Margaret, I know that Mount Holyoke is not just a place, not just a name on a piece of paper. I know that for whatever I may have lost when I left Mount Holyoke, I have gained and will continue to gain so much more. In the words of our alma mater, “For what thou hast given we honour, But we love thee for what we can give.”
From the little I know of Margaret, I am honored to call her one of my Mount Holyoke siblings. I am moved by the knowledge that without her generosity, and the generosity of others like her, I would never have had the chance to encounter Mount Holyoke at all. It is a humbling reminder that nothing I have accomplished is entirely my own – a reminder that every acceptance letter I open, every blog post that I write, every accolade I receive, I do it all in the name of my Mount Holyoke siblings – in the name of this fiercely loyal, daringly creative, radically loving community that I am honored to be a part of.
Mount Holyoke forever shall be.