Mrs. Tyler was old. Everyone knew that. They figured it was pretty safe to assume that there has been a Mr. Tyler at some point, although no one could actually remember him. She only had two cats, which no one really considered eccentric, although she’d named them Quincy and Tippecanoe. She was just weird enough to be interesting without being spooky. So when Jennasis Walker had to interview someone for her Oral History Project, the fifteen-year-old girl thought of Mrs. Tyler right away.
Jennasis wasn’t the type of girl to walk straight up to Mrs. Tyler’s door and request permission for an interview. For one thing, Jennasis didn’t have a reporter’s innate ability to intrude on someone’s life while believing they had a right to do so. It didn’t help that Jenn wasn’t quite welcomed with open arms in Milton. She had lots of friends, sure. But many people considered her very birth a sin against their beliefs about interracial relationships. Somehow it was even worse to them that Jenn was “legitimate,” that her parents were married for three months before she was even conceived.
Luck was on Jenn’s side, though. She took her own cat, Napoleon, to the vet for shots the same Saturday morning that Mrs. Tyler took Tippecanoe.
The vet’s waiting room had none of the charm of a dentist’s office. There were no magazines for the cats, bird, dogs, rabbit, snake, guinea pig, and people to read. Of course, magazines were unnecessary. Jenn only had Napoleon on a cat harness. Napoleon thought Jenn brought him to an all-you-can-eat place, and couldn’t understand why she kept holding him back.
Mrs. Tyler had Tip in a cardboard carrier that he was shredding urgently, howling to Napoleon that he had first dibs on the guinea pig. Mrs. Hanrahan and Arthur, her Standard Poodle, sat as if they were at a dog show held at a common kennel. Grant Hayes waited with Ginger, his Seeing Eye dog. Douglas Chin, unfortunately, had his mongrel Gandolph there for his distemper shot. Gandolph struggled to sniff at the two other dogs, the two cats, the bird (Luciano), the guinea pig (Buffy), the snake (Susan), and the rabbit (Elmer Fudd). Nothing in a magazine could top the entertainment in the waiting room.
Dr. Cohen took Kelly and her snake Susan first. Although they were the calmest and best-behaved pair in the room, everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they left. Then the waiting room erupted in laughter at the irony. That broke the ice, and people actually began speaking to each other.
As “cat people,” Jennasis and Mrs. Tyler sat on the same bench. Jenn peeked at the orange tabby in the cardboard carrier. “Is Tippecanoe sick?” The girl scored points right away with Mrs. Tyler for being able to tell Tip and Quincy apart.
“No, he’s just here for shots. Napoleon’s looking spunky.” Mrs. Tyler scored a point for herself by knowing the name of Jenn’s pride and joy.
“Yeah, he needs his shots, too.” The conversation halted, and the awkward silence regained control of the room. Then Mrs. Tyler asked Grownup Question Number Two.
“So how’s school going?”
That afternoon, Jenn shifted the backpack on her left shoulder and rang Mrs. Tyler’s doorbell. “Come on in, Jenn. What kind of soda do you want?”
“Root beer, if you have it. Otherwise water’s fine.”
“Root beer it is. So tell me about this project of yours.” As they walked through the living room, Jenn noticed how immaculate and how orderly it was. For a moment she wondered if the books on the shelves were in alphabetical order. The kitchen was the same way. At home, nothing matched, and with four kids, “orderly” meant that things were actually in the room they belonged in. Mrs. Tyler’s potholders matched the dish towels. Jenn was sure it was just decoration, that those potholders had never touched a pot. In a large stoneware cup next to the faucet was a plastic thing with dish soap in it and a little sponge on the end. Not only were there no dirty dishes, but there was no dish drainer either. Jenn sat at the kitchen table, afraid to put her ordinary backpack down for fear it would make the room dirty.
Mrs. Tyler put a coaster in front of Jenn on the bare kitchen table and put the glass of root bear with ice on the coaster. She made herself a glass of ice water with a slice of lemon, and placed it on her own coaster. “What do you want to know about me?”
“Well, everything. We need to know what a person’s life is like now, and how it used to be. Like, we need to know what people and experiences changed your life. That’s supposed to teach us about history. I guess. Mr. Qureshi is into making everything meaningful. That means you don’t understand anything, but you have fun doing it.”
“What will you do with the information I give you? Remember, it’s my life we’re talking about here. I don’t think I want to see it on 60 Minutes.
“Don’t worry. We’re gonna put an edited version together for the class history book. Mr. Qureshi is gonna meet with us individually and read our full reports, and then give them back to us. Then I’ll give you yours back. You won’t have to worry about anything. Why? Do you have something to worry about?” Jenn tried not to sound interested and excited.
“Maybe you should just ask me your questions, and we’ll see if I’m interesting or not, OK? Shoot.”
Jennasis opened her backpack and got out her supplies. She had one of her mother’s legal pads and her father’s best pen, as well as a tape recorder. She wanted to look professional. She asked permission to tape the conversation, and then began her questioning.
Mrs. Tyler didn’t turn out to be very interesting on Saturday afternoon. Her husband’s name had been Joseph, and they met each other working at the hospital together. They’d known each other for a long time before they got married. They never had any children, and Mr. Tyler died before their second anniversary. Mrs. Tyler tried to date a few times, but gave it up. She just wasn’t interested in anyone else.
Jenn took the information she’d gotten to class on Monday. As the students shared the rudimentary information they had so far, Mr. Qureshi helped them brainstorm more probing questions.
“What do we want to know in the end?” he asked. “What questions will give us that information?” After the students came up with ideas, they broke up into groups. Each group member wrote down specific questions for the others to ask the person they were interviewing.
“I see you have more questions written on your legal pad,” Mrs. Tyler noted as she poured Jenn a glass of root beer. Jenn explained the process the class went through today.
“I have to ask you more questions. Mr. Qureshi says we don’t have enough details. He says we know a lot of surface stuff, but not a lot of human stuff. He says that History is about humans.”
“Oh. What kind of human stuff do you want to know?”
“Well, I need to ask stuff like how you met your husband. And you said that you knew him a long time. Did it take you forever to fall in love? Or just to get married? Why did you wait so long? Where did you work together? What were your jobs? Stuff like that.”
“I see.” Mrs. Tyler used her cloth napkin to wipe the moisture off her ice water glass, studying the glass carefully. “Joe and I worked together in a hospital in Tucson.”
“Oh, so you were a nurse and Mr. Tyler was a doctor.” Jennasis watched a lot of television.
“No, not exactly. Yes, I was a nurse. I still am.”
“And Mr. Tyler wasn’t a doctor? Did he do x-rays or something?” Jenn wasn’t sure what a man would do in a hospital besides be a doctor.
“No. Joe was a chaplain.”
“Well, a chaplain helps people heal their minds and souls while the doctors and nurses are healing their bodies.” Mrs. Tyler could see that Jenn was lost. “Mr. Tyler prayed with people, the ones who were sick and their families.”
“Oh.” Jenn thought about this for a moment. “Like a minister.”
“Yes, like a minister.”
Mrs. Tyler returned to wiping her glass while Jenn concentrated on this information. The student looked up. “But he wasn’t a minister?” This was a lot to put together: a man who worked in the hospital but wasn’t a doctor, and a man who prayed with people but wasn’t a minister. “Well, but then …” She stopped. “Was Mr. Tyler a priest?” Jenn held her breath.
“Yes.” Mrs. Tyler looked at Jenn, and waited.
“So, like, you were a nun?”
“But you and Mr. Tyler got married.”
“Well, is that OK? I mean, don’t they get mad about that kind of stuff?”
Mrs. Tyler took the church calendar off its nail on the wall. “What’s today?”
Jenn looked at her with that teenager look. “Monday, March 22, 1999.”
“And what was the date 600 years ago?”
“March 22, 1399?”
“And 300 years from now?”
“I’m not that good at math. Maybe they’ll have a different calendar then. Why?”
“Because 600 years ago, it was OK for priests to get married. Lots of priests had wives and children. Lots of priests had children without wives. Many do today.”
“Have children without wives? Or wives and children?”
“Both. See, people used to donate things to the Church, just like they do today. But the laws years ago said that if a man dies, everything he owns goes to his oldest son.”
“Yeah, we already learned that in history.”
“Well, if you donate a piece of land to a priest who has a wife and children, and the priest dies, what happens to that piece of land?”
“His family gets it. That’s only fair. They still have to live and support themselves!”
“Right. But suppose you donate a piece of land to a priest, and he has no family, and he dies. What happens to it?”
“The church gets it?”
“But that’s dumb! You can’t tell people to not fall in love and get married because of stuff, because of land. I thought there was something holy involved.”
“Those rules were made a long time ago. It was a different world, a different culture. They had no concept of people having any rights or needs back then.”
“But don’t you have to follow the rules until they change them?”
“Yes, you’re supposed to. And we did try. I tried to get transferred to a different mission. That means I asked my religious community to let me work someplace else. But they told me to keep working at the hospital. Joe couldn’t get the bishop to transfer him either. There was a lot going on, and they needed him there.”
“So why didn’t you just avoid each other?”
“Is there anyone at your school whom you could totally avoid if you wanted to? Are there any teachers that you can stay away from completely if you don’t like them?”
“Then imagine how much harder it is to avoid someone you’re in love with.”
Jenn took her own cloth napkin and wiped the moisture off her root beer glass. “This is so stupid. Why do we have to do this dumb old assignment, anyway!”
“Because your teacher, Mr. Qureshi? He wants you to see that this is what history is all about. Real people.”
“But you broke the rules. Doesn’t that matter? Is that why you moved here?”
“So did your parents. Where they lived, the rules were very clear that a white man and a black woman aren’t allowed to date, let alone get married. They are a part of history, too. They broke a rule that was unfair, and they moved here. If they followed the rules, you and your sister and brothers would never have been born. Is that OK with you?”
Jenn gave Mrs. Tyler the teenager look again. Then she felt something against her leg. She looked down and saw Tippecanoe rubbing against her. Jenn patted her thigh wordlessly, and the orange tabby jumped onto her lap. Of course Quincy, the other cat, became jealous. He hissed at Tip as he walked past him, and jumped into Mrs. Tyler’s lap. The woman and the girl petted the cats in silence.
Finally, Jenn spoke. “So who makes these dumb rules, anyway?”
“I should cheat and tell you to ask Mr. Qureshi that. Really, though, people make the rules. Sometimes the rules have a very good reason, sometimes just an OK one, and sometimes rules were meant to hurt people on purpose. Your job is to obey the first set and fight the last set.”
“What about the middle rules?”
“You can’t just go around breaking rules because they aren’t convenient. If you break a rule, you’d better have a very good reason for it. Very.”
Tip started purring in Jenn’s lap, so Quincy had to purr louder. “What else are you taking?”
“Well, I’m taking poetry. Dumb stuff. Dumb rhyming stuff written by dead people. History’s about dead people, too.”
Mrs. Tyler laughed. “I’ll bet I can make poetry interesting.”
“How? You’re a nurse?”
“Oh, like nurses can’t read? Really. I wanted to be an English Major, but my community made me become a nurse. They didn’t want any teachers in my group. The next year’s group was teachers. Mine was nurses.” Jennasis stared, a little mind-boggled. “Let me take your glass. I’ll get you some more root beer.” Quincy stole Mrs. Tyler’s warm chair as soon as she stood up. Jenn decided that this was more interesting than going home and fighting with her little sister. She and Tip got more comfortable in the chair.