This simple object is one of my most treasured possessions. It was a gift from the late, great Susan J. Hanna, whose jolly, sonorous voice I can still hear when I read certain T. S. Eliot poems. Dr. Hanna was the head of the English Department at Mary Washington College when Scott and I were students there. I spent two years as her department assistant, thanks to a lucky work-study placement. Funnily, I never actually managed to fit one of her classes into my schedule—except for the time Scott had to miss a few days of school and I sat in on his Modern Poetry seminar to take notes. Dr. Hanna was a marvelous teacher and one of the most ebulliant, brilliant women I’ve ever known. I loved working for her. I loved knowing her. She had a big hearty laugh and a tremendous presence, and she adored poetry and made you adore it too.
When I graduated, she gave me this silver letter opener—monogrammed with L for Lissa—as a going-away present. It lives on my desk and I use it daily, and think of Dr. Hanna every time I pick it up. After college, Scott and I made frequent trips up and down the East Coast between Virginia and Connecticut or New York, and every time we crossed the Susquehanna River we would sing out, The Mighty Susan J! One of our daughters has the middle name “Susanna” in Susan Hanna’s honor. Dr. Hanna died of cancer in 1994, not long before our wedding. We had sent an invitation and received a note back from her husband, the Philosophy Department chair, Professor Van Sant. I slit open the envelope with Dr. Hanna’s letter opener and was gutted to read what was inside. We hadn’t heard she was ill. News traveled more slowly in those days before we all got online.
Such a humble thing, a letter opener, a tool of limited function and unremarkable shape. And yet what a magic key it is: unlocking the portal to words penned hundreds, even thousands of miles away. Today it opened letters from France, Austria, and New York. Everything about it is special to me: the curly L that means Dr. Hanna knew me well; the solid heft of the handle, always cool to the touch. The image it conjures up of Sue Hanna striding into the office in a multicolored blouse, booming out a greeting and asking me to make a few dozen copies for her afternoon class. The stentorian recitation of a few lines from Prufrock. Here was a woman who never had to question whether she would dare to eat a peach—she seized them, split them, shared them around the room.
Sometimes when I’m cleaning the residue of envelope glue off the tip of the letter opener, I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in the surface and think about all the different selves that have been reflected there—all the iterations of myself, like a stack of letters written by the same hand but altering over time. Different paper, different postmarks. And how many other reflections are caught and held in the blade: the faces of my children, each one fascinated at some point by this curious object that looks like a knife but isn’t. Dr. Hanna’s face—I imagine her solemnly inspecting the monogram and nodding her satisfaction at the engraver. “This will do very well,” in that resounding voice. Very well indeed.
A few quick things
Catching Up, Catching My Breath