I met Phyllis on the steps of the National Archeological Museum in Athens, on July 24th, 2000. I’d arrived a day early for the conference, and wanted to explore. As I wandered through the nearly deserted exhibits and hallways, I noticed a woman a few years older than myself roaming the exhibits ahead of me. She would walk into a room and seem to look around briefly before homing in on some object or another, and walk straight to it to drink in its beauty. There was no shortage of beauty in that museum. Breathtaking stone sculptures, legendary gold jewelry. The bronze boy on the horse. But it was uncanny to watch this mystery woman – if there was a bit of magic in the room, she would somehow sense it, and go straight to its source.
I caught up with her on the way out, introduced myself and asked if she was also here for the conference. It seemed likely, and I was right. We wandered south to the Agora together in search of a late lunch.
It was immediately clear that Phyllis had a spidey-sense about the world. “Hey,” she said on the third morning of the conference “I’m gonna play hooky and catch a bus to Delphi. Wanna come along?” Who was I to say “no”?
It was a spectacular afternoon, filled with unexpected discoveries along the way – Thebes, Arachova, Epidaurus. I don’t think I could possibly recount the nuanced wonder that filled the day.
I next saw Phyllis the following year, this time in New Orleans. The conference was held in some faceless alabaster monolith just north of the French Quarter. Phyllis had stepped into the lobby, looked up and around at the sterile corporate trappings and said “I don’t think so” to herself. Then turned around and rolled her little wheeled suitcase south, into the winding street of the Quarter. As she explained it to us the next day, she just went on a few blocks until she came across a sign reading “Villa Convento, Bed and Breakfast” on a quiet side street. It looked like an old building with character – she visualized herself sitting out on the wisteria-lined Southern balcony with beignets and coffee. Yes, this was the place.
The next morning, she told us, she was sitting out on that same balcony, reveling in the quiet, luxurious comfort that Villa Convento afforded, when a small crowd of people came down the street following a National Park Service ranger. Not surprising. What was surprising was when they stopped directly in front of her accommodations, looked up at the building and started madly snapping photos as though it had just been revealed to have been the last known location of Elvis.
She wandered downstairs and asked the proprietors – a lovely elderly family – if there was anything, um, she should know about the place.
“That’s all in the past,” they insisted, “This is an honest home – it’s been in the family now since my grandfather.”
Phyllis leaned in and gave them the tell-me-more look.
Turns out that this building had some history. Back in the 1800’s, its location across the street from the Ursuline convent made it a rather a rather infamous abode of fallen ladies. Phyllis had stumbled, by pure serendipity, across the original House of the Rising Sun. No one who knew her seemed particularly surprised.
I remember that day well for other reasons, too. It was the morning of September 11th, 2001. In the chaos that followed, we all scrambled for ways to get home. Airlines weren’t flying, of course. Phyllis found a one-way car rental she could pick up and drive home the afternoon the conference ended. She didn’t need to get back right away though, and had happened to notice that the Cajun Music Festival in Lafayette was on the way, starting the next morning. Did I have any interest in coming along?
I knew by then that following Phyllis on any of her whims was an adventure not to be missed, but with the crazy uncertainty of that week, I knew my place was to stay close to the New Orleans airport, to try to get home to my family as quickly as possible.
This, to me, was Phyllis’ life – charmed, magical, open to adventure.
I last saw Phyllis just a couple of months ago (December 14th, 2011 – the 100th anniversary of Amundsen reaching the Pole). I was giving a talk in Palo Alto on my Antarctic sojourn, and had a wonderful crowd of folks from so many different circles of my life. Flying buddies, high school classmates, children of co-workers, and total strangers from the community. I didn’t recognize Phyllis at first – it had probably been 7 or 8 years since I’d last seen her. But in the flurry of friends and well-wishers surrounding me at the end, suddenly there she was, smiling wordlessly at me. It was a smile I would have recognized anywhere.
I got a note this morning, an invitation to a memorial open house for Phyllis. She had been fighting cancer, apparently for some time now.
I don’t really know what to say here. Of course I’m going to miss her; I can’t imagine anyone through whose life she passed not missing her. But more than missing her, I think I’m going to try to honor her. Our gift to those we leave behind – the gift that most often really endures – is the example we set. Phyllis certainly knew how to set examples, and has left us all such rich, unforgettable gifts. In so many of my crazy travels since that first chance encounter, when faced with some daunting unknown, I’ve almost always asked myself “What would Phyllis do?” It was not often hard to guess the answer, and not surprisingly, her invoked muse of adventure rarely steered me wrong.
I’m going to be sad for a bit here. Bear with me. I’ve lost a few friends lately, so I’m kind of bundling a bunch of this together. But when I come out of it, I’ve got some more traveling to do. And I’m intent on doing her memory proud.
So for now, let me then leave you with this in her memory: a fragment poem, scribbled in my travel notebook that day on the road to Delphi.
“It was here” she told me on the slopes of Mt Elikon,
That the Muses found Hesiod the goatherd and took his flock away
She laughed: “They told him he had to become a poet!”
Then turned away, hiding the smile that let me know
She was in on the prank