Marilyn Bellis was a student in the first class I ever taught. It was 1984. I was 32 years old and I was scared. It was a writing class at Indiana University South Bend. There were about 15 students, half of whom were beyond college-age, including Marilyn. She had grey hair even then, cut stylishly short, and blue eyes. And she paid close attention when I talked — despite all the nervous fits and starts, the incomplete sentences and the incessant “you knows” interrupting my fluency like hiccups as I tried to transfer information from my head to theirs. There was kindness and compassion in her face even then — a kind of reaffirming oasis in a desert of bored and indifferent faces.
I would learn my suspicions were right. She was the wife of Jim Bellis, the popular Notre Dame anthropology professor I had known as a student. A homemaker, faculty wife and mother of girls, she was now going to college, working toward her degree, doing it for herself. She did not aspire to be a Writer, but she liked writing and the use of words to convey ideas and feelings. She appreciated the desire for precision. She wanted to learn.
She was a great student; she was interested, engaged, eager to do well, to put advice into prose. She took pride in her work. She, like other students I’ve known since, was the reason for teaching, was the reason I could do it again the next semester.
We then went our separate ways.
Some years later, she landed a job as a copy editor in a suite of offices the magazine shared with the University’s publications office. It was a fun and friendly kind of reunion, one of life’s little serendipities: former writing student now a full-time, professional editor a few doors down from her former teacher.
So we talked some — about work and life, our families, our weekend trips to see parents or in-laws, holiday plans and kids growing up. We became office friends; I don’t remember any conversations between us beyond the walls of 415 Main Building.
Each year at Thanksgiving I write a piece to express my gratitude to someone who made my life better in some way, someone I did not sufficiently thank at the time. My hope is that others will do the same, this act contagious, so that Thanksgiving becomes more of a time to reach back and show our appreciation to those who made a difference in our lives.
Here’s the thing. Marilyn Bellis was there for me when I went through the roughest time in my life. I was going through a terribly painful divorce. The private parts of that period are not important here. What matters is that whenever I stepped into her doorway and asked if we could talk, Marilyn always said yes. She always listened, and cared, and consoled, and gently guided — and she never closed down the conversation. I am sure she had deadlines; I am sure the stacks of manuscripts, galleys and page proofs on her desk weighed on her mind. But she didn’t let on. Those personal, trusting conversations were, as they say, good medicine.
I am sure I would have gotten through this passage in my life without her counsel, without these talks of secrets shared. But it would have been much harder, even more painful, more debilitating. Until then, I had favored going my own way in difficult times, going it alone.
Inner strength and buried feelings and all that. The man thing. Until then, I had never known how therapeutic talking could be. I hadn’t really known what others could bring into our lives if we opened up a little. Because of her — and a few others back then — I came to realize the healing power of people, at least some people, good friends.
When I think back on those troubled times, I recall — with many other memories — what a balm she was. I also recall some dinners at her house after those interim years — my wife, Jessica, and me with her and Jim. Jim could fill a room with storytelling and a banjo and brisket making. Marilyn sweet and smiling, laughter all around. We had coffee together once; she said she was going to Indianapolis for a while. Then I heard she and Jim had moved to Michigan, and we fell out of touch. That was some years ago.
I would think of them and wonder how they were doing and I would think I should track them down and catch up. But I never did. I usually don’t.
Marilyn Bellis died October 21. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s and was in hospice care at IU Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. She was 81.
In the days after we heard of her death a half dozen of us who had worked with her traded emails and thoughts and expressions of affection and appreciation. It turned out, too, that I wasn’t the only one who had memories of Marilyn being quietly kind and gentle and giving. She had touched us all.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.