Remembering Sarah Murdock

“Samm” Murdoch

To remember Sarah, enter your comments below.

4 Comments on “Remembering Sarah Murdock

  1. Over the many years that I’ve been making my modest contributions to the NMH annual fund, I’ve always done so in memory of Sarah Murdock. I think it was in 2010 that I got a note from her mother, thanking me for doing that. I had no idea how that information made its way to her, but I’m glad it did. What follows here is our email correspondence from that time…

    Dear Steve,

    I received, out of the blue, a notice that you had made a donation to Northfield Mount Hermon in my daughter Sarah’s behalf. Is that correct? I am most gateful that someone remembers Sarah from that era. This year on Sept 27th, it will be the 30th anniversary of her death. It is a time to reflect and wonder what she would have been like had she lived and how her life would have unfolded. Her 3 siblings and I miss her terribly.
    If it is not too personal, could you let me know how you knew Sarah and whether you were at Stanford or only knew her through NMH? Or maybe you were in Boston during her years there? I see from your web site that you have a band so perhaps you knew her through music. Whatever the relationship, I am so glad to know that she is not forgotten.

    Thank you for caring.
    Anne Murdock 

    Dear Anne,

    I can’t begin to tell you how profoundly grateful I am that you contacted me. Yes, I did make a donation to the school in Sarah’s memory. But I never imagined that anything like this would come of it.

    The ability to recall the broad sweep of events over the course of my lifetime has never been one of my strong suits. I’m always impressed when people can describe in vivid detail the things they did or said or felt decades ago. The best I can ever seem to do is to pull random memories from my stream of consciousness, sometimes managing to order them in a way that makes some kind of sense. That’s what follows here — pieces of the story as best I can recall them now. Much of it is fog-shrouded, but some is sharp and clear.

    By way of a preamble, I had come to Mount Hermon in the fall of 1966 as a painfully shy, naive freshman of 14, never having been exposed to anything remotely resembling the “real world” in my small-town New England upbringing. Healthy, natural human interaction — particularly with members of the opposite sex — was not something I understood how to manage. My parents never provided any useful counsel in that area, and Hollywood had become my primary source of information. Predictably, my social life in those first years at Mt. Hermon was marked by a string of shallow, failed relationships, and I was developing a toxic reputation.

    Until I met Sarah.

    I think it was our junior year. I know for sure it was at a sanctioned school social event — undoubtedly a dance or one of those things they used to call “mixers.” She was sitting by herself up on a balcony overlooking the activity below. She was beautiful and she appeared to be unattached. I somehow mustered the courage to approach her. She rebuffed me at first, crafting some pretense (she enjoyed that kind of thing, I was later to learn) to discourage me, and left me there to watch her disappear down the stairs, into the crowd, vaporous as a waif.

    So I wandered around, studied the refreshment table, envied the couples laughing and chatting who appeared comfortable in that milieu. At some point I noticed Sarah up on the balcony once again. Assuming that my reputation had preceded me, and that she’d been warned off by some well meaning friend, I decided not to risk a second pass. A voice behind me said, “Aren’t you going to go talk to Samm?”

    I turned, confused, to face this young woman I didn’t know. “Who?”

    “Samm,” she said, nodding toward the balcony. “Sarah. We call her Samm.”

    Apparently she’d seen my previous approach, as well as my second look. “I think she wants to be left alone,” I said.

    “No, she doesn’t. Really, you should go talk to her.” She nodded encouragingly in that direction. I shrugged, as if to say, “What the hell,” and headed for the stairs.

    The friend was right. Samm was surprised and maybe even a little pleased at my persistence, but I don’t think I struck her as anything more than another immature, run-of-the-mill, hormone-charged adolescent until I argued against some point she was trying to make by asserting that Plato would disagree with her. That got her attention. I can still picture her expression: head tilted just a bit, leaning slightly forward, brows ever-so-slightly furrowed, an enigmatic Mona Lisa-like half smile on her lips. It was clearly a “Maybe there’s something worthwhile beneath the surface here” kind of look. We spent the rest of the evening together and, much to my delight, she consented to see me again.

    We were “a couple” for a year or so, give or take. I was on cloud nine the whole time. She was smart, fun, daring, imaginative, beautiful, challenging, passionate, and talented. I had no idea just how talented she was until the day I attended a piano recital she gave on the Northfield campus. I don’t recall her making a big deal about it. I do have a vague recollection that she wanted me to be there, but not visible to her. I somehow made arrangements to attend, and made myself as inconspicuous as possible in a back corner of the hall. She never saw me as she swept in, sensuously draped in a black formal gown. I wished I were sitting much closer. She sat, composed herself, and played what I thought was a delightful introductory piece. And then she launched into Chopin with an intensity and passion not present in the earlier number. It was a difficult piece, I could tell, and she was going all out — no holds barred. I was stunned. And delighted. And proud! And more perplexed than ever that such a creature could find anything in me remotely worthwhile enough to spend time on.

    But spend time she did. We went to movies, and dances, and concerts, and sporting events, and whatever else the faculty social committees for the two schools deemed appropriate for the young men and women in their charge. We talked and laughed, we kissed and held each other in the shadows while we waited for buses to return one or the other of us to our home campus. In some ways I thought I knew her well, but I could never escape the feeling that she was holding something back. A place in her that she didn’t want me to see, or touch. It manifested itself as a vague aloofness — a sense of enigma that I could never quite penetrate. It didn’t matter. I cherished her just as she was. Maybe I’m selling myself short, but I think that that, ultimately, was the reason she shared as much of herself as she did — she knew I cherished her without reservation or expectation.

    There were a few times we got to be together outside the school environment — times when we weren’t constrained by the three or four hour time limit of the typical school-sanctioned social event, or the hovering presence of chaperones. These are my most treasured memories of her.

    Once, she came with me to my parents’ house in Athol, Massachusetts, a forty-minute drive down the road from the school. The blues band I played in was performing there, and we somehow managed to secure permission for her to accompany us. What I remember distinctly was that she made a conscious decision to immerse herself fully in the “townie” scene for the duration of the evening. While I rocked onstage with the band, she danced and basked in the attentions of some starry-eyed local boy, pretending to be a visitor from Reykjavik, Iceland. The game was to see how outlandish a yarn she could spin before he caught on. I don’t think he ever did.

    Then there was the time I went to visit her on an island in Lake Winnepesaukee. Samm said, I believe, that it was her grandmother’s place. I don’t remember meeting her grandmother, but I do remember eating some of the meatloaf she left for us. And I remember shaking my head in amusement at Samm working vigorously to scrape encrusted bits of fat-soaked meat from the bottom of the pan, gleefully proclaiming that to be the very best part.

    And then there was New Years’ Eve in Vermont. My band had gotten booked to play at the Glen Ellen Ski Resort, and I managed to persuade my dad to drive us all up there. The money we’d be paid would cover the cost of renting a U-Haul box truck up and back, but none of us were old enough to sign the rental contract. We were also too young to drink (I had no taste for alcohol myself at the time, anyhow), but greatly enjoyed the energy in the room as the rest of the crowd got progressively less inhibited. Samm was in her element, laughing, dancing with reckless abandon, and just absolutely, totally, brimming with life and joy.

    As the music ended and the festivities wound down, the woozy party-goers stumbled off to their beds. Dad had retired to his own room a bit earlier, and Samm and I found ourselves alone in a sheltered corner of the dance floor. We slept together that night, cocooned into a single sleeping bag beneath the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree. All these years later I still wonder at the fact that we didn’t have sex. She didn’t invite it and I didn’t push it. Just being there together, gazing deep, holding tight, was sufficient. Something previously untapped in my young heart opened with a rush and suddenly I knew that I was really, truly in love with this girl. I felt that she must be, too, though neither of us spoke those words. To this day that evening remains one of the most cherished memories in my “string of pearls,” as I like to call it.

    Our parting came during the summer, when I went to visit her at a little cabin in New Hampshire, where she was staying while she worked some-job-or-other. She gave me subtle cues, hoping that I’d pick them up and just release her. I thought her demeanor was simple moodiness — something I’d seen in her from time to time — and didn’t take the hint. Even when she finally, unambiguously told me our relationship was over, she was tender about it. She didn’t want me to hurt, but really, there was no getting around that. I don’t recall protesting, or getting angry, or even asking why. I think on some level I must have felt that I never really deserved her in the first place, so this was just the natural order of things reasserting itself.

    I tried to re-establish contact with her when she lived in the Boston area. Alston, wasn’t it? I went to her place once, unannounced, but she wasn’t home. I hung around for several hours hoping she’d return, but she never did. During this period I think we corresponded a bit. I remember she told me of a fire that she’d had in her apartment. In describing the aftermath, she said that she’d found “Manythings” on the floor, and that it had fallen into pieces when she’d picked it up from the rubble. “Manythings” was the name she’d bestowed on a glass ornament that I’d come across somewhere and given to her early in our relationship. She’d kept it hanging in her window. I never knew.

    I even wrote her a couple of songs during this time. When I mailed her the lyrics to “Sail Me,” she sent a very cryptic reply saying, essentially, that the song was too “emotionally charged” for her to respond to. And then, in very nearly the same breath, chided herself for being so cryptic “just because it’s Steven.” Ah, ever the enigmatic one.

    Our lives moved on. I had no further contact with her, and in fact nothing at all to do with anyone from my Mt. Hermon days, save for one close friend. I surprised myself a bit with my decision to attend my class’s 25th reunion in 1995. I went with no expectations and had a lovely time, interacting with people I’d not even known well back then. It turned out there was enough shared history for us all to connect with each other on some level. There were numerous stock activities planned for the weekend — the class parade, the class photo, the sock hop, the softball game with the class of ’75, and the like. There was also to be a brief ceremony, held on a corner of the lawn near the student center on the Mt. Hermon campus, to remember classmates who had passed away. I’d been a regular recipient of the Alumni News and usually read the class notes, so I thought I knew everyone who’d be on that list. I was wrong.

    When they read Sarah’s name, it was as if a hole had opened in the earth. I literally swayed on my feet. I blinked back the tears until I could sequester myself in a private place, and then let them flow. I always knew we’d never be together again in anything like the way we were back when, but I also thought that surely I’d see her once more. And that we’d laugh about who we’d been, and compare notes on our subsequent lives, and just be the close, true friends we were always destined to be. Now that would never happen. Almost as bad, no one could tell me why. I felt an aching need to know how something so horrifically unfair could come to pass, but I was denied even that small measure of comfort.

    This year at our class’s 40th reunion, we gathered under the tree that we planted fifteen years ago to read, once again, the names of our deceased classmates. A longer list now. Our class secretary had taken the list and cut it into strips. He asked each of us to choose one, read the name, and say a few words about that person. He handed me the strip of paper I’d requested and I read:

    “Sarah Murdock. Sarah was my first true love. I never knew what happened to her. I always thought I’d see her again.” And then I cried. Openly, this time.

    My life now is a happy one. I’m about to celebrate thirty-three years of marriage to my soul-mate and my very best friend. We live in a beautiful home we built ourselves in the woods of Maine. We have two wonderful children, grown and gone out to make their own ways in the world. Both are doing well, and I feel truly blessed to have the life I have.

    But I still have that little strip of paper with Sarah’s name on it, folded and tucked into a box of small treasures that I keep on my dresser. I will never, ever forget her.

    I would welcome and deeply appreciate anything else you’d care to share with me. Best of all, I think, would be a photo of her from that era. I have none.

    Very sincerely yours,
    Steve Chiasson


    It has taken me a  long time to answer because I was hoping to get a couple of photos copied to send to you. Your letter’s arrival was such an amazing gift since it arrive shortly before the 30th anniversary of Sarah’s death.
    I think that you probably are not aware that Sarah took her own life on the 27th of Sept., 1980. After graduating  from Stanford with a degree with distinction, she stayed on in Palo Alto thinking she would continue to work and to pursue her concert career on the piano. That changed when she decided it was “too easy ” in California, too much like NIrvana, so she chose to come to Boston where her sister Kathy, a violist, was enjoying a very successful free lance career. Unfortunately, Sarah had not counted on the many very talented pianists in Boston which has 17 or more music schools, and she was certainly jealous of her sister’s success. She started in bravely and had a job with a music publishing company but when she lost that job things began to go down hill. She continued to study piano and gave a few concerts but was not being recognized as she had been in CA. Until going to Boston everything in Sarah’s life has always been easy for her, she had excelled in whatever she did but seemingly while she could gain some satisfaction from her prowess, it lost its value if it was too easy.
    To make a painful story short, in 1970 my husband and I were at Harvard on sabbatical and noticed that Sarah’s behavior was erratic. Her siblings, Greg, also in the Boston area, and Kathy had independently noticed strange behavior but unfortunately we did not all share our observations. They thought they were protecting their sibling. When we finally did compare notes early in 1980, we realized she was seriously disturbed. There followed sessions with psychiatrists, time in Mass. Mental Health, first as a patient and then as a Day Hospital participant, all indicating that she was severely depressed with other symptoms which indicated the necessity of her being carefully monitored.
    It was a time of high anxiety for all of us, especially as she moved out of hospital to an apartment with strangers while attending the Day Hospital on a voluntary basis. During that time she attempted suicide and was rescued but it necessitated a return to the hospital for a while.  Over the summer months she seemed to get much better. In fact she was to move into her own apartment later that month. The last time I saw her she was driving our boat back to our place on Lake Winnepesaukee, a place she loved, having assured me that she no longer felt suicidal. I am glad you visited her there.
    I can’t tell you how much it meant to me and to her sisters, Kathy and Martha, that you cared for Sarah and that you had such good times together. Your letter engendered a very personal interchange of emails between the 3 of us examining how Sarah’s life and death had influenced our future lives. It enabled us to share our innermost thoughts and opened up a dialogue which benefitted from the accumulation of 30 years of living with the sad fact of Sarah’s loss. I know that Sarah would have been so happy to know how much she meant to you for I remember what a hard time she had sometimes at Northfield and to have a close friend like you must have meant a lot to her.  I have some wonderful memories of Sarah and we were fortunate to have her in our lives for 27 years. It is heartwarming to know that others remember the good times. I will get a photo off soon. Do send me your address. I am sorry to bring this sad story to you but please continue to remember the good times.
    Anne Murdock

  2. Samm lived in my dorm at Northfield, Moore Cottage, and was a great friend. She was a wild woman, a shy girl, and a wounded animal all in one. I have several memories of her, but what stands out was that intensely sly smile couple with her fabulous laugh. When it was cold out, but not cold enough for Dr Meany to allow us to where pants, Samm just put on her usual denim skirt and added a pair of heavy waffle&weave long johns. Rebellion with a smile. I miss her glorious heart too.

    • I sent a letter to her mother sometime in the 90s, before 1998. If I can find the copy I kept I’ll send it on. It’s too hard to think about those years again. Her roommate was called Saudi, I don’t remember her given name. She was a year younger. Maybe she could add some memories.

      • Hi Christine! ‘Saudi’ was actually Kathleen Nichols, my roommate as well. I remember you very well, and fondly.

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