Martha Nace Johnson Remembers Miss Palmer

I was a brand new junior in 1967, finding my way to English class for the first time. As I opened the door to enter the classroom building, a voice boomed out in my direction.  “What class are you looking for?” Figuring out my name, the authoritative woman in a boxy suit jacket pointed down a hallway to a classroom. “You’re one of mine!”

And so it began. Directive. Firm. (Scary.) Affectionate. That was Miss Palmer.  Dora Elizabeth Palmer. DEP.

Her class was unforgettable.  My first quiz earned me a -20% grade. She docked points for mistakes, and I went straight into the red. I met with her privately to sort out how to survive… and she reviewed my grammar issues as she finished eating a smoked salmon sandwich.  How is it that memories are so specific!

I remember working terribly hard for her but I was never afraid. She was enormously practical, and I could understand what I needed to do. “Don’t call it an elongated yellow fruit. Just say banana.” Yes, she was a taskmaster but she also unlocked something exciting in us. In class, when she asked questions about the text we frantically waved hands in the air to give the answer. Looking back I realize that was when I discovered the thrill of and commitment to an intellectual life.

Miss Palmer was ill our senior year, enough so that we had a substitute. However, she and her housemate, Miss Horn, invited my parents — who were driving all the way from our home in North Dakota — to stay with them.  My mother refused the invitation, concerned about imposing on anyone who was not well. I took them by so that they could meet the famed MISS PALMER. It was so strange to see her in bed with the covers pulled up over her shoulders. I could not reconcile her fierceness and her frailty.

Years later, I took Amtrak to Florida to visit them during my spring break at graduate school. I had stayed in touch as I had gone to college and then on to Taiwan to teach. They met my train and drove me across the state to their home. Within a matter of moments upon our arrival, we were in our swimming suits and stepping into the hot tub with cocktails in our hands. That was mind blowing enough… and then they insisted I call them Jill (her nickname) and Olive! We spent the week reading books, fishing, and cooking. Jill taught me how to change a tire.

I visited again in the 1990’s during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. We watched the television together, and Jill was simply stunned at how coarse our public discussion was becoming. She talked about how unsure she was about where she fit into the world anymore. Her skill was teaching people to write good sentences. Did people care about that anymore? 

The theme of fitting in wasn’t new. I remember her story about going with a group of friends to the theater in Boston to see a very early performance of Death of a Salesman.  Apparently, she went out to dinner afterwards and then returned home. But, she had no memory of that. It wasn’t until she was in her bedroom taking off her shoes that she snapped out of it and realized that the play had spoken to her deeply. She no longer belonged in her job in Boston. She needed to make a change.    

My final visit was when Jill was quite sick and in a care facility. I had just seen the movie, Titanic, and told her about it. Yes, I had remembered her story correctly. When she was a newborn, her parents were moving to the United States from England and had booked tickets on the Titanic. But, she ran a fever and they decided to cancel and rebook on the Mauritania! 

Her stories seemed so much larger than life to me. I felt privileged that she was so generous in her friendship over the years. And, I have always felt that I needed to honor her by writing good sentences. I have written some books, and whenever I pull one them off the shelf and look at the cover, a small voice in me still asks, “What would Miss Palmer think of this?” 

When Jill died, Olive wrote to tell me the news. Shortly thereafter I received a box in the mail. It contained Jill’s collection of books by and about Emily Dickinson. They grace my bookshelves to this day.

Miss Palmer’s books in Martha Nace Johnson’s library
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