Sunday, July 30, 2006

na balam

My husband and I were married by two anthropologists, a Mayan shaman, and Lisa Presley.

More about the Shaman and Lisa Presley some other time. Tonight I got the news that my dear anthropologist, and the godmother of my wedding, has died.

Kathryn Josserand was a Mayanist, linguist and epigrapher who taught at Florida State University. She was one of the chief authors of the authoritative Chol dictionary, an indigenous language of the Maya of Central America. She authored countless papers on the subject, and initiated dozens of students in the careful deconstruction – and construction – of Mayan glyphs.

She was brilliant, fiery, highly organized, and the biggest softie this side of the Foster's Freeze. She was Na Balam: The Jaguar. And a real dame.

My husband and I traveled with her and her husband to Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico countless times. We planned to travel with her again this Christmas, to see some remote Olmec and Zapotec sites.

Today I received an email from her husband Nick with the news that she suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while in the field at Palenque. As unexpected as her death was (she was in her mid-60s) it sounds as though it was a good death – sudden, painless, and well-timed. He wrote, in part:

She went out quickly and painlessly after a good day, feeling great. I thank God we were not in the US, because I was able to be with her from the moment I found her until we wrapped her in her shroud.

In the US I would have been kept in a waiting room, wondering what was going on. In Palenque they don't have the technology to keep the body alive after death; in the US she would have been put on "life" support even though there was no chance of recovery. And in Palenque everybody knew us and I got tremendous support.

The morning after, while I was in town sending out notices, friends came in and set up an altar on Kathryn's work desk, with flowers and candles to call in her soul.

On Tuesday we had a good day's work, and Kathryn was really happy with what she was getting done. In the late afternoon we went off to look up Moises Morales, whom we hadn't yet visited with. We had a nice long visit, and Kathryn related to him (again) her first trip to Palenque, on a break from her first fieldwork in Yucatan in 1965, with a girlfriend.

The night they were to leave, they were in the Cañada restaurant, and were talking about having to go catch the midnight train for Mérida. A local tour guide heard them and came over to tell them they didn't have to be there at midnight, since the train never came before 2 AM. They went out anyway, and he went to keep them company, and sat with them in the dark telling them about the stars and the Maya.

Years later, when we went back to work in Palenque, she realized this had been Moises Morales, who by then was a central figure in the Palenque Mesa Redonda circle, and who became a good friend of ours. Anyway, Moises was the first Palencano she ever had a long conversation with, and he was the last one.

Kathryn makes an appearance in New Yorker editor Peter Canby’s book The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya; but it’s late, and I can’t find my copy, and I’d much rather spill some tears into my pillow than look for it any longer.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll get lucky. If I do, I’ll share a few lines here.

1 comment:

litwit said...

sigh. so sorry to hear it. you're sure tearing at my heartstrings lately... (hate that expression, though). call it eloquence made visceral, i suppose.

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