Fresh Ideas: Marilee: Missed and unforgettable

Marilee Swirczek’s departure from this world struck anyone who knew her as a physical blow. If ever anyone was like a wick on a candle that once lit can never be blown out, it was Marilee. Outspoken, competitive, and charming; delightfully witty; intelligent and gifted, she was a dynamo. And a perfectionist. She knew how to sew a man’s tailored shirt; grow rhododendrons; hang paintings (straight) on a wall; bake bread; write, and teach. She was a master at whatever she did. From the ease and grace she demonstrated as mistress of ceremonies at a college function to welcoming friends to her home, she made everyone feel warm and wanted.

Marilee and I were colleagues at Western Nevada College for 18 years. She was there five years before I joined the faculty in 1993 and stayed on several more years after I retired. We had a long history of professional and personal friendship, a friendship that waxed fully in the years we managed to do everything together: attend conferences, give workshops on writing; judge high school student essays; call each other at midnight to see who had graded more papers, drank more cups of coffee. We found time to walk our dogs; talk about family, our past lives, our children. We thought it a wonderful coincidence we’d both been giving birth, she to Jenny, and I to Sev, virtually hours apart at the old Carson-Tahoe hospital on Mountain Street in 1978.

Our fondest collaborative venture was team teaching two semesters of writing memoir at the college. A student of Marilee’s, a veteran of the Korean War of the early 1950s, sparked the idea. We managed to get approval for teaching the class together on the condition we have 50 students in the class — 25 theoretically for Marilee and 25 for me. We were in the classroom together, teaching and playing to each other’s strengths — a more academic version of Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon — though neither one of us was second banana, and we weren’t there for the laughs — though as was true of any class that featured Marilee, one couldn’t escape laughter.

My own favorite memory is of Marilee making frittatas. She had watched her grandmother make frittatas with primarily onions, but also with other grated or finely sliced vegetables: broccoli, zucchini, bell peppers, spinach. I stood by the stove as Marilee talked and cooked, adding a bit more olive oil to the veggies if they began to look to dry as they sautéed, jiggled the pan, prepared the beaten eggs with just a bit of water and a small spoonful of flour. As the eggs cooked slowly, she slid the tines of a fork carefully and gently in and out to ensure even heat. At some point she intuited, she slipped a spatula under the frittata to see if it had started to brown a little and then if it wasn’t too large a one, would flip it up into the air to turn it over. Her hands seemed to caress and bless every utensil, veggie, egg, even the way she turned on the faucet for water. I was mesmerized. The frittata could have been a baby, a lover, a story she was writing. Her hands were eloquent and earthy. They spoke to me of her heritage, that Italian warmth, and of how much she loved her parents, her family.

I have made frittatas since, always picturing Marilee, and always concluding, as I take my first bite, they don’t begin to compare with the ones made by her hands.

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.


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