memories, obits

“Christ on the cross! Who are we waiting for?”

I’ve been waiting for today for weeks. Sometime tonight or perhaps tomorrow morning, Bill will come home from his latest business trip. I’ve really missed him. I always miss him when he goes away, but this time has been more difficult than usual. I was feeling like I just might make it without any major catastrophes last night, when I got a private message from the very first Armenian language teacher I had when I was in the Peace Corps. She was looking for information about one of the Volunteers who had served with me. I put her on the right track; she had forgotten the Volunteer’s name and site location.

This particular teacher, name of Armine, was brand new to the Peace Corps when my group arrived in the wee hours of June 2, 1995. I always really liked her. She was tiny, had a high pitched voice, and a wonderful sense of humor. We used to laugh a lot in our classes. I was among her very first four Peace Corps students, and she taught me for four weeks, until we all rotated to new teachers.

We were the third group of Volunteers to serve in the Republic of Armenia, and in those days, things were still pretty rough over there. I remember being completely exhausted upon arrival in Armenia. We had gathered in Washington, DC for staging, which lasted a night and all day May 31st. Then, we boarded a United Airlines flight to Paris. We spent all day in Paris– in my case, the day was spent in horrible Charles de Gaulle airport, because I didn’t know how to get to the city and hadn’t made any friends on the flight. That was my first flight in many years, although I did live in England when I was very young. It was also my first overseas experience without my parents.

My parents were definitely over the kid thing by the time I arrived, so they would take vacations and leave me at home with my older sisters or a house sitter. I remember they went all over the place… to Barbados, the Bahamas, Europe, Morocco (to visit my sister when she was in the Peace Corps), and to several places in the States. Given the way I was when I was a teenager, it actually might have been better that they didn’t take me with them. But not traveling so much when I was growing up had left me very inexperienced when I joined the Peace Corps. I was 22 years old… about to turn 23 in 1995. You’d think the first overseas trip I’d take as an adult, I’d go to a place like France or Germany. That’s what a sane person would do. But no… I joined the Peace Corps, and it forever changed me in countless ways.

As Armine and I were chatting last night, she asked me if I’d heard the tragic news about one of my former colleagues, Matt Jensen. I hadn’t, because I wasn’t one of the popular people when I was a Volunteer, and am not in any of the Facebook groups. She told me that Matt died the other night in a terrible hit and run accident. He had been trying to cross a busy intersection against the traffic light, in the wee hours of the morning. A black Rolls Royce struck him, and he was later found by police, gravely injured. He was rushed to a hospital, but his injuries were so severe that he could not be saved.

A3 in 1995… we were still in training.

I thought about the calendar and realized that he had just celebrated his 58th birthday. I remember how, when we were in the Peace Corps, I once made him a birthday cake. In storage, I have two photo albums full of Peace Corps photos, including a picture of Matt hugging the cake I made for him for his 34th birthday in 1997, just a few months before we finished our service and left Armenia. Although he had originally been assigned to a different area when we were Volunteers, he came to live in Yerevan for a good portion of our second year. Matt was a master’s level teacher in the TEFL (teaching English as a Foreign Language) program and, for some reason, he had come to the capital, where I was assigned, and temporarily lived with my friend, Ginny.

I got to be friends with Ginny because all of the Peace Corps teachers were required to have side projects. Ginny, who was a business Volunteer, was working with the USDA to develop products made with dried Armenian produce. I was a good cook, so I was recruited to help Ginny develop recipes that could help farmers market the produce internationally. That project was a lot of fun, and led to us hanging out a lot during her first year of service and my second. Ginny and Matt were unlikely roommates. Matt was about 14 years younger than she was and very liberal. Ginny was from Missouri and kind of country. I remember they had a few fights. But because they were roommates, I got a chance to know Matt better than I otherwise might have, and we became friends… at least during that time.

Matt was unique in that he was in his mid 30s during our time in Armenia. Most of the people in our group were either just out of college, or were older folks living out a lifelong ambition. Matt was also unique in that it was his second time as a Volunteer. He had served in Senegal in the 1980s, right after he finished his years at Hartwick College. He was always very outspoken during our training, and a leader in everything. He was also a talented artist, having designed the t-shirt we had made for our training group. I remember when we had our swearing in, I was in a skit we put on for our host families. Matt had recruited me to play a woman named թագուհի (t’aguhi– it means queen). I sang my lines, opera style, in Armenian as Matt and several other freshly sworn in Volunteers put on a comedy sketch about two women who meet at a hair salon and find out they love the same man.

I remember during our close of service training, he famously announced that if any of us saw him headed to a Peace Corps recruiting office, we should tell the recruiter that he was “not well”. We all had a good laugh at that, because by the time our service was ending, a lot of us were getting a bit antsy about the next big thing in life. For me, it was to be a month long train trip through Europe. I had planned it thinking I might not ever have the chance to come back… little did I know what the future would hold, huh?

After we left the Peace Corps, Matt and I eventually lost touch. I never forgot about him, though. That would have been impossible. Matt was the kind of person who completely defied being forgotten. I even thought of him yesterday morning, before I knew what had happened. I heard his voice in my head, which isn’t unusual for me. I often rehash memories of people long after they’ve left my life. But, for many reasons, Matt was especially memorable.

Personality wise, Matt was kind of like a much younger and male Bea Arthur crossed with George Carlin– maybe if Bea and George had ever had a son together, he’d be kind of like Matt was. Then there was his towering height. He was of Danish and Swedish stock, and he stood at 6 feet 4 inches. He had blond hair and blue eyes and a heavily Yankee-accented, gravelly voice that quickly betrayed his Connecticut roots. At one point, he’d let his hair grow long, and he looked like a regal Viking. I used to enjoy mimicking him, because his voice had so much character. He was often profane, which I admired a lot, and he was very witty, which I admired even more. To this day, I still sometimes say things that I heard him say first. I still say them because they make me laugh, even after many years. And when I say them, I say them the way he used to, because it’s even funnier that way.

Matt was a great teacher, very artistic, and a natural leader. His students all loved him. However, he could also be cranky and impatient. It was the kind of impatience one might expect from a no-nonsense New Yorker. For instance, one time we were walking somewhere together, and there was a woman ahead of us who was moving kind of slowly. Matt blurted out, “Oh, come on! Walk like you mean it!” Naturally, I busted out laughing, because it was just so unexpected and hilarious… and rude!

Another time in May 1996, our group was on a bus, headed for mid-service training. It was summertime, and hotter than Hell outside. We were parked in Yerevan, waiting for some people to get on the bus so we could make our way to Lake Sevan. I didn’t enjoy trainings that much, particularly during that middle point of my service. I didn’t know it then, but at that time, I was suffering a pretty severe bout of clinical depression, and was feeling kind of persecuted and paranoid. Anyway, there we were on the bus, feeling uncomfortable in the heat. Everyone was quiet, waiting for the lone person who was due to join us. Suddenly, Matt blurted out with his characteristic New York bluntness, “CHRIST on the cross!! WHO are we waiting for? Let’s just leave ’em!”

Matt is in this picture, taken just a few months before we finished our service.

Once again, I just about died laughing, because it was just such an irreverent, blasphemous, and obnoxious thing to say! I turned around to look at him and we both cracked up. It was exactly how I was feeling, too… kind of cranky and irreverent and totally over it. That point in time was a low point in my Peace Corps career. I was having a hard time with my service and giving serious thought to quitting, although I knew if I quit, my parents would probably disown me… or, at least that’s what I was thinking at the time. Remember, I was legitimately mentally ill then.

I’m glad I didn’t quit the Peace Corps, although I do have some regrets about those days. I was very young and naive, and I did things back then that I would not do today… and behaved in ways then, that I wouldn’t today. In those days, I was also a proud Republican voter, which is especially embarrassing– although at least in the 90s, there was no one like Donald Trump representing the party so openly. Sometimes, those memories are cringeworthy for me. But then I remember some of the good times, and times I spent hanging out with Matt were among the best.

When Matt was in Yerevan, living with Ginny, I would come over and we’d often have dinner. One night, he cooked cabbage. I have never been one for eating a lot of cabbage because it makes me fart like a whirlwind. But I do remember having cabbage with Matt, and now I think of him whenever someone tries to serve it to me. He hadn’t used a lot of salt, explaining that his mother had high blood pressure and wasn’t allowed to cook with a lot of salt. He’d learned not to use it, either. It was a very windy night at my house that evening.

As he did with a lot of subjects, Matt used to talk about food with a lot of excitement. He’d get animated over anything, even lentils and dill. That was another thing about him that I can’t forget. He was an incredibly energetic, charismatic, and enthusiastic person, when the mood suited him. I remember he loved to dance and had even taken lessons. I can’t dance at all, but I do remember him twirling me around the dance floor at some of our Peace Corps parties. I remember, even as I clumsily stumbled around with Matt, who was so much taller, lighter on his feet, and a confident leader on the dance floor, I felt pretty and had so much fun.

Ararat as viewed from a window at my school in Yerevan.

Matt Jensen even influenced me to make a music purchase once. One of the last times I saw him alive was in January 1998, a few months after we came home from our service. I went to his sparsely appointed apartment in Washington, DC and spent the night. I remember on the way to his place, we were talking about Mariah Carey’s latest single, “Butterfly”, which he didn’t like at all. He was hilariously going off about the lyrics, which he found inane. I remember the tone of our conversation– it was very sarcastic and hysterically funny. I had to agree with him about Mariah’s song. When we got to his place, he immediately pointed out the bathroom, because he knew I’d need to pee. I don’t remember a whole lot more about that evening, except that he had ABBA’s box set. He played it while we talked. I have always liked ABBA, but was more of a casual fan. I later ended up buying the box set myself, and every time I hear it, I remember how much Matt liked ABBA.

I also remember having a funny conversation with him about Kathie Lee Gifford. For some reason, I was telling him about how she had done some kind of mother’s day variety show special. I want to say she had some guest stars with her– I seem to remember Cindy Williams was among them. And Matt said his mother, who was quite elderly, had seen Kathie Lee Gifford on television and was describing it to him. I will never forget hearing his highly characterized New York accent as he imitated what his mother said about Kathie Lee’s show… “It was SICKENING!” Again… I laughed my substantial ass off at that– just the very disgusted, yet hilarious tone he used that really drove home the point. I could easily picture a female version of Matt saying that.

Matt went back to Armenia during the summer of 1998 to be the TEFL trainer for that year’s group of Peace Corps TEFL trainees. We traded letters and gossip for awhile, but then eventually lost touch. I think the last time I saw him alive was at the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC. I was with another former Volunteer, a guy named Albert. Albert and I were both headed to graduate school in the fall of 1999. He was going to New York University, and I was going to be off to the University of South Carolina. We went into the career center, and Matt just happened to be there, too. We had kind of an awkward exchange; Matt told me to enjoy being represented by Strom Thurmond, and that was the last time I ever saw Matt.

Incidentally, I have a weird habit of either running into people I used to know, or strangers who know people I know. One time, I went to the Peace Corps office in Washington, DC and ran into a guy who had been a Volunteer in Bulgaria. My friend and fellow Volunteer, Elaine, and I stayed with him in Sofia for about a week. No, we didn’t know him before we stayed with him– she just called him up and he graciously let us crash. And a couple of years later, I ran into him, completely by chance, in Washington, DC… the same way Albert and I ran into Matt by chance.

Years later, I saw Matt on Facebook, but I never felt comfortable friending him. I don’t exactly remember why we quit writing to each other. The late 1990s were a rough time for me. I lost touch with a lot of people at that point and went through some hard times. I finally got better when I got treatment for my depression and anxiety, but I’m afraid that people probably remember me for being a bit crazy back then. I’m still a bit crazy, but not like I used to be. I’m also a lot more mature. I wish I could have been friendlier with Matt in his last days. I think he might have enjoyed knowing that I finally came over to the liberal side and voted all blue last November. Matt was a very devout Democrat, and I remember when we were in the Peace Corps, he used to wear a Barbara Boxer t-shirt and pick on the lone staunch Republican in our group, a guy named Frank.

Not long ago, I ran into Matt on Facebook. We were involved in a Peace Corps related exchange, probably involving a mutual friend, but I don’t remember what it was about. He wrote, “I always liked you.” That made me feel good. I’m so glad that is the last thing he ever said to me, because it almost gave me closure. If I’m honest, there were times when he wasn’t nice. He had a short temper and could be grumpy and even kind of mean, when the mood struck him. But overall, he was just a larger than life kind of person, both literally and figuratively. He was a wonderful and gifted teacher, a warm friend, and he really loved his work and was dedicated to doing it well. Based on the comments left by the people who knew him more recently, I can see that he touched a lot of lives and has left his unique and indelible mark on so many hearts… especially young and impressionable ones.

Godspeed, Matt. I’ll never forget you. Thank you for making me laugh so many times… especially when I needed it the most. You have inspired me, and so many others, in so many ways. In that way, you’ll always live on.

I felt like singing this for Matt.

Standard

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.