Rita Kosofsky was about to be 95 years old.
Here are the remarks UD plans to make at her memorial event.
I must have been fifteen years old when I entered the Kosofsky house in Bethesda for the first time.
During that first dinner, Rita was quite openly interested in how well or poorly I spoke. To this day, I remember how self-conscious I felt.
After dinner, without any preliminaries, Rita ushered us all into the living room, gave each of us a copy of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, and started assigning roles. She herself was Eliza Doolittle, and she relished every awful sound that came out of her character.
On the walls of Rita’s daughter Eve’s bedroom were colorful sheets of paper on which Eve had, with a careful hand, copied out lines from poems that she liked. I remember standing in front of one of these pieces of paper and reading its lines over and over, trying to understand. It was a song, from a Shakespeare play. This was the first stanza:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter rages;
Thou they worldly task hast done
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
I registered the fact that this was a poem about death – about a calm acceptance of death after a challenging life well-lived – but I was too young to know – to realize – its deeper resonances.
Years later, when I encountered the same verse in a novel that Rita knew well and loved well – Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway – I was old enough to understand why Clarissa Dalloway is haunted by that morbid verse, even as she goes about her ordinary, busy, day, buying flowers, arranging a party, being caught up not in death but in life.
Like Clarissa, Rita was at once full of life and profoundly aware of the deeper resonances that always accompany us. Indeed Rita was physically much like Clarissa – a birdlike woman who seemed fragile but who was actually intensely and strongly alive: sociable, chatty, cultured, well-traveled. Rita remained at a very high pitch of vibrancy until late in her life, even as her aesthetic – rather than spiritual – sources kept her mindful of what lay beneath the busyness.
Rita was an expert on the short stories of Bernard Malamud; but the primary way I will remember her is as a guide to many many people in how to be a serious literary intellectual. Hundreds of gifted students at Walt Whitman High School owe a great deal to her.
Rita’s own children were linguistically gifted, and they were incredibly fortunate to have been born to a person who was herself a lover of language and literature. I remember something her son David told me about Rita. She’d had to have some medical procedure or other, and had been put under some form of anesthesia. She told David that she woke from the procedure aware that the entire time she’d been under, pages and pages and pages of novels she’d read had flowed through her mind. One after another these white sheets had arisen, covered with words.
Throughout the young lives of their children Rita and Leon (with whom she shared a passionate love) took every opportunity to read to them, to discuss stories and poems and plays, and to encourage them in their own early writing efforts. This was a house bursting with books, paintings, and records, and busy with outings to readings and the theater. Throughout her long life, Rita’s open-hearted artistic enthusiasms never dimmed.
Back in Eve’s bedroom so long ago, I scanned the final stanza in Shakespeare’s famous song:
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!