Nancy, My shimu (teacher-mother)

Agnes He
January 2019, Long Island

I had no idea that this would happen so soon. No idea. On December 26, 2018, in their annual end-of-the-year missive, Peter described the ups and downs of Nan’s health, with his characteristic composure and humor, and ended with plans for a conference trip to the UK in 2020. So I assumed all was “normal”, health challenges notwithstanding. I put that email in the ‘Starred’ folder, planning to reply to it after I am done preparing for my Spring 2019 course syllabus…

It is impossible to write about Nancy without constant reference to Peter. I do not know of any other couple who share so much, whose lives are so interwoven, so much so that they see themselves as one. In the message in which Peter announced Nancy's passing, he said that neither of them wanted a formal funeral or memorial; instead they wanted a celebration of “our lives”. Her life has been his and his hers. They use the acronym NP as their collective name – which I think is so fitting, as in linguistics NP stands for ‘noun phrase’; ‘Nan and Peter’ is perhaps the most inseparable phrase in all the world’s languages.


In Chinese, a professor's wife is called shimu 师母,literally translated as ‘teacher mother’. It means a teacher's wife who acts in a motherly manner to the teacher’s students. Nancy exemplified that role to perfection. As shimu, she nurtured and nudged me, supported and scolded me.

Fall 1986, my first semester of my first year in the US, I took my first serious linguistics course (grammatical descriptions of English) at the U of Arizona and Peter was the instructor. It was, in fact, by sheer fortuity that we became first professor-student and then friends and family. Peter was a Professor at Central Michigan University; he was spending 1986-87 at U of Arizona as a visiting professor. Peter’s class hooked me immediately. It was an area about which I was intensely curious. I liked the way Peter taught; I liked the way Peter thought. My first encounter with Nancy was in Peter's office. I would very quickly find out that Nancy would be with Peter everywhere and at almost all times, including offices, conference rooms and sometimes classrooms. As I visited Peter often during his office hours, I got to see Nan frequently too. I just turned 22; I was nobody and knew nothing. NP took it upon themselves to guard me and guide me.

That academic year was also when my wisdom teeth erupted, with terrifying force. It was necessary for me to have all my wisdom teeth extracted and I had to undergo general anesthesia. I asked a classmate to record Peter’s lectures that I had to miss. Apparently Nancy took note of that. After my oral surgery, she called me and said, I've prepared some soft food just for you. And it was a good deal of soft food that lasted me several meals.

The first time I visited NP in their Mt Pleasant (Michigan) home was after the International SFL Conference held in East Lansing Michigan in summer 1987. I went with a group of 5-6 SFL scholars including Eija Ventola and Christian Matthiessen. NP put all the men in tents camping in their backyard (they have a huge 4-acre backyard) and put me in a nice study upstairs (and Ejia somewhere downstairs) for the night. During the day, Peter took everyone sailing. It was my very first time on a sailboat. I might have fallen in the water or something, as I was soaking wet by the time I got back to their home. Nan saw me, screamed and shoved me to the shower, Take a hot shower; you’ll get pneumonia!

Summer 1990, Jackson and I got married in Tucson. NP couldn’t be there; they sent a check, a check large enough to cover our modest reception following the ceremony.

Winter 1996, I was already Assistant Professor in Southern Illinois, pregnant with Luran. I got very sick, but because of pregnancy I could not take medication. Alone and away from Jackson, I was utterly miserable. Nan volunteered on the phone, I can come down [from home in Michigan]. You want me to come down?

That same year AAAL was held in Chicago. It was bitterly cold and blustery. I remember we went to a restaurant together and I felt like I could be yanked away by the gusty wind at any time. I was entering the second trimester of my pregnancy. Nan and Peter sandwiched me in between them and escorted me back to the hotel. Nan wouldn’t let me touch my luggage; she asked Peter to do the carrying for me.

The day after Luran was born, Jackson handed me a jewelry box with a necklace inside. It was from Nan. She had asked Jackson to keep it until after I gave birth, as a present for me on becoming a mother.

The love she held for me was then extended to my children. When Luran was a baby, he loved to watch a TV program called “Teletubbies”, a program tailored to preverbal children. Nan sat with Luran, making sure that he does not fall from the couch, and also learning the names and mimicking the movements of the characters Tinky-Winky, Dipsy, Laa Laa and Po. Spring 2002, we met up in DC, at another AAAL conference. Nan got Yiran a stuffed animal. Nan said it’s a bunny. Yiran examined it and said, Grandma, it’s not a bunny, it’s a lamby, it doesn’t have long ears. Nan laughed hard and held Yiran tight in her arms. Yiran took the lamby everywhere, from the Potomac riverbank to the Great Wall of China. NP are good friends with Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist. They bought one of those books that Goodall wrote for children, asked for her autograph, and took photos with her, for Luran and Yiran.

Summer 2004, we took the kids to visit Grandma Nancy and Grandpa Peter in Mt. Pleasant. There were walls and walls and shelves and shelves of books in their house. I spotted a book titled “How to Cook and Eat in Chinese” by Buwei Yang Chao (赵杨步伟). The reason that that book, among so many books, caught my attention was that the book also has a title in Chinese: 中国食谱 (元任题). 元任? Is this THE 元任as in 赵元任?It turned out YES indeed! The book was a wedding gift from “Mr. & Mrs. Y.R. Chao” to Nancy and Peter. (Y.R. Chao was a close friend of Peter’s father, Charles Fries, the founding father of American structural linguistics.) Sensing that the name 元任 meant much to me, NP transferred the book to me. So I am now in possession of that book, with Mr. and Mrs. Y.R.Chao’s autographs (in both English and Chinese), Nan’s autograph, a foreword by Hu Shih (胡适), and a preface by Pearl Buck (赛珍珠).

Spring 2007, Jackson was diagnosed with leukemia. I called NP, overcome with shock and sadness. Within half an hour or maybe less, Nan got me in touch with one of their friends, who suffered from the same type of leukemia and was living a ‘normal life’ as a result of targeted therapy (Gleevec). At the time when our knowledge of the disease was next to nil, that brought a ray of bright light to my world of darkness!

During one of their visits to us on Long Island, Nan brought a pin that says “Agnes”. The pin belonged to Peter's mother, whose name was also Agnes. Nan said, now we want you to have it. I place that pin together with family keepsakes passed down to me from my mother and my mother-in-law, honored and humbled by the love and trust bestowed upon me.

Nan also did a good deal of encouraging and pushing. Sometimes I think to myself that perhaps Nan was Chinese in her previous life – in some ways, she was like a Chinese mother, especially during our early years, always urging me to learn and always doing whatever she could to create learning opportunities for me.

During my MA studies, a noted systemic functional linguist Christian Matthiessen, visited Tucson. I was a young, novice graduate student then and was barely acquainted with systemic functional linguistics. Nan however insisted that I talk to Christian and set aside a special time in his schedule for him to meet with me. I remember that in order to meet with him, I needed to pick him up from some place. But my driving was terrible and my car was in terrible shape –something was wrong with its AC, and Tucson was always scorching hot. So I explained to Nan all of this and I said I could not meet with Christian. But Nan would not budge. She said, it is okay if your car doesn't have AC. He will understand that you are a new driver. Not a problem. But you don't get a chance to learn from somebody like him every day. So I obeyed. And it turned out that, indeed, Christian is one of the most intellectually elegant persons I have met.

During the same period of time, AZ-TESOL conference took place in Northern Arizona University. I was not presenting anything but Nan said I should go just to get exposure to what people in the field were doing. But how am I going to get to Flagstaff from Tucson, and how am I going to afford the hotel, given my very meager graduate student stipend? Nan said matter-of-factly, you ride with us and stay in our room. So it happened. NP packed me in their car, along with a sleeping bag and a pillow. I stayed in their hotel room during the entire conference, for free. The cultural stereotypes dictate that Americans are very particular about privacy. What can be more private than a couple in a hotel room? But in order to provide me an opportunity to learn and to grow, Nan did not hesitate to share their private space with me.

During my first year of doctoral program at UCLA, a paper of mine was accepted for presentation at the International SFL Conference held in Helsinki. The UCLA Applied Linguistics Department budget was not enough to fully fund graduate students’ conference travel. My department chair John Schumann said to me that he could fund me in the amount of $500, Agnes, the best we can do is to fly you halfway across the Atlantic Ocean! So I must cut back on conference costs. Nan told me that I could apply to work for the book exhibits at the conference in exchange for waiver of registration fee and for free lodging. I did. But after I got there, I actually never watched the books, not even for a single hour -- Nan insisted that I go to the sessions and listen and learn, while she would do the hours at the book exhibits on my behalf! There was also a conference banquet that I did not attend because it was too expensive. Nan literally put food on a plate and brought the plate outside the banquet room to me.

Also during my PhD years at UCLA, NP had an opportunity to visit me. We went to Joshua Trees National Park together. Nan did not do the climbing. I asked her if she would like me to keep her company at the foot of the hill. She shooed me away, No no no, you go, you go and check out what's up there and give me a report when you come back. Peter drove my Toyota Tercel, which was obviously too small. Peter had to duck his head every time getting in and out of the driver's seat. On top of being small, the car had just been involved in a minor accident from which one of the headlights was taken. I vividly recall our late night drive. The road was dark and treacherous and we only had one headlight. But strangely, burrowed in the back seat, I felt very safe, very serene.

Like all mothers, Nan had her share of misgivings about me, or at least I suspect she must have even though she was gracious enough to not show.

2003, NP spent a memorable Christmas with us. During the holiday season, the four of us (NP, Jackson and me) went to see The Merry Widow at the Met Opera House. I couldn’t decide what to wear. At the very last minute when I was already in Jackson's van, I hit a different idea. So I got off the van, dashed back to the house, and changed again. Nan commented, well, now I have seen your exit behavior, with a headshake. June 2008, NP visited us and attended Luran’s moving-up (from elementary to junior high) ceremony; there was no butter in the house (apparently butter was an essential for Nan). It was also when our conversations were frequently interrupted by the kids, who needed my physical and emotional attention. That was much, perhaps too much, for Nan to take.

Nancy liked at various conferences to introduce me to a lot of people in the field and she would often present me as their ‘daughter’, a description that I sometimes tended it to shy away from. She was of course sharp and observant. On a couple of occasions, she complained, Agnes always denies our relationship, in a way that was half-joking half-serious. I never had the opportunity to explain to her that the reason I was a bit hesitant to accept that kinship term in public was that I very much wanted to sort of make it on my own and not relying on my “association” with them… I was and have always been truly proud and privileged to be considered a ‘daughter’.

Beyond being my shimu, Nan was also my mentor.

I have by now attended so many academic conferences that I can no longer keep track. I have given papers, delivered plenaries and keynote speeches, and presented numerous invited lectures. I now speak with confidence and clarity (more or less). But it took a lot of learning. And that learning started with Nancy.

While an MA student, the paper that I wrote (for Peter’s class) on cohesion and cohesive harmony was accepted for presentation at the International Conference on Systemic Functional Linguistics (held in East Lansing, Michigan). It was my very first conference presentation. I prepared a written handout (there was no PPT then). It was long and convoluted. Nan sat me down, helped me to put all materials in bullet points, take out the redundancy, and then enumerate the rest (A, B4, C2, etc.) for easy and clear reference. She helped me rehearse the talk. She played the audience and kept the time. The actual presentation at the conference went so well that Sandy Thompson walked up to me and told me how much she appreciated my paper. That was my first meeting with Sandy who I would later meet again in LA and whose contributions to grammar, interaction and functional linguistics would benefit me for life.

In the years since Tucson, I would face many challenges, dilemmas and temptations in my career as a student and as a scholar. What courses to take, which advisor to choose, how to evaluate job offers, how to sustain a productive career while raising a family, how to put together a conference panel, how to negotiate a book contract, how to cope with institutional frustrations, conundrums and sometimes injustices. In more recent years, there have been high-profile and/or lucrative offers of chief editorships of academic journals as well as offers from domestic and international institutions. Every time I find myself at a crossroad, I would instinctively reach out to NP. Every time I call, they would both be on the phone; and every time they write, they would sign off as NP. So, in a very real sense, it is not possible for me to tease apart which pieces of advice were from Nan and which ones were from Peter. What I know for sure is that with guidance and support from NP, I have managed to stay true to my original calling.


It just dawned on me that it was Nan who made it possible for me to get so close to NP. No matter how much I appreciate and admire Peter, without Nancy, he/they would not have been such a big part of my life. I also realized that NP, among all my friends and mentors, have followed and supported both my professional and personal lives the longest, ever since my arrival in the U.S.

It is said that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. The moments recorded here I will always relish; and in these moments, Nan will always live. I will always remember Nan’s big, proud smile at my doctoral hooding ceremony at UCLA—that image of hers will never fade. Over the many years, we met in many places -- East Lansing, Helsinki, LA, London, Chicago, DC, as well as Tucson, Mt. Pleasant and Long Island. In the years to come, we will continue to meet, in my heart.