Parcella Provence was kayaking on Clear Lake when she saw a dragonfly skimming the surface of the frigid water. She lowered her oar, and the fly grabbed hold. Then she reached slowly, and it climbed onto her forefinger remaining still—as if posing—while Provence took pictures.
She studied it intently, and when it didn’t move she became concerned that something might be wrong. Her tendency was to brace for the worst in life, and she wondered if it had died. She could think of nothing else.
Suddenly the dragonfly fluttered and took wing. Provence stowed her camera, dipped her oar back into the water and resumed her journey through nature’s grace. Like the sigh that follows a goodbye kiss, their moment had ended.
Provence, who has worked 30 years at OSU, is retiring in autumn. When she walks out of the Memorial Union on her final day as office manager for MU Guest Services, she will go home, draw a hot bath, add lavender oil and hope that the pain subsides.
Fibromyalgia and a series of other health issues have made it difficult to get through the day. The pain and fatigue are so pronounced at times that they supersede all else, and it is clear to Provence, 58, that healing must become her sole focus even if it means leaving the place that changed her life.
“I used to thrive on this job because every day is different, and you’re so busy time just flies by,” she says. “Now it’s my life flying by.”
If life could be split into pieces, her years at OSU would be the chunk in the middle, a time and place of self-discovery and empowerment. The university in many ways was her salvation from the first chunk, which instilled a feeling that she didn’t matter and never would.
“OSU has taught me that I am strong, capable, caring, willing, flexible, daring and able to take risks, reliable and intelligent…OSU staff and students have taught me that you don’t have to rely on your birth family to meet your needs. You can create a loving and supportive family of your own choosing.”
As a child, Provence felt as though she wasn’t good enough for anyone. At age 10 her parents divorced, so she and her mother moved into a trailer house beneath a walnut tree in Chico, California. Her father showed up one day, and Provence and her mother fled down a gravel alleyway.
He grabbed her mother around the throat and began choking her. Provence screamed as she ran, startling nearby construction workers. At the end of the alley, she stopped at a house to seek help.
“Call the police,” she shouted. “My dad’s killing my mom.”
In the way that children do, she blamed herself for all that was wrong. At times it was overwhelming, and one day in her tiny Baptist church, those needing to be saved were invited to walk to the front, so Provence fell in line.
She expected immediate results, and when she walked out of church, her life unchanged, she felt as though her prayers had been denied.
“In my mind, in the fourth grade, I felt that I wasn’t even good enough for God,” she says.
Before dropping out of high school her senior year, she started using drugs and running off to San Francisco, where she lived on the streets for a week or so before crashing at her sister’s home in San Jose.
“My mother would be so fed up with trying to deal with me as a teenager that she would just send a suitcase of clothes and tell my sister, ‘Just keep her.’”
Provence baked pizzas, wrapped meat and for a while worked in a cannery before getting her GED and learning clerical work. A single mother rearing the first of two children, she lived on public assistance before arriving at OSU, where her self-esteem began to emerge.
Her first job was as office assistant at the Women’s Center, where she met others facing similar issues. She felt supported as she looked back, and one of the things she learned was that two assaults on her had, in fact, constituted rape.
“You can only say no so many times before you get to the point where you either have to fight back or let it happen. I thought that since I didn’t physically fight back that it wasn’t rape.”
What sustained her was journaling, as she began unraveling thoughts and feelings one strand at a time. In 2011, she wrote about kayaking:
“Yesterday a prisoner of concrete time
I can breathe here in the sacred blue wet rhythm
And am free to give voice to my God self.”
She not only gave voice to her God self; she also gave voice to Bernice Wrinklemeyer, a salty, aging barfly. In the unlikeliest of navigations, Provence found her way to stand-up comedy. As Bernice, she could be irreverent. She could curse and poke fun at herself and others. It brought laughter, but Provence discovered that laughter ends.
“I found out what was important to me was not humor or comedy but joy. Humor and comedy could be at someone’s expense, but joy is never at anyone’s expense. So that’s when I decided that I wanted to share my message that everybody deserves to be happy, and they have to make room and get it for themselves. They can’t just hope that it will find them. They deserve it enough to reach out and grab it.”
In retirement, she will reach out with a sense of urgency. Her house and car will be paid off, and she looks forward to simplifying her life, choosing her own course of recovery and pursuit.
“I’m really feeling jaded by society’s buy-in to the need for money and consumerism and feeling like a prisoner to it. I’ve almost come full cycle. I feel I’ve learned most of what I can absorb from OSU and am waiting to escape the bureaucracy now.”
It turns out that by the time a dragonfly grows wings, it is only months or weeks from death, a poignant reminder of life’s gilded core. Provence is unwilling to wait until she gets to that point in her life to fly. It must happen soon.
Come autumn, she looks forward to spending more time with her husband, artist Bob Gately, her two children and four grandchildren. She hopes to spend more time in nature, allowing small miracles to steady her pulse: dew dripping from leaves, pebbles scattered on shore and joy rising from deep within, where it has hidden long enough.
Story and photos by Duane Noriyuki