Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Child's Grave in an English Churchyard

Facebook reminded me that I posted this exactly five years ago.  I'm re-posting it now and am happy to say that my dear English friend and her 95-year-old husband are still thriving in Gloucestershire.
We’re back in Northern Greece after a four-day weekend spent in the English countryside—specifically in Gloucestershire where a dear friend was celebrating her husband’s 90th birthday with a lavish outdoor party at Chastleton House which included tours of the stately home, waiters who were professional opera singers and a picnic lunch which included champagne and smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches in the famous topiary gardens.

The day before—Saturday—an erudite gentleman named Sebastian Halliday gave us a tour of the bucolic villages of the area including Bibury, Swinbrook, Minster Lovell and Burford.

We explored the thatch-roofed cottages and ancient churches covered with climbing roses and honeysuckle vines and ate in a pub overlooking the wide, shallow river that wound through each village.
Along with Japanese tourists we photographed swans, ducks and horses with new foals, sheep and gardens at their peak of glory. We saw graves of knights and soldiers, church dignitaries and ordinary people who died of the black plague in 1349.

I love exploring cemeteries in every place I visit. (Favorites are in Edinburgh, New Orleans, Pere Lachaise in Paris and the Poor Cemetery in Martinique.) The green, mossy ancient stones leaning every which way in a rural Cotswold churchyard always remind me of Sir Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” which mourns the many simple peasants and villages who have lived and died without leaving any record of their lives or their talents and abilities.

I photographed the tombs of the Fettiplace knights, all resting on their elbows in the church of St. Mary’s in Swinbrook, and was fascinated by the tombs of several of the Mitford sisters—perhaps the most controversial, scandalous and talented sisters ever produced by England. (The engraving at the top of Nancy Mitford's gravestone is a mole, which is the animal of the coat of arms of the Mitfords because she hated crosses.)

But the only gravestone that moved me to tears was one near the ruins of the Lovell stately home at Minster Lovell, near the wide shallow river, filled with water lilies, where children and dogs were wading. I was drawn to the grave because it featured a statue of a sleeping cat. The stone read “Noah Wright/ 14-11-05/ 16-1-05/ May your light shine through.”

This grave was in memory of a little boy, born in November of 2005 who lived only two days—not even surviving to his first Christmas. His parents and mourners had visited his grave repeatedly, leaving flowers (fresh and artificial), a stone, and, on top of the sleeping cat statue, a yellow ceramic star. I picked it up and turned it over, thinking it looked like a Christmas ornament. On the other side someone had lettered in a child-like hand “Noah.”

I put the star back where it was and went into the church to photograph the tomb of a sleeping knight with his hands folded in prayer but I couldn’t get the thought of Noah and his parents out of my mind.

And I remembered the most famous lines from Thomas Gray’s elegy:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air 


Sunday, June 26, 2016

Remembering the Gates in Central Park

Not long ago, my friend (and prize-winning author) Nicholas Basbanes posted on Facebook  a stunning long-distance photograph  of the Gates, a work of art which had taken 20 years for the artist Christo to bring to fruition in New York's Central Park in 2005.
Seeing the line of orange fabric "gates" trooping across the landscape with the Fifth Avenue Manhattan skyline behind them, in Nick's photograph, set me to hunting for the photos I took of the Gates on the last day of the exhibition in February 2005.  And I found them! One is above.

What are the gates,  you ask?  According to Wikipedia, the Gates  were "a  work of art by Bulgarian artist Christo Yavacheff and French artist Jeanne-Claude, known jointly as Christos and Jeanne-Claude.The artists installed 7,503 vinyl 'gates' along 23 miles of pathways in Central Park.  From each gate hung a panel of deep saffron colored nylon  fabric. The exhibit ran from February 12, 2005 through February 27, 2005. All told, 7503 individual gates were installed." 

And on the last day, as I was taking photos, the saffron panels contrasted beautifully with the new-fallen snow.
Nick Basbanes' photograph gave a panoramic look at the Gates, but I found I was focusing more on the interaction of the people and the art.  In fact, whenever I go to a museum or art exhibit, I always end up photographing the people reacting to the art, rather than just the art itself.  (see my last year's post about "People Peering at Picasso")

Look at the fun that people of all ages are having interacting with the Gates, above. (This was before the age of selfies, remember.)

But the photo that somehow got me choked up was this one below of a well-dressed older couple, undoubtedly New Yorkers, enjoying the show just as much as the children running between the posts.  The Gates was, in my opinion, New York public art at its best.

And here's Nick Basbanes' wonderful photograph (below) that set me hunting to find mine after all these years.  Thanks Nick!

By the way, Christo has just revealed his latest art project, "The Floating Piers", connecting two small islands in Northern Italy for 16 days, starting June 18.  I don't think I'll make it there, but at least I have my memories of the Gates, from 11 years ago.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Changing Role of Fathers Through the Decades

(I posted this on Father's Day three years ago but it's still appropriate today,  as the role of the father is evolving --for the better in my mind--every year.)

In 1911, when my mother was born, the father was a god-like figure who occasionally came down from Mount Olympus to offer criticism, praise and advice.

(My mother is on the far right in the back row. In addition to the seven girls in the family, there were two older boys.   My grandmother, Anna Truan Dobson is holding her ninth and last baby, who was born when Anna was 49 and her hair had turned completely white.  The father, Frederick Fee Dobson, was a Presbyterian minister in Oswego, Kansas.)

In the 1940's, when I was born, the father would come home from work and sit in his favorite chair with his scotch on the rocks and read his newspapers, and he was not to be disturbed until dinner time when he presided over the dinner table.

In the 1970's, when my kids were born, the father was more hands on, but not to the point where he ever changed diapers, took a kid to the park, or knew the names of his children's friends or teachers.

But our granddaughter Amalia, born in 2011, has the benefit of the current breed of father, who is hands-on from the moment of birth.  He changes diapers and makes breakfast and gives baths and Amalia knows a father is also for :
Going down the slide together and

Dancing on the patio together and

Looking for fish and dolphins together and

Feeding giraffes together and

Holding you up in the water and

Playing horsey and

Admiring your artwork and

Walking to the park together and

Singing in the park together.

And grandfathers, whether or not they changed diapers in their younger days, are for telling you a story every day, even if they have to do it by phone or by Skype.

Happy Father's Day, Emilio and Nick!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Executioner’s Granddaughter

Discovering the history behind an antique photograph is my favorite kind of research.  It's like finding a window into another era or like time-traveling.  I first posted the story below, "The Executioner's Granddaughter",  four years ago and it has remained one of the most popular of my posts labelled "The story behind the photograph."
Last week, as I was selecting antique photos of children with toys from my collection for my post of May 18, I picked up this one of a curly-headed moppet holding a toy lamb and a riding crop.  It’s a CDV (carte de visite) a calling-card-sized photo that could have been taken any time from 1854 to 1900.  The photographer is listed as “Samson” in Liege, Belgium.
Then I turned the card over and saw some words in French that set me on a path to a fascinating story about the man who executed King Louis XVI and nearly 3,000 others.  (His son guillotined Marie Antoinette.)
I didn’t need my high school French to translate the words on the back of the card as: “Louise Samson, Descendant of Sanson who decapitated Louis XVI, King of France.”
I don’t know why I never noticed this inscription before.  But thanks to the internet, which I didn’t have when I started collecting photos, I quickly learned the bizarre story of Charles Henri Sanson (1739 to 1806) who was the  fourth in a six-generation dynasty of Royal Executioners of France.  His great grandfather and grandfather and father were all named Charles Sanson too.
The Charles Henri Sanson who beheaded Louis XVI really didn’t want to be an executioner—he longed to be a doctor—but when his father became ill, his bossy paternal grandmother forced him to give up the study of medicine and take over as royal executioner to continue the income and position of the family.
It was this Charles Henri Sanson who introduced the guillotine –invented by  Joseph-Ignace Guillotin--as the executioner’s weapon of choice, because it was more efficient and humane than previous methods.  He was no doubt inspired by a very messy and unpleasant execution when, as Wikpedia puts it, “In 1757 Sanson assisted his uncle Nicolas-Charles-Gabriel Sanson, executioner of Rheims, with the extremely gruesome execution of the King’s attempted assassin Robert-Francois Damiens.  Through his well-executed intervention he shortened the quartering of the delinquent and thus the pain  His uncle quit his position as executioner after this event.”  (Wikipedia also says of Sanson, “His hobbies included the dissection of his victims and the production of medicines using herbs he grew in his garden.  In his free time he liked to play the violin and cello.”)
Charles Henri Sanson put on the blood-red coat of the master executioner in 1757 and held the position for 38 years. He performed 2918 executions.  He executed Louis XVI on Jan. 21, 1793 at the Place de la Revolution which is now Place de la Concorde  He was assisted by his two sons,  Gabriel, the youngest, who was supposed to eventually take over the job, but Gabriel “died after slipping off a scaffold as he displayed a severed head to the crowd,” (talk about irony!) so the position fell to the older son, Henri (1767-1840) who took over in April, 1793 and remained the official executioner of Paris for 47 years.  Only six months after  he started, Henri  executed Marie Antoinette.
His son, Charles Henri’s grandson, Henry-Clement Sanson, took over the job in 1840 and served until 1847.  He was the sixth and last in the dynasty of executioners.
One of my favorite stories  is this: “An anecdote reports that Charles-Henri Sanson after his retirement met Napoleon Bonaparte and was asked if he could still sleep well after having executed more than three thousand people.  Sanson’s laconic answer was, ‘If emperors, king and dictators can sleep well, why shouldn’t an executioner?”
Thirty-seven years after the beheading of Louis XVI, Alexandre Dumas interviewed Henri Sanson—Marie Antoinette’s executioner--about the king’s behavior on the scaffold. Dumas asked about the report that there was a “wrestling bout” between the king and the four assistants at the foot of the scaffold. 
Henri replied, “The King had been driven to the scaffold in his own carriage and his hands were free.  At the foot of the scaffold we decided to tie his hands, but less because we feared that he might defend himself than because we thought he might by an involuntary movement spoil his execution or make it more painful.  So one assistant waited with a rope, while another said to him ‘It is necessary to tie your hands.’  On hearing these unexpected words, at the unexpected sight of that rope, Louis XVI made an involuntary gesture of repulsion.  ‘Never!’ he cried, ‘Never!’ and pushed back the man holding the rope.  The other three assistants, believing that a struggle was imminent, dashed forward…It was then that my father approached and said, in the most respectful tone of voice imaginable, ‘With a handkerchief, Sire’.  At the word ‘Sire’, which he had not heard for so long, Louis XVI winced and…said ‘So be it, then, that too, my God!’ and held out his hands.”
As for little Louise Samson, the innocent child holding the lamb in the photograph above—she would not have been the grandchild of Charles Henri , because his son Henri died in 1840.  She could be the child of Charles’ grandson, Henry-Clement Sanson, the sixth and last executioner, but I suspect she’s another generation removed. 
Notice that the family name Sanson has been changed to “Samson” for Louise, and the photographer who took the photo in Liege, Belgium, is also named Samson.  This child’s father may have changed his name and moved to Belgium to escape the blood-soaked history of his forefathers and open a photography studio.
Or the inscription on the back of the CDV may be wrong.  Maybe Louise is not really descended from the famous executioners.    But even if this is the case, I’m glad that the written words led me to a fascinating history that I’d never heard before. It’s accidental discoveries like this—sheer serendipity—that keep me collecting antique images and looking for the story behind the photo.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Where Does the Joy Go?

Amalia was born, turning me into a grandmother, over four years ago and I wrote this post when she was nine months old.  Today second grandchild, Nicolas, is 14 months old and I find myself wondering the same thing as he sings his "happy eating" song while I'm feeding him or shrieks with excitement at seeing the ducks in the lake near our home.

It’s been a privilege and an inspiration to spend time with granddaughter  Amalia during her first nine months of life, as she discovers her body (first hands, then feet) and the world around her.

Nearly forty years ago, when my own three children were born, I watched our firstborn’s first year—even took some notes that ended up in a child development text book—but by the second, there was no time for taking notes and by the third, not even a baby book stuffed in a closet in a bag filled with souvenirs.

I had forgotten until now the overwhelming joy with which a baby meets the world (as long as she’s not ill or in pain.)  To see Amalia light up and squeal with joy when she wakes up from a nap and sees your face is enough to make any day wonderful.

She loves to eat (anything including vitamins and paper towels) and when she’s fed something she really likes, she will croon and sing and even clap her hand in appreciation.  Once she liked her food so much she stood up in her high chair and did a little dance of joy before plopping down and opening her mouth for more like a baby bird.  She’ll “read” her picture books by herself, pointing and squealing at the baby animals.

The things that make a toddler ecstatic are so simple: blowing soap bubbles, stomping in a puddle, playing peek-a-boo, feeding pigeons.  The things that elicit that throaty little giggle the ones that are at first surprising and perhaps a little scary but then turn out to be funny instead.

Until she was about eight months old, Amalia loved everyone, and when I pushed her stroller down the street she’d babble and wave to passers-by, even homeless people in doorways and construction workers on a cigarette break. Everyone responded to her as we passed: “Hey! That baby’s talking to me!”

Now, at nine months, the slightest tinge of stranger anxiety has crept in.  She won’t go into the arms of a newcomer until she’s had about ten minutes to get to know them. But if she’s sitting next to you in an airplane or restaurant or on the playground, she’ll soon pat you on the arm to say hello.

And although no bad thing has ever happened to her, Amalia’s starting to fear things that she never noticed before—like a large stuffed lion in a toy store, or the guttural voice that comes out of one of her counting toys.  A lot of her “job” these days is figuring out what is real and what isn’t.  And I know the stranger anxiety is a necessary skill—undoubtedly an instinct useful for survival.

All babies and children are filled with joy—just in being alive.  Look at puppies or colts in a field.  What a child needs to be perfectly happy is so simple: warmth, food and the feeling of security—knowing they are protected by someone more powerful than they are.  It’s such a shame that every child can’t be guaranteed those basic things during the critical first years of life.

And they need a person to interact with them—to echo their feelings and show them the world around them.   While pushing a stroller every day to Central Park, I kept seeing moms and nannies perpetually talking on their cell phones while the child in the stroller is staring straight ahead with vacant eyes.

Outside the apartment where she lives, Amalia hears someone vacuuming the carpet every afternoon, and the roar of the vacuum cleaner has started to worry her.  When she frets, I take her into my arms and reassure her that there’s nothing out there to be afraid of.

How terrible it must be for parents who can’t tell their babies that with conviction—because the child is ill or there’s no money for food, or because the living situation is dangerous, as it is for those children who were executed in Syria recently.

But no matter how protected and cared for Amalia is, I know the bubbling joy she shares every day with eventually fade.  We’re all familiar with temper tantrums and the terrible twos.  Does anybody know a pre-teen so thrilled by dinner that they’d jump up and dance with joy?  Or laugh in ecstatic surprise at soap bubbles floating around them?

I think of people my own age who reply to  “How are you?” with a litany of aches and pains, and seem to walk around with a cloud of gloom hanging over their head.

No wonder friends have been telling me for years that grandchildren completely change your life. Just the sight of Amalía’s delight in her new world is all the motivation I need to try to take are of myself and stay alive longer than my parents did, so I can watch her grow and learn. I hope she can hold on to the joy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Our Secret Garden--Looking Back

On Sunday June 5, 2011 I posted this brief history of our house and the development of our "secret garden".  So I thought it was the perfect time to post it again.  Sadly, one of the two giant weeping willows is no longer with us.  As you read here earlier this month, when it was cut down, the willow held its own secret--a nest of raccoons, but they all got out alive.

 Ever since the tornados several days ago and the arrival of house guests, I've been neglecting this blog. (Our electricity was out this morning, but now it's back.  Luckily the worst of the destruction stopped 20 miles away.)

Next Sunday (June 12) in our town of Grafton, MA, the Historical Society and the  Garden Club are sponsoring a tour of nine "Historic Homes and Gardens" and ours is one of them.  So I thought I'd post the brief house history/garden write-up that I prepared for the booklet and show you some photos of the "Secret Garden" (plus grape arbor, pool, fish pond and waterfall) that we've put into the stone foundation of the  Colonial Barn on our property that burned down in 1965 .  When  we bought the place in 1974,  the area  where the barn burned was filled with weeds and rubble, but it was my husband's idea to fill it with a pond, swimming pool and "secret garden."

The Daniel Rand House -- Grafton MA. The rear wing of this building was the original house, built in 1723 by Daniel Rand, one of the original proprietors of Shrewsbury.   On Dec. 15, 1723, his son Solomon was the first child baptized in the town when it was incorporated. Solomon lived 80 years and is buried on the property.  His gravestone is on display in the lower garden.  Two of Solomon’s sons served in the Revolutionary War.  In 1822, the property was sold at public auction  to Tarrant Merriam of Grafton,  a wealthy landholder who built the Greek Revival farmhouse which now faces Nelson Street.  Because he didn’t like to go all the way to Shrewsbury Center to church, Merriam had the boundary of Grafton moved slightly to the north, so that the house is now in Grafton.

The Rands built an enclosed walkway from their house to the barn so they could feed the animals without plowing through snow.  This very large Colonial barn, measuring 120 feet by 45, burned down in 1965, taking with it four horses and a cradle believed to have come over on the Mayflower.  All that remained was the stone foundation, which now serves as the walls surrounding the enclosed garden and pool area.
From Nelson Street the “Secret Garden” inside the barn foundation walls is invisible, but plantings of perennials can be seen on the left side of the house and running along the fence that leads to a second (modern) structure built  twenty years ago to serve as guest house, office and (on the lower level) a garage, rec room and bathroom, opening onto the pool.
 In the pool area there is a rock garden, small waterfall and fishpond on the far (south) end, plantings of impatiens, foxglove, irises and shade-loving perennials.  Antique cast-iron garden furniture and small garden sculptures can be seen throughout the area. On the  near (north) end of the enclosure is a grape arbor , supported by a pergola with ionic columns.  Hydrangeas, hibiscus, roses  and many perennials bloom throughout the season.

 When the house and three acres of property were bought from from  Richard and Marie-Louise Bishop in 1974, it came with the two large weeping willows, three different colors of lilac bushes, an apple tree, blackberry patches , lilies of the valley and a wide variety of irises. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Angels in the Architecture-- Beneath the Volcano

Wherever I go, like Paul Simon, I'm noticing angels in the architecture.  (I have a thing for angels, which I collect, especially primitive folk-art angels.)  I posted this essay back in April of 2012, using photos from a trip to Mexico taken in 2010.  I recently rediscovered it while looking for photos  for a travel contest.  You'll see why I was inspired to re-post this. And the story has a happy ending (spoiler alert). The volcano "El Popo"  did not erupt and destroy the beautiful angel-filled churches.