Miss C.’s Poetry Voice

I had the same teacher, Miss C., for both the third and fifth grades. She wasn’t my favorite teacher — she was quite demanding and didn’t have a warm or sympathetic manner. Third grade was a difficult year for me because I was moved from second grade to Miss C.’s third grade class in November, and I had the feeling that she disapproved of the double-promotion and didn’t want me in her class. And fifth grade was a terrible year, because my father was sick and he died during Christmas vacation.

She did give me some good advice, though. In the first few months after my father died, I missed a lot of school. I would get up in the morning and just not feel well enough to go to school. Miss C. kept me after school one day and showed me my attendance record, and told me I needed to stop missing so much school. She said that even if we don’t feel well in the morning, if we make an effort and go off and do our duty to go to school or work, we might find that once we’re there, we feel better. I was doubtful about that, but since I didn’t want her to give me another talking-to, I started making myself go to school every day and she was right, I did feel better. I still have trouble dragging myself out of bed and off to work in the morning, but, thanks to Miss. C., unless I am actually sick, I get up and go, and usually feel just fine once I’m there.

But the thing I remember best about Miss. C. was how much she liked poetry. She read us poems in a slow, dramatic voice, made us copy poems as handwriting exercises, and had us memorize them and recite them to the class.

A lot of her poems were seasonal, like October’s Bright Blue Weather, by Helen Hunt Jackson. I remember sitting at my desk in our classroom on the second floor of the Charles J. Capen School, dutifully copying the poem on composition paper, hearing Miss C.’s poetry voice in my mind:

O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather…

I paused for a moment after writing the last line and looked out the window, and there it was — a dazzling blue October sky! This was a thrilling moment for me, literature and nature coming together. And every October, that phrase sings in my mind, every time the sky is blue and even when it isn’t. I think it’s a beautiful phrase, but I don’t know if I would have appreciated it if Miss C. had not read it to us in her dramatic poetry voice.

But my favorite of the poems she taught us was Wordworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, still one of my favorite poems. She did a great reading of this, dreamily reading the first two lines, “I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” pausing slightly and then switching to her surprised voice for the next two, “When all at once I saw a crowd, A host of golden daffodils!” There isn’t an exclamation point in the original poem, but that’s how she read it. Every time I see daffodils, I hear her poetry voice in my mind.

I also remember her reading us a psalm every morning after the Pledge of Allegiance. Hard to imagine such a thing now, and I don’t remember any other teacher reading from the Bible. Her favorite was Psalm 24, King James Version. The first few lines she delivered in a matter-of-fact fashion:

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.
For he hath founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the floods.

But then she’d switch to dramatic mode to ask the questions, placing emphasis on the word who:

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

And then to her teacher voice to clearly state the answer:

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart!

She recited this as if there were an exclamation point, and I always expected her to add, “That’s who!”

Miss C. is no longer living, but I picture her spending eternity on top of the hill of the Lord, standing right next to his throne, inspecting the hands and hearts of incoming souls to decide who shall pass and who should fail. It would be a perfect job for her — she had high standards and knew how to enforce them, and I can’t imagine her ever wanting to rest in peace.

[Edited and reposted from an earlier version]

The Scottish Screen Archive

I spend a lot of time working with old photographs, at home and at work, but I have recently started spending more time looking at old films online to help me be able to visualize the times and places where my grandparents lived.

tramsMy mother’s parents came from Scotland, and I have been enjoying the short, silent films at Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland. This film of Glasgow Trams is from around 1902, and it provides me with a moving image of Glasgow as it would have looked to my grandmother Agnes, who just two years later left school and went to work as a 14 year old shop girl. I picture her getting on and off those trams on her way to her first job, feeling nervous but proud to be the first of six children to be able to help support their family.

nls2My grandfather Willie was raised in Ayrshire, and like all of his family members, he went down into the mines at 14. But he wanted to be a photographer, and as a young man he traveled to popular seaside destinations to photograph the tourists. I’m pretty sure one of the places he went was Rothesay on the island of Bute, and when I was there a few years ago I tried to picture the scene as it would have looked during his time. The film Holiday Scenes in Rothesay from the early 1920s shows holiday-makers arriving by steamer and enjoying the beach, the bathing pool, the putting green and the castle, and I wonder of anyone I can see in the film stopped to have their photograph taken by my grandfather.

Those are my favorites because of how they relate to my grandparents’ lives, but there’s a variety of films available in this collection from the 1890s to the current decade, including sponsored and promotional films, documentaries, newsreels, home movies and more.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Making Bagpipes — A 10-minute educational film of the work of the Highland Bagpipe Makers in Edinburgh.
  • Charles Rennie Mackintosh — A 21 minute documentary about the decorative artist Mackintosh’s work in Glasgow
  • Hugh MacDiarmid: No Fellow Travellers — A 25 minute film about Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, an influential figure in the Scottish Renaissance, made to commemorate his 80th birthday, including conversation with his son Michael Grieve and fellow poet Norman MacCaig about his life, work and politics

“My African Mother” by Marcus Samuelsson

51sfBjO0lkL._SL250_I am reading Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, “Yes, Chef.” I checked it out of the library’s ebook collection because I have seen the author as a judge on cooking competition shows like “Top Chef” and “Chopped” and I like books about chefs and restaurants.

Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethipia, and the first chapter of the book, “My African Mother,” is an essay about his birth mother. When she and her children all fell ill with tuberculosis, she walked many miles from her remote village with two year old Marcus on her back and his five year old sister by her side to reach a hospital in Addis Ababa. She died there, but her children recovered and were eventually sent to Sweden to be adopted by the Samuelsson family.

Samuelsson has no real memory of her, but has spent a lifetime trying to know her. He has never seen a photograph of her, but says he knows her features because he has seen them staring back at him in the mirror his whole life. He cooks Ethiopian food using the traditional spice mixture called berbere, and writes:

Today, in the dead of night when I should be sleeping, I sometimes imagine the breath of the woman who not only gave me life, but delivered me from death. I sometimes reach into that tin by my stove, take a handful of berbere, sift it through my fingers and toss it into the pan…I have taught myself the recipes of my mother’s people, because those foods are for me, as a chef, the easiest connection to the mysteries of who my mother was.

Samuelsson’s longing to know his missing mother is beautifully expressed here, and doesn’t in any way diminish his love for his adoptive parents. (Chapter 2 is called “My Swedish Mother.”) I think this chapter stands alone perfectly as an essay, and would be meaningful to many people who are not otherwise interested in memoirs of chefs. I found it very moving. My father died when I was nine and my brother was three years old. Losing my father was terrible for me, but at least I had memories. My brother grew up without any of his own memories of his father, just a profound sense of his absence — a different experience from the author’s but still the same profound longing to know someone who is beyond knowing.

Philadelphia Story

PhiadelpiaIn January, 1944, my parents got married in a simple ceremony in the rectory of St. Peter’s Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, their hometown. My mother was 18 and my father was 22. He had graduated from WPI in February, 1943, an accelerated wartime class, and was doing war-related work in Philadelphia. After a honeymoon in New York, they took the train to Philadelphia and started their married life there. They lived there for a few years, and it was a great adventure for both of them to be away from home for the first time. In my mother’s words, they felt like grown-ups.

My sister was born there in 1945, and they used to reminisce about their time there. I didn’t like hearing about it because I felt excluded from this part of their life. I especially didn’t like our annual visit to family friends in Philadelphia, when they kept pointing out places like the park where they used to walk baby J. in her stroller. On one trip, they took a picture of my sister at that park and suddenly I couldn’t stand it anymore and demanded to have my picture taken too. In the picture of my sister, she’s standing by the entrance to the park, smiling sweetly. In the picture of me, I am standing in the same spot, with my arms folded, my chin raised defiantly and my face a perfect picture of bratty jealousy.

When I was older, though, I liked to hear my mother reminisce about her time in Philadelphia. She talked about the cold that first winter and their drafty apartment. She used to walk everywhere to do her shopping while my father was at work, and she liked to treat herself to hot pretzels and roasted chestnuts bought from street vendors, good to heat but also good for warming her cold hands. My father had passed away when I was a child, so it made me both happy and sad to hear her memories of that special time when my parents were young and happy and just beginning what would be their all too brief life together.

I just spent the weekend in Philadelphia, and walking around I tried to imagine my mother arriving there this time of year, walking through the snow, feeling excited to be away from home and starting her new life with my father. A lot has changed in Philadelphia and I don’t know what part of the city they lived in, so I always picture her holding a bag of groceries, looking up at the magnificent City Hall Tower.

My Father’s Bookplate

Day 31: January 31, 2013

I’ve always loved my father’s bookplate, neatly pasted into his favorite books, signed with a fountain pen and black ink. Our house was always filled with books of all kinds including lots of paperbacks, but there was something special about the quality hardcovers on the living room shelves that had my father’s bookplate inside. I used to take them off the shelf and open them just for the thrill of seeing the bookplate. (I still do.) They looked so official, like they had my father’s seal of approval.

I have some of his books and I cherish them, and hope that they will eventually be passed down to father’s grandchildren and great grandchildren (and beyond.) But I thought I ought to photograph his bookplate just so that whatever happens to the books themselves, there will also be a digital image.

My Mother’s Casserole

My mother was a wonderful woman: intelligent, kind and loving. She loved her husband and three children dearly, and when she was widowed at the age of 34, she did her very best for us in difficult circumstances.

She had many fine qualities, but she would be the first to admit she wasn’t much of a cook. She didn’t feel bad about that — she thought of herself as a modern, Post-War woman, and embraced all labor-saving appliances and gadgets, and time-saving frozen and packaged foods. She always baked our birthday cakes using cake mixes. She baked cookies, but we were among the first to use the rolls of refrigerated cookie dough. She loved the modern convenience of frozen TV dinners, instant oatmeal, whipped cream in an aerosol can, crescent rolls from dough that popped out of the tube, and recipes that started with a can of soup.

Her favorite recipe was her special casserole. She originally got the recipe from a magazine feature with recipes from singer Kate Smith, best known for belting out “God Bless America.” We originally called it “Kate Smith’s Casserole” and then “Mummy’s Casserole” and eventually “Mummy Mummy Casserole,” a name from the period when my little brother created possessives by doubling names. Somehow that’s the name that stuck, although I find it embarrassing to use in conversation, even just with my family.

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0767905024/ref=nosim&tag=ethomsenThe casserole is a mix of pasta (we would have said “macaroni”) with diced onion, green pepper and ground beef browned in a skillet, canned stewed tomatoes, topped with slices of Velveeta. I didn’t make this dish for many years, since I am a vegetarian and a cheese snob, but earlier this year I decided to try it. I substituted a couple of broken-up Morningstar veggie burgers for the ground beef, but I decided that substituting a different (better) cheese for the Velveeta would interfere with the spirit of the original. So I used Velveeta, the highly processed cheese of my childhood, feeling embarrassed the first time I bought it. They say “you can’t go home again,” but making my mother’s casserole made me feel as if I had, and I don’t think it would have been the same without the Velveeta cheese!

It’s a cold winter night in Massachusetts, and it’s the 39th anniversary of my mother’s death at the age of 48. It felt like a good night to make myself some comfort food, and to me, there’s nothing quite as comforting as this.

Diamond Jubilee

The celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee reminds me of something my Scottish grandmother once shared with me. I asked her to tell me her earliest memory a historical event. She thought for a minute and said it was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. She was seven years old and saw a fancy display of decorated cakes for the Jubilee, complete with flags, ribbons and a big picture of the Queen, in a bakery shop window in Aberdeen. She said she had only been vaguely aware of the Queen before seeing this impressive display. I was only a child myself when we had this conversation, and I was surprised to realize that my own grandmother could remember Queen Victoria, who I thought of as a figure from ancient history. It still thrills me a bit to think I knew someone who knew Queen Victoria, even though she only knew her through a window display.

She also remembered another display in that same bakery window. It was dedicated to the Klondike Gold Rush, with little prospector figures and lots of fluffy cream and gleaming sugar representing snow. She described these scenes to me in great detail — I wonder if whoever did those window displays knew how lovingly his or her work would be appreciated and remembered! But this was a time before movie theaters and television, and poor families like my grandmother’s couldn’t afford to visit museums or to buy newspapers, magazines or books, so these shop windows must have truly been windows to the world for my grandmother.

Who Are These People?

This photograph has been around for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, it was in a big box of unsorted photographs my mother kept in a cabinet in the living room. I used to love going through those old photographs, spreading them out on the coffee table and looking at them individually. Many were people I knew — my mother as a child, my Scottish grandparents and great aunts and uncles. This one, and a few others of this girl, fascinated me because they were taken in Scotland and were family members that I had never met. I imagined going to Scotland and meeting this girl and pictured us running through hills of heather together, although I knew that of course she wouldn’t be a girl at all anymore, she’d be my mother’s age or even older. I remember asking my mother who they were and her answering rather vaguely that she thought this was [someone] and her daughter [someone].

But who? I don’t remember what she said, and there’s no one else left who might know. It looks like it was taken in the 1920s, which was when my grandparents emigrated. Was this taken on an outing before they left, or sent to them in a letter later? Was this the wife and daughter of one of my grandmother’s brother, William and James Ross, who remained in Scotland when their mother, stepfather and four sisters left for America? Or was my grandfather the photographer, and are these members of the Rennie side of the family? I’ve done a little work on Ancestry.com, trying to figure out possibilities, but I have no idea.

I love the photograph anyway, especially the smiles on their faces and the comfortable affection of the girl’s pose. Someday I hope I’ll solve this mystery. I’m hoping that someone else has another copy of this photograph, or other photographs of this woman and girl, and they’ll find this scanned image or I’ll find theirs and we’ll connect. Stranger things have happened. I truly believe that photographs have a way of finding their way home.

In the meantime, I post this as a reminder to everyone to identify everyone who is in a photograph. When photos are new, it’s so obvious who the people are that there’s no reason to record this information, but as the years pass, photographs (printed or digital) can get scattered, and the information can be lost.

Clara’s Final Episode

I’ve been following the Great Depression Cooking series on YouTube for years, not so much for the recipes as for the joy of watching the gracious great-grandmother Clara Cannucciari share her knowledge, wisdom and stories along with simple, inexpensive Italian-American family food from the 1930s. The series began in 2007 with an episode on Pasta and Peas when Clara was 91 years old. The show was lovingly produced and directed by Clara’s grandson, Christopher Cannucciari, and eventually led to a DVD and book.

The final episode of the series was just released. It opens with Clara looking straight at the audience and saying, Thank you, everybody, this is my last show. I’m pretty damn old!” Later she speaks a little more about aging: “Nothing great about getting old, it’s terrible, you can’t do what you want, it’s just…but…I always say God put me here for a reason. I don’t know what it is, but he probably does.”

She truly saved the best for last, and in this episode she shares her mother’s recipe for old-fashioned tomato sauce, made from fresh tomatoes, nothing canned. She ends with the words “This is the perfect ending to a perfect show. I love you all, goodbye,” but then we see her welcoming a young child, presumably a great grandchild, and feeding pasta and sauce to a new generation.

This show is shining example of family history. Christopher Cannucciari is capturing and sharing his grandmother’s cooking and her spirit in a way that will help her live on in the lives of her extended family (which thanks to YouTube includes thousands of us. It’s also a lesson in oral history. Many elderly people are not particularly comfortable sitting down and talking about their own lives if you just try to interview them, and they may be much more comfortable doing what Clara’s is doing here, which is sharing a skill in the spirit of helpfulness. Her memories are shared in the context of talking about her family and how her parents managed to keep the family fed during the Depression.

Thanks for the memories, Clara!

Memorial Marker Mix-up

Keniston Square: Beverly, MassachusettsI took this photograph of the Keniston Square marker on Cabot Street in Beverly, Massachusetts, last spring, and posted it on Flickr with this comment: “I wish these markers had more information about who is being honored: especially a full name and a birth and death date.” Memorial square signs like this are a pet peeve of mine — it’s not much of a memorial if it only gives the last name and no other information. If the person died in World War II, Korea, Vietnam or more recent conflicts, there may be people around who knew him and still miss him and know that memorial sign is there, but for those who died in earlier wars, the sign may be disconnected from anyone’s personal memory. Without details, descendants and other family members may never know that it’s there.

Healey SquareIt turns out that Beverly city officials share my concern, and are making an effort to upgrade the markers with ones that are more informative. According to an article in the Salem Evening News, “Mike Collins, commissioner of public services and engineering, wanted to research the history of each veteran and tell their stories, some of which were missing or incomplete.”

One of the markers simply said “Healey Square.” Collins and Veterans’ Agent Jerry Guilebbe checked a memorial listing Beverly veterans killed in action and found a Joseph E. Healey who died in the Civil War. They made the logical but erroneous assumption that this was the Healey for whom the square was named. On Veterans Day, the city held a rededication ceremony, showing off the upgraded marker which includes the full name and date of death of Joseph E. Healey, Navy Seaman, killed in action in 1862. Joseph Healey’s great-great-great-granddaughter, who had been unaware that she had an ancestor who died in the Civil War, came down from New Hampshire for the event.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong Healey. Healey Square was dedicated in 1976 in honor of Frederick D. Healey Jr. Square, who served in three wars and was commended for his bravery under fire during the Korean War. The original marker his initials on it, but it was replaced in the 1990s with one like the Keniston marker, with only the last name. A little more research would have saved the city from some expense and embarrassment here, but as librarians and family history researchers both know, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’ve found the answer and moving ahead without adequate verification.

The best part of this story is the gracious response of Lois Healey, the widow of Frederick D. Healey, Jr. According the Salem News story, she called Collins a “lovely, lovely man” and said “There are no hard feelings on my end…It’s just a mistake that happened.” The city plans to replace the Healey Square sign with a new one properly honoring Frederick D. Healey, Jr., and to dedicate a square near where he lived to Civil War seaman Joseph E. Healey.

Equally gracious is Heather Wilkinson Rojo, the descendant of Joseph E. Healey who attended the dedication. She’s a respected genealogist and blogger who has written about this event in a positive and educational way, as an example of how we sometimes need to revise our family stories has new information becomes available that proves our earlier assumptions wrong.

The moral of the story is to check multiple sources and avoid confusing assumptions with facts. Also, document everything, and whether you’re creating historical markers or working with family photographs, be sure to provide enough information for others to follow: full names, places, dates, etc.

And when confronted with a mistake of your own or someone else’s, try to be as positive and gracious as everyone involved here seems to have been!