November 23rd, 2015 · Comments Off on Remembering Leda Carpenter (1877–1954)
We spent every childhood summer with my “aunts,” who were in fact no relation to any of us. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet were the surviving two of three unmarried career women who had adopted my mother when she was just 18 months old. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet spent most of each year in New York City (36 Gramercy Park,) but they returned every summer to the house where Aunt Martha (and later my mother) grew up.
Leda Carpenter (we children called her “Matante” with no clue that was not her name but Canadian-French for “my aunt”) was another summer constant for Devine children. Matante spent her days in the kitchen, although she too had her own bedroom upstairs, in the back of the house. Matante did all the cooking, day after day after day — fresh doughnuts for breakfast and sturdy thick soups at lunch time. Dinners were of course what everyone ate for dinner in my childhood memory… a big slab of meat with potatoes (baked, mashed, or roasted) plus a small pile of some kind of vegetable engulfed by yellow pools of melting butter.
Aunt Harriet and Aunt Martha were sweet ladies of leisure, always ready to read a story or play chess or Mah Jongg with children (children ALWAYS would win.) Matante was not sweet, she was tart. Although happy to see us when we visited her kitchen, she kept the most interesting things there off-limits to children’s fingers. I remember she had a big jar full of chocolate chips that I really wanted to get my hands on. Naively, I asked her how she would know if somebody just happened to eat some when she was not looking.
She fixed me with her fierce bright eyes and said, “I count them, every morning, and every night!” This was all the persuasion I needed to leave them alone!
Leda was in fact my mother’s real aunt. Leda was the reason the leisurely wealthy ladies adopted my mother, brought her up in comfort, and sent her to Smith College when she was old enough. But Leda came from a much darker childhood than my mother knew. On Leda’s 12th birthday, her school attendance ended, because a child 12 years old could get a job in the textile mill, 12 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Of Leda’s earning, her mother let her keep two nickels a week, one for the collection plate at Sunday Mass, and the other to save up for buying presents at Christmas. Daily lunch was one slice of bread, and if Leda was very, very lucky, there might even be a piece of salt pork spread over her bread.
I was reminded of Leda today, when I went looking through all my old recipe collections for a scalloped oyster dish that my mother especially liked. Please don’t be too shocked by the recipe that follows! It is not exactly health food, but it is delicious.
Leda Carpenter’s scalloped oyster casserole
Preheat oven to 350, grease casserole dish
1/2 pint of shucked oysters
1/2 cup of milk or cream
1 cup coarse cracker crumbs (saltines or oyster crackers)
1/4 c butter
1/8 tsp salt
Drain oysters into milk. Melt butter and mix with crumbs.
Put a thin layer of crumbs into casserole dish. Add layers of oysters, crumbs, oysters, and crumbs, so top layer is buttered crumbs.
Pour salted milk mixture over everything. Bake 35 minutes.
Scalloped oysters were a popular 19th century dish (Abraham Lincoln loved them.) Apparently they are also a popular holiday food in the southern US. But this particular recipe makes a very small casserole. I remember that my mother would sometimes make this as a treat when I visited her. A party recipe would need to be quite a few times as large. I am guessing that my mother’s memory of this recipe was also of a small special treat that Matante would make just for the two of them, in the long winter months when the elegant aunts were all away in New York City. But I really don’t know.
Memories remind us how many people we knew that now we would like, when it is much too late, to have known a lot better. Memories remind us, “Pay attention today. All our yesterdays vanish so much too fast.”
November 9th, 2015 · Comments Off on The Winged Victory of Samothrace
Who knew, who imagined that there would be new news about the winged victory of Samothrace—but there is, from the Louvre:
Samothrace via the Louvre:
This monumental statue of the winged goddess of victory (also known as the Nike of Samothrace), standing in the prow of a ship set on a low plinth, was offered to the great gods of Samothrace following a naval victory…The fourth conservation treatment, which has just been completed, has revealed the splendid colors of the marble and provided new insight into the way the statue was conceived and presented.
So, even a beautiful sculpture from BCE can still make news.
Both these songs remind me of my brother Mark Devine (who died in 1998) — Mark never quite found a place on Earth that welcomed his big heart and maybe-too-bouncy spirit. Very, very early his imagination took off for some outer-space world of his own — only my mother’s hard work kept him still earth-connected as long as he stayed among us. It was not very long.
Mark, I have not forgotten you. So much that is best in me is what was best in you. So much that is worst in me is exactly what made you so angry with yourself so much too often.
Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you. Mine certainly is.
What a Wonderful World, sung by Eva Cassidy
When I listen to Eva Cassidy, already diagnosed with the metastatic cancer that would be killing her, singing at her final concert “What a Wonderful World,” my tears are not so much, or at least not only for young Eva Cassidy, but for all of us, so ready to love and create and be generous (if our early lives don’t take those hopes out of our hearts) but instead shunted off into harder and lesser and more painful lives than our childhoods imagined. And even then, our hearts keep hoping and dreaming of love and fulfillment. They keep looking for chances to give joy to people we love.
I have to say, if I were god, it would never in ten million years occur to me to create any hell to punish my people. Instead, my heart would be breaking daily to witness their courage, their generosity, their imagination. Instead of plotting dark hells for the people who did not worship me in exactly the right way, I would be knocking myself out to figure out how my god-powers could be used to stop suffering and to make people more kind and more joyful. But of course, this is me, Betsy, oldest of four children, who can advise even gods! (I still think I’m right though.)
We now have three fish again eating up mosquito larvae that try to start new lives in our backyard pond. In this photo you can see two of the three — the two you can see are named Silver and Trigger, for two cowboy horses of our TV childhood.
There was a time when our fish were fancier. A few small koi lived in the pond when we bought his house, years ago. But despite a deep under-rock hole where they can supposedly live all winter long, our koi died in the winter. Koi are delicate blossoms, say the knowledgeable young folk of Uncle Ned’s Fish Factory in Millis, MA (it’s well worth a visit to those true a-fish-ionados.)
So now, we avoid springtime sadness with comets and shubunkin, sturdy small fishlings who survive and even make babies out there in the pond.
Another thing (my) longevity taught me: how to name pond fish. There is a counter-story behind that knowledge. One earlier fishless springtime, I named three small new fish for the three kids’ roles in a play I once wrote — Beauty, Truth, and Justice. But not long thereafter, I had the sad job of telling the family, “I’m sorry to say that for some reason Beauty died…”
It was a sad moment.
So now I name animals after other animals, a practice I recommend to you. And who knows what new wisdom I may discover in my next sixty-plus years?
Fourteen people are coming to lunch today. The entire half-salmon has already finished grilling, now it’s the turn of a marinated flank steak to join our really, truly enormous sausage.
Plenty of good things for the vegetarians too.
But I love the primordial look of this family grill. Half a big metal drum rests on NH lake rocks. Rocks and bricks inside it hold up the actual charcoal. The grid is two overlapped shelves from some long-ago stove. The chefs are people who, as children, were themselves fed food from this very grill.
This mountain laurel bush blooms every year in early July. Mickey planted it in memory of her cat Folly, who arrived in our family one similar but long-past summer.
Folly was an orphaned kitten, very small, a tigery-tabbyish caramel and white boy kitty whose malnourished hipbones felt very, very fragile through his baby fur. He loved food, he loved to play, and he loved people. He was the most dog-like cat I’ve ever known.
Something, we later found out, was wrong with his heart. The vet said it would be dangerous to give him the tiny dose of antihistamine other cats often receive as long-trip tranquilizers. Folly, she told us, would have to get valium. She wrote us a prescription with kitty-sized doses, and the pill bottle lived on a shelf of our medicine chest. “Valium … Folly” it said on the bottle of pills.
One morning, ten years ago maybe, I telephoned Mickey in Somerville from a NH Burger King parking lot (we have no phone up here and this was before we had cellphones). “How’s it going?” I rather inanely began.
“Not very well,” said Mickey, very softly. “Folly just died.” She woke up and he had just … died. He was still a young kitty but now he would never wake up. Oh, how sad we all were, to lose Folly. Beautiful dancing Folly, who loved to chase Mickey upstairs and down, Folly who loved to be patted and held, Folly who had even learned to turn a doorknob.
Now his body is here, and it will always be here, under the mountain laurel. And every July, it will bloom again, just to remind us.
I think I can speak for moms everywhere when I say:
“I speak for moms everywhere.”
Because, don’t we all? And anyway, who’s going to stop us?
We are the wearers of aprons, creators of plenty.
We confront nature’s Second Law of Thermodynamics every single day. On a good day, we send it upstairs to tidy its room. On a better day, it comes back downstairs smiling because it actually found that old photograph album it had not seen in a very long time.
I am in the throes, as you may be, of getting ready for the year’s toughest holiday, held in the darkest and coldest part of each year, girded with great expectations of loving and giving, haunted by fears of failure and isolation. Maybe that’s why I take courage from this summertime picture of a moment I stopped, halfway there, feeling tired but confident.
I am a mom, and I’ll be home for Christmas, in a hotel room somewhere on Long Island. Because wherever I am with my family is home.
“Never be discouraged from being an activist because people tell you that you’ll not succeed. You have already succeeded if you’re out there representing truth or justice or compassion or fairness or love. You already have your victory because you have changed the world; you have changed the status quo by you; you have changed the chemistry of things and changes will spread from you, will be easier to happen again in others because of you, because, believe it or not, you are the center of the world.”
– Granny D, 14 May 1999
She walked across the USA at the age of 90 to promote campaign finance reform. At 94, she ran for the US Senate and gave Judd Gregg one heckuva run for his money — an indie film “Run Granny Run” resulted and can be watched on the interwebs.
“Don’t walk away because you are confused or because it is difficult. We have entered an amazing time, when each of us has an important role to play. That time is now. It is the best time ever to be alive on this earth, because everyone matters. Everyone is needed if we are to survive. Your creativity, your love, your courage–all of it. As the smoke of battle swirls around you, smile. It is a privilege to be alive in such a time.”
– Doris “Granny D” Haddock, 19 April 2002
Over the years I’ve seen ideas that show up over and over in various different forms, and when we discover one, we give it a name. Examples. Jay Rosen came up with Atomization. Doc Searls said Markets Are Conversations. David Weinberger has so many — including Small Pieces Loosely Joined and Transparency is the New Objectivity. Clay Shirky says Here Comes Everybody. Jay and I together came up with Rebooting The News. Some of mine are Sources Go Direct, River of News, We Make Shitty Software, Checkbox News, People Come Back to Places that Send Them Away, Ask Not What the Internet Can Do For You, The Platform with No Platform Vendor, It’s Even Worse Than It Appears.
I agree with Dave’s “Narrate your work,” and would just add to that — make time also to narrate your life, at least for yourself and maybe for a very few others.
Were these faintly-seen swimmers heading back up to the porch? Or down into the lake? What matters more is that I managed to photograph one lucid moment of pure summer pleasure. That memory will now be mine for the rest of my life.