A Six Word Story

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Lady Cat, AKA Lucky Edie, in her floofy prime

Six word stories. They’re foundation exercises in many writing classes, especially flash fiction classes. The most famous is probably Hemingway’s: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” So much packed into those six words, eight syllables. You can imagine a family, a room, clothes, a place of worship, a coffin, emotions. (Or a family, a room, an angry child, bare feet, and a pair of rejected multi-coloured sneakers if you’re me, who had a child who channeled his great-grandmother and thus was incredibly picky about his shoes at 16 months and refused to wear anything except solid red Keds.)

But I digress.

I have a six word story for you: My cat is dying of cancer.

Lady Cat on Sunday

Lady Cat, Lady Bird, Flirty Birdie, Lady Fat, Lucky Lady, Lucky Eatie: She has had many names since we scooped her up from the back yard of our Smith Street 3-decker in 2005 and brought her on up to the East Side (it is possible to literally re-enact The Jeffersons’ theme song in Providence). She was born under a sheet of plywood against a garage behind our house, one of three fluffy kittens born to a short-haired calico mother. She and her litter mates were like a dessert tray: one fluffy and biscuit coloured, warm, light brown; one, vanilla-cream coloured, soft ecru; and Lady, rocky road ice cream, pastry, caramel, cream, and chocolate, with a stripe down her nose like a monkey.

Lady and Socks: prelude to peace

She wasn’t easy to catch, but I managed, on the very last day we would ever be in that apartment, caught her and wrangled her into a cat crate where she spun around like the Tasmanian Devil in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. Eventually she settled down to watching me and the movers hustle the last pieces out of basement on onto a truck, and made the trip over the river and up the hill to a new, larger house.

As my son struggled with spelling homework, Lucky Lady and her arch-nemesis Whiskers (the cat who lived in the house behind us) became the stuff of legend– Whiskers more than Lady, but every week, as Whiskers stole doughnuts from dinosaurs, was stopped by the police, or generally misbehaved, Lucky Lady would often save the day, once by socking Whiskers with her powerful paw. Whiskers and Lucky saved us from second grade.

Dignity. Like Gene Kelly– and just as acrobatic.

Found feral, she was never fully tame, though she made decisions about not venturing outside in the snow again (after a night out in the cold) and she learned not to jump against the screens trying to get at Whiskers (she fell out of the first floor window once). We brushed her, and she adapted after the first few times, when she hissed and bit at the brush. She loved catnip, and eating feathers (I learned to keep my millinery supplies in a cupboard), and chewing wool (I learned to keep my wool in a cupboard). She learned, and we learned, and she is ours and we are hers.

One year, she got lasers for Christmas.

Now that she is terminally ill, we do what we can for her. She eats Trader Joe’s tuna for cats because she can keep it down; she drinks CatSure (she prefers premixed to powder mixed); we give her catnip. Sunday night she did not know what to do with the catnip, and ultimately fell asleep in the catnip without enjoying it.

Socks, checking on the Time Machine

Her adopted sister Socks (the one-eyed, wobbly, film noir-loving, Nazi-hating tabby cat known as the Howling Assistant) died last summer. Lucky Lady will die soon, too, though we will keep her as comfortable as we can as long as we can. It’s hard to say how long it will be, and I feel wrenched and torn as I contemplate what Lady must endure and how much I will miss her, the last living connection to Providence I have with me in Alexandria. She’s more than a symbol, of course; she’s an independent being. But when Lady dies, a little part of me will go, too, and the past, and New England, will seem even farther away.

Living Deliberately

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WCD: The Original

A friend of mine recently wrote about replicating the domestic life of the past (specifically the 18th century) and how much meaning that had for her.

Being so deeply embedded in the rhythms of life there, it became my home in a very real sense that has never left me.

I read that quickly, and what I read was that the place she had spent so much time was home to her because the place never left her– she carried its rhythms and seasons within her. Perhaps that isn’t quite what she meant, but that’s the risk of writing: the reader reads what they need to.

It made me think of home, and of living deliberately, and of a very bad year I had a long time ago, before I even imagined doing living history, when I thought I would spend my life making new things, like cities and buildings. (This makes me think of an album I listened to at the time, More Songs About Buildings and Food, which seemed all the more important because I’d gone to RISD, too.

Food, in a Building, in Rhode Island

The year I turned 25 was particularly bad not because a man broke my heart, though that didn’t help, and not because I had a miscarriage, though that was the catalyst that led to the man breaking my heart, but because the miscarriage shattered my sense of purpose and self. Somehow, everything that I had ever wanted to be — a sculptor, an architect, a writer– was gone, and I didn’t know what to do or how to be. (Read The Year of Magical Thinking if you want a well-written take on this kind of loss.) I didn’t know what to do next, but the man who eventually broke my heart gave me a book to help me figure it out: Chop Wood, Carry Water

Chopping wood.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece called Zen and the Art of Living History, in which I extolled the virtue of the everyday: Embrace the everyday, bring everyone back into history. Since then, I’ve thought more about how history and historic house museums can be a catalyst for change, how domestic sites can create “homes for history,” where we can have the difficult conversations that must be had to make the change I think we need as a nation, and as humans. These changes are happening, slowly, in museums and at historic sites, but even at the personal level, there’s meaning and change to be had through the business of “doing history.”

I suspect that among the reasons people really enjoy immersive, civilian (non-musket) events is because the work brings them into the rhythms of the natural world in a way that industrial life precludes or even prohibits. Consciously or not, interpreting the domestic life of the past forces us into mindfulness, into being as much as or more than doing. That’s the point of “chop wood, carry water:” to live deliberately. To cook without a clock, with only the color of the coals and the smell of the food to guide you; to notice the changing light because, as it fades, you must act to create light; to find the flaws and shifts in a floor as you scrub it, because there’s no machine between you, just your hands and a brush or a mop: all these tasks force you to be in the moment, noticing your environment, noticing yourself. You. A corporeal presence in a material world. How does that feel, moment to moment? Physically, emotionally: the challenge of living in the past is to live an unmediated life.

To go back to basics the way we do with civilian or domestic-site based living history brings us back to our base: we face our physical needs and the challenge of meeting them. We face emotional tests that help us imagine how people in the past endured– I often wonder how everyday people coped with “melancholia,” grief, and disappointment– and help us endure. It brings us home to ourselves, to our individual histories and our shared histories, and that’s what really matters. The connection to the everyday that we experience in a place in time puts us in a continuum with the people of the past, and gives us a place to be, a thing to do, a meaning. And that is what every one of us needs.

Petty is as Petty Does

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It was a simple set up: two barrels, a board, my frail, and me. (I could really use a wheelbarrow, and a rain deck. At least the rain deck is something I can make myself.) But this was more than adequate to sell luxury goods (rum, whiskey, radishes, and ginger candy) to the soldiers at Fort Dobbs.

I didn’t think it was hot– which may be thanks to that nifty new checked linen shade bonnet– but it was. Have I forgotten how to take care of myself outdoors in warm weather? Perhaps because I’ve spent so much more time lately on winter events, I’ve let the “drink all the water” mantra slide. It’s clearly time to revive the summer skills, with Monmouth not all that far away.

Mending: Check

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My poor old apron. It’s almost– but not quite– the firstarticle of historical clothing I made. (The first was a shift. Infrastructure and fundamentals, people.) It acquired some new wear (actual holes!) in New Jersey, and required mending.

First, it needed to be washed. I hadn’t taken a objective look at my apron in a while, but after we got home from Salem, I knew I had to mend it, which meant washing.

Reader, it smelled.

You get used to smells, and even enjoy them: wet wool, gunpowder, wood smoke. And then there’s tallow. I’ve never gotten used to the smell of tallow, and I don’t remember when this apron encountered hard fat, but the odor is unmistakable.

So is the water.

This past weekend, I had a chance to mend this favorite apron while I peddled luxury goods at Fort Dobbs’ War for Empire event.

Although I have a sturdy plain linen apron, I’m fond of checks, and of the hand this apron has achieved after much wearing and some washing.

It will never be really clean again, but for now, the apron is mended and back in rotation.

Black and White World

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Isn’t she grand? She’s on offer elsewhere; I came across her while narrwing down a date for a very different portrait.

She reminds me of a Tamara de Lempicka, if Tamara and Ammi Phillips had set up easels next to each other. From her forthright, slightly sulky gaze to the exuberant folds of her gown bodice to the hints of style in the details, we can learn a lot from this painting. There’s a kind of provincial Hepplewhite sideboard behind her, set with a colorful garniture; the copper hot water or tea urn places us in a parlor. The painting frame has a shell in the center of the bottom rail, the chair a turned knob on the back upright– we are on the edge of fancy, the moment when neoclassicism really gives way to exuberance (think canary yellow rose-painted china, big puffy sleeves on printed gowns, and fancy-painted chairs).

Below, an earlier entry in the black and white world. This lady was sold at auction recently. She’s earlier than our near-Tamara above, plainer in dress, sulkier. She is certainly more academic, and somewhat better painted, in addition to being set in a vaguely classic scene, in a very neoclassical chair, draped with a fine shawl.The artists is definitely showing off some skill in the “painting transparency” department.

The lady in black is firmly set in the neoclassical period. Restraint and moderation are watchwords– despite what you may think of that hair, which is recalling Greco-Roman precedents–much the way certain factions in the Revolutionary period were driven by piety and discipline. Politics and national ethos or mood are embedded visual culture then as now, and even in these portraits, simple as they seem.

Sandby in Salem (New Jersey)

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The Kitchen at Sandpit Gate (detail). Watercolor on paper by Paul Sandby 1754. Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 914331

The best times are always those when we are the least self-conscious– not that we can necessarily choose those times. Often they simply happen to us, but if we are lucky enough, we will notice, or someone else will record those moments for us. Last weekend, without even meaning to, we came as close as I may ever hope to get to recreating Sandby images of the Sandpit Gate kitchen.

Mistress F commanded the kitchen: I served as her reasonably able scullion, and, with assistance from Drunk Tailor and the company of the B’s, we managed to produce enough food for several dozen people.

 

(I baked the pound cake at home, but the egg and onion pies were made on site. I lack historically correct baking apparatus aside from one pie plate.) Cooking in the cabin at Hancock House reminded me of good times long ago— and not so long ago–and how much I enjoyed throwing refuse out a window, and using a soapstone sink. The weekend also brought to mind “show, don’t tell” as it applies to interpretation, and made me think again about how to create more immersive educational experiences for visitors, without becoming ritualistic.

There’s not much time to think those esoteric, grad-school-seminar thoughts when you’re in the midst of cooking, and that can actually be a relief. Instead, better to think of the light, and the landscape, and the time remaining until a pie is cooked through.


The landscape and the light: redemptive, all that space, the blue sky and the grasses. I thought of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which I haven’t read in decades, for in some ways, the coast of New Jersey resembles the coast of Connecticut. It’s one of the first historical novels I remember reading– it is probably one reason I have ended up doing the work I do, and spending as much time as I did in New England. (You can read it here.) It’s not brilliant literature, and it was nearly two decades old when I read it, but it was certainly memorable.

Photos courtesy of HM 17th Regiment, Al Pochek, and Cape May Wren Photography.

Didion, Despair, and Not Looking Back

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Not everyone develops a relationship with a place that feels romantic, a relationship so intense, even when tortured, that when you leave, at last, as leave you must, you are torn apart by knowing the place abused you– and knowing you must go. Still: you love the place and cannot quite bear to not be there. It’s a complicated thing, and as with most tempestuous relationships, this tug of a place on one’s heart must be analyzed, objectified, studied, and understood. I thought I was making progress that way until I was given a chance to look back– don’t ever look back– and even though I did not look the basilisk full in the face, I was nauseated: waves of sadness and anger broke over me at reading a head line and image caption.

I stepped back to consider just what it was about the place and the situation that affected me so. Reading almost always helps. This time, I pursued literary criticism as a means to understanding. Van Wyck Brooks absent from the shelf at my local public library, I took hold of Joan Didion, and found myself rewarded.

The Seacoast of Despair” described my place perfectly.

‘Happiness’ is, after all, a consumption ethic, and Newport if the monument of a society in which production was seen as the moral point, the reward if not exactly the end, of the economic process. The place is devoid of the pleasure principle.

Devoid of the pleasure principle? In Freudian psychology, the pleasure principle is the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain in order to satisfy biological and psychological needs. Specifically, the pleasure principle is the driving force guiding the id. Didion states, “To have had the money to build “The Breakers” or “Marble House” or “Ochre Court” and to choose to build at Newport is in itself a denial of possibilities; the island is physically ugly, mean without the saving grace of extreme severity, a landscape less to be enjoyed than dominated.”

Indeed. Mean with the extreme severity, a landscape to be dominated. Those phrases define the principles that shaped my relationships with a few denizens of Newport, who, in truth worked and did not live there, but who seemed fully to embody, embrace, and imbue their personages with non-pleasure principled forces drove them to dominate others, and to consume, for their own use, much of what they encountered. Didion described my experiences and observations of Newport in language better than I could ever hope to conjure.

Three years ago this week, I came to a realization, first on a drive to Newport, and then on a train to Boston. I saved the tweets from that train trip.

I went to Boston that Saturday–it snowed; the train was an early one–to make a presentation at History Camp on work that related to Rhode Island and to Newport history. Earlier in the week, I’d had a vision in Newport that unsettled and delighted me, and informed those tweets.

“There was a for sale sign on one property (Sotheby’s Realty, of course), and for an instant, I imagined walking into the house and owning it, starting a life completely different from the one I live, with different people and places.”

Between that vision on Bellevue and Saturday’s train trip, I had enough exchanges with the object of my desire to form a fuller notion of what that vision meant. That understanding led to the tweets, which I posted as #fiction to protect the vision, and the desire, from the reality of my seemingly-unalterable situation.

The miracle here is that I had a vision, and have very nearly carried it out, despite not fully understanding how much of my standing life I would have to burn down to achieve that kind of freedom. It had not occurred to me that moving and changing  to achieve what I wanted–to no longer have a secret, to grasp those lapels nearly every night when I arrive home from work, and taste that accent on every kiss– it had not occurred to me how much I would have to destroy, or leave behind, and that in doing so, I would leave bones of my former soul to be picked over by opportunists ready to exploit an opening.

The consumption ethic: they have grabbed what they could not get while I was still there, and they run their paws over the work without fully understanding it. And that is where I can take my sole pleasure: the schadenfreude of watching them strive and fail, or perhaps the pleasure of watching them reach and grasp. Either way, I know I cannot look back. Something might be gaining on you, and it’s best to outrun those monsters.

Didion, Joan. “The Seacoast of Despair,” p. 157-158.  Reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, New York: Everyman’s Library, 2006.

Making an Impression

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Trade card for Dorothy Mercier, Printseller and Stationer; Etching with engraved lettering below. Print by Jean Baptiste Chatelain after Gravelot. 1745-1770. British Museum, D,2.3396

Dorothy Mercier: widow of an artist (and a painter herself), Mercier went into business after the death of her husband, Philip, first as a printseller and stationer, and later as a purveyor of artists’ supplies. Some of what she sold is listed below the vignette of a shop, and includes ‘all Sorts of Papers for Drawing, &c./ The best Black Lead Pencils, Black, Red & White Chalk./ Variety of Water-Colours, and Camels Hair Pencils./…English, Dutch, & French Drawing Paper, Abortive Vellum for Drawing,/ Writing Vellum, the Silk Paper for Drawing.’ She also sold “Continental prints” and “paintings of flowers in her own hand,” a pursuit considered suitable for ladies in the mid-18th century.

Evidence of widows taking over a husband’s print shop in the American colonies in the 18th century is harder to come by–there seems to be less specialization of retail sales in the colonies, certainly compared to London, which is one factor–though printers’ widows did assume their trade in Newport and Williamsburg, among other places. If we imagine a print shop in the colonies, what would we find for sale?

Nicholas Brooks’ ad from the Pennsylvania Packet of June 21, 1773 provides an answer:

Mrs. Yates in the character of Electra; Venus blinding Cupid by Strange (that’s a print by Robert Strange after Titian, no matter what glorious oddity you may imagine), and portraits of George Whitefield, John Wesley, and other religious luminaries. Whitefield and Wesley were popular Methodist ministers: Whitefield, the peripatetic evangelist, was the primary force behind the Great Awakening, and Wesley, despite his loyalty to King and Church, was an inspiration to the Revolutionary movement in America.

John Wesley after Nathaniel Hone
mezzotint, published 1770
© National Portrait Gallery, London NPG D4740

This print of Wesley is one I have seen in person, in a period frame, with a period backboard inscribed “Capt. Wm Noyes 1st Conts” and to be fair, it is one I have spent some time researching, so the titles in that Nicholas Brooks ad– which I was reading for another purpose altogether– were exciting to find. When I think about visual or print culture in the Revolutionary era, I try to imagine the ways in which people encountered imagery, and how they understood it. Wesley– and print shops– are one way I begin to fill in a picture of the past.