The Tallest of Us All

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My Dad, decorating the table for Easter 2014. About a week later, he was hospitalized for a massive infection, a side effect of his chemotherapy, that almost killed him.

A short time ago, my nephew finally talked about my Father who died on February 13th this year. He had not mentioned him before that. As my Mother was putting him to bed he said, “Grandpa was the tallest of all of us in the family, right Nana? He had to bend to get under some doors.” He is right. My Dad was the tallest – in many ways. He always stooped or bent his head a bit to the side when he went through a doorway. It was something he did automatically. And living, in a 1750s tavern, reinforced that habit. But he was the tallest too as the heart of our family. He and my Mother together. I love that in his mind’s eye, my nephew sees him as a giant because he was. A giant in our life; a giant in the lives of everyone he touched. You can’t say that about everyone. He was a protector; a quest stable force that so many relied upon, that we relied upon. But he taught us well; I think he gave us a very good map to follow. His guidance is there.

Maria and Father, William Mitchell (Photo)

William and Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

The Mitchell family had the same in their father and mother as well. When Lydia Mitchell died in 1861, Maria and her father, William, were just about all that was left on island of the immediate Mitchell family. They could not take it; they could not remain here without her. It was too painful. And so, in a way, they fled their island home to a small city where they were close to family and friends, but where every turn did not remind them of what they had lost. When she lost her father, she was even more adrift. Maria cared for both of her parents but her father was also her mentor and in many respects a “co-worker.” She felt even more abandoned when she lost him.

Everyone reacts differently. I think that fleeing is just burying your head in a way, but I certainly understand it. I live in the house that my Father designed and that my parents built and it is painful. But I am removed from the Town in which my parents live and our family house and the reminders at every turn – though there are many here on island as well since my time here goes back to the age of one and a half – my Dad to 1964 and my Mom to the 1950s.


Beauty from the Sea

Pressed Seaweed 1830s

Be this then a lesson to thy soul – that thou reckon nothing worthless.
And herein as thou walkest by the sea shall weeds be a type and an earnest {?}
Of the stored and uncounted riches, lying hid in all creatures of God.

This book of pressed Nantucket seaweed is one of many found in the MMA’s various collections. This one, dating from 1830, has been on exhibit in Hinchman House for many years but this first page has not been seen in many, many years as the other pages have been on display. (The transcription of the poem is above) I have often collected, pressed and dried seaweed in the belief I was going to create some pieces of art with them. Alas, I never seem to manage the time! But this is an art form that is becoming more popular again. It requires some time and dexterity but who would have thought it would create such beauty? You never know what Mother Nature can help to create. Something you step on or toss at someone at the beach, can become a beautiful wreath surrounding a poem, or an important piece of sea-life scientific information for the future.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

April 21 {1858}. This morning was given to the Pitti Palace and its gallery. I had tho’t the Uffizi must be the finer when I visited it yesterday, but the Pitti is really elegant in its apartments and worthy to be a Ducal residence . . . .

On her European trip, Maria saw many of the sites that were “required” visits for a grand tour of Europe in the nineteenth century, akin to a college education. I often wonder what she would have thought about the works of famous artists she would have seen at the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace. I am also curious as to what ran through her mind when she compared the decadent living quarters of the ruling families of Europe to those of the Quaker built and Quaker-influenced homes of tiny Nantucket. It must have been overwhelming, especially in comparison to her Quaker upbringing and relatively simple life, but also even when comparing the age of these sites to the relatively “new” nation of the United States of America.


In Case You Wondered

MH Winter Interior

In case you wondered what the Mitchell House looks like in wintertime, this is it. The photograph is a little blurry and I apologize for that. It’s a massive undertaking to close and re-open the house every year. But with closing, this is the end result – cleaned, everything off and away from outside walls, everything covered in sheets and plastic. It is a depressing task to close the House each fall, but a happy occasion when I begin to open it mid- to late April. We have several programs in April and may before we officially open and then all of our sites, including the Mitchell House, will open on Monday, June 6 this year.

Would Maria Tweet?

It’s Women’s History Month.  Typically, I like to post a certain video about women’s suffrage set to a Lady Gaga song but sadly, they lost the right to use the song!  So, here is another re-blog that I enjoyed thinking about and writing.

Maria in her chair

Really, I am not sure if she would. Maria Mitchell was a fairly private person. While she did keep journals, she kept them close and after the Great Fire of 1846, when she saw all of the papers and other articles blowing about the streets of Town that were not burned up, she destroyed all of her personal letters and journals. That is why most of her papers that we have today are dated after the Great Fire – there is very, very little from before the fire.

Would she Tweet “Discovered a comet tonight!” or “Gold medal from King of Denmark here boy is it heavy!” or maybe a “That Asa Gray, he wrote ‘Sir” on my letter of invite to American Academy of Arts and Sciences and crossed it off – what a slap in the face!” – maybe that was too many characters for a Tweet? But then she could Tweet her students to remind them of late night observing or maybe blog about it. She embraced technology – albeit of the late nineteenth century – and she was constantly learning – even teaching herself Greek at the age of 70.

But if she blogged or Tweeted, I think it would be more about science and education and conversing with her students and other scientists than anything personal. Maybe a Tweet after one of her daily nature walks, “Just back from walk round campus – saw Henery {the groundhog that lived around the Observatory} and Indigo Bunting. Don’t forget observing @ midnight girls!”


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

{March 1858} I am working to get admitted to see the observatory, but it cannot be done without special permission from the pope, and I don’t like to be “presented.” If I can get permission without the humbug of putting on a black veil and receiving a blessing from Pius, I shall; but I shrink from the formality of presentation. I know thou’d say “Be presented.”

The above is from a letter written by Maria Mitchell to her father, William Mitchell. Never much for pomp – but also raised within the Quaker faith where one of the tenets was that everyone was on equal footing – I can see why Maria balked at having to go through such formalities for Pope Pius but also to gain entry to the Vatican’s observatory. I have written about the fact before that she was the first woman to gain entry and the fact that it took at least a fortnight. Can you believe that? Well, if you lived in that time and earlier, yes you could. But it seems so alien and foreign to us now – though we all know this continues to happen in our world today – for females and males.


More From the MMA Research Center

Feb2016 Demo ashbin

The coal bin is gone. A test hole is now drilled in the wall of the library basement. Mason Wayne Morris found that when they created the stucco Wing addition, they opened the foundation of the schoolhouse and poured it full of concrete. These are two separated buildings sandwiched together and the Wing was built to be fireproof. By filling the foundation voids with concrete that were likely trying to reinforce that fireproof status but boy, is it going to make for a long haul to cut a door through the two basements to join them. We need that cut so that the HVAC system for the basement can be one zone and not two and to allow staff to move through the collections easily – rather than having to go up one flight, over, and down another flight to get to the rest of the collections.

Ashbin Gone Lib Feb2016
And as you can see by the removal of the ashbin – I had shared photographs of it in an earlier post – they did a very neat job!

Test hole in schoolhouse basement

Curator And Five Men in a Basement (Cue Swooning)

Library Exterior 2016

All kidding aside, we did have a meeting of the minds recently in the MMA Library – soon to be the MMA Research Center – basement. My aim was to get everyone to meet – though they really all know one another (small island) – and talk about what they needed from one another and how we are going to orchestrate this dance of masonry, carpentry, plumbing, HVAC, and electrical work once it gets underway.

We have a great team. Wayne Morris of Wayne Morris-Mason, Inc., Matt Anderson of Matthew Anderson Carpentry, Bob Butler of Marden Plumbing – the MMA’s plumbers since we had running water, Kevin Wiggin the HVAC fabricator and installer, and Jon Vollans of Vollans Electric all the way from ʼSconset. Additionally, other locals such as Jim Tyler of James Tyler Painting will be working on the interior – he painted the exterior of the building that looks so fabulous – Pen Austin has worked her magic with the lime plaster repairs in the Wing, and Greg Maskell of Maskell Landscaping will clean up the mess that is left behind. We will also be working with Toscana for the drainage and new sewer connection (the old one is broken). Mickey Rowland of Rowland Architects and Jim Badera of Badera Engineering are assisting us with further designs and code issues. And Structures-North has worked with us from the beginning on the structural repair designs. Throw in the work of Emack Surveying and Blackwell Associates who helped design the drainage and the list grows even longer.

This is not a small undertaking. We are keeping our costs as low as possible – I, in fact, have tried to take on as much as I can from permitting and code and HDC applications and physically moving things – with the help of my now muscle-bound colleagues – in order to save the MMA as much money as possible on this project. MMA does what it does – does ALL that it does – in as thrifty a manner as possible. Very Maria Mitchell, I might add. She would be proud.

We are still raising funds for this project – every penny counts. I myself am buying the eyewash for the sink which we should have just in case. While we don’t work with major chemicals, it’s a good thing to have around even if it’s for exploding glue containers or paint! So, if you are interested in making a donation, please contact us.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

1881, Feb. 26.
Miss Whitney reads Frances Power Cobbe’s “Lectures to Women” aloud to me. In the main they are excellent. I agree almost at every point. What she says about the duty of women in veracity, in cultivating both physical and moral courage, etc., in demanding not “favor but justice” . . .
The advice to women to be cheerful and to try to promote cheer around them is excellent. I wish I had thought about that earlier in my life and practiced upon it.

Maria Mitchell had been quite ill for several months prior to this entry, made worse probably by the medicine she was given for her treatment – something she noted. For some time afterwards she had a ringing in her ears. Mary Whitney, her former student and then assistant, would take Maria Mitchell’s place at Vassar and would also serve as the first president of the MMA.

I find the comment about cheer interesting as well. I look at it in light of the fight for women in education – Maria’s main focus – and also women’s rights. How fighting for justice – “demanding” it – and doing it in a cheerful and not angry way might win more. I think of the old adage that one gets more flies with vinegar than honey.

(Note: later in life Maria began to drop the Quaker way of referring to the date, unless she was writing a Quaker elder or Quaker closely familiar to her.)