Honoring Our Veterans

Work begins.

On May 16, 2017 from 6-8PM, I had the honor of working with Nantucket Girl Scout Troops 80978 and 81174. For over a decade, I have been working to clean the stones of not just the Mitchells, but other Nantucketers buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery with the Prospect Hill Cemetery historian, Paula Levy. She and I first crossed paths when I offered a stone cleaning workshop via the Mitchell House and she was one of the attendees. Since then, we have cleaned roughly twenty or so stones and worked on a restoration project to restore the fences at two family plots, one of them being the Mitchell family plot.

Work continues.

Our work together brought about a discussion of Memorial Day services. The Sons of the American Legion and the island Scouts all come together to put flags and red geraniums at the graves of island veterans. The Memorial Day Parade ends with a service at the Soldiers’ Lot burial site. We thought it would be nice for the Scouts to play a larger role in attending to the veterans and also to provide them with some background on them and a sense of ownership. So, I reached out to some scout leaders and the Girl Scout troops noted above joined in. The Legion provided the funds for the supplies and Paula came and spoke to them briefly about the Soldiers’ Lot and the men buried there. And then, I gave them another brief overview of how to clean – this time hands-on rather than explaining it at a meeting. Then, we got to work – Scouts, Scout leaders, mothers. We managed to clean the stones of all the men interred there – Civil War veterans, WWI veterans, VietNam veterans and more. About eighteen monuments were cleaned of their lichen and mosses and protected from further damage. The stones will lighten some – the point is not to make them pristine or bright white. And the lichen has been removed thus stopping further damage from it. You will note a few that are whiter than others – several are newer stones and others may have been cleaned in the past by others though it looks like they were done with harsh chemicals unfortunately. Remember, never clean stones without permission from the cemetery sexton. DO not clean stones of people other than your family. And most importantly, make sure you have been trained first and have the right tools, specifically a cleaner that is appropriate for the work (bleach is a BIG no-no).

Thank you to the Scout and the Legion, as well as troop leaders and parents!


Work completed.

A Swatch of Fabric

1830s Chinese silk to be exact. It literally floated into my lap as I sat reading a letter.

A letter from a young Nantucket girl to her grandparents. A young girl who just several years before had moved from tiny Nantucket Island to San Francisco with her mother to join her father. He had moved for better work and a better life. Nantucket was in an economic decline.

Reading this treasure trove of letters – loaned to me by a friend who is a descendant of these people I mention – was like spying on them. Now, when I read Mitchell family letters and writing it is slightly different for me. Having worked in the Mitchell House for so long, I feel like they are a part of my family. This batch of letters was different however. I felt like they know I read their letters – as if they were looking over my shoulder or sitting on the other side of the room aghast. I felt like they thought no one ever would – or at the very least an outsider – read this correspondence.

The worse letter one was the son writing to his mother upon receipt of her letter telling him of his father’s death. That was hard. Made harder because he thought his father was fine – he was as of the last letter a month or two before. Made harder as I lost my own Father a little over a year ago. I knew how he felt – but cannot imagine receiving a letter that is about a month old telling one of such horrible news. He had not seen his father in several years. I could speak to my Father, visited him monthly, and was there with him. That was not an easy letter to read.

The silk fabric piece is quite beautiful – and still pristine – as if it was just folded into the letter yesterday. She wanted to share with her grandparents the dress that her cousin had brought to her directly from Hong Kong. A cousin, who was likely pregnant – or “sick” as was written but it was obvious what “sick” meant (yes, pregnancy was looked at as an illness in a way – and there were high rates of infant and mother mortality during and immediately following birth). The cousin had travelled back and forth to Hong Kong on the China Trade with her husband it seems but due to the pregnancy had to be put off with family or others until the baby was born. This was a common practice for the wives of whale captains who might go to sea with their husbands. They were put off with other whaling families or missionaries in far off ports so that they could have their baby where others could help. Sometimes they were put off months in advance. And, did you know that Nantucket whale wives were the FIRST to go to sea with their captains husbands? They set the trend – after all, we were the whaling capital of the world. At least, until we lost that title for multiple reasons.

I digress.

The other piece that leads one to realize that money was to be had – at least for the cousin – is that she didn’t bring fabric – she brought the dress already made in Hong Kong. Yes, it would have been less costly there than in the United States but it shows there was extra money for spending. And, there was enough excess fabric inside the dress for this young girl to cut off a piece of it and send it to her grandparents. Making them feel as if they were a part of her daily life – and making her feel that way too. So far from home. On the other side of the continent with Nantucket Sound in the midst, to boot.



I happened upon this lovely nest at the end of April. As I was walking to my car at the end of the workday, I noticed something in the hedge that had not been there before and realized it was a new bird nest! I believe it is that of a robin given its shape and construction and size. What I love is that when I took an interior photograph – I could not see it without taking an image – it revealed a lovely little soft bed of rose leaves. Nice, soft, and snuggly for baby birds – and eggs!

What I fear is that it is very exposed and very low to the ground so we will have to see how she – and they fair – if she indeed uses it and has not already abandoned the idea. Again, it is right on the street. I am concerned about cars, trucks, and people disturbing them but also how exposed it is to predators. We had a robin who decided to nest in the roses on our garage a few years in a row. We felt so bad when we had to open the garage door – it always scared her away. And then, a few other times, a robin – perhaps the same – tried to have multiple broods on the side of our garage only to have her babies ravaged by a hawk several times. Very upsetting.

I will keep you posted on what transpires at the new nest.


Spring Has Sprung

Or at least the tulips and daffodils have! I planted these in the fall and while tulips do not seem to have been in William Mitchell’s list of garden plants – I think he may have had them. The list, which I have mentioned before, was written in summer by John Quincy Adams – the season after that of daffodils and tulips. I am particularly fond of the ones I planted this fall – “Beauty of Spring.” While not a historic variety, tulips are an incredibly old bulb. Are you familiar with the Dutch craze for tulips in the 1600s? At its high point, some tulip bulbs sold for more than some people earned in a year! There are numerous books written about the history of the tulip, including some fictional accounts for children, and it’s an incredible tale. Tulips were supposedly first cultivated in the Ottoman Empire in the tenth century. By the 1600s, during the “craze,” some of the bulbs were used as money until the craze crashed later in the 1630s. Today, tulips are still synonymous with Holland.

Daffodils are ancient flower – older than the tulip. My favorite variety which I have planted in the past at Mitchell House is “Poeticus” or Pheasant’s Eye – it is white with a dark ring at the very center – sort of looking like an eye – and it has the most wonderful scent of any daffodil. They come out later in May or early June. But this year, I opted to add in some of the big bright yellow daffodils that everyone thinks of. Why? Because William Mitchell, though a Quaker, loved bright colors and I think he would love to see this shocking yellow on Vestal Street.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Ap 30 {1882}. I am very well, but age tells on me. My feet are lame if I wear old shoes, my new teeth make my gums sore. It is useless to try to console myself with the recollection that when I was young new shoes harassed me and old teeth kept me awake; the pains of youth are easily forgotten and quickly remedied; those of age cling to you and must be borne. I am thankful to have nothing worse of physical ills.

Even America’s first woman astronomer faced the challenges of getting older. Her description makes me smile – it’s spelled out in typical, forward, no bones about it Maria “speak.” Frank and to the point but also somewhat philosophical if I may say that. The grass is always greener on the other side! When you are young, you want to be older. When you are older, you want to be younger. But as you age, well, playing on the floor with your three-year-old gets a little more creaky. Your child starts to think all mommies moan when they get up from sitting on the floor – and that it takes a while. I wonder what MM would think of me?

JNLF (AKA Old Mommy)

Curator Almost Eaten By Large Lobster

Well, not quite. But, part of my job is to also take care of all of the MMA properties. So, I headed over to check on one and what cleaning supplies are needed for the summer and for our staff spring clean-up of the site. In one room, some of the animals from the Aquarium over-winter. One of those is “our” lobster, Clementine, so-called because she is orange in color. (Orange lobsters are five times rarer than blue lobsters and only one in ten million lobsters are orange.) She is fairly active and though the hope is that she “sleeps” a bit for the winter, she doesn’t seem to.

So, enter curator into room who glances over and hopes the lobster does not “run” to the side of the tank asking to be fed. Yes, she really does that – she has gotten used to people. I always hate it because I feel guilty – I do not feed her because that falls to the Natural Science Department and I do not want to hurt her or her schedule in any way. In any case, “Whew!” She actually seemed quiet at the back of the tank. Maybe she was “sleeping.” I kept moving to the next room and glanced back. Low and behold, she was at the front of the tank waving her claws! Seriously? So I kept moving on – after telling her, “I can’t feed you,” – and she went to the back of the tank again! Another, “Whew!”

Eating a shrimp for lunch.

I decided to text Emily, our Director of Natural Science, and relay what happened. I get a text back. “You can feed her if you want.” “Really?” I texted back. “What do I give her?” So, Clementine then ran back to the front of the tank when she saw me opening the freezer and taking out the mussels and a shrimp. I got another text from Emily: “Use the forceps to hand them to her.” Well, I wasn’t about to put my hand in there! So, I get the shrimp, put it in the forceps, open the top of the tank and start to put my hand down, and INSTANTLY two HUGE lobster claws come out of the tank and grab not the shrimp but the forceps! I wish I had a picture. I was afraid she was going to take the forceps. And then, I was afraid my hand was going to be her lunch. I could not get her to release the forceps – it was a battle royale though the battle was more on her part because I was afraid I would break her claw! After some twisting of the forceps and tugging, she finally relented, took the shrimp, and began her lunch. Another, “Whew!” I was afraid I was either going to hurt her or I was going to be explaining to my three-year old what happened to Mommy’s hand at work. Veuve Clicquot with that, Clementine?

Apparently, someone else knew what transpired with the lobster. As I left the building, a male mallard duck was paddling around in the rather large puddle – if you can call it that – located on the property. We have recently had a large amount of rain. He was laughing (I mean quacking) at me.

In all seriousness, I have never met a lobster with so much personality. Yes, personality. Clementine may just have changed my tune on lobster rolls.



We all await spring with hope. We look forward to birds singing spring sings, to things greening up outside. To bulbs beginning to break through the earth. To tree beginning to bud. And, we look forward to flowering trees to tell us yes, Spring really is here.

Forcing bulbs and flowering trees was a rite of spring in my house growing up – something my Mom, a big gardener, continued from generations before. Paperwhite narcissus, amaryllis, forsythia, dogwood, pussy willow . . . Spring comes indoors. I had meant to force some forsythia for a month and finally went to cut some when I got a chance. When I did, the forsythia was already heavily budded. I cut the branches on March 31st and by the next day we already had yellow buds ready to open! I have a large bunch in my family room at home now and a tiny, tiny few springs in the window near my desk at work.

When I worked for a short time in New Orleans (when my husband was stationed there), I worked in a floral shop that specialized in making garden baskets from potted plants – they were gorgeous – cut flowers, and antique garden art and architectural elements. The owners grew most of the plants they sold. One thing that arrived on a regular basis from January through April was a truck from Mississippi. A family cut branches from their hundreds of acres of trees and shrubs – and had for several generations – and would bring them to floral shop in some of the bigger cities. He would roll the back door up to hundreds of bunches of branches from flowering trees. Pear. Redbud. Forsythia. Dogwood. Redbud was a favorite – gorgeous! He even brought items in the fall like cottonwood and bittersweet – beware of the invasive qualities of bittersweet! I think he was the same man who also brought us interesting moss and lichen too. Such an event – I think I spent more than I earned!


Not Simple At All

Andrew's Spoon

The image of a wooden spoon you see here is quite special. It is made of curly maple and was given to me just recently by our former Director of Natural Science, Andrew McKenna-Foster. Andrew made it – that’s what makes this spoon something I will treasure forever.

My first memory of Andrew was when he was an intern here many years ago. I remember this young man, sitting in the kitchen of Hinchman House with other interns, carving a spoon out of wood. He then planned to place a cord of rawhide through the end so it could be wrapped around his wrist. He claimed he would use it all summer to eat all of his food – no other utensils to be utilized. I am really not sure what I thought then – something along the lines of, “This young man practices what he preaches, lives simply . . . He found the right internship! And we found a great intern.” But, in any case, that is what I think about when I think back to first meeting Andrew. He had other adventures as an intern too – I think he took in a baby bird and at one point had some large spider that may even have gotten loose. But, the first one is the spoon.

I told him about that not long before he left MMA to go back to school and to seek new adventures – Andrew, after all, had been with us since his internship in some way or another – as an intern, assistant director, and then director – it was time for him to fly. But, I think this is the reason he made this for me. I am not sure he realizes just how special this is. With my background, this is a heirloom to be passed down – used but used carefully. It is not a simple spoon at all. It is a memory of a friend and colleague, who like me, grew up at the MMA in some respects. It is not simple at all. Thank you, Andrew.


And It Continues

Slope to street

Even with light snow, our landscaper, Greg Maskell, and his crew were hard at work building the new accessible ramp to the MMA’s Research Center. They have moved the accessible parking pad closer to the building so that it can be shared by Drake Cottage where our offices are located, they are creating the slope across the parking lot that is also accessible, and installing the gravel pad for the condenser units for the HVAC system in the Research Center. They have even dug the trench for the electrical lines! Whew!Path to door

And, you may notice our newly rebuilt beautiful new rear porch – done by Matt Anderson – and out new island-made door that gives us a proper accessible wooden threshold!

Inside, the countertops have arrived and the tabletops – soon to be installed by cabinetmaker Mike Freedman. Plumbing has been roughed in by Marden Plumbing. In addition, I have been still ordering other items to keep them busy! Toilet, sink, hardware, eyewash, knobs, and lights for the outside – you name it!

Lab tops

And, just in case you thought we were neglecting other buildings, we just had the back rooms of Hinchman House painted by Jim Tyler and crew. The old part of the house – the lab room and animal room and the back stairs and hall look fantastic and all ready for summer visitors! I think the frogs, snakes and turtles are quite happy that we spruced up their room. The painting was completed with a grant from the M. S. Worthington Foundation.

Many, many thanks to all!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria in her chair

March 31. {1857} We are at length in New Orleans, and up three flights of stairs at the St. Charles, in a dark room, at the pretty price of three dollars a day . . . . The peculiarities of the city dawn upon me very slowly. I first noticed the showy dress of the children, white waists and fancy skirts – then the turbaned heads of the black women in the streets, and next the bouquet-selling boys with their French phrases.

This was Maria Mitchell’s southern trip in the spring of 1857, before she and Prudence Swift (her charge) headed to Europe. What you need to keep in mind is that Maria Mitchell was coming from a heavily Quaker influenced island home so to see the “showy dress” of the children and the turbaned women, as well as the dazzling bouquets of flowers, added to the cacophony of color that Maria Mitchell was not used to seeing in such an extreme. It must have been an assault to her eyes though a beautifully happy one. When you think of New Orleans, besides the obvious of the Vieux Carré and jazz music, what always comes to me is the thick humid air, the lush of the plant life, and the fantastic explosion of color, as well as the warm, beautiful faces of New Orleanians and the drawl that only says New Orleans native. (Can you tell I lived there for about three years? Riverbend.)