Islanded in a Pandemic

In the life of each of us . . . there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

                                                      Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

The above quote is from my favorite book – which I have written about before – The Country of the Pointed Firs.  I try and read this book every summer.  The quote has never really struck me before until now.  In light of COVID-19, it sat with me and I read it several times over.  It is in reference to Joanna Todd – a young woman who banishes herself to live alone on a thirty-acre desolate island that is sleeping not far from the shore of the coast of Maine near the fictional Dunnet Landing.

Jewett wrote several books of short stories that were published before this Firs and I like to think that Maria may have read at least one of them since these first stories were published starting at least a decade before Maria’s death.  Jewett spoke of nature in a way that Maria would have appreciated.  While Maria was an astronomer and mathematician, she was also a naturalist as I have noted before, and daily nature walks were a part of her life.  She noted what was blooming, the challenges of an insect she came across, and she even named wild animals that lived around the Vassar College Observatory.

But in light of where we all find ourselves right now – and over the past four months or so – it’s a prison to some extent.  Even those who revel in being alone find themselves struggling – not all for there are some who find being completely alone and away from people a positive thing for whatever reason they have.  For example, some children have detested “zoom school” while others have reveled in it and found it a new avenue for better learning than what they found in the classroom – alone, focused, quiet, or what-have-you.  The pandemic has, to some extent, made hermits of us, recluses.  For some, they feel as if they are in a cell bound by the four walls of their home – even if they can go out into a yard or down the street to briefly buy groceries.  The whole “stay at home” has made them feel isolated, compressed, shackled, claustrophobic.  It has left us alone in some cases with our feelings and emotions – more deeply than when one is running from place to place.  Everyone has a different feeling but the idea of a prison, a cell, being remote, being “islanded” has become more apparent or more of a feeling for many.


Maria Mitchell’s 202 Birthday

Saturday, August 1st marks Maria Mitchell’s 202nd birthday.  Sadly, this year, we cannot have our annual open house with activities, live music, special guests, and refreshments.  We are deeply saddened to not see all of your faces but I know that Maria is much happier to have everyone safe.

Please help us celebrate this week – we will be posting some fun facts about Maria and the MMA on social media and we would love you to share it with your friends so we can continue to spread Maria’s legacy even further.  Island Kitchen will also be creating a Maria Mitchell flavor for the week so please go get a cone at Nantucket Pharmacy or Island Kitchen during the week and support a local business that has done a lot to support the island – especially during this pandemic.  The MMA is not making a profit off of the ice cream – but it would be nice if you made a donation to help us – especially at this difficult time.

And, happily – we are offering limited programs so please take a look and sign up.  We had to wait for Phase Three from Massachusetts since we are a museum but we do have some new activities and some old favorites – with masks and social distancing required – all just in time for Maria’s 2020!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Thursday July 17. {1873}  Mr. Airy’s.  I went to Greenwich and arrived about 11 a.m.  I had for years had misgivings about Mrs. Airy but had heard nothing.  When the servant said “Lady Airy is not yet up” I knew she must be ill . . . Sir George Airy came in and the welcome was so hearty!

And later I saw Mrs. Airy wheeled out in a chair, a wreck and a ruin!  And so tenderly cared for by all!  She had been so good to me 15 years since, and was so full of vigor, that I could have cried at the sight. 

She appeared to be very glad to see me, but said nothing, continuing to hold my hand and  smile . . . . Sir George Airy, as he is now, had improved with age and looks strong and vigorous . . . .

As I have noted before, after meeting the Airys – Sir George Airy being the Astronomer Royal of England – Maria kept up a lifelong correspondence with them.  In particular, she developed a lifelong correspondence with Richarda Airy until this illness which I will assume was likely a stroke (without researching).

Maria was in Europe for her second trip – so she did see Europe once again unlike her journal entry I posted for June 1858.  She travelled to Europe with her sister, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, and Phebe’s husband, Joshua, and their son, William Mitchell “Willie” Kendall.  This would be the trip that brought Maria to Russia and the Observatory at Pulkova.


Some Bunny

Bunny fence installed in April.

If you read this blog then you have read several times of my bemoaning the presence of rabbits at the MMA – particularly the Mitchell House.  As a science-based organization and myself a lover of wildlife, I have no problems with them.  As a gardener, I do.  And, I have written numerous times about the bunny population here on Vestal Street.

Well, it seems that maybe due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic and fewer people around, that the bunnies have been having something of a baby boom.  I have SEVEN baby rabbits of various sizes!  SEVEN!  And they have an even greater audacity than their predecessors – all just lying about in the garden in front of the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory (MMO) as if they own the lawn and garden.  They have no fear – though I do scare them as much as possible to teach them to have some fear.

This spring, once the Town allowed and I had my special permission permit, I installed a bunny fence to keep them out of the main wildflower garden in front of the MMO.  It looks a bit different from the photograph here as it has actually kept them out – except for one – and now everything is flourishing!  Joe Pye Weed, Prickly Pear Cactus, Blazing Star, Mallow, Mountain Mint, Pearly Everlasting, Butterfly Weed, and more!  The one rascal who got in – a tiny baby – was ultimately chased out with the help of a neighbor – both of us wearing our masks and social distancing.  The bunny had managed to squeak past the deer fencing I had to use when I ran out of chicken wire for the bottom of the fence.  Yes, its green wire deer fencing at about two or so feet and then a one-foot addition of chicken wire at the base to keep out the baby bunnies.  I had shown up when the neighbors texted me to tell me they saw “someone” in there.  Luckily, I arrived with more chicken wire for the 12-inch deer fenced gap that the baby bunny had gone through.  A friend unearthed the much-needed chicken wire in his shed.  Seriously – the baby bunny GNAWED through the deer fencing – and then did it in front of me to escape my wrath!

Bunny fence in July with happy native plants – and a few garden varieties to boot!

But in any case, it seems to have done the trick – with a thank you to a MMA board member and fellow gardener who told me I had to or I wouldn’t win and I was being too nice.   And to the neighbors and their loveable dog who spied the invader.

Now, I have to figure out a historically-accurate bunny fence that’s low for the Mitchell House garden – which has been completely wasted by the bunnies!  So much for 500 heirloom Heavenly Blue Morning Glory seeds – gone!  I guess I’m going to have to weave a twig fence!



Yes, stairs.  They can say a lot about a place, in particular how it was built and how it was used.  These particular stairs of a not-named building on island date to probably right after the Great Fire.  The building was gutted in the fire but I like to think that perhaps these stairs are made from timbers that survived or were recycled from someplace else and thus maybe they are pre-fire in their date.  That’s just wishful thinking but, you never know. New Englanders, and especially Nantucketers, were and are thrifty – especially if you live on an island 28 miles at sea.  As an historian, and also something of a hoarder (only worthy stuff or historic or family items, you know), you never know when something – or part of that something – might come in handy or might be able to be re-used.  A make-do to some degree.  I’ve talked about make-dos here before – a broken item that finds new life as something else or is cleverly fixed to “make-do).

But in any case, you can see the wear on the treads and see the risers where a shoe – or more likely a boot – gave a kick as one took each step up towards the attic space.  Unfinished because it is utilitarian – it’s not a stair at the front entry of a house to a second floor but a place that leads to storage – like an attic or a root cellar or even, a back stair meant for family-only.  There could be remnants of red paint – like we have at Mitchell House on the attic stairs – but I didn’t have enough time to get down and take a close look (plus these days I need my glasses which I didn’t have!).  There are some water stains as you go higher – not surprising – and you can see how the finish of the wood has been worn.

Can you hear the person trudging to the attic?  I can.  I feel like I can see them too.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

June 3, 1858.  We came on board at 9 a.m., a company so merry that one saw at one they were Americans returning home and not Englishmen leaving . . . . I ascended onto the ship, but I could not feel lonesome, for I was going home.  I had even no feeling of regret as we left the land, though I knew that I bade it good-by (sic) forever . . . .

Maria Mitchell had been away from home, travelling in Europe for eleven months.  She had left behind her ill mother in the care of a younger sister in order to make the trip of a lifetime – urged on by her father and her siblings.   As I have noted before, a European tour was the equivalent of a college education in the nineteenth century and Maria Mitchell had visited as many historic and ancient sites, museums, art galleries, observatories, and more during her travels.  She met and travelled with noted authors, astronomers, and scientists.  Doors were flung open to her – America’s first woman astronomer.


Same Equals Comfort

Sometimes the same routine, the same thing is a comfort.  Especially now.

This was my view the other day.  While we are in troubled times on so many levels, sometimes “the same” is a comfort.  Routine is a comfort; a safe place. Sitting in the 1825 Kitchen, in my “sit-able on-able chair” as I like to call it, I could hear an American Robin who has a nest nearby and the Carolina Wren.  It was just after lunchtime and I wondered if Lydia Coleman Mitchell could take a brief break after feeding her family, would she have heard similar things.  Likely not the Carolina Wren – they seem to have become more of a staple up here then they once were due to climate change.  But as I have noted before, the sunlight coming through the windows is mainly the same.

You might ask, if we are limited in what we may be able to do when we re-open, why have I “woken up” the Mitchell House.  For a few reasons.  Most importantly for the artifacts.  They’ve been boxed or covered or placed away.  They need to not be in that situation all year long and I need to be able to assess their conditions over the course of the months to come.  I need to conduct various possible small conservation projects, to clean them.  And, if I want to try and share some of them with you virtually, then I need easier access to them.  I hope, too that we will be able to welcome people in at some point this season albeit in a very different way.

But personally, and as curator of the Mitchell House, it’s nice to see everything set back in its place.  The same.  Routine.  It may only be me seeing it at this point but I drink it all in.  It calms me.  It makes me forget the rest of the world outside the door for a few moments.  I wish that for everyone – a place you can have to yourself for a moment – even if its standing in stark quiet in your kitchen – where you can breathe in the quiet and exhale the calm and push your thoughts to everyone as we sit amidst this unknown and unsettled time.  Hopefully, soon, we can be together again and the Mitchell House door will open out onto the street to welcome you again.  Know that I am inside working and awaiting your return – as does Maria and the Mitchells.  They are here too – as always.


Mrs. Perfetti’s Pizza Dough

I was married twenty-four years ago.  My friends came from far and wide and near.  Because everyone was so spread out – especially just a year after graduating from college – it was the first time I really ever had my high school and college friends together.  What was so wonderful was to see how well they got along with one another – they acted as if they’d known each other for years and it was really heart-warming.

I was given a green-themed wedding shower – my favorite color.  I was unaware that paper wedding bells and other wedding items came in green – but they were found!  A really fun thing was that they all brought recipes to write for me – family ones, ones they loved – and put them all in a recipe box.

There are a few that I have never tried for some reason or another.  In part, as newlyweds, funds were tight.  My husband was a US Coast Guard lieutenant at the time and we were stationed in New Orleans – which while less expensive then New England still made shopping at the Piggly Wiggly and Winn-Dixie difficult so some recipes were not indulged upon.  Weirdly, I never made the recipe for pizza margherita that one of my best high school friends included – her mother’s recipe.  I was pretty afraid of yeast – I still am which makes no sense as I make my Mother’s “Holey Bread”  ̶  a story for another day.  But faced with the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic, I’m finding ways to use up what’s in the pantry and finding ways to stretch things.  So, Mrs. Perfetti’s recipe came out – and boy!  What was I waiting for?  It was delicious (if I do say so myself).  I have, embarrassingly, never made pizza dough from scratch – some (50%) Italian I am!

It’s times like these – even with cooking – that I think of what Maria Mitchell and all women went through when faced with shortages on food – and cooking from the very basics with no processed food to rely on as a back-up.  In particular, when the harbor would freeze over for days and weeks on end so that ships and steamers could not bring in supplies from the mainland.  I know you do not think of Maria as a cook but she did and she had to – especially when her mother was ill and she became her main caretaker.


My – And Our – Responsibility

God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!

That line – taken by James Baldwin from a spiritual, or slave song, has haunted me since the day I read it many years ago.  It is seared upon my consciousness.  In the last few years, and in particular the last week or so, it is a throbbing constant churning over and over again in my head.  Are we headed for the fire?  Are we in the fire? What would Baldwin, one of my favorite writers, think of us now?

I often think about what Maria Mitchell would think of certain situations.  Maria Mitchell was a Quaker.  She believed that all people were equal.  The women’s rights movement – at least initially – was closely tied with the slaves’ rights movement.  Unfortunately, a schism developed within this movement.  Maria remained in the camp of all or nothing – meaning that they would fight for the universal rights of all.  In fact, she turned down speaking at a meeting of “the other side” – she turned down Susan B. Anthony.  And frankly, I’ve always been pretty proud of her for that.

Colour is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.  – James Baldwin

It’s always hard to place a person of the past in a present day context for a myriad of reasons.  She doesn’t have the benefit of history – seeing what she missed and learning from it.  She did make comments in her journals and letters about the sickness she felt traveling in the South before the Civil War.  I believe she would have spoken out in some form.  She would have supported her students of all walks of life.  I believe she’d be shocked at where we still are.  That people continue to be brutalized and ill-treated based on their gender, their sexual orientation, their religious beliefs, their skin color.  I believe she would be disappointed.  I believe she would be deeply saddened.

Her family members were also at the forefront of fighting for the rights of all.  Her brother left his wife and daughter behind on Nantucket to travel to the South to work on behalf of the Freedmen’s Aid Society during and after the Civil War.  And later, he would be a founding faculty member of Howard University.

My connection and hurt during this time runs even deeper than history.  If you do not know me or my family, then you do not know that we are a transracial family.  My husband and I are white.  Our son is African American, Haitian, and Korean.  We became a family at his birth.  Before my Father passed away, he said continually to my Mother about what was happening in the country, that, “We are going backwards.”  He was, unfortunately, right.  It seems like it is getting worse.

It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck, and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.     –  James Baldwin

I’m not going to write this eloquently – there is too much emotion involved.  There is sadness, anger, fear, hysteria.  I see what has happened – especially in the last few months – and I have flashes of what life will be like for my son.  Sure, I can protect him now but I have found myself already having “the talk” with him – starting even before the age of six.  And, as a white woman, it has not been easy.  I have lived in white privilege.  Any interactions he witnesses are within this privilege.  Just think of what my experience might be when stopped by police compared to one of our African American friends.  He witnesses my interaction – not theirs.  And as a full-of-life little boy – and one who doesn’t stop at, “Stop!” – my fear is ever more increased.  He is surrounded by people from all walks of life – different shades, different sexual orientations, different religious beliefs.  His “uncle” is an African American man raised in Mississippi who has had horrific experiences and unfortunately continues to have them.  My son’s “uncle” will also be relied upon to help us work with our son to have him better understand the unfortunate world we live in – his words may and will resonate better with my son than those of his white parents.  I truly hope, plead, beg that the world we live in will be different by the time he is a teenager but history has shown it differently.  It makes my stomach twist in agony, fear, and anger.

Whoever debases others is debasing himself. – James Baldwin

I know that I will use Baldwin’s words with him.  His bookshelf is already groaning with books by Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, John Lewis, J. Drew Lanham, and others – mentors on paper.  This is in addition to what I have been able to find in picture books – frankly, not an easy task.  Books and quotes don’t do it – but they are a start and something I have been using and will continue to use as my husband and I – and our village – try to show him the way, arm him with the tools and knowledge he needs to protect himself and others, and as we try to make this world better for him.  Perhaps that sounds trite but that’s all I can do.  As the mother of a child of color, I can’t breathe.  I won’t breathe either until the day I die – or the day this world is finally equal and a young black man or woman can walk down a street or go for a run – NOT in fear.

Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity. – James Baldwin

The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands. – Maria Mitchell