Stairs

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.

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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.

JNLF

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

JNLF

Accolades For What Miss Mitchell Saw

If you have not yet read it, take a look at What Miss Mitchell Saw – a picture book about Maria Mitchell that was released this past fall.  Hayley Barrett, the author and a big Maria fan, took a great deal of time, research, thought, and questions to make this book as wonderful and informative as it is.

And that’s not just my opinion.  Hayley has been receiving many accolades and the book has been nominated and listed for several awards – along with her illustrator of the book.

Take a look at this:

It is a Must-Read title by the Massachusetts Center For The Book;

It is long-listed for a MA Book Award;

It is one of five New England regional contenders for the Crystal Kite, the annual award given by the Society of Children’s Authors and Illustrators.

And, there was a lovely review in the Friends Journal:

https://www.friendsjournal.org/what-miss-mitchell-saw/

Congratulations, Hayley, and thank you for making Maria accessible to more people – young and old!

JNLF

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

1881, May 6.  Yesterday we went to town see the opening of the Vassar Brothers Home for old men.  I looked at Matthew Vassar (Vassar College’s founder’s nephew) with admiration.  It is a good deal to be successful in getting money, to give it away by tens of thousands is more!  And to see a man upwards of 70 stand up in a crowd and say exactly the right thing and sit down before the audience was tired, is not usual . . . .

Maria Mitchell always says it well.  Matthew Vassar, founder of Vassar College, had originally wanted to establish a hospital in his name.  His nephew, also named Matthew Vassar, was once of several who convinced him to establish a women’s college.  Vassar would still goon to be a generous man in supporting the Poughkeepsie area – I believe a hospital was built – and obviously his nephew continued n in the same tradition as noted by Maria Mitchell here.

This reminds me of Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway founder Warren Buffett and many other multi-millionaires and billionaires who have pledged to give away much of their wealth.  There were people in the nineteenth century and earlier, during the Great Depression and later who saw a need and gave willingly.  The MMA was such a recipient in its building of the Vestal Street Observatory in the early 1900s when some monies were given to its building by Andrew Carnegie.  A small new observatory on an isolated island – he knew we were in need and knew it could be something tremendous that contributed to our knowledge and education – and he was right!

Further, Vassar was not looking for accolades as Maria also notes.  Buffett, Carnegie, Gates, they don’t look for accolades and I would assume that all would know what to say and would not continue to speak on and on, nor stand until the audience could no longer clap.  That’s class – for lack of a better word – and reaching out to give to others when you have so much or so much more that you cannot ever use it all.  That is compassion, caring, generosity and kindness.

JNLF  

Celestial Masks

 

If only this was for a costume!

One of my wonderful former interns – a young woman who actually came back this past fall to help me out on some projects at the Mitchell House – emailed to ask if my family needed any masks.  Her mother, with this young woman’s assistance, has been making masks for people at her place of work.  I enthusiastically said, “Yes!” and asked if one  of them could be made a bit smaller for my son.

Sure enough – they arrived and there was one just right for a six-year-old!  And, leave it to the very creative woman who made them – she made them all in celestial motifs!  My son’s has planets on one side and stars on the other.  Mine has different star patterns on each side, and my husband’s has stars on one and plaid on the other!  Amazing!

Now, how do you properly thank someone for providing such a thing?  Many thanks – to the moon and back!  Be safe and be well.

JNLF

Derek Till

I was pretty young when I first met Derek Till.  One thing I became familiar with was the twinkle in his eye, his ease to laugh, and his snappy white shoes that cut an amazing path across the dance floor with Patricia.

I didn’t know Derek’s first wife, but after some banter of stories about Nantucket and the MMA, I figured out how Derek came to be involved in the MMA – via his father-in-law, Tell Berna.  Berna was one of the founders of the Nantucket Conservation Foundation but he was also actively involved in the MMA and very interested in helping to start what would become the MMA Aquarium.  Until Derek and I had a conversation that involved Berna, I didn’t realize the connection.  He was surprised I knew Tell Berna’s name – but then didn’t realize how much I wandered about Nantucket’s history – and the MMA’s.

Derek became a very active member of the MMA board, served as an officer, and was instrumental in assisting and leading the Preservation and Repair Committee.  Still to this day, we have the model he built in paperboard of what would become Drake Cottage on the site of what was once a converted 1940s garage – Terrace Cottage.  Even its little German statice flower “trees” – a little worse for the wear – still stand in front of the model.  He served on the MMA Science Committee for many years as well.

I remember the way he leaned back in his chair with his leg crossed at meetings, arm crossed over his chest.  And his accent.  I did not know much about his younger years but now, reading about his life, I am reminded why I liked him so much.  He was not boastful but very down-to-earth.  He had an opinion and would certainly express it – and could become quite serious – but that twinkle, and that delightful laugh were always close by no matter what.  He was a dapper dresser – summer typically meant a seersucker coat – and did I mention his dancing?  When he and Patricia moved into their retirement community, they regaled me with all the fantastic things that the people did for all the residents.  The one that seemed to get them the most was the fact that you had to leave your car keys by the front door so that when it snowed, the staff could come in while you were asleep, get your keys, move your car, and plow the driveway!   I can hear Derek telling me that now.

Even in his nineties, he continued to come to the island – even after Patricia died.  He was ever-present at the MMA Soirée, became more active again with advice, and re-joined the board of the MMA as an Honorary Director – something I think he was honored and tickled by.

Derek had a long life well-lived – one in which he was always active.  And I know, wherever he is, he’s dancing.

JNLF

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

Signs of Spring

Yes, we need some of those right now.

The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic has all of us worried, on edge, and exhausted.  And then to add insult to injury, we here on Nantucket have been having a truly dreadful spring, weather-wise.  Very cold, days of rain and mist and fog and wind.  Now, this is common for Nantucket in spring – feels more like winter – but it keeps us from being able to walk, hang out in the yard, etc.  It probably is a blessing with social distancing – keeping us all indoors – but I need to dig in the earth!  Hear the birds!  Smell the spring air!

Mitchell House “Beauty of Spring” Tulip

Maria Mitchell was also a naturalist and her daily nature walks were a constant – I’ve noted them before.  She would note changes in her journals, talk about what she witnessed.  Even the simplest thing from a bloom to the color of a flower – she noted it.

Mitchell House “Beauty of Spring” tulip – the deer and the bunnies missed them!

So if you see any signs of spring like I found here, then why don’t you “Tweet” us back some signs of spring images?  I did see some goslings and was surprised but then realized it’s May!

JNLF

Quince