In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]

A friend of my mother’s sent this poem (below) to her a few days before the New Year.  My Mother and her friend have a lot in common – literature being one of them.  My Mother, a former English teacher, has a gift for calling forth poems at any moment that are echoing about in her head and that match the situation.  I am jealous of her ability to do so.  I always felt I “lucked out” when I did not get the English teacher who would make students memorize poems and large passages from Shakespeare.  In my adulthood, I wish I had had those teachers!

But in any case, I share the poem with you here as it is fitting of the passage from 2020 to 2021 in particular.  It reminds me a bit of a certain Walt Whitman poem.  Maria Mitchell was a lover and writer of poetry herself, so I think this is something she would appreciate.

In Memoriam, [Ring out, wild bells]

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – 1809-1892

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.


In Memoriam: Howard Blitman

It is with a sad heart that I inform you of the passing of one of the MMA’s former board members and an honorary board member, Howard Blitman.

Howard was a force.  He had a strong presence and you knew when he entered a room.  He had a distinct sort of gravelly voice and if he did not agree with you, you knew it.  He did not hold back and that’s probably what I liked best about him.  He made me nervous – and as a wise woman once told me, if someone makes you nervous like that, it shows you just how much respect you have for them.  I don’t think I called him “Howard” until maybe five years ago.  Most of the time, I said, “Yes, sir.”  Not in an authoritative sort of way but with a deep respect – and frankly, affection.  Lately, he had still been coming to the Soirée, granddaughter on his arm with his bow tie thrown around his neck.  We always had a big greeting and I can hear him saying my name.  He, I think, was a bit of a softy too and we had some things in common which I think surprised both of us – opera and vegetable gardens.

Among many things, Howard was instrumental in the initiatives of the process to expand and reinvigorate the MMA physical plant – specifically as the MMA worked on the first major strategic plan in many years in 2013, which led the MMA to focus on the buildings and sites that make up the MMA.  Buildings were Howard’s “thing” – he really was an authority and my statement is definitely an understatement – and having him vet architecture firms with the rest of the committee was invaluable.  And again, he didn’t mess around – he was to the point and called out the various firms and their people on things he didn’t agree with and that he felt were wrong.  Howard was generous of his time and his financial support.  He was also a long-time member of the board at the Nantucket Land Council firmly believing in the importance and beauty of the island’s unique ecology.

I wish I had known Howard better.  I appreciate what I learned from listening to him and I know the MMA is a better place because of his belief in the organization and his ongoing support at many levels.

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


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Jan 10. {1855} The older I grow the more I admire independence of character and yet the less does this characteristic belong to me and the more rare does it seem to be in the world.

Maria Mitchell was independent, and was certainly independent of character – more than she seemed to give herself credit here.  She seemed to believe that as she grew older, she lost this trait more and more – that it became diluted and that, perhaps, she didn’t step up and speak out.  That she didn’t make her own path.  I don’t see that in her at all.  In fact, I see her becoming even more vocal, more true to herself as she grew older.  An inner strength that grew within her as she became more confident in herself.  But what she notes is also timely, it does seem even today, more and more, that people tend to be less apt to speak up and to be different from the crowd.  That eyes cast downward, people shuffle along not willing to be different.



As Walt Whitman once wrote, “Peace is always beautiful.”

May you have PEACE – in your heart, in your town, in your family, in your world.  May you have health – may we all have health, especially at this unprecedented time.

And, as Maria Mitchell once said, “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.”

May you take new steps – or old, continued steps – that help others whether they be small or large – any step that will lift another betters our world.


Take A Breath And Look

Easier said than done, especially these days.  Being observant is important on many levels.  My friend and mentor, Edith Folger Andrews, always said, “You need to go out and look.  If you don’t look, you don’t see.”  She was an ornithologist – here at the MMA for countless years.  She was also the curator, for countless years, of the Mitchell House, and it was my involvement at a young age with the MMA that led me to Edith.  (Her daughter, Ginger, is the MMA’s field ornithologist and she quotes this from her mother at the beginning of her weekly bird column for the MMA.)

I am an observant person – I notice things that others do not.  Sometimes, I think it annoys people.  I got this from my Father and it certainly comes in handy with being a curator and preservationist.  (It certainly came in handy for an ornithologist like Edith!)  One thing I always forget to do though, when I am out walking, is to stop, listen, take a deep breath and look.  I reminded myself to do this not that long ago while out for a walk with my son and our Siberian Husky.  We chose to do a Town walk – something the Husky and six-year-old love – and we wandered along Angola Street and up onto Mill Hill another favorite place of the six-year-old.  We stopped, took a deep quiet breath, and looked back out over Town.  With the leaves down, you could see the harbor and all the house tops and chimneys.

When I see that, it makes me pause.  Because for the most part that’s the same image that someone saw 100 years ago or more.  Yes, some more houses and additions to houses, and more trees, but that view of Town, all the houses pushed up together, weather-beaten and grey.  That’s the view.  And my son even gets that.  He’s a fan of the Brinton Turkle Obadiah books – something my brother and I loved.  And we look to see what house Obadiah and Rachel might have lived in, where the blackberry bushes might have been that lost Obadiah the race, and of course the mill.  You can almost feel the presence of those who came before (real or even imaginary) us long ago.  If you just stop and breath and look.

So, in this hard time, try and stop.  Try and breath.  Try and look.  Find the beauty and hope in the simple things.  The red-tailed hawk soaring overhead, the chiming of a barn owl at midnight, the breeze and salt-spray against your face, the smell of the salt and seaweed.  The smell of a fire crackling in someone’s fireplace, the smoke curling and falling from the chimney top.

Be well.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Dec. 21. {1854} I have just put down Mrs. Stowe’s first volume of “Sunny Memoirs” and true to my general theory of preferring people to scenery I prefer this to the second.  I read the 2nd some time since, when that was within my grasp and the first was not.  All the way through the second, I felt that I could have written as good a book.  I give up the idea now, I could not have written so unobjectionable a book and at the same time used so much independent judgement . . .

I only picked this quote really for the fact that I wanted others to have a better glimpse of what Maria Mitchell read.  Likely, it came from the Atheneum where she was librarian and the first volume may have literally not been in her grasp because someone had checked it out from the Atheneum.  I think many people think of her only reading books of natural science, mathematics, and astronomy.  Not so.  She read fiction, and memoirs such as this.  This may have been part of her thinking of traveling – something that would come just a few years later – as these two Harriet Beecher Stowe volumes are travel memoirs.


Lights, Cameras, Make-Up!

If you have taken a stroll or drive-by, you may have noticed that the Mitchell House has been the center of attention on Vestal Street over the past few months!

Thanks to a generous matching grant from Preservation Massachusetts and the 1772 Foundation, in addition to the match from the  M. S. Worthington Foundation, the Mitchell House has had all of its historic sashes re-glazed and painted, as well as its doors and trim!  Some minor repairs had to be made to the front porch and an attic window sash but all in all, the House is in good shape and happy to be boasting a better paint job!

The painting was completed by island painter Jim Tyler and his crew – long-time painters at the MMA.  And the window sash was addressed by our carpenter who focuses on historic properties, Matthew Anderson.

If you think it looks a little darker than before, you are correct.  The paint had seriously faded.  This is the color the House has always been – well, at least for a hundred or more years.  At one point, it was brown but probably not during the William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell (Maria’s parents) ownership – likely the Peleg Mitchell Junior time or when his wife lived in the House just in the summers.  The curators before me had not tracked the color number and I did remember it being more grey – and we do have photographs – but I finally found a good paint chip while we were making some repairs to the roofwalk hatch!

Thank you to Preservation Massachusetts, the 1772 Foundation, the M. S. Worthington Foundation and the people who completed the work!  Mitchell House is ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Nov. 14, 1855.  Last night I heard Emerson give a lecture.  I pity the reporter who attempts to give it to the world.  I began to listen with a determination to remember it in order, but it was without method order or system.  It was like a beam of light moving in the undulatory waves meeting with occasional meteors in its path.  It was exceedingly uplifting.

Not what you expected at the end when you read the beginning.  Maria never minced words – as you may recall from the blog about Dr. Allen – the Vassar College physician that I mentioned in October – and other examples that I have noted.  Henry David Thoreau was definitely one who  Maria was frustrated by – he spoke at the Atheneum as well when she was librarian.  As did many luminaries of the time.  The Mitchell family ran in these circles – even if on the periphery.  Name the scientist, author, poet, philosopher, mathematician – Maria and her family rubbed elbows with them, exchanged letters and pleasantries, and stopped for awhile for a visit.  The Mitchell family was truly engaged and active in these groups they just maybe did not toot their own horns so to speak – call it the Quaker in them.


Living, Breathing

I think I have mentioned this before.  The ticking of the tall case clock in the Mitchell House, its ringing on the hour, always makes me feel like the Mitchell House is alive.  It is when I have to stop the clock for the winter that the House goes dormant.  It’s a sound that I become quite use to when it is running – the ticking and ringing.  It always makes me chuckle to myself when the Mitchell House intern first starts work in late May.  It takes them a few weeks to discern the difference between the clock and the front door bell but then, they get it.  (Don’t worry – I don’t let them “run” for the door – I tell them, “No!  It’s the clock.  You’ll get used to the difference.)

The tall case was a wedding gift from William Mitchell’s parents to William and Lydia on their wedding day.  Made in Boston by John Deverell in 1789, it’s a year older than the House.  William and Lydia gave the clock to Phebe Mitchell Kendall upon her marriage in 1854.  Phebe left t to her only child, William Mitchell Kendall who then left it to the Mitchell House in his estate in 1941.  I am not sure how William’s parents came to the clock – perhaps it was their clock as William and Lydia married in 1812 so by then the tall case (no, not called a grandfather clock!) was twenty-three years old.

On its face it rotates the phases of the Moon and shows the seconds and the date.  It’s a seven-day clock, but I wind it twice per week (always, holding my breath as it is 231 years old!)  It has wonderful inlays around the bonnet top and the case where the door to the pendulum and weights are located.  And its face is enameled.  It’s a simple – very appropriate for a Quaker family – tall case clock with just a touch of “extras” – a bit of color and a bit of decoration.

I put it to bed a few weeks ago – I wait pretty far into the fall as I hate to stop it.  But when I do, I tell it to have a good winter and that I will see it when I wake it in the spring.


Who Did This?

I may have written about this before.  Lydia Coleman Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s mother – and the mother of ten children in all – has a small, simple writing desk.  It has several drawers and a flip down top.  It has two compartments where papers and ink can be stored – and in the case of Lydia, the nib of your pen can be mightily sharpened (it’s a HUGE gouge she created!).

This fall, as I do each fall once the humidity is low, I waxed it with an appropriate conservation wax.  And while doing so, I realized that I had forgotten all about the back compartment.  It has little pigeon-hole cubbies and another news article similar to what she pasted in the front compartment.  I am not sure how I forgot about this – but I’ve been in the Mitchell House for quite some time and my brain seems to be overflowing with things.  So it was sort of a re-discovery I guess you would call it.

The interesting thing is that this was not Lydia doing the pasting of an article this time.  Note the “1862” inked next to the article – which had to be pasted in sideways as the other one was.  (I think that I have noted that when I transcribed the first many years ago, it was before mobile phones so taking a photograph was near impossible with trying to focus, light, and so on.  Thus, I sat scrunched over in a chair with a pencil and paper holding the desk with one hand and scribbling with the other – the curator at the time said I looked like a pretzel!  This time, iPhone in hand and, “Voila!”)  Lydia died in 1861 and by 1862, Maria and her father, William, were living in Lynn, MA.  I think the writing in the desk on this side is William’s own!  Interesting.  So, perhaps he was continuing the trend – perhaps he knew she would do this if she were alive, perhaps it was a way to keep her memory going, perhaps it was a way for him to show her what he had done.  I’m not sure what was happening here or the intentions but I’m not sure it’s really about William boasting as it is about him loving and missing Lydia. So, while we do not know, that’s the story I will stick to in my mind.