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.


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.


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

March 12, {1855}.  What a change a fortnight has made.  I have passed through a fortnight of great anxiety in nursing my Mother.  I have never been a believer in a special Providence, but when I saw her recovering I felt like giving thanks to God and when anyone says to me “how is your mother,” I felt like saying “Better, thank God” instead of “thank you.”

Lydia Coleman Mitchell partially recovered from an illness that would last for six years and that made Maria Mitchell her mother’s nurse.  As the single daughter who lived at home, societal norms dictated this – though we all know that Maria would of course do this no matter what.  It was only her trip to the southern United States and Europe that would draw her away – with Lydia left under the attentive care of one of Maria’s younger sisters, Phebe Mitchell Kendall who had married in 1854.  Such circumstances still exist today – as was just recently discussed on a local NPR piece.  While it’s not necessarily only the women carrying for aging parents or sick family members, it is still very much on families to take care of the seriously ill and aged – health care costs and costs associated with long-term care and nursing homes or retirement communities are out of reach for many.

As I have noted before, Maria did not believe in a god – she saw her god – her religion – in nature.  But she obviously felt there was some higher plane – some higher being – that could have had some sort of influence as her mother’s illness was not something she thought she would even partially recover from.  I realize my god is nature – the world around us – and I came to that in part because of my Father and his beliefs.


A Bit Of A Nor’easter

I don’t like wind.  Pretty hysterically funny given that I live on an island.  I mean, I can tolerate it, but after three (or four!!) straight days of gusts to 60 mph, I get a little nutty.   October 9-12, 2019 was a long, slow nor’easter.  We lost power here and there, limbs came down.  I, of course, can continue to work to some degree in the Mitchell House if it’s something not associated with power (and my work computer is a laptop).  I always like to say I work in the nineteenth century after all!

One thing that is not so fun is actually hanging out in the Mitchell House attic.  I don’t mind the sound but there is a large maple in the neighbor’s yard that always makes me nervous – especially when all the trees are still leafed out.  The other thing, is that with the wind blowing at 60 mph, it makes you feel like you are on a ship and that you are rolling.  I actually get a little nauseous!  Makes me wonder what it was like for the Mitchell children when they were playing in the attic during a storm.  The tree was not there in the nineteenth century but the winds were and I wonder if they pretended to be at sea on a whaleship like their maternal grandfather, Andrew Coleman (Note that Lydia’s and William’s first born and first born son was named after his maternal grandfather.  He too would go to sea – at age 13 he ran off to sea).  I could see that.  Sadly, he was died at sea in November 1807 when Lydia Coleman Mitchell was a young teenager.  But it was his bringing back pumpkin seed from Patagonia that brought William and Lydia together!


William Mitchell and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

My whole life has been a struggle, subjecting thy patient mother to much endurance.

–  William Mitchell in his autobiography, 1868

Born to longtime Nantucket Quaker families, William Mitchell (1791 – 1869) and Lydia Coleman (1792 – 1861) first met as young teenagers.  William was sent by his father to Lydia’s home to retrieve pumpkin seeds brought back from Patagonia by Lydia’s father, Captain Coleman who would be lost at sea soon after this meeting.  In the words of William Mitchell in his autobiography – written at the insistence of daughter Phebe Mitchell Kendall – it was love at first sight and it was his love for Lydia – starting when he was 14 and she was 13 – that kept him from attending Harvard College.  The paths were prepared for his application but he could not follow through and leave Lydia behind.  Instead, he would join his father in his whale oil and soap business which, with the War of 1812, quickly put the island into an economic freeze, especially with the halt that came to whaling.  The two married in December 1812, and like many newlyweds and islanders confronted with the war at their shores, they struggled financially.  The newlyweds eked out a living in Siasconset, where William farmed and Lydia ran a small library in this fishing village at the eastern end of the island.

In his autobiography, William compiled a list of all his occupations, which included: schoolteacher, state senator, soap boiler, cooper, schoolmaster, farmer, surveyor, chronometer rater, and astronomical observer for the United States Coast Survey.  William appeared to be most fond of teaching and astronomy – perhaps not just because he was from a sea-going family and community that relied on celestial navigation to travel – but also because he was close to his much older cousin, Walter Folger Jr., the renowned scientist and island clock and telescope maker.  William would also serve as the Pacific National Bank’s cashier – essentially being in charge of the entire bank – from 1836 until 1861.

Of her mother, Maria Mitchell once wrote that she never saw her sit with a book when the children were young.  With ten in all, she likely had no time.  But it was Lydia who examined every book they brought into the house, looked out for their educations, and knew, as one daughter wrote, their “every fault and every merit.”  Quite, dignified, and a woman of strong character, she played the foil to William’s gregarious and fun-loving behavior.  According to the same daughter, Lydia was, “honest almost to an extreme, and perfectly self-controlled.”


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Feb. 18, 1854.  If I should make out a calendar by my feelings of fatigue, I should say there were six Saturdays in the week and one Sunday.

I sort of laugh when I read this – different century, same feeling.  Though in Maria Mitchell’s day, the only day of rest was Sunday – to some degree and depending on where you lived, what you did for a living, and your religion.  For Quakers, it was a day of rest.  Sometimes, people had half a day of rest on Sunday, if that.  Also at this time, Maria was caring for her mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, an illness that would take a toll on the entire family – physically and emotionally but more so on Maria as her main caregiver.


She Floats!

On Saturday, June 3, 2017, Finger Boatworks launched a Haven 12 ½ christened Hijinks.  This is the first boat that Finger Boatworks has built and the lionshare was completed by Tyler Winger.  Finger Boatworks does of course have a connection to me – its owner is my husband, Eric, a former U. S. Coast Guard officer who is also a naval architect.  Finger Boatworks (FBW) also maintains many island wooden boats and a few others as well.  Currently, FBW is building an Alerion – a boat originally designed by the “Wizard of Bristol” – Nathanael Herreshoff – in the early twentieth century.  Herreshoff designed the Alerion so that he could sail the boat himself – this in the day when they wore suit and tie, and hat of course!  By then, Herreshoff was an older gentleman who had designed many boats.

Boat building on Nantucket is now few and far between.  There are a few who have built for themselves, but very few who now build for specific clients or to sell.  Boat building did happen historically on Nantucket.   A large boatyard located in the area of Brant Point with a marine railway existed – even building a few whaleships.  Whaleboats were also built on the island.  In fact, in the early eighteenth century, they lifted the laws banning the cutting of trees on the island so that men could head out to Coatue to cut cedar for the whaleboats.  The issue with building on Nantucket was that it was too expensive and boats could be built more easily and cheaply off-island since that is where all the wood to build island boats was coming from to start!

I like to think of Maria, and her brothers and sisters, wandering around the yards, picking up shavings, smelling the fragrance of wood shavings, specifically the cedar, and listening to the rhythmic noise of the saw.  Just around the corner from them was a small boatshop – likely whaleboats – and up the street, a cooperage.  The eldest Mitchell child, Andrew, would run off to sea at a young age and found himself on a naval ship during the Civil War.  He later left the life of the sea and became a farmer – not the first time we had heard that one.  He could have been greatly influenced by the boats surrounding him and the sailors and officers of whaleships and merchant and fishing ships.  He could have also been influenced by his father with his rating of the chronometers and his work with the US Coast Survey.  The Mitchell family had many ship captains through their front sitting room.  He could have been influenced by spending his time in a boatshop.  And, he could have been further influenced by the fact that his maternal grandfather, a whaleship captain, was lost at sea when Andrew’s mother, Lydia Coleman Mitchell, was just fourteen years old.

Boat building is an ancient craft.  Whether it be small or something like a freighter, it is still a craft that we rely on for multiple purposes whether it be transportation, pleasure, livelihood, food.

Look for Hijinks in the harbor this summer.



William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell

There are two quotes of Maria Mitchell’s that I deeply love. The first one is, “Standing under the canopy of the stars one can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought.” The other is, “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.”

I have literally looked up at the stars on an evening and said that first quote aloud to myself. I like to think that everyone is looking down on me from above, keeping me in check, and keeping me on the straight and narrow path in some ways. I have been influenced by, taught and mentored by, and loved by so many people – and I have loved them in return. They have carved out a path before me; guided me on my way, and they are the stars who shine over me.

The second quote is something I repeat to myself when I think of certain people. In particular, I think of my parents when I read this quote or repeat it to myself. It means that no matter what you do, no matter how big or small what you do is, it can make a difference and have an impact. My parents are, of course, my stars. But they have also made a difference in my world and the world at large, as I am sure your parents and others have.

Brain: Two very intelligent individuals, they nurture, educate, and expand our minds and help us to better ourselves. They continue to do so and now they also lead the next generation – their three grandchildren. They teach us right from wrong; they are there with wise advice and another way of looking at something. And they put their knowledge and ability to good use, helping others, not just their children and grandchildren. They have taught us well. And, continue to do so.

Heart: They love us unconditionally and they have instilled in us the desire and belief in giving to others and to helping those in need. Compassion, understanding, sympathy, love. Their action of love and support for others has taught us how to be better human beings and better parents. It has taught us that even if we have the last scrap of food on the Earth that there is someone else who needs it more than us and that scrap goes to that person in need. Now, even as my parents suffer, they see others who suffer too and it hurts them even more deeply than what they are going through.

Hands: They have put a roof over our heads. They have wiped our noses, combed our hair, bathed us (sometimes in a small amount of tepid water, Dad!), and hugged us close when we were scared or upset (“The sun is going to burn out, yes, but not for a LONG time, Jascin.” I am sure my Mom wonders why she let me watch “3-2-1 Contact” – so much for children’s science education programming on PBS). They have dug in the Earth and created beautiful life in plants and spent a hot afternoon that was a beach day inside hanging wallpaper – all in order to give us a more perfect surrounding. They have built the world around us.

They have asked for nothing from us is return except that we live our lives to the best of our abilities, help others, and be happy and compassionate individuals.

This is not an easy post to write. Not sure I have done this justice. Words are escaping me. But, I know that when Maria first wrote these lines, she was thinking about her parents, William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell, just as I think about my parents. Thank you, Maria, for putting it so beautifully. And thank you, Dad and Mom, for being incredible role models and such compassionate and loving people.


Answer To Do You Know Where This Is?


The image is a portion of the face of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Built by John Deverell in Boston in 1789, the clock was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William Mitchell’s father, Peleg Sr. William and Lydia were married on December 12, 1812 or as Quakers would write it the 12th day of the 12th month 1812. It is a heavy brass works clock that shows the phases of the moons (it rotates with the clock) and the date – useful for a family of astronomers! William and Lydia gave the clock to Phebe Mitchell Kendall, a younger sister of Maria, when she married Joshua Kendall. Phebe then left the clock to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. Willie, as he was called by the family, left it to the Mitchell House in his estate in the 1940s. It still works – I wind it twice per week!