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.


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!


Getting There

Last fall, you may remember, we received a gift that allowed us to work with our landscaper on re-doing the garden on Vestal Street in front of the Maria Mitchell Vestal Street Observatory.  I wrote a blog about it and then filled you in this spring on some of the planting.

Well, it needs some more work – onion grass is a BEAST to pull out – but we are getting there!  I’m happy to say that the mallow transplanted well, as did the Joe Pye Weed, and the Milkweed is popping up in all its random places.  I have also weeded out and planted some natives along the accessibility ramp at Hinchman House Natural Science Museum.  One will find regular garden plants mixed in – they are nice to still have and offer food to some of the visiting animals.  And along Mitchell House, I focus on heirloom plants, what was in William Mitchell’s garden and the other Mitchell family members who inhabited the House, and plants that were found in gardens in the nineteenth century.

I have installed plant tags to help identify the plants and I have two bigger garden signs that I created and are currently being fabricated (ah, the Internet).  They will be very small, printed signs on bamboo plaques but they will note why our gardens look a little messy.

We do want the milkweed – it’s a happy host to milkweed beetles and even more importantly to monarchs which are fast losing their habitat – in fact it’s gone in many places.  We used to have thousands of monarchs every year on Vestal – not anymore.  We are lucky if we see a few dozen.  So, a wildflower and native species garden – as it has been for decades and decades in that same spot – is very important for the bird, insect, and mammalian life that needs it and also supports the MMA’s mission – just look to our Hinchman House Natural Science Museum and Department and you understand.

So come take a look, and cheer on some of our teeny, tiny seedlings as they grow.  Feel free to pull the onion grass – but leave everything else!  But oh – you can chase the bunnies away – they are back and eating everything including all my Morning Glories and they have just about taken down two gallon-sized cardinal flower plants!


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

Edinburgh, Sept. 30 {1857}

My dear Father,

 . . . Nothing is more provoking than the ignorance of the English about Americans.  I really doubt if they would know who Benjamin Franklin was, if I should speak of him.  They are really too full of their own greatness to perceive that there is another great nation.  Mr. Airy understands that the Bonds are astronomers, but I dare say Mrs. Prof. Smyth never heard of them, tho’ of course Prof. Smyth has the transactions.  And yet, no observatory has such instruments as Harvard . . .

Despite the fact that the Bonds and the Harvard College Observatory really were among the best in the world, their counterparts in Europe barely knew them – o rat least barely acknowledged them.  Such a factor played a large role in how long it took for Maria to be recognized as indeed the discoverer of her comet in 1847.  The Bonds were among the first to photograph the stars and they entrusted Maria with such a glass plate photograph to bring on her trip to Europe.  She would give this plate to Sir George Airy on her visit to him.  Airy was the Astronomer Royal of England (Charles Piazzi Smyth was Scotland’s Astronomer Royal) and though her first impressions were somewhat strong as you have noted above, she would carry on  a lifelong friendship with Sir George Airy and his wife, Richarda.


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

Maria in her chair

Oct 22, 1869
Chs. B. Trego, Esq.
I have your circular of Oct 15, informing me of my election as a member of the American Phil. Society of Philadelphia. You will please accept my thanks for the honor conferred upon me. Will you have the goodness too inform me if a complete set of the publications of the society can be obtained?
Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell was one of the first women to be inducted into the American Philosophical Society. At the time she was inducted, Mary Somerville (one of Maria’s heroes) and Elizabeth C. Agassiz were inducted. Before that time, only one other woman had become a member – Ekaterina Dashkov in 1789. While she had asked her father, William, to write her letter accepting her membership as the first woman at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Maria wrote her own letter as seen above. By this time, she was at Vassar College and as an older woman and Vassar’s professor of Astronomy, more independent, comfortable, and accepted as a woman acting alone. Times had also changed – it was twenty years since the AAAS induction and while a very few things had changed for women – at least writing a letter for herself and not asking a man in her family to do so!


The Tallest of Us All

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My Dad, decorating the table for Easter 2014. About a week later, he was hospitalized for a massive infection, a side effect of his chemotherapy, that almost killed him.

A short time ago, my nephew finally talked about my Father who died on February 13th this year. He had not mentioned him before that. As my Mother was putting him to bed he said, “Grandpa was the tallest of all of us in the family, right Nana? He had to bend to get under some doors.” He is right. My Dad was the tallest – in many ways. He always stooped or bent his head a bit to the side when he went through a doorway. It was something he did automatically. And living, in a 1750s tavern, reinforced that habit. But he was the tallest too as the heart of our family. He and my Mother together. I love that in his mind’s eye, my nephew sees him as a giant because he was. A giant in our life; a giant in the lives of everyone he touched. You can’t say that about everyone. He was a protector; a quest stable force that so many relied upon, that we relied upon. But he taught us well; I think he gave us a very good map to follow. His guidance is there.

Maria and Father, William Mitchell (Photo)

William and Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865.

The Mitchell family had the same in their father and mother as well. When Lydia Mitchell died in 1861, Maria and her father, William, were just about all that was left on island of the immediate Mitchell family. They could not take it; they could not remain here without her. It was too painful. And so, in a way, they fled their island home to a small city where they were close to family and friends, but where every turn did not remind them of what they had lost. When she lost her father, she was even more adrift. Maria cared for both of her parents but her father was also her mentor and in many respects a “co-worker.” She felt even more abandoned when she lost him.

Everyone reacts differently. I think that fleeing is just burying your head in a way, but I certainly understand it. I live in the house that my Father designed and that my parents built and it is painful. But I am removed from the Town in which my parents live and our family house and the reminders at every turn – though there are many here on island as well since my time here goes back to the age of one and a half – my Dad to 1964 and my Mom to the 1950s.