A friend sent me this in an email so I can’t credit the source, but it’s deja vu a hundred years later. In 1720 there was the plague, in 1820 a cholera epidemic, in 1918-20 – The Spanish Flu, and now 2020 COVID-19 Coronavirus. It seems history repeats itself every hundred years.
The Tall Ships have come and gone, sailing away on a south wind and lots of good cheer, as the Gordon Lightfootsong goes. They have spent the summer visiting ports along the Great Lakes and were in my vicinity for the weekend, attracting 100,000 visitors in the process. You could purchase general admission day and weekend passes, as well as boarding passes that included deck tours, but as I am not a fan of big crowds or standing in long line ups in the sweltering heat, I viewed them from afar on Friday afternoon – along with thousands of other people lining the shore with the same idea!
Among the six ships in dock, was The Bluenose II, a famous Nova Scotia ship, and my favorite, the Nao Santa Maria, the flagship from the 1492 voyage Christopher Columbus made when he discovered North America.
Photo courtesy of Nao Santa Maria Facebook page
This replica was built in Spain to celebrate the 525th anniversary of the discovery of the new world and has spent the past two years touring various ports of call on this side of the Atlantic. (The Nao Santa Maria has it’s own Facebook page if you wish to check if it will be in your area).
We probably all remember the grade school rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” and we may remember the three ships on that famous voyage, the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Pinta, but I was unaware that the Santa Maria did not make the return journey home as it had run aground on a sandbar in Hispaniola/Haiti on Christmas Day 1492.
Here’s a link with more description about the three ships, and also a Wikipedia link with some information about the design, cargo, and the voyage. As the largest of the three, the Santa Maria was the main cargo ship, carried the most men, 52 of the 90, and was considered an old tub too unwieldy to navigate river mouths and shallow bays, which was left to the smaller faster Pinta. Columbus had struggled for years to obtain financing for his project (searching for a sea route to the far east and the treasures of Cathay), until the Queen of Spain reluctantly granted approval for the journey. How overjoyed they must have been to have sighted land and being proven right, even though they were unaware at the time that it was a whole other unexplored continent.
Ahoy mates! Land ahead! (Photo from Nao Santa Maria Facebook page)
Can you imagine travelling across the ocean in that for two months?
I had anticipated the opening Parade of Ships to be a glorious sight to behold – a beautiful sunny day, blue sky and water, white sails billowing in the breeze. While the weather was okay (coolish, sunny but lots of clouds), there was such a brisk north breeze, it wasn’t really a Parade of Sails, it was a Parade of Masts!
The water was so dark and choppy, I had to lighten my pictures to be able to see anything, plus a cloud managed to obscure the sun every time a ship went by. One of the crew was quoted as saying the sails were not up for safety reasons, as the river channel was too deep and narrow to allow much maneuverability, and it was too windy and rough once they got out on the lake. Plus, it wasn’t really a parade, as there were long gaps between the appearance of one ship and the next. We chatted and visited with fellow sightseers, many of whom had driven great distances, and ate french fries from chip trucks under the bridge, which is one of the touristy things to do in this town. This is the first ship which came along, although I don’t know the name, as I was too far away to see.
Several were so tall, we watched in awe as they barely cleared the bridge.
For $120 you could go on board for a two hour cruise during the Parade of Sails, which was sold out, as were all the more reasonably priced ($85 and $60) morning and evening cruises where the proceeds went to charity. I suspect the lack of sails was a liability issue also, as they wouldn’t want to risk anything with all those VIP’s and tourists aboard, especially if they were puking all over the nicely polished wooden decks.
I had a moment of regret, when the Empire Sandy went past. It looked like such fun, and I don’t usually get seasick on boats, having been on cruise ships, ferries and even a small motorboat.
But then I remembered the five days I spend on a Windjammer cruise in the Caribbean, back in my younger years, when I could more easily be talked into such things. I’ve learned my lesson, while something might sound romantic and adventurous, the reality often doesn’t match up. (Plus I require much more luxury in my vacations now). I distinctly remember arriving in St. Marten’s and gazing at the small vessel in the harbor and thinking – no that could not possibly be it. Nothing so small could hold 160 passengers and crew. It did, except for the two who got off at the first stop and flew home, thus saving themselves four more days of misery. Everyone on the boat was sea-sick the first 24 hours – the captain explained that was normal because the stretch from St. Martens to St. Kitt’s was notoriously rough. (Well if that was the case, then why didn’t they depart from a port with calmer waters?) He said most people were okay after the first day. Many were not. He said, stare at the horizon. It didn’t help. Better to be above deck, than below. Itwasn’t. Have some more booze. I don’t drink. While the cabins were so small as to be claustrophobic, the rocking of the ship was somewhat comforting when you were tucked up in your bunk bed at night. I tried not to think about the fact that only a foot of timber separated me from the watery depths. The food was okay, if you could eat it. (The dry crackers were highly recommended). We visited St. Bart’s and a private island for a picnic and scuba diving which was a welcome break. On Day 3, I applied one of those anti-nausea patches behind my ear – upon awakening on Day 4, I removed it, after walking into a wall and being told my pupils looked strangely dilated. (Most fixed-dose drugs are not for me, as I am a featherweight). Night 5 was particularly rough again, the rocking cradle turned into a see-saw, invoking a few prayers. I was never so glad to see dry land again, and practically kissed the ground at the hotel. The only good thing about the whole trip was the two days of shopping and restaurants in St. Marten’s capital city. The only good thing about the ship was there was plenty of hot water in the showers, and they played Amazing Grace on deck in the evening when they unfurled the sails, a nice romantic ritual. (Funny, I don’t remember the sails being raised during the day, probably too many drunken tourists about who might fall overboard). Thank God a wretch like me was saved – but I swore never to set foot on a sailing ship again!
It may be exhilarating to be on board when the wind grabs the sails, but sailing is only for more adventurous souls, with strong stomachs. For the rest of us, the Tall Ships are a pretty sight, best viewed from the safety of the shore.
(photo courtesy of the Tall Ships Festival Facebook site)
Postscript: Like the best of all plans, Columbus started small, with old ships. News of his new world discovery spread quickly throughout Europe, so on his second voyage, he was given a fleet of 17 ships, with 1,200 men and the supplies needed to establish permanent colonies in the New World. Which just goes to show how any new venture can start with one small step, which with a bit of luck and a favorable south wind, can turn into something much larger.
Last month I blogged about a Victorian tea party I attended on the grounds of a local museum. If you are a history lover, please join me for part two of the tour, a visit to yesteryear.
While the Victorian cottage is one of the original buildings on the museum site, there are many others. Most have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, as well as a local lighthouse.
The 1919 church with the original pipe organ in the corner.
The one room schoolhouse.
At the risk of sounding like someone from Little House on the Prairie, I seldom admit I once attended a one room schoolhouse. It was located less than half a mile down the road from our farm, within walking distance even for a first grader, and was the same school my dad and all his ancestors had attended. In 1963 the government closed all the remaining rural schools, and our parents drove us into town to the Catholic school until the bus system was started a few years later.
What do I remember from my year and a half there? Not much, as I was only six. The big wood burning stove, so hot you could cook hot dogs wrapped in tin foil on top for lunch,
games of baseball for all ages at recess, getting the strap once (just a little tap on our hands) for talking in class and being made to stand in the corner with my cousin – much more humiliating. The teacher was always yelling and in a bad mood – can you imagine trying to teach 40 kids of all ages. It may sound archaic, but I suppose it would be similar to home schooling now, with different age appropriate lessons. As there were only three of us in grade one, myself, my cousin and an unkempt boy whose family no one knew, we did not get much attention, but I must have absorbed something from listening to her teach the older grades, as when we were given tests at the new school I passed with 92%. (They thought we were country hicks who would have to be held back a year). My new grade two teacher was pleasantly surprised and told my parents I was smart, a moment I remember to this day. I always had a friendly rivalry with the boy sitting in front of me over who would get top honors, sometimes it was him, sometimes me, and as I went on to graduate from the University of Toronto, it didn’t to me any harm, although I admit some kids who needed extra attention were not as lucky.
Compare this slate with the tablets of today. I vaguely remember the sound of the school bell being rung.
At the one room schoolhouse the grade ones were let out half an hour early, and my cousin, who lived next door, and I would dawdle along, catching tadpoles in the ditches, playing in the snowbanks and making up fairy stories, the road being lined with beautiful trees, (channeling Anne of Green Gables here), and arrive home the same time as my siblings. It seems I remember more than I had thought.
Here is a picture of the class of 1934, with the school in the background appearing larger than I remember.
This is a log cabin from 1874, not a replica but an actual cabin moved to the site to preserve a part of history.
My great-grandparents John and Ellen were married in 1870 and I try to imagine my Irish ancestors living in such a small drafty house during their early years on the farm. The old white farmhouse I grew up in had two parts, the initial smaller dwelling and a larger addition with bedrooms upstairs to accommodate their growing family of nine children.
This picture of an old stove certainly puts my complaints about the ongoing delays in my kitchen reno into perspective. What my ancestors would have given for such modern conveniences as a stove you could turn on with the touch of a button.
Not too keen on the sleeping arrangements, a loft accessed by very steep stairs. I remember my dad saying some of his uncles slept upstairs in the granary when it was new, which probably looked like this. I imagine it was freezing in the winter, hence the quilts.
Open concept floor plans were popular back then too! We have an antique farm table dating from 1870, longer than this one.
While most farms had large vegetable gardens, including rhubarb, and were mainly self-sufficient,
there were times you simply had to go into town for a few provisions at the general store,
and perhaps a new hat.
The model train room, which boasts three large train sets, is always a hit with the guys.
As well as the individual buildings, there is a large agricultural building full of old farm implements such as this cutter/sleigh. We had one just like it and my dad sometimes took it for a spin behind the Clydesdales.
There is also a largeexhibition hall, with a marine room and different display rooms and lots of historical archives. It does seem strange that my Barbie/Skipper carry case has now achieved vintage status.
I remember playing with this doll house too.
Several volunteers were setting up the loom for a display of weaving the day of our visit, a time consuming process. There was no fast fashion back then.
And of course, I always enjoy looking at old medical exhibits, such as this infirmary,
The tools of my trade
Perhaps somewhere among those antique bottles is a clue for my (long neglected) murder mystery? Agatha Christie used the knowledge acquired during her days as an apothecary apprentice when writing her books.
When I think back to the changes in my profession over the past one hundred years – the invention of penicillin and antibiotics, vaccines, insulin – these are discoveries which saved lives. In my student days pharmacy labels were prepared on typewriters, not as ancient as this one as ours were electric with correcto-tape.
The last forty years of my career has seen the implementation of computers (a massive improvement for record keeping, drug information and drug interactions), clot-busters for preventing damage in heart attack and stroke, palliative care measures for end of life, improved chemotherapy, drugs for depression and mental illness, biologicals for autoimmune diseases, and more new drugs on the market than you can possibly keep up with. When I think of the future – targeted chemotherapy, gene therapy, cures for diseases never thought possible – it is amazing the amount of change that can happen over the course of a century.
One Christmas my father was given one of those autobiography books to document your life for the grandchildren. One of the questions was what are the most important changes you have seen in your life as compared to that of your grandparents.
“When my grandparents settled here the land was all bush. Roads were Indian trails. People lived far apart. They had to build houses, barns, roads, clear land. Walking and horses were the main modes of travel. Machinery was crude or non-existent. Since then tractors and combines have been invented. Hydro, paved roads, cars, radios, toasters, tvs, micowaves, computers. Household goods and furnishings have changed such as washers and dryers, refrigerators and stoves, air conditioning in summer and furnaces in winter instead of a wood stove. My mother churned butter and we had an ice box and a root cellar for vegetables, an outhouse, no running water in the house and having to heat water on the stove for a bath. Materials are softer now than the scratchy clothes I wore as a child. You have toys now that we never dreamed of. The biggest changes are education and modern schools, and medicines and childhood diseases.”
My father was a child of the Depression, and one of changes he recalled was hydro. The farm didn’t get hydro until after WW2, 1947, and all of a sudden you had lights in the barn and weren’t milking cows by lantern light, and you could stay up late with hydro in the house. Worth thinking about the next time I grumble because the power is out a few hours due to a storm. As to the future, he commented on computers and the internet which was just starting up. In the twenty years since he died we now have – Google, Youtube, Facebook, Wikipedia, Skype, Instagram, Twitter, Siri, Spotify, Netflix, IPods, IPads, GPS, digital cameras and clouds which are not rain clouds, although we have plenty of those too! We are now testing cars that drive themselves, robots and artificial intelligence. It feels like something out of the Jetsons – that old 60’s cartoon about a futuristic world which was very predictive. Does anyone else remember the theme music?
What will the future hold? Maybe someday my old 1986 DOS computer, currently residing in the basement, with it’s orange blinking screen and large floppy disks, will be on display at the museum, resting behind the electronics exhibit, along with a Sony Walkman and a ghetto-blaster.
As a history lover, I feel it is important to preserve our heritage, and I hope you have enjoyed this peek into the past.
Postscript: My mother painted the log cabin (two versions), but she placed it in winter time, as my ancestors arrived here in late October, not expecting snow. Is the lighthouse a beacon to the new world? You can tell I’ve been hanging around the art world too much…
Beacon to the New World
The Log Cabin
Postscript: This is my 100th post. I never would have imagined that!
Every May 24th weekend one of our local museums hosts their annual Victorian Tea, complete with freshly baked scones, white tablecloths and fine china.
The May 24th holiday weekend in Canada is called the Victoria Day weekend, because May 24 was Queen Victoria’s birthday. Older people may remember the schoolyard rhyme children chanted years ago – “the twenty-fourth of May / Is the Queen’s birthday; / If they don’t give us a holiday / We’ll all run away!” Now many people don’t even know who Queen Victoria was, unless you watch the PBS TV show Victoria, but she was Britain’s longest reining monarch, although Queen Elizabeth surpassed her in 2015. She became Queen at age 18 and reined over the British Empire for 63 years, from 1937 until her death in 1901, a period known as the Victorian era. She married her cousin Albert, had nine children and survived 20 different governments and 11 prime ministers. After her death, her birthday was made a federal holiday, which was eventually was moved to the Monday preceding May 24 because of the weekend. Queen Victoria most likely would have approved as weekends were an invention of the Victoria era. This May 24th marks the 200th anniversary of her birth in 1819.
Note: the Union Jack (Canada did not get it’s own Maple Leaf flag until 1965) and the old fashioned lilac bush (see Lilac Time).
The Victorian cottage is one of many buildings on the museum site, whose mandate is to display our past customs and heritage. Many have been moved to the site, including a one room schoolhouse, a small church and a log cabin from the days of the early settlers, but the cottage was part of the original grounds. It is a small one floor dwelling, built in 1893, which was used by a Detroit woman as a summer home until her death, when it was donated to the museum. She was known as the cookie lady, for her kindness in treating the neighborhood children to sugar cookies on the veranda when they were passing by.
It consists of a good sized dining room, living room and kitchen and two very small bedrooms.
The inside still looks as it did during the time she lived there, floral wallpaper, quilts and all.
The problem with the Victoria Day weekend is that the weather is usually guaranteed to be cold, rainy and miserable, which does not deter the campers, as it is considered the unofficial start to summer. It seldom fails, whereas the following weekend, the US Memorial Day is often quite nice. Still, not one to let a bit of rain (or even forty days of it like this spring), get in the way of a good tea spread, I decided to attend. The last time I was there, it was miraculously a warm and sunny day, with a pleasant breeze coming off the river, and we were able to take our tea outside on the veranda, as opposed to inside huddled beside the stove. It was such a fine day we lingered over a second cup.
Although the day started out warm and sunny, the forecast was rain by 3pm, (I’m quite serious about the forty days of rain), so we set out early and decided to tour the buildings first (my friend had never been there), as we could always sit inside later if it started to pour. On our walk about, I noticed a big patch of rhubarb growing beside the log cabin and took some pictures which I could have used in last week’s Rhubarb Lunar Cake blog. (It’s never too late to edit!)
There’s something so civilized about a tea party and the clink of china tea cups, shades of Downton Abbey. Each small table was laid with white tablecloths, cream and sugar sets, crystal butter dishes, jars of strawberry jam and a colorful mixture of china cups and plates.
The servers, young and old, were dressed in the costume of servants of the day, complete with frilly caps and white aprons. The wind was so strong, their aprons were billowing in the breeze and the tablecloths were threatening to blow away, so we decided to sit inside.
The only occupant of the veranda was a bird nesting high up in the rafters, most likely anticipating left over crumbs.
Even inside, with the veranda doors open, it was so windy that our vase of flowers blew over soaking the tablecloth, which they removed and replaced with one even more exquisitely embroidered. Our server, a charming young girl of about ten, inquired as to our choice of tea and scones – raisin, rhubarb, orange or apple cinnamon.
Such a difficult decision, but my choice is always the rhubarb – it was divine, light and fluffy, and I am still trying to get the recipe, a carefully guarded secret. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of it before it was consumed!
They make up to 400 scones for the day, using the cottage’s own wood-fired stove. (Note the mirror at the top – I guess that was to check your appearance after slaving over a hot stove all day?) The cost of the tea was $7.50 with donations to the museum fund, ordinary admission being $5, a bargain for the price.
Exactly at 3 pm as predicted, the skies opened up and rained on our lovely tea party. Oh well, there’s always next year…I’m sure I’ll be back.
Postscript: Easy rhubarb scones, only for truly lazy cooks or those whose kitchens are about to be torn apart. Mix this, with this,
When I traveled to Ireland in the early 80’s, in the days of cheap Euro-rail passes, I went by myself, which looking back was a brave thing to do and certainly out of character for me, a reserved introvert (and I might add the one and only time I traveled by myself). None of my family or friends were interested in Ireland, but it was one of two places I wanted to see when I graduated, the other being New York city. Ireland was not then the popular tourist destination it is today. I remember it as a dismal country, full of small dreary towns, but I had Irish ancestors and even at a young age I was the family historian. It was the stories that interested me. In addition to researching the family history, I had booked a week at an English-riding academy, as a promise to my younger horse-crazy self. This was in the days when Glamour magazine (my fashion bible) had the travel section, which profiled said establishment and promised a glorious week in the Irish countryside (I remember the exact wording) with lovely walks by the sea. I must have envisioned riding to the hounds or galloping along the cliffs like Poldark, something which appealed to the poetic me. After spending a few days at the Dublin Library going through old microfilms of land records (computers and the internet had not then been invented), I located a section of Leitrim County where there seemed to be a large concentration of Patricks and Marys and Johns with my last name, spelled with an a and not the more common o. My dad said it was always with an a, but you have to be careful with genealogy records as variations in spelling can sometimes be the recorder’s honest mistake.
My great great grandparents Patrick and Mary had immigrated to Canada in 1846 at the start of the potato famine and their 14 year old son John came a year later through New York. For more on their story check out last years St. Patrick’s Day blog – Irish Roots.
Patrick and Mary – (tintype)
Their son John below, sitting in the chair, aged 80 yr in 1912.
John and Ellen Family Portrait – 1912
Patrick was proud of his Leitrim County heritage and had it inscribed on his tombstone when he died in 1880, where it is barely legible today.
After sight-seeing in Dublin, I took the train around Ireland, staying in B&B’s and doing some side tours, the usual ones, The Lakes of Killarney,
The Lakes of Killarney
the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula (the only sunny day), and the Cliffs of Moher. Readers of my long-winded posts might find it hard to believe but I bailed out of kissing the Blarney stone.
The medical me was horrified at the unhygienic aspect, especially considering my general lack of immunity to foreign germs, plus the thought of reclining backwards over the parapets at that height was not exactly appealing. (see picture under Wikipedia link)
It was September and the weather was gloomy – it rained every day. If it wasn’t raining, it was overcast. (I forgot to put film in the camera, thus missing a whole role of dull gray skies). Central heating was mostly non-existent. I was cold all the time, and wore both of the Irish sweaters I had bought in Dublin the first week.
It poured on the Cliffs of Moher and I got thoroughly soaked, then the bus broke down and we sat for hours waiting for a mechanic to arrive. It was a scary drive back to Cork in the dark with no headlights. Fortunately, my very kind B&B owner met me at the station, as she wondered why I hadn’t returned at 6 pm as planned. She turned on the bedwarmer/electric blanket and after I had a hot bath, brought me tea and cookies, while I sat in bed writing in my journal about my dreadful day. I guess you could say Ireland is where I first started to write, as I kept a travel journal and wrote in it at night if there was nothing else to do. Although it was easy to meet people in the B&B’s, I wasn’t much of a party person and there are only so many pub/Celtic music nights you can handle over a three week period. Reading back over my journal entries, they’re not half bad.
The glorious week at the equestrian centre turned out to be one lesson in a drafty old ridingring, listening to a rude female instructor yell at a group of tweens, horses and myself, in that order. I wasn’t sitting up straight enough, and even though I have a small degree of scoliosis, she showed no mercy. Towards the end of the lesson, when the horse sat down on me, I got off and walked back to the B&B just down the road. So much for that expensive pair of riding boots I had bought in Dublin. The next morning I woke up with a terrible cold, but luckily I had a nice B&B to convalesce in. The proprietress kept insisting there were some lovely walks to the sea (perhaps it was she who had supplied the Glamour advertisement), but I barely left the room, sleeping and reading, and being entertained by their talkative twelve-year old daughter (a carbon copy of Anne of Green Gables complete with red pigtails), who kept me amused with her drawings and music collection. I would surface for supper with the only other guest, an older lady from Dublin in search of a holiday and some company. She talked non-stop. I listened, nodded, and after a spell by the turf fire, went back to bed.
When I was sufficiently recovered, I took the train to Carrick-on-Shannon. Leitrim County (see Wikepedia) is located in central Ireland near the northern border. It’s definitely off the beaten tourist path, but I wasn’t brave enough to rent a car as there were white crosses on the roads marking the spots where tourists had died from forgetting to drive on the left side of the road. I found the local parish and the priest said there was a church in Fenagh and they might have records. He said he didn’t have any records, that I’d come at the wrong time of year and that the area was ‘polluted’ with people with my surname. I didn’t have time to reply that it was spelled with an a, before he slammed the door in my face. (Sigh….they must get tired of tourists).
While I had been blessed so far with nice B&B’s, the one I booked into must have been the worst in all of Ireland. It was undergoing renovations, there was doggy do-do on the stairs, no hot water or heat, and the not very kind landlady told me I had to have breakfast by 8 or I wouldn’t be getting any at all. She did however make arrangements for a driver to take me out to the parish church. There was only one Catholic church in the outlying area and only one cab driver in the town. The next morning when the driver (your typical small Irishman), showed up he was dressed in a tweed suit and tie and not a day under 85. He looked frail, but the B&B lady had assured me he was in good health, just a bit senile, and unlike most Irish people not much for conversation. The only word I remember him saying was ‘aye’.
It was a very foggy morning as we drove out into the countryside and all I could see were hawthorn trees and piles and piles of rocks, swirled in an eerie mist. It was the most desolate place I’d ever seen, and I kept thinking no wonder they left. The west parts of Ireland around Connemara by the sea are rocky but picturesque – but this was just plain bleak. When we got to the church, it looked like a new modern church, right there in the middle of nowhere.
An old priest answered the door. His eyes were red and rheumy and he looked hungover, but he opened the church so I could take some pictures. He told me the church had been built in 1840, (so perhaps my ancestors had worshiped there), but the records only went back to 1855 because of ‘the fire’. There were a few Patricks and one John listed in his old book but the dates weren’t right. The church had been renovated in 1970 and there were about 700 people in the parish. We certainly hadn’t passed any houses so the parish must have taken up a large area of the countryside. (We hadn’t passed any cars either, so perhaps I could have driven on the right side of the road).
When I went back to the car the driver had fallen asleep, so I woke him up and we drove down to the church cemetery which was about a mile down the road, just outside a small village which consisted of a pub, a store, a few houses and a school. The church graveyard was at the site of an old monastery (Fenagh Abbey) which originated around 500 AD and held the ruins of two churches which dated from the 15th century.
There were some newer tombstones, most with the o spelling, a few Patricks and Johns, and lots of crumbled old stones which were impossible to read. I wandered around for awhile taking pictures – it was a strange experience being in the place where your ancestors might have stood and could be buried. The atmosphere was certainly mystical.
Patrick and Mary’s parents, being too old to travel, had stayed behind, and I assume John must have stayed with them when all the others left. Maybe they died in the famine and so he had no choice but to leave a year or two later. They probably wouldn’t have had a proper burial place as in 1847, the worse year of the famine, corpses littered the roads and fields and there was no one left to bury them, nor any coffins to be had. Tombstones were only for the rich.
I recently read a book by John Kelly, The Graves are Walking, which details the horror of that era of Ireland’s history.
Having read it, I’m having difficulty with the decision of John being left behind, but then they left in Sept 1846 when the potato crop had failed but before the worst of the famine hit, and if it was John’s decision to stay behind and go to school, then perhaps 14 then wasn’t the child it seems today. Someone must have paid for his passage and put him on a ship to New York, the poor survival rate on the coffin ships to Canada being well known by then. (NB: there is also a Famine Museum in Roscommon Ireland, a tribute to the national disaster).
When I went back to the car the driver had dozed off again and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up so I wandered around some more, snapping pictures. Finally I had to rouse him as I had to catch the train to Dublin. The fog had burned off by then, so I could see more of the countryside on the way back, poor rocky land, the odd house, a few cows and sheep here and there. It was September which would have been harvest season if they had been able to grow anything, even potatoes. We passed a small lake, perhaps they fished?
The Irish tourism site says that Leitrim County, at 32,000, is one of the most sparsely populated counties in Ireland. It was certainly a godforsaken place. At the time of the famine it had a large population of over 150,000, many of whom emigrated. When we arrived back at the B&B I gave the driver 15 pounds instead of the 10 he requested. I was just glad he got me back in one piece – that we hadn’t driven into a bog someplace where I might have been preserved for centuries like the famous bog man in the Dublin museum.
Certainly, it was a surreal experience to visit the land of your long lost ancestors. Now that we have Ancestry.com and numerous online resources, and personal genealogists who will do all the searching for you, I might go back some day, with a more specific plan in mind. For it has certainly occurred to me, that possibly I wasn’t even in the right place. A few years ago, a distant relative in California contacted me. He had tried to do further research and came up empty-handed. There are so few records, that I may have to remain content with my “lost in the mists of time” experience.
A friend brought me back some souvenirs from her Irish trip last year, a Leitrim County flag and a miniature bottle of whiskey, which my leprechaun is enjoying here.
In the thirty five years since I was there, Ireland has prospered, every small town now a picture of tidy charm. Her photographs were gorgeous, but then cameras have improved too. Sensibly, she went in May and had two weeks of solid sunshine and balmy weather. The clerk in the tourist shop inquired why would you want a souvenir from that place – nobody lives in Leitrim County. Well my ancestors once did. I placed the flag on Patrick and Mary’s tombstone in our church cemetery, as I thought they might enjoy the fact that a great great granddaughter was thinking of them and their old homeplace. I hope their Irish eyes were smiling down on me.
A few weeks later, the flag was gone, blown away by the wind, or removed by the priest or grass-cutter, someone with no respect for the past.
Postscript: When I got back to Dublin, I booked a hotel on Grafton Street which had central heating, plenty of hot water and lots of shopping nearby, then switched to a B&B the night before my flight. My suitcase was so full of souvenirs that I had to leave the riding boots behind in the B&B. I simply could not cram them in, so I left them there beside the bed. I hope someone else found them useful – but I have regretted that decision to this day, as there are many times when I’m mucking around in the garden in the spring when they would have come in handy!
‘Village for sale in Yorkshire – property includes a great house with 43 low rent cottages,’ said the ad on the internet. For only 28 million pounds you could have your very own Downton Abbey, complete with a butler saying, “Welcome to Downton” or whatever you wished to call your estate.
I was late to the British Television drama Downton Abbey, having binge-watched five seasons over the winter of 2015, when it’s ending was already rumoured. Forty some episodes later, I was addicted, and could see why it was watched by over 100 million people in 200 countries and considered the best drama series ever. I had heard people talking about the show and had even tried watching a bit here and there but there were so many characters and relationships to keep straight. The librarian suggested the only solution was to go back to the beginning, so I did. It helped make a long snowy winter pass pleasantly, as I spend it in balmy Britain in the early part of the twentieth century. Recently our local Public Television station has been airing the re-runs, which inspired me to revisit the world of Downton and make some observations, focusing on the fun, food, and fashions.
As a history lover, I found the era of the show fascinating, as it was a time of much change and innovation in the world, which is one of the reasons that producer Julian Fellowes chose it for his period drama. He starts his saga in 1912 with the fateful sinking of the Titanic (and the death of the Downton heir apparent), and subsequently covers WW1 and the 1920’s, all the while working many of the decades most famous innovations into the script – cars, electricity, telephones, early airplane travel, listening to the king’s speech on the wireless/radio plus household appliances like refrigerators, toasters, mixers, sewing machines, typewriters, curling tongs and hair dryers as well as covering changes in women’s fashions, hairstyles and roles. Looking back, Downton is a strange world in many ways, one many of us may find hard to relate to, especially if you are not British and your only exposure to the aristocracy is a picture of the Queen on your Canadian money. The show is interesting because it depicts the rigid class structure of the time, the wide gulf between the social classes and the upstairs downstairs aspect of running a great house, as well as the developing increase in the middle class and the importance of education. Of course, we would all like to have lived such a life of leisure, and never have to worry about cleaning the house, making supper or childcare – there were nannies for that. It was an envious lifestyle in many ways, even if they did tend to spend very little time with their children – an hour after tea time, but as the Countess Dowager exclaimed, it was an hour every day!
While some things would have been lovely, such as having a breakfast tray brought to you in bed, (only for married women, spinsters like Edith were expected to show up at the table) and having an elegant five course meal prepared for you every night, other things like being a slave to the 7 pm gong (dinner at eight seems way too late), and eating in the formal dining room in your best clothes in the presence of the butler and footmen, would have seemed very rigid on a regular basis. (No sneaking leftover pizza in the kitchen of that household.) Could you eat when someone was standing there like a statue, pretending not to watch you or listen to the conversation whilst being ready should you require any attention. It might be a tad uncomfortable, but maybe preferable to trying to flag down a waitress to bring you a coffee refill. There was always conversation over dinner, and after they “went through” to the living room, more conversation. So different from today when so many people dine with their cell phones instead of their companions.
One would think they were a family of anorexic alcoholics from the dining room scenes. While they served themselves from the platters proffered by the footmen, there never seemed to be much food on their plates, (especially the deserts, and I watched!) which might explain why they were so thin. They tended to savour small exquisite portions – certainly no supersized meals there.
Strawberry English Trifle
And the wine, so many different ones for each courses, but as Carson said, they usually only take a sip. What a waste of good wine, why not just open one bottle for the meal, and be done with it. The china and crystal were lovely however – why don’t we use the good china anymore. It’s so much more elegant – as long as you don’t have to wash the dishes, and why did they never ever show anyone washing all those dishes night after night?
And the tea – so many cups poured, so few sips taken…but such pretty teacups. But no scones or treats? It’s a long way until supper – ah yes, the crumbs and calories. Teacups are elegant, but they hold 4 oz at most, and when I want a cup of tea, I want a bracing hot mugful. Recently I saw a lovely silver tea service at a thrift shop, but it would need polishing and I already own too many teapots I seldom use – no one entertains like that anymore, which is why it was in the thrift shop.
Oh, the clothes – that long elegant silhouette, nothing too clingy, or skin tight like today’s fashions with everything emphasized and/or overexposed. I especially liked the flapper style when they entered the 1920’s, and all the jewelry and hair ornaments….and the hats, so many stylish hats, week after week. Even their nightgowns and robes were feminine and elegant.
For a fashionista it was worth tuning in just for the clothes. The show must have been a wardrobe persons dream job. The colours and fabrics were exquisite too. But did they really need a lady’s maid to help remove their jewelry and undress themselves before bed, like a bunch of toddlers? I found this 1912 book The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes (Julian Fellowes niece) most interesting in explaining the jobs of the various household servants.
There were chapters on each of the characters, as well as general historical information about the running of such an estate and depictions of common household items. Part of the lady’s maid’s job was to maintain, mend and care for the clothing. Sign me up – I hate doing laundry and despise that half hour of ironing every week. Imagine having someone to pack and unpack for you when traveling – it would be pure bliss.
While women’s clothing can be delicate and in need of more care, the valet’s role was even more puzzling and seemed to consist of nothing more than brushing the dandruff off the shoulders of the men’s evening jackets and polishing their shoes. But again, there was the packing and maintenance and plenty of rules for black tie, white tie and tweeds. In one of the early episodes, Lady Mary inadvertently insults one of the staff by commenting that he was only a footman, but a staff position in such a great house was a steady and respected job, guaranteed employment and a step-up for many in the village.
Jessica Fellows has published a number of these lavish hardcover coffee-table type books, including this earlier one, The World of Downton Abbey, 2011, with lots of behind the scenes photos. Highclere Castle, where the filming takes place, is a real working estate, and the present day countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon has published At Home at Highclere: Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey, which chronicles the food, menus and entertainment of four historic weekend house parties held at the estate from 1866 to 1936. There seems to be no shortage of books about Downton as recently I ran across this book, Downton Abbey and Philosophy, edited by Adam Barkman and Robert Arp, with contributions by 22 writers, about such diverse topics as the War Years, Master and Servant and Lady Edith and the Trials of the Modern Woman, as well philosophical ventures into morality, manners and socialism.
What did they do for fun? They seemed to read a lot of books – at least they are always opening and closing them, and wouldn’t it be splendid to have that red carpeted library, although many of the books look like dusty tombs. The dinners and parties and dances look splendid, especially the waltzes and the jazz tunes on the phonograph. The fox hunting and horse race scenes were gorgeously filmed as was the grouse hunting in the heather filled moors and the visit to the Scottish castle. A life of privilege would certainly have its pluses, but would it be enough? (see the philosophy book – finding the meaning of life in Downton Abbey). I suppose you wouldn’t question it if that was all you knew, but I am reminded of Sybil’s remark after the war was over, when they had grown accustomed to having a purpose in life (in her case nursing). Instead of going to dress fittings and endless teas and charity events she said she wanted to be tired at the end of the day, tired from doing useful work. Well Darling Sybil, I’m sorry they killed you off in Season Three, but work is tiring, very tiring – try it for twenty years or so and let’s check back or let’s change places. I think I could adapt to being a lady of leisure – are there any British castles where they will let you sample the life of a lord and lady for a month? Highclere Castle does host some daytime events and there are cottages you can rent overnight, which brings me back to that ad? Anyone have an extra 28 million pounds they can spare? Or if not, then anyone care for tea? We can always pretend…..
I know some people who stopped watching after Season 3 as they could not handle the deaths of two of the main characters, but apparently those two actors had specified they only wanted 3-year contracts. Maybe they were afraid of being typecast, but having watched Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas, well seriously – Mathew was all I could see. The story-line of Downton Abbey really draws you in, it is multilayered with many characters. The scenes are short for the most part, and the pace quick. Having such an excellent cast of strong actors helps, they really inhabit their roles. My least favourite characters were Mr. Bates (bad temper, shady past and way too old for Anna), Cora with her breathy baby-like voice and snobby ways, Shirley McClain as her American mother (horribly typecast), as was Miss Bunting (rude and much too short). I’m glad they ended the show on a high note after six seasons, as I really couldn’t take Bates facing jail time yet again…..and Mary’s multiple suitors were no replacement for Mathew. Although she did eventually chose one, none of them could ever measure up.
In some cases, (the pigs anyone?) they seemed to have run out of story-lines. But I was very glad poor Edith was happy at last, and ranked higher socially than Lady Mary, (but then I was a middle child too). Epilogue: There are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie swirling, with a tentative release date of Sept 2019, but I wish they had left them frozen in time at New Years 1926. It ended perfectly, with all the story lines wrapped up nicely, so why run the risk of spoiling it – but then I may be convinced otherwise. I’ll be watching…..I wonder if the movie theatres will be serving tea and scones?
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo March famously, in the opening sentence of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Statistics say that the average child in the developed world owns over 200 toys but only plays with 12 of them on an average day, and only 3% of the world’s children live in the US but they own 40% of the world’s toys. Certainly we have become a nation of excessive consumption of toys as well as every thing else, but it wasn’t always this way. Last summer while visiting a local library branch I snapped some pictures of a museum display on Early Toys which I found quite interesting and would like to share….if only to give you pause to think before you buy someone yet another stuffed animal. (Guilty as charged – but those Panda Bears are so cute).
Early toys simply reflected everyday life and activities. It was generally accepted that children were attracted to toys along gender lines.
Dolls were always popular and were often homemade.
My mother grew up in the during the 1930’s Depression when times were hard. Her few dolls were cheap versions with stuffed bodies and porcelain heads and she never had a really nice one, although some of the richer kids in town did. One of her friends never even had a doll. She remembers getting a toy tea set one year and they would always receive an orange (which they never had any other time of year), a popcorn ball, some hard candy and candy canes which would be placed on a chair on Christmas morning. Her brother got a baseball and bat or a hockey stick and puck, and one year a steel car (my dad had the same model so it was probably the Hot Wheels car of the time). They never had a Christmas tree until the 1940’s – just once in her childhood and then they had nothing to put on it except red crepe paper and a string of popcorn. I know this sounds like Little House on the Prairie, but there were no Christmas lights until later.
If you didn’t have money for a real doll there were paper dolls, and I remember playing with these a bit in the 1960’s. It was fun to change their clothes about but then we played with our Barbie dolls until we were ten or older as most of the fun was in the fashion, including sewing their little outfits.
Toys for boys gave them skills needed for adult life such as building things.
When my older brother was about ten he got a train set for Christmas. My dad had nailed the track to a big sheet of plywood and after the supper was cleared it was placed on the long dining room table and all the guys in the family, including the adults, had great fun watching that little train chugging round and round the track, the engine breathing a plume of smoke.
Books were popular for both boys and girls, and were always one of my favorite childhood Christmas presents. I was thrilled to get a new Trixie Belden (girl detective) or a classic like Little Women, and could usually be found reading it on Christmas night while everyone was playing euchre and card games with my grandparents and eating Pot of Gold chocolates and chips and drinking Coke. We never had those (junk food) treats other than on holidays or occasionally on Saturday nights when Hockey Night in Canada was on.
Even if you didn’t grow up in the Depression era like my parents, children didn’t have as many toys back then because they had to help out with the chores both inside and outside the house.
My dad said when he was growing up, Christmas was just a big meal and going to church. It was not about presents, because people couldn’t afford them. His best present was a pair of ice skates he got when he was 13. He had saved towards the $5 to buy them. This was in 1939 when the Depression was ending, which was also the first time he saw a movie, A Christmas Carol, with his brother and sister. He said they were scared to death, and I remember finding the Ghost of Christmas Past quite frightening when I was a child. It was always on Christmas Eve and I would go to bed before the scary part came on. I don’t think his skates looked like this ancient pair – I don’t know how they were attached but my mother says her roller skates had straps to fit over the shoes.
Skates were always a favorite in Canada, but compare this rusty pair with today’s modern technology of molded boots and super sharp blades which could easily cost several hundred dollars. While we may have fond memories of skating on outdoor ponds when we were children, will today’s kids have the same fond memories of their video games and electronic gadgets? They may still have story hour at the library, but I have noticed even the tiniest 4 or 5 year olds are eager to get their allotted time on the children’s computer.
But what if you have no toys? It is a sad fact that half the world is living in poverty.
My dad recalled making mud pies in the Depression…..and I remember my younger brother and I lining up the chestnuts we had gathered at Thanksgiving as fields and fences for his farm animal set. My dad made him a wooden barn one year – it was painted white with a green retractable roof. I crept down to the basement a few nights before Christmas while Santa was at work sawing the wood – fortunately the paint was dry by Christmas morning. Playing is instinctual in a young child, and children are ingenious for inventing games out of what is at hand, which is why you see children in refugee camps playing games with improvised materials such as a pile of rags wound tightly to make a soccer ball. (see link to last years blog on The Good Samaritan Shoebox Project which sends toys to impoverished countries).
Who can forget the excitement of lying awake on Christmas Eve and wondering what Santa would bring. We all have our favorite presents that we remember as a child….and sometimes the worst, like those bunny suit pajamas poor Ralphie got in the 1983 movie A Christmas Story.
I don’t remember making a Christmas list as a child. Our parents just bought us things they thought we would like, but can that really be a toy ironing set in that box, as ironing is now my absolutely most hated household chore? My best ever present was my Skipper doll when I was nine and had to go in hospital after Christmas to get my tonsils out….looking back it was probably a bribe of sorts. Skipper was Barbie’s younger sister and she had bendable knees. She came with at least twelve different accessorized outfits which I credit with my ability to coordinate any outfit today (see skills needed in later life). I can still remember the thrill I felt when I opened that stack of individual boxes of tiny clothes and accessories. I already had Midge (Barbie’s best friend), who my mother had convinced me was far superior to my older sisters Barbie, in the same way that Chatty Cathy (she talked when you pulled the string on her back), was superior to her boring ballerina doll who never said a word, (lesson learned, it is better to be different and unique and to speak out than to just look pretty). While money was not as plentiful then, especially compared to today’s standards, and we never got toys other times of the year, my parents always made sure we had a good Christmas, (although I have never quite forgiven my mother for those pixie haircuts her French hairdresser talked her into when all the other girls in the class had long hair and curls).
How many toys are too many toys? Can a child really appreciate anything if they have such an excess of stuff. I once spent a Christmas in a house where the entire living room floor was covered with so many presents it took the better part of the day to unwrap them all and a ten year old whined because they didn’t get the one present they wanted. It was sold out by mid-November, every parent’s nightmare, a sad phenomena which started with the Cabbage Patch Kids in the eighties and recently those $80 Hatchimals which this year are gathering dust on the store shelves. It is far better to give a child the one toy they really want than a pile of stuff they don’t, but perhaps that is a teachable moment too?
I long for the days when toy shopping was as easy as buying a playdoh set (which is fun for grownups too), but I haven’t toy shopped in years. This year as I have some little ones to buy for (as in younger than two and more likely to play with the box), I discovered to my disappointment that Tickle Me Elmo does not laugh as much as he used to…..two laughs and that’s it? He used to laugh so long and hard it made you laugh….we had one in the ER department for prn use if a child was crying inconsolably. No doubt they have modified this feature for the sake of the parents sanity, but as he was on sale for half price ($20) I bought him anyway….plus some books….you can’t go wrong with books. If you think a child might have too much and doesn’t need more of the same, a small present to open and money for the education fund might be appreciated……someday.
Sometimes it is fun to buy toys for the grownups too, as Charles Dickens said in A Christmas Carol, “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child Himself.” Last year I started someone on an animated Christmas village with an ice rink, thinking she could use it in her waiting room, (I remember the fish aquarium which kept me entertained as a child while waiting to see the doctor), but I don’t believe it ever made it to her office.
This year I have been on the hunt for a musical carousel, with no luck, as they are all too big or like this one some of the horses are going backwards?
The Facebook blog where I happened upon the statistic about the number of toys children own, was encouraging parents to buy experiences, family outings, lessons etc instead of things which is a great idea as long as it is something the child really wants as opposed to the parents wanting to re-live or replace something they missed in their own childhood. Hopefully in the end what a child will remember most is not the toys so much, but the time spent with family.
So whether your Christmas morning is a sea of wrapping paper or a more modest affair like the Cratchits, we should be reminded of the rest of the opening scene of Little Women, because that is what Christmas is all about.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
My mother’s Christmas Angel Doll
PS. What was your favorite Christmas present growing up?
Heathcliff is dead……again. This is the third time I have tried to grow heather, but alas, it was not meant to be. I have resigned myself to the fact that you can not grow heather in North America, there is a reason it is only to be found in abundance on the windswept moors of the UK. Here is a photo of Heathcliff (the-Plant-formerly-known-as-Heather), from last June, all healthy and blooming and alive.
And here is a picture of him in September at his funeral.
I arranged a few red maple leaves around his skeletal remains, for a more poetic look, otherwise he might have been mistaken for a stringy birds nest which had fallen to the ground. I had planted him in the same kind of poor rocky soil I imagined on the moors, and basically neglected him for the rest of the summer. Heather likes full sun, (see care sheet), but the days were cloudy and melancholy and he took up drinking and drowned his roots in sorrow, (kind of like Branwell). I must console myself though, that while we were not meant to be, he died young at the end of the rainiest season ever. It was nothing personal, he just did not like our Canadian soil or climate.
While doing some postmortem research, I discovered too late that heather likes well-drained acidic soil, and mine is clay and clumpy, so once again I had been lured in by a pot of pretty flowers. I had thought they were more hardy souls (like lavender), who would grow anywhere. Apparently there are many different types, and this Better Homes and Gardens article says anyone can grow heather and heaths……well perhaps not the truly heartbroken gardener like myself who may never fully recover.
I have occasionally seen heather for sale in nurseries here in early spring, sometimes with pinkish flowers. One July I bought some half-dead half-price specimens from the bargain bin. I knew when I bought them they were probably beyond CPR, but they were only a dollar. I planted them one week and dug them up the next. My other futile attempt involved a specimen which the nursery clerk told me was the only heather they stocked. It lived one short season, spread out a bit, produced 2 or 3 purplish blooms, then died off never to be seen again. I knew it was not real heather because the foliage was too soft. A friend who used to visit Scotland regularly, brought me back a piece of heather once as a souvenir – lucky for him the plant police did not catch him as smuggling plants is generally against the law. I was surprised by how coarse it was. I had expected from the pictures that it would be softer to the touch.
The moors must be beautiful in the summer and early fall, with all that heather blooming and the sky a bright blue, very Wuthering Heightish.
Before Heathcliff, my only exposure to heather was from the window of an tour bus in a downpour. I was in Ireland in September where it rained every day – so why did my poor heather not survive? The Irish heather (which was near a bog where they were cutting turf), was not nearly as stunning as the English heather in Downton Abby, the last episode of Season Five where they pack up the whole household and go grouse hunting at a castle on the moors and Mary and Edith meet their future husbands. (You see, heather does inspire romance). That was a beautifully filmed scene and inspired my mother to paint a picture called The Moors, which she included in her last art exhibit, (but then she has been known to paint shipwrecks from Poldark too).
Victoria magazine is one of my favorite sources for inspiration, and in this past September issue they had a feature on Exploring the Bronte Legacy and the village of Haworth where they lived. (September is always the British issue and there was also a Susan Branch picnic party in the Lake District for any Beatrice Potter fans).
Here are some of the pages, including the famous heather.
We have Emily to thank for the popularity of heather, as we will forever associate it with her descriptions of the moorland in Wuthering Heights, as this quote attests, “I have fled my country and gone to the heather.” Although I have never been to England, I hope some day to put those words into action, as a literary tour is definitely on my bucket list.
No wonder the Bronte sisters wrote such wonderful books, having that lovely vista to gaze at during their daily constitutional on the moors. (Although no matter the scenery, I find that after a particularly fruitful writing session, a little walk can be beneficial for mulling things over).
Below, the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village of Haworth.
Here’s the dining room table where they wrote their works of art and paced and plotted how to find a publisher, and no doubt discussed what to do about Branwell.
The magazine article mentioned the 2017 PBS movie, To Walk Invisible, the story of the Bronte’s, which I watched and was somewhat disappointed in, although it is certainly worthwhile for any Bronte fan. In truth I found the movie as dark and dreary as the moors must be on an overcast winter’s day. There did not seem to be much joy in that household, but maybe I am confusing their rather bleak existence with that of the moors.
I thought Charlotte and Anne well-cast, Emily miscast, and Branwell just plain annoying. The movie ends with them walking on the moors after Branwell’s death, so it is not as depressing as if they had ended it later after they had all died. But then their story is not a happy one. I wonder if they would have traded their fame for more happiness and a longer life.
This year is the bicentenary of Emily’s birth in 1818. Here is Emily’s small and cozy room with a wonderful window view, as befitting a genius at work.
Emily remains the most puzzling one, so reclusive, yet the creator of such a stormy and passionate tale. No doubt she drew inspiration from her beloved moors but perhaps it’s very wildness was a reaction to their isolated existence. She had a lot of time to think and imagine. Her novel was considered dark and disturbing and somewhat shocking at the time, while Charlotte’s more conservative Jane Eyre was the more popular. In the movie there was a scene where Emily was talking about where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights, but she spoke so quickly I could not follow, and I have since tried to research it to no avail. Although googling did reveal plenty of theories about Asperger’s syndrome, as it seems popular these days to slap anyone the least bit anti-social with that label (think Doc Marten). There are plenty of books about Charlotte, (see postscript), but not so many about Emily or Anne (who I think of as the forgotten middle child). After seeing disheveled, weak, whiny immature Branwell it seems unlikely he could have been the muse for such a strong character as Heathcliff. (But would any sane woman want a Heathcliff in real life? All that anger and rage and jealousy just creates a whole lot of drama and angst, and wasn’t he a bit too possessive? Somewhat stalkerish? Better to marry someone more stable and level-headed if you want a happy home life, but I suppose if a wild passionate affair is your aim, then Heathcliff is your man).
The movie contained nothing new, if you have already read such bio’s before, including the usual dose of family dynamics. The ending was well done, three bright suns who were expected to dim their literary lights and walk invisible, in order to prevent embarrassment for the male heir of whom much had been expected, but little produced. As for the issue of addiction so rampant in our modern world, that too is an age old question. Their clergyman father could not decide whether to give in and supply his feckless son with drinking/opium money or just say no – the parent’s universal dilemma, to be an enabler or an enforcer of tough love? In the end, it didn’t matter anyway – TB won out. Tuberculosis caused by a drafty old parsonage and those windblown moors. Unfortunately, he took his two sisters with him.
I have to admit the part I found most disappointing in the movie was the cinematography of the moors. They must have filmed the outdoor scenes in winter for there was no heather to be seen, just a bleak and brown landscape and overcast skies. Perhaps they didn’t have a choice, or more likely they wanted that gloomy depressing atmosphere, for it all looked as dull and dreary as a November day.
Now that we are in late November, the weather has grown chilly and darkness descends early, and tonight the winds are howling and there is sleet against the windowpane. The perfect night to settle in by the fire with a cup of tea, and re-read Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s masterpiece. Although, I noticed that her name is not even on the cover of my 1984 copy, one of those classic editions with the fancy gold edging that are hard to find anymore.
I must confess, it has been a long time since that high school book report, and I cannot recall much of the story, other than it was a sad tale with a layered multi-generational plot. But I do remember the descriptive imagery of those famous windswept moors, and the tragic ending of Cathy and Heathcliff, two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, but who remain immortalized forever between a marble and gilt cover.
Postscript: Most likely Charlotte, Anne or Emily never dreamt at the time that their books would still be bestsellers over 150 years later. I wonder how those classics would fit into the Best Seller Code, which I will be blogging about next week.
Postscript: A goodreads review of Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart
This latest 2016 biography of Charlotte Bronte is well worth the read, even if I do wonder why Charlotte always gets all the attention. I enjoyed it so much, I bought a bargain bin copy. A good choice for fans, both old and new.
As the genealogist in the family, the small ad in the local newspaper, caught my eye. A woman was looking for descendants of The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 for a book she was writing commemorating the one hundredth anniversary. The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 was a hurricane-like gale which raged over five days, Nov 7-11 in 1913. The weather had been unseasonably warm for early November, but two major storm fronts converging over the warm lake water (also known as a November Witch), suddenly brewed up the storm of the century. This perfect storm was actually a combination of two of the worst meteorological phenomena, a blizzard and a hurricane, or what is known as a white hurricane or an extratropical cyclone. The gale-force winds, massive 40 foot waves and whiteout conditions resulted in the sinking of 19 ice-laden ships, the stranding of another 19, and sent over 250 sailors to an early grave. (For those unfamiliar, the Great Lakes comprise five interconnected lakes on the border between Canada and the US, famous for being the biggest fresh water lakes in the world and important then and now as a commercial shipping route. Even today, the big freighters ply the waters, although with the milder winters now, shipping season extends later in the year. Last year they went very late, and the coast guard cutter trying to plow a route through the ice for one straggler, did some significant damage to docks on the Canadian side, a legal nightmare still being sorted out).
So, I emailed her that my great-uncle Joe had die in the storm, he had been a boatswain on the Henry B. Smith. He was my dad’s maternal uncle, and it was a bit of folklore passed down in the family history, that the captain had been drunk and should never have gone out. (The ship had been in port in Marquette Michigan on Lake Superior, from Nov 6 to 9th, taking on a load of iron ore, so it wasn’t caught out in the storm like the rest of the boats which sank on the lakes). Here’s more (Wikipedia) info on the sinking of the Henry B Smith. As it turned out, her great uncle, was “Dancing Jimmy/James Owen”, the captain, of the Henry B. Smith. Oops. She was gracious about it, having heard the rumors herself over the years. He sounded like quite a character, known for visiting dance halls in every port and laughing in the face of danger. Although an experienced and valued captain, he had experienced many delays on his last voyage of the season, and was under considerable pressure from head office to meet the schedule or be fired. He was an invincible soul, who like many captains back then, felt no fear – any captain who couldn’t sail in a storm wasn’t worth his salt. There had also been a lull in the northern part of the storm, before the southern part converged. Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors. At any rate, it was a reckless decision which took 25 men to their deaths, and which had far-reaching impact on many lives. Poor Captain Owen realized his mistake not many miles out and tried to change course, but by then it was too late, the ship had disappeared into a crashing snow squall and was never seen again, although several oars and one or two bodies eventually found drifted ashore. The ship was officially declared missing on Nov 14 1913.
She felt it was important to honor the stories of those mariners who had gone down with their ships, so we ended up corresponding over the next year, and she put a short chapter on my ancestor in her book of personal stories. When I say short, I really did not have much information to give her and none of it a first hand account, but she did a great job considering. She later invited me to attend her town’s memorial services but as my mother was having hip surgery that November I was unable to attend any services, either there or here.
My dad’s mother was one of nine children, six girls and three boys, one of which was Uncle Joe. The other two brothers were Bernard and Leo. Here’s a picture of my great-grandmother Jane with some of the family, except for Joe who was deceased by then. Jane lived well into her 90’s and my dad recalled her babysitting him while his parents went to the dance pavilion across the river – he remembered hearing the music floating over the water, (the end of the Roaring 20’s?), as their family homestead was close to the river, and also her cookies. As a family, they were very involved in the local church which was right down the street and it was the job of one of the boys to ring the church bell on Sundays. My paternal grandparents died before my parents were married, so the only ones I knew when I was a child were Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Leo, who was as deaf as a doorknob. Uncle Leo gave up the boats and became a house painter, but he still rang the church bell on Sundays. (My grandmother is the one with the child on her lap).
Jane’s husband had been a cobbler, (I have his business card), but died young, leaving her a widow with nine children, ages 1 to 19 yrs. The girls went to work as maids in the big hotels, or as a seamstress (my grandmother), and the three boys sailed on the boats. They were river rats.
Here are the girls, displaying a bit of ankle…..what would they think of the fashions today?
And here are the boys. Joe is the oldest, sitting in the chair,
and here he is later in life, quite a dapper young man. I am not hundred percent certain this is him as opposed to one of his brothers, (Leo the middle one and Bernard the youngest), but was given the photo by my 97 year old great-aunt Dorothy, (Bernard’s daughter), who was born in 1917 and so never met him, although she was of course familiar with his tragic end. Cameras were still rarities at the time, so I have very few photos from either grandparents side.
Later on, his brother Bernard captained his own small boat, and made trips up and down the river to Detroit. Perhaps he no longer wanted to be at the mercy of someone else’s orders like his brother had been. Here’s a picture of some of his family eating watermelon on board his boat. From the middy blouses and big hair bows, it is probably dated around 1920?
According to the 1911 census, Joe made $500 on an oil barge, while his two brothers Leo and Bernard, worked on steamers, making $450 for a 36 week season.
Joe is on the far right in this picture of the crew relaxing on deck.
Here is a photo of the ship leaving Cleveland on it’s last voyage, taken through a glass display case so it is hard to see, but you can just make out the Henry Smith name down in the lower right corner. I wonder if Joe is in the picture and who are the women on deck saying goodbye?
Below are a couple of descriptions of the boat leaving port in the late afternoon on the day of the storm.
And another writeup……
What were Joe’s thoughts on that fateful day? Were they of his family and his fiancé/sweetheart? He was supposedly engaged to be married to my dad’s paternal aunt Annie. Here’s Annie in the middle of the back row, photo taken around 1911.
How awful it must have been for her and for the families waiting at home for word which never came. I remember sitting in the genealogy library, back in 2003, reading all the newspaper coverage of the storm on microfilm, and the reports of bodies being washed up on the shore near our area of the lake. He was 30, and she was 29, and the last of the girls left on the farm. Options were few for women back then, and after her mother died in 1917 and her brother, (my grandfather) wanted to marry and start a family of his own, she ended up marrying someone else and moved to Seattle where one of her other brothers lived. They adopted a child, as she was older then and couldn’t have any of her own. When that child, now in his 70’s, returned for a visit to the homeplace in the 1990’s, intent on researching his family roots, he did not seem to be aware that he was adopted and no one let on.
The following gives a bit of credence to the family folklore.
While there was certainly a significant financial loss to the storm, most ships were insured, and the owners of the Henry Smith ended up with an insurance payout of $335,000. Total losses from the storm, for lost and damaged ships, were almost 4 million, with another million for lost cargo. A compensation fund for the families of $18,245, shared by the 250 sailors lost, meant each received $73, (about $1700 in today’s money). The life of a sailor was cheap. One good thing to come out of this marine disaster was an improvement in weather forecasting and faster responses to storm warnings as well as stronger construction of ships.
Could they have survived had all the hatches been closed before they left port, and if the waterproof tarps had been placed over them to protect them from flying apart from the force of the pounding waves, a time consuming procedure the captain had not deemed necessary. There were two theories, the most likely that she took on too much water in the hold and rolled, pouring out the ore through the hatches as she sank, the second that the excess water caused the steel to fracture. As only two bodies, both wearing life preservers, drifted ashore, it is probable there was little warning and the rest went down with the ship. But it was not just the wind and the waves which caused havoc in the storm for the temperature had dropped enough to create a full-blown blizzard, reducing visibility so that the ship could not see the shore, and significant icing from the freezing spray weighed it down to the point that they could not even navigate, so the odds were slim, but some ships did make it through, (any port in a storm), although they were badly damaged and encrusted with ice. Could Joe and his fellow crew members have said no, when the whistle had blown and the boat was already streaming away – not likely they even had a chance. While working conditions have certainly improved in the past century, are workers today, still being asked to perform reckless duties and actions in the names of corporate profit/greed? In some jobs cutting corners might mean lives lost, maybe not yours, but someone else’s. Something to think about if you’re the boss….or a worker being asked to do unsafe tasks.
Flash forward to the spring of 2013 and they have found the wreck of the Henry B. Smith in waters not far off Marquette Michigan, almost one hundred years after it sank.
The wheel and bridge of the wreck of the Henry B. Smith
Here’s a link to a newspaper article with a video of the flying bridge. And a more personal account of the dive team. The boat had split in two and was resting on it’s load of iron ore at the bottom. Most of the hatches were open. My author friend emailed me that she had been invited by the dive team to go out on the water for a memorial service the following year. She was excited that the divers had recovered an enamel coffee pot from the bottom of the lake, a poignant piece of memorabilia, and she was picturing the crew members pouring a cup of coffee from it on a cold blustery night, a night fit for no man. I have not talked to her since but in the mariner’s tradition, I hope someone rang a bell on behalf of each of the 25 men lost on the Henry B. Smith. I think Joe would have approved.
PS. The title The Witch of November is taken from Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot’s, song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship which sank in a November 10 1975 gale on Lake Superior with the loss of all men aboard. In that song, “The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’.
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P. M. A main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘Gitche Gumee’.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early!
PS. There are many books available on the Great Storm, most of them self-published by local authors. Here is my Goodreads review of one I read last year, and I also attended a lecture by the author, but it is more focused on the sailing aspects of the disaster, as opposed to the personal stories. The author focused on just a few of the ships and gave a more detailed account. Still, it was a fascinating read, even if you already knew the outcome.
An excellent read about the big storm of 1913 on the Great Lakes. I had a family interest in the subject as my great uncle died on the Henry Smith, which was recently located a hundred years after it went down, and while his boat wasn’t mentioned much in the book, there was lots of detail and research about other ships. Stayed up late two nights reading, couldn’t put it down, even though I knew the sad outcome. Well done.
PS. While I was preparing this post last week, the Witch of November came calling. On November 9, the exact date of the sinking, we had our first snowfall of the season with blustery north winds….
In honor of Remembrance Day please see my new post on a WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance. (Sorry for having to link back but I accidentally published this when I was drafting, so I trashed it and then recovered it, but now it is stuck back in the Oct 30 archives and is not showing up on the current Reader).