I’m Giving Yellowstone Another Chance

It isn’t the first time I’ve come across this term — flyover country — but I have to pause and really think about its meaning. When I do that, I realize that it’s not a very flattering descriptor; in fact, it can be seen as dismissive, even disrespectful, as if the spaces labeled as such are somehow insignificant, not worthy of visiting.

And that’s what its meaning suggests. Here’s the surprising thing, though — when the term was first used, in 1980 (according to the Oxford Dictionary), it was in the context of self-identification. The writer Thomas McGuane, a native Michigander, portrayed his adopted state of Montana as “flyover country” in an Esquire article about landscape artist Russell Chatham, fellow Montanan.

It is unlikely that McGuane foresaw how durable his expression would become, but he was earnest in his desire to convey a particular sentiment representative of people living in the heartland. And he should know. He grew up in Michigan, was educated there, and despite regular sojourns to each coast’s urban centers, has made Montana his home for several decades. He has spent a lifetime observing not just people, but nature. I’m not prepared to say that McGuane’s cynicism developed after he turned from writing novels to writing screenplays for Hollywood, but it can be said that his reverence for nature’s gifts has been a constant. That it would be McGuane whose name will be forever tethered to a pejorative seems unfortunate.

Approaching the Cascades (I think)

For ten years I’ve regularly done the loooong coast-to-coast flight in order to visit my younger daughter, who lives in Portland, Oregon. On most occasions I take the window seat; it allows me to periodically break up the monotony by studying the landscape below. The middle areas of the country that seem particularly devoid of concentrated activity always excite a sense of wonder — what would it be like to live in this part of the country? When I observe a land surface that has the appearance of an enormous, fleecy blanket draped over a mysterious jumble of objects of varying sizes, I’m curious, how close is the nearest home? The nearest farmers’ market? When I finally do catch movement — a car or truck, likely, traveling along a slim thread of lonely road — it reinforces that initial wonder.

I’m not what you would call well-traveled. I’ve been to Europe, Central America, a couple of places in the eastern provinces of Canada, several places up and down the East Coast, and — of course — the Pacific Northwest. It would seem that I’ve only ever picked away at the edges, never experienced the wide open spaces of our country’s interior. Part of it has to do with my supposed need to be within striking distance of an ocean. When you fly from the east coast to the west, it takes a while before the distances between urban areas grow so great that you sense a real shift, as if you should fully expect to have your passport handy were you to land somewhere below. As the plane passes over North Dakota, then Montana, it’s impossible to ignore the physical contrast between what is rolling out beneath you and the tightly arranged communities on either coast. I find it humbling. It’s also a reminder of the foreignness — to me — of so much of our country.

All of this current reflection would not have come to pass if not for a decision I made a couple weeks ago. I’m going to give Yellowstone another chance, I vowed. I watched Season 1 a year ago, and then promptly pitched the remote across the room and thought, what a horrible bunch of creatures. Even the ones who seem decent or innocent become poisoned by their association with the Duttons. There may be one exception — Walker, who, soon after being condemned to servitude at the Yellowstone, remarks about the aura of evil that pervades the ranch. (As I begin Season 2, I hold out the slimmest of hopes that he’s incorruptible.)

I plowed through Season 1 again, and felt that same urge to sling the remote across the room. I want to understand, however, why Yellowstone persists as one of TV’s most popular drama series. I’m filled with questions: Do viewers hang on the desperate hope that, sooner or later, these vile characters will reveal traces of humanity? Is it instead our need for validation that there are depraved people out there (maybe even entire communities), but we are not like that? Does it instead have something to do — at least marginally — with the derisive attitude that people in the heartland have toward the “coastal elites”? (The unfavorable portrayal of them is unmistakable.) Or is it the yearning to experience — even if indirectly — the majesty and breathtaking beauty of Big Sky country? Maybe it’s the wish to make sense of the cowboy lifestyle, unveil the mystique? (I do love the idea that the show employs authentic cowboy actors.)

Because I want to be proven wrong — I want Walker to resist the evil that he knows surrounds the ranch, and I want Jimmy not to be so needy (to the point that he loses all remaining vestiges of innocence) — I’m giving Yellowstone this second chance. . . even if it means subjecting myself to Beth Dutton, a specimen of pure evil if ever there was one.

Am I wrong?

Sources (for background on origin of “flyover country”, and Thomas McGuane):

The Alden Graveyard

High on a hill above the Taunton River in the south section of Bridgewater, Massachusetts sits the tiny, 19th century Alden Graveyard. It also goes by the name of Great Woods Graveyard, which I suspect was a name given in later times, although the name pays homage to the tall, straight white pine trees that were harvested over time for use in the region’s boat-building industry. (The graveyard’s earliest identification on Plymouth County deed transfers had it simply as a “burial lot”.) The graveyard is surrounded by a low, lichen-textured, New England-style stone wall, the kind that was constructed with “two-handers” (boulders that required two hands to carry.) The graveyard had a single, u-shaped carriage drive that would deposit “attendees” at the door of the centrally located Alden tomb. 

The high perch where the graveyard sits is surrounded on three sides by rolling, terraced fields. We knew it as “Titicut Hill”, but there was also a brief and casual reference to another name — “Hill of Sorrow” — because a sachem’s daughter was murdered there, so Mom once claimed. I grew up next to the Alden Graveyard. The lot of land upon which our little home sat was owned in the early 1800’s by the Deacon Asael and his wife Sarah (Alden) Shaw. It was either Sarah’s two brothers — Solomon and Amasa — or, more likely, her father, Solomon, who — along with his son, Amasa — donated one acre of bordering land in the late 1700s for use as a “burying lot”. 

It pains me to admit how much time my siblings and I spent playing among the headstones and upon the central tomb (and — as a fitting punishment — knee-deep in poison ivy that naturally loved the stone walls). If you stood on top of the earth-covered tomb, which in appearance resembled a hobbit home, and faced southwest, you had a sweeping view of rolling, terraced fields.* Beyond the fields, you could see the silvery thread of the Taunton River. Ok, so I want to believe that, but it’s a lie that I had so thoroughly convinced myself of. Bob — and my four other brothers — assure me that you couldn’t see the Taunton.**  It suggests that the forest was working at its own regeneration, spreading outward from the banks to reclaim what it had lost in the prior centuries. 

It can be expected that colonial era graveyards — with their utter lack of adornment — don’t excite interest beyond the occasional visitor. Visitors who, like me, enjoy musing about the somber and strenuous lives of 18th and 19thcentury New Englanders. They’re quiet, reflective places. That is, unless you’re a young girl who allows herself to be talked into entering the tomb. I will never forget the day I foolishly stepped into that dark, dank, silent space. There had to have been an insanely attractive reward offered by one of my brothers. Most likely Chris. I do recall descending at least one or two of the granite steps. (That must have been one of the conditions for my reward.) The heavy metal door was pulled shut and I was alone in the tomb, or “alone” only in the sense that I was the sole breathing person in a room that also housed dead bodies. I pounded and screamed for hours. Once again, that part is untrue. I think I pounded and screamed for five seconds. . . which seemed an interminably long time.

When the fields on the far side of the graveyard were covered with snow, the whole Alden Square neighborhood took to toboggans and skis and saucers and Flexible Flyers for hours of outdoor sledding. Alternatively, and when we needed a more immediate rush, we’d dash over to the graveyard; from the tomb’s summit, we’d either roll our bodies down (doable at any time of year) or — when snow cover allowed — steer our sleds along a twisting path, avoiding (as best we could) the headstones, much as skiers do on alpine courses. Like, very short courses. . . maybe 15-meter. (For those readers who are at this moment cringing, I promise that, as an adult, I’m much more respectful. . . and not as idiotic where it concerns personal safety, but I doubt your thought process ventured so far as to reflect on the hazards to personal well-being.)

For me, it wasn’t all about play, however. I came to know the families who slept quietly there, and would read and re-read the inscriptions and epitaphs. The earliest known owners of our home made that graveyard their final resting place. The Deacon Asael Shaw is truly “rest[ing] from his labors”, having lived to the surprising age of 92. And “resting place” really does have fulsome meaning, for 18th and 19th century folk believed that admission through the pearly gates could only be secured by presentation of a notarized form vouching for a life of hard work, sacrifice, misery, and really plain and uncomfortable “waring appearill”. (I love to insert that expression whenever possible.) 

My fascination with graveyards, as you can imagine, has been a natural outgrowth from having been next-door neighbor to the bones and spirits of colonial era yeomen and the like. I intend to continue cultivating my interest when opportunity permits — if you’ve ever driven with me, you’ll no doubt have seen my head pivot when I spot a tiny graveyard. I only occasionally, however, will respond to the tug to stop and walk around. Maybe it’s because of the residual sense of terror it inspires — what if someone were to shut me in another tomb? Or, maybe it’s because I am too fearful of the day that my own flesh will mingle with the dust. I don’t want to rush things.

~

*By the way, it didn’t pay to take in the north view from Titicut Hill. All those red-brick buildings with bars covering the windows were a disturbing reminder that ours was generally known to the rest of the town as the “prison neighborhood”.

** Bob, bless his little heart, allows me to save face by qualifying his statement; it was possible that one could see the flood waters that would occasionally breach the banks and travel as far the pigeon coops.

Scarlet Fever — A Persistent Worry

Part of this story concerns a topic that has been gently brewing in my mind for over two years. It was given a toe nudge by recent reporting about the proliferation (globally) of cases of scarlet fever.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what “iGAS” stands for until a couple weeks ago when I came across an online Wired article that seeks to draw attention to the disturbing uptick in scarlet fever cases. (“The UK Is Enduring an Onslaught of Scarlet Fever. Is the US Next?”) The article itself links to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, where you read a simple message and try not to hyperventilate: “Increase in invasive Group A Strep infections.” Short in length, the message goes on to warn, “iGAS infections include necrotizing fasciitis and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome.” It is highly contagious, and often fatal. Sometimes the bacterial toxins associated with the infection move so fast that by the time the sufferer seeks medical relief (in the form of antibiotics), it’s too late. Very scary stuff. I find myself reflecting uncomfortably on those occasions as a child when I suffered with strep throat, but, jeesh, these new bacterial strains are a whole ‘nother thing.

The Wired article presents both a historical view of scarlet fever, even looping in old familiar stories in which the disease afflicts beloved characters (Beth March of Little WomenMary Ingalls in the Little House series, also Boy of The Velveteen Rabbit), as well as the disease’s latter-day machinations. Making much of the fact that scarlet fever never went away, its gradual scaling up the last decade or so (in number of documented cases worldwide) is cause for concern.

It is equally concerning that there’s no systematic method of documentation, nor any reliable means to share. Here in the United States, only ten states participate in a “surveillance” program run by the CDC. (See “Active Bacterial Core Surveillance.”) Further limiting the program’s reach and effectiveness is the fact that unless the person stricken with illness is admitted to a hospital, the data is not collected. 

The obvious controversy is that data collection may be seen to infringe on individual privacy rights. That’s a legitimate worry. How, then, do we discern trends and patterns, a contagion’s migratory behaviors, and still preserve our rights to privacy? On a micro level, when a doctor (or a nurse) enters into a patient’s chart their diagnosis, along with the list of patient symptoms, in my mind, a breach has already occurred, regardless of how “trusting” the relationship may be that a patient has with their physician. . . and nurses. . . and technicians. . . and front-end staff. . . and — gosh — any hackers who might illegally access patient records. I imagine that if a patient had an objection to their doctor’s inputting of data — weight, height, blood pressure, complaints, diagnosis, whether they feel safe at home — they probably wouldn’t even be visiting the doctor’s office in the first place. No clinician would agree, either, to see a patient who won’t allow data to be gathered. Is there a way, then, that relevant data (surrounding contagions) can be harnessed by a central databank without violating personal privacy? Not surprisingly, I haven’t any answers.

Invisible Killers of the 19th Century

Eliza (Buswell) Coffin must have gasped in horror when one of her children came to her complaining of a sore throat that first week of January back in 1863. It was less about the throat than the angry rash on eight-year-old Caleb’s skin that gave flight to her blossoming dread. At the time, her husband, Samuel Coffin — the well-known boatbuilder of Rings Island — was off doing his part to save the Union in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (He would endure his own private anguish a couple months later when his younger brother with whom he had enlisted — John — died there of “congestive chills”, likely malaria.) In a matter of two weeks, Eliza stood helplessly by as one by one three of her five children died, all from scarlet fever.

Mid-19th century was, of course, still a time of antiquated thinking, at least in terms of people’s understanding of human health; in particular, their understanding of disease. Louis Pasteur’s “Germ Theory” was just beginning to excite curiosity among the medical establishment, but any observable progress wouldn’t happen for several decades. And antibiotics, the miracle treatment, wouldn’t become available until the 1940’s. Thus, when one looks at town reporting of deaths from that time, it might startle to see how many people died of bacterial diseases, such as diphtheria, consumption, typhus, dysentery, scarlet fever, chronic diarrhea, and cholera (and — with similar symptoms affecting only young children — cholera infantum). Of course, there’s the occasional “dropped on his head” mention, but from our enlightened 21st century perch, we’re left to wonder why it took so long for scientists to draw the connection between illness and “invasive bodies” that can only be detected by means of a microscope (something that had been invented at least as early as the 1600’s.) So little did doctors understand the causes behind illness that they naturally made judgments based entirely on symptoms. “Cause of death”, therefore, always must be treated with a grain of salt when perusing death records from throughout the 19th century. (Perhaps not as baffling was the lengthy delay on the part of the public to accept scientific wisdom; we need look no further than our own communities today to witness the skepticism with which new scientific findings are treated. Because we are unable, for example, to see how all the recent variants of the COVID virus are spreading, mutating, and jumping species, many of us remain unconvinced of their lethality, even their very presence.)

I admit to a morbid fascination with death. Plagues and poxes unnerve me, but they do also electrify my curiosity. When I do my genealogical research, I can find plenty to capture my interest just by reading death certificates. One great-great-grandfather, Patrick McKenna, whose peripatetic journey took him from County Monaghan, Ireland to the textile mills of Glasgow, Scotland, then to various mill cities of New England; survived into his 70’s after decades of factory employment. (Spotty record, that one had — he couldn’t manage to hold onto any job for long. Rather a tragic figure.) It appears he died at the Tewksbury Almshouse, with cause of death determined to be “pthisis”, aka consumption, more commonly known these days as tuberculosis. Another great-great-grandfather, James Loughnane, died much younger (in his 30’s) from — yet again — consumption. He, too, had been a mill worker whose (short) life story read a lot like Patrick’s. 

The Buswells of Mudnock Road

Closer to home — literally — my interest at the moment has turned to Eliza (Buswell) Coffin because of a study I freely undertook a couple years ago on a house that I see from several windows of my own home. I’m not a creepy stalker, but my interest was instantly sparked when I heard someone make passing reference to an ancient intra-family feud, simultaneously gesturing toward the “William Buswell” home. (Actually, one of two “William Buswell” homes that sit only yards apart on Mudnock Road.)

If you stand on Mudnock Road at the top of (and facing) Niko Way, the home that sits on the right corner, at 34 Mudnock Road, is the newer Buswell home, built in 1780. (Its twin was built 50 years earlier and gives the appearance of having been more loved — or at least cared for — through the years.) The “newer” Buswell home stands on the original 2-acre homestead lot of Isaac Buswell (laid out in 1639 as part of the First Division of Settlers). The federal-style “double house” has a brick wall running right down the center of it that serves as a physical signpost of the acrimonious relationship that developed between two brothers, Walker and Jacob Buswell, soon after the hammers and saws ceased their racket. (It is quite possible that Walker was the one to erect the dividing wall, as, in addition to being a yeoman/farmer, he was a bricklayer.)

“Deacon John” Buswell, seven years before he died in 1783, thought he was doing a good deed. He had ample personal property and real estate holdings, but lots of children — nine, in fact. (The Buswells appear to have been prolific reproducers.) He outlined carefully in his will who should inherit what. His language was clear: along with his lot of marsh in the meadow and half of this and half of that lot (he really did have a finger in every pie), Walker should have the “easterly part of my homestead. . . my shoemaker’s shop. . . and my hog house.” To Jacob, The Deacon bequeathed the westerly side of the homestead and his (other) dwelling house, as well as the other half of this and the other half of that lot.

It has been my opinion — after reading and re-reading his document — that, as careful and thorough as The Deacon had been, as aware as he was of his own substantial holdings, he misjudged the character of the two sons who were expected to “play nice together” and share. For over thirty years, the two brothers occupied the home, Walker and his family on the east end, Jacob and his family on the west end. They both lived into their 80’s; Walker died in 1817, Jacob in 1822. The record provides us with no evidence that fraternal harmony ultimately prevailed. Going forward, the language of their titled properties became complex and is clear about “passing” and “re-passing” rights where it concerns access to the well, the barn, the shoe shop, etc. Meanwhile, their brother Caleb — jauntily sporting the “wearing appearill” left to him by Dad — went merrily about his way, tending the Chester, New Hampshire farm bequeathed to him (and raising a brood of ten — all sons).

Walker, for all the headaches that co-ownership posed, inexplicably died intestate. . . and with debt to be settled. His interest in the easterly half of the home was bought out at auction by his 20-year-old grandson, John Walker Buswell. Then, in 1825, John Walker paid Caleb Pike Jr. $700 for property that included the westerly side of the house; the home, going forward, would be known as the “J.W. Buswell Home”. In that way, any embryonic references to the “Otis Pike Home” became moot.

Eliza was one of five girls born to John Walker and Nancy (Walton) Buswell, their fifth child (of eight.) Her choice of husband was likely based on sound reasoning. After all, the Coffins of Rings Island were solid people. Long-time ship builders in a ship-building village. There were lots of Coffins on Rings Island. The Mudnock Road Buswells — yeomen, mostly — were, likewise, solid people. There were lots of Buswells on Mudnock Road. The union of the two powerhouse families held great promise.

Epidemics, with their seemingly mysterious origins and movements, have beleaguered and bewildered communities since time immemorial. It should be here noted, however, that 1863 was an especially bad year for Salisbury in terms of mortality. The number of deaths — 89 — was more than double the deaths recorded the year before for our small town. Thirty-seven of the reported deaths (or 42%) were of children and infants (ages 0-17). Of that number, seven were victims of scarlet fever. As noted, three of the seven were Eliza and Samuel’s small children.

It is a belief held by some that families of earlier times became so accustomed to the beckoning finger of the grim reaper that they were inclined to adopt a dispassionate attitude toward death. If you read epitaphs from headstones for children who died in the 1800’s, you come away with a different perspective. While “heavy clod” and “arms of God” seem fitting for someone who died in their 86th year, and “mouldering bones” is perhaps apt for any adult who has passed on, the epitaphs for children are much more touching expressions that suggest real grief, even foundering defenselessness against baffling forces. As one example, in the Great Woods Cemetery in Bridgewater, next to the house I grew up in, one of the epitaphs for a child who died at age 6 reads: “Nature has but soft powerful bands, And reason she controls; While children with their little hands, Hang closest to our souls.” We see, then, that as much as 19th century New England families looked to their bibles for consolation and guidance, they grieved just as deeply as we do now upon the death of a loved one, especially a child.*

~

For two years the imagined grief of Eliza (Buswell) Coffin has resided as a slow simmer in the back of my mind. All the while (and after) I researched the Buswell home, the nearness of which reminds me of a mute, doddering forebear; I’ve wondered how she weathered her crisis in 1863. After losing three of their five children, Eliza and Samuel had two more. In one way or another, all the descendants wove their lives into the fabric of the river- and ocean-side communities of Rings Island and Newburyport. Thus, it’s impossible in current times to uncouple the Coffin name from the history of Rings Island.** 

After a bit of searching, I was able to discover a photo of Eliza. As much as I had been hoping to see an image of her as a young woman, this one, at least, is a close-up — a good one, at that — so one is able to see fine details.*** In the photo, which appears in a direct descendant’s published history (The Coffin Family of Rings Island by Cynthia C. Wildes, great-granddaughter of Eliza and Samuel), Eliza is an old woman. She appears to be looking slightly up and to the left of the camera; it causes her to have a far-away look. The lines on her face read like a city map, and I wonder if they’re caused by a vigorous life of hard work (outdoors?), or from a lifetime of internalizing painful experiences. Her white hair, vaguely wavy, is center-parted and carefully but simply coifed, tucked behind her ears and fastened snuggly. She appears serene and self-contained, but also exudes confidence — she is sure of her place in this world. Do I detect, though, a hint of sadness in her expression? Perhaps. Or, perhaps, I should read it simply as weariness. I decide to tuck this mental image in a quiet corner of my memory. I want to remember Eliza (Buswell) Coffin, even though I never met her — she was, after all, born nearly two hundred years ago, and lived in an era that persists in confounding me, try as I might to make sense of it. I want to remember her because of the connection I have made between her childhood home and the home I own, which, once upon a time, was part of the Buswell homestead lot. It’s more than conceivable that her little feet scampered across the same yard that is now my yard. Like most people who are interested in the past, I seek the common elements that bind me to events and people who lived before.

~

*One way that mothers could express their sense of loss was by keeping close to their heart (in an ornamental locket) a tuft of hair snipped from their departed child. Another common practice from Victorian times that today we view with curiosity (maybe even unease) was the fashioning of jewelry out of hair, and not necessarily from a dead person; just as often from a good (living-breathing) friend. In a National Geographic article by Becky Little, “Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made From Hair”, Karen Bachman of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY puts it this way, “Women of the 19th century would swap locks of hair as a love token the way young girls today might wear friendship bracelets.” The hair could be fashioned into earrings or pendants. The popularity of “hair art” owes to its enduring qualities — hair takes a long time to decay — and because, as Bachman points out, “it’s a very personal indicator of self.” 

~

**Lincoln Coffin, born in 1864, will make a cameo appearance in a separate story, one that caused a surprised “Oh!” in my research of the long-time residence of the Salisbury Historical Society on Second Street. (Keep an eye out for that as a future blog post.)

~

***I had been trying to secure permission to include the image as part of this story, but determining the person or concern that currently holds the copyright is a frustrating exercise.

Corner Elm, School and Mudnock — A Brief History

This essay is probably only of interest to my fellow Salisbury citizens. . . and maybe a smattering of other people who like small town history.

Here’s an interesting question that many will quickly answer (but, as confident as you may be, you’ll be wrong): What restaurant chain — ubiquitous in New England along its most traveled roads — became known for its 28 flavors of ice cream and its color palette of white, turquoise blue, and orange; and boasted a large windmill at its entrance

If you answered “Howard Johnson’s”, you wouldn’t be far from the mark because Howard Johnson had bought out nearly the entire chain by 1940. “Dutchland Farms” dairy stores (using only Grade A milk for their ice cream) and restaurants began popping up on our “highways” in the late 1920’s. They were the brainchild of Fred Forest Field, a dairy farmer and shoe manufacturer of Brockton, Massachusetts. 

While I hesitate to say that Field had just the right amount of privilege to be able to engage in risky ventures with utter insouciance, he did manage to live comfortably and had a supportive family (especially his older brother Daniel, who brought him on as a partner in at least one of his shoe factories.) Fred’s father ran a large and successful dairy farm, for which Fred drove a milk wagon as one of his earliest jobs. No doubt it was while he was engaged in this work that his energetic imagination took flight with the future possibilities. And much later, while out motoring one day in 1912 in West Falmouth, Massachusetts — not too far from his summer home at Monument Beach, he came upon a Dutch windmill, and determined to buy it. The windmill had been constructed over 100 years earlier by Dutch settlers, so its pedigree provided assurance that it would endure. It didn’t hurt that a one-ton stone mill came with the package, and Fred intended to put it to use grinding corn on his family farm — Dutchland Farms — in the Montello section of Brockton, Massachusetts.

Why I suggest that Fred Field had great imagination is because he could envision in those early days of automobiles a need for accessible pit stops, first for ice cream and farm and dairy products, and (soon after) for simple lunch fare.  It was a natural way to expand on the profitability of his already lucrative dairy farm. The first Dutchland Farms ice cream stands began to appear in 1928, and by 1933, there were at least 50 roadside stands in the region. 

In Salisbury, construction began in early 1933 at the juncture of Elm Street, School Street, and Mudnock Road — right where our public library stands. At that point in time, the unimproved property belonged to Frank V. Brown of Newburyport. (Brown, who was married to Jacob F. Spalding’s daughter Louise, ran the Brown Jewelry Co. in Newburyport for several decades.) The dairy store and ice cream stand in Salisbury would boast the Dutchland Farms name and would be managed by Fred Kennedy of Natick. Brown entered into an indenture agreement with Kennedy in January of 1933, leasing the land to him for four years (with the option to make improvements to the land and erect a business for the purpose of selling dairy products; Kennedy also was given the option to buy out Brown in exchange for $4,000.)

Kennedy never did exercise his right to buy the land. While the property remained in the Brown name until the 1950’s, the various victualers who enticed hungry motorists to their restaurants at that location present a steady and diverse stream of business models. Fred Lupus engaged in extensive repairs in 1936, opening his “Dairy Kitchen” in the spring of that year. By the mid-1940’s, however, management had shifted once again, this time to the business duo of Nicholas DeLuka of Medford and Peter A. Rais, WW2 veteran of Somerville. DeLuka and Rais had worked together in the restaurant business before the war; they called their business the Sheraton Farm Restaurant, continuing fountain service while also enticing hungry travelers with “choice and good dinners”. 

Fred Field’s Dutchland Farms franchise stumbled badly during the Depression, while its most direct competitor —Howard Johnson — was able to steer a steady course through the trying times. By 1940, all the Dutchland Farms restaurants had either closed or been purchased by a proprietor, with the remainder being acquired by Howard Johnson. As part of the arrangement, Howard Johnson appropriated the white, blue, and orange color scheme and the “28 flavors of ice cream”, but Field’s emotional attachment to the windmill that was commonly used as a roof or entry feature must have been well-known within the family, for his son (or whoever was at the helm in 1940 — Fred Sr. had passed away in 1934) refused to allow Johnson to use it for his Howard Johnson restaurants.

Back in Salisbury, meanwhile, the building at the juncture of Elm, School, and Mudnock continued to be occupied by restaurateurs. Briefly, it was The Rainbow Restaurant, run by Earle Sanders. The grand opening, from June 30 – July 5, 1950, hoped to entice patrons by advertising “inspired cooking” by Jim Bevins, “noted chef from the North Shore.” (Newburyport Daily News, June 30, 1950) (Earle and Paul Sanders, brothers, could trace a direct line back to an early settler of Salisbury, John Sanders. As an interesting aside, the saltbox that stands at 1 Mudnock Rd. returned to the family in 2004, after a 352-year absence. The original owner, John Sanders, sold it in 1652. It would take the indefatigable enthusiasm and tenacity of 12th generation direct descendent Paul to bring this happy occasion about.) 

In the spring of 1952, aggressive renovation once again preceded the opening of a new restaurant, “Stromberg’s, Famous for Sea Foods”. The name would have been instantly recognized by those who were familiar with Frank Stromberg’s other restaurant in Salem “at the Beverly Bridge”. Stromberg didn’t just own the business and the building; he held the deed to the land — the first time in 30 years that the land had passed hands. After only two years, however, Stromberg closed the seafood restaurant and sold the building and its contents to a Mr. Charles Hobbs — who proceeded to remove everything off the lot. Stromberg sold the corner lot itself to the Town of Salisbury. Had he found the competition too formidable among the restaurants in the area who likewise offered seafood? Browsing a June edition of the Newburyport Daily News, one sees advertisements for Marston’s at the High Road bridge in Newburyport (a restaurant that originally was a dance hall with vaudeville shows; in 1952 patrons could either take out or dine in), the Lighthouse Grill on Plum Island Point (specializing in clams and seafood, and offering fountain service, as well), The Beachcomber on P.I. Turnpike (the best clams in Essex County, you could order pie, too!), Stonie’s (at the airport); and in Salisbury itself, Clarke’s Seafood (right on Bridge Rd.) and the Little Red Barn (a restaurant serving southern bbq fare, but where you could also order a lobster roll). 

Did it chaff, too, that a Howard Johnson restaurant sat smug and righteous just up the street at the Seabrook circle (where the Town Hall now stands)? Perhaps not. The Dutchland Farms name had by this point in time largely receded in memory — even if each successive restaurant’s grand opening at the corner of Elm, School, and Mudnock made nostalgic references to their earliest forebear. To appreciate how starkly different the trajectories were for Fred Field’s Dutchland Farms and Howard Johnson, by 1952 there were 355 Howard Johnson restaurants ranging along the eastern seaboard. With ambitious plans to expand westward — the early 1950’s encompassed a hopeful era for those wishing to capitalize on the explosion of American mobility — Howard Johnson boasted that they sold more fried clams and hotdogs than any other restaurant chain. (Newburyport Daily News, Sep. 29, 1952)

1954 represented a pivotal moment for the one-acre lot at the corner of Elm, School, and Mudnock. There would be no more restaurants. Instead, the Town had designs for a new library. Initially (in 1954), voters rejected at Town Meeting a proposal to buy the lot and build a new library. A re-worded proposal the following year narrowed the focus: voters were subsequently asked to support the Town purchasing the lot. . . with the ultimate aim to build a new library. Baby steps, I wager, made for a more palatable statement of vision. In June, 1956, ground was broken for the new library. 

And three decades later, the library needs of the Town were once again of great concern.  Dedicated space for meetings, quiet study areas, and general building upgrades became the fuel for battle cries, and so trustees engaged in a prolonged campaign. It would take until May of 2013 for voters to approve a $7.4 million project, half of the funds being promised through state grants. The beautiful building that now stands at the corner of Elm, School, and Mudnock makes a proud statement. It takes effort — at least to this perennial Salisbury neophyte — to imagine an era when cars filled with family would pull up and park, kids spilling out and galloping headlong through the doors to satisfy ferocious hunger pains. . . right at that very same site.  

Fred Field may not have lived long enough to know that his franchise would flounder irrevocably. Such would be a blessing. He wasn’t wrong, though, in his understanding of human nature. The automobile — as soon as it became an attainable acquisition for the average person — resulted in wave upon wave of migratory behavior. It’s hard to say why none of the restaurants managed to fare well in that location. Perhaps the most logical explanation is that the area became too quickly saturated with restaurants competing for hungry customers. 

*********************************

Sources:

Newburyport Daily News (Archives)

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutchland_Farms)

Boston Evening Transcript, 16 Oct 1912

(https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2012/12/05/famous-in-its-day-dutchland-farms/)

Attaching Value to Objects

On a shelf in my garage sit a clunky set of headphones and a 1980’s era Sony Walkman that no longer serve any purpose. I can’t bring myself to part with them, though. They belonged to my husband, and he wore them (for over three decades) every time he cut our acre of lawn. His Sony Walkman would be holstered on his belt, and each week of the cutting season, a different cassette would whirl reel to reel, pleasantly mixing with the muffled engine sound outside his head. When he exhausted the playlist options — it wouldn’t have taken long — the cycle would repeat. Long after cassette tapes fell from favor, George stuck to his habit. I look at his headphones and the memories mushroom up and fill me with nostalgia.


In my retirement, I begin most days with some type of inspirational or thought-provoking article. This morning I ended up on the Smithsonian Magazine website, as I often do when I want to explore topics that are historical or scientific in nature. In January I posted about NFT’s (“non-fungible tokens”), so it was natural that I would be interested in a bizarre stunt pulled by a self-styled philanthropist who has hitched his star to the potential profitability of NFT’s.

Martin Mobarak is the founder and CEO of Frida.nft who, in July, had high hopes of blazing new trails in the world of priceless art collection. . . in the virtual sense. Attired in a sequined blazer festooned on the back with the face of Frida, he made a showy display involving martini glass, blue rubbing alcohol, and lit match. He thus irrevocably “transformed” an authentic (and irreplaceable) drawing done by Frida Kahlo in the 1940’s, a sketch entitled “Fantasmones Siniestros”. Its estimated value is. . . was. . . ten million dollars. But was it real? And what if it wasn’t? While the extravagant spectacle received little attention at the time, Mobarak’s impulsivity has now landed him in a heap of trouble.

On the one hand, if the drawing was indeed authentic, Mobarak faces criminal charges. (According to a statement made by the Mexican government in September, “The deliberate destruction of an artistic monument constitutes a crime in terms of the federal law on archaeological, artistic and historical monuments and zones.”) If the drawing that was permanently “transformed” was a reproduction, he is in violation of copyright laws. Lastly, he may be guilty of deception and fraud. No bueno, in any scenario.

I’m straining not to react with pure disgust. Who in their right mind burns a Frida Kahlo work? It seemed important that I venture down the rabbit hole, in this case by mining the annals of Martin Mobarak, flashy businessman from Mexico, currently home-based in Miami. The quick and dirty synopsis looks like this: fisherman in the Bering Sea, prospector (silver mine), developer of an internet service in Alaska, food service provider as well as aviation services in Florida, a B&B in Mexico. One has to admire his enterprising nature and sheer pluck. And I do. . . admire that.

After I sifted through the layer of news about the current Mobarak-Kahlo controversy, I was able to temper my feelings about the permanent loss of priceless art. Built into the scheme is a charitable offshoot. Inasmuch as the endeavor was to enrich Mobarak (in his wildest, non fungible dreams), 30% of proceeds are — or were — intended to benefit charity. The causes about which he feels most passionate are rare childhood diseases and abuse of women. On the surface it would seem that careful and deliberate thought went into his charitable choices, more so than the hastily-planned “transformation” event, which was likened to “the ice bucket challenge, but with fire” (according to Gabrielle Pelicci, who helped him plan the risky stunt).

In the end, the Kahlo NFT’s have not been selling — the intent had been to fractionalize the ten million dollar iconic work into 10,000 NFT’s. That didn’t even come close to happening. Apparently, the “Fantasmones Siniestros” sketch is nothing more than a few unrecognizable flakes of ashy residue, reducing Mobarak’s speculative move to a tragedy, one that — but for his ego (and a sense of desperation) — was completely avoidable.

Perhaps my sense of alarm is so great because I haven’t bought into the idea that we now fully exist in a sphere where things of value can be digitally “memorialized”. When I recently digitalized several hundred family photos (including daguerrotypes, tintypes, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and — additionally — all manner of photographs from the 20th century) and made them available for family to view on Flickr, it very much occurred to me that the digital images will ever fail to evoke the same emotion that the physical ones do. When I hold in my hand the ambrotype of my great-grandfather, I’m better able to imagine the moment in which the photo was taken. I imagine, even, the thought process behind my great-great-grandmother’s decision to have the picture taken in the first place. The high school portrait of my dad, still sitting in its frame, presents an opportunity to reflect on, not just his life, but his parents’ as well, even the society into which he was born. The portrait would have hung on one of the walls in their home on Warner Street, Medford (“on the Somerville line”), later in their home at Wolcott Park; it would have kept the wallpaper underneath it bright and light as all around it faded and became dingy. Of course I only knew my father as an adult, a parent, never as a seventeen year old. At seventeen he had yet to confront the real obstacles that life predictably serves up. And he had yet to be judged harshly — or, in fact, be coaxed himself to judge, for example, the sobering calculus that would result in 7.5 million American service men and women being sent overseas to safeguard democracy in the 1940s. Dad’s face is smooth and unlined; he looks serious, but innocence and vulnerability can be read in his dark eyes.

We have a habit of needing to attach a monetary value to all that we own. I can’t do that with some of my possessions. In many cases, to do so would miss the essential point. Value so often resides in the stories that objects hold and the historical moments they beseech us to preserve.

Is it unwise of me to think that NFT’s are a fad, that their popularity will eventually fade? Are we too deep into a world that is virtual that we’ve lost reverence for all things tangible? George may have defied the march of technological advancement, but even he was alert enough to know that his headphones and Sony Walkman had passed from being “cutting edge” to being quaint, outdated. And an 8″ x 10″ grayscale, monochromatic high school portrait in a simple 1930’s frame will only ever hold sentimental value. What, then, will NFT’s be replaced by? I wonder.

It would grieve me to think that any of us are okay with destroying an original, as Martin Mobarak did, in order to inflate the value of its representative equivalent. Moreover, let’s never lose sight of why we strive to preserve objects of value (such as a Sony Walkman or a family portrait), or — of greater consequence — why we place our treasured artifacts (important documents such as the Declaration of Independence, priceless works of art, etc) in museums. They trumpet our achievements and our trials — in short, our story. As authentic artifacts, they evoke curiosity and emotion, and sustain interest much more effectively than any cryptographic asset can possibly do.

Maybe that’s why Mobarak’s scheme failed.

Sources of Information:

Anthony Comstock’s Permanent Harm to Women’s Rights — It Goes Back to the 1800’s

Some of my best thinking happens while I’m enjoying my morning coffee and reading something from Smithsonian magazine. This morning’s read included an archeological piece on the workers who constructed Stonehenge 4500 years ago; in particular, it was about their poop (and their dogs’ poop, too). But, as fascinating as the short article was (one that I just had to share with my daughter in Portland, whose scientific curiosity is as distinctive as mine or — alternatively — whose filial sense of responsibility demands that she indulge me), it was the second article that I read that struck a more emotional chord. And, frankly, the current topic is nothing if not fraught (with its political overtones), and one likely to provoke an emotional maelstrom. . . if one reflects too intensely on the “historical moment” in which we currently find ourselves.

I invite you to imagine this scene: a husband and wife are in a passionate embrace in their bedroom when they hear rustling outside their second story window. Peering at them as they’re involved in “the act” is a furious-looking man whose enormous bald pate catches the reflection of the full moon filtering through the trees. He has held his tongue until he is sure that the couple have committed an illegal act. The illegal act? The husband has slipped on an industrial-grade condom (not the micro-thin, lubricated and scented “rubber” that wouldn’t become available for a looong time after). The man outside the window — as a “special agent” for the United States Post Office Department — leaps from his perch on one of the tree’s limbs through the open window and shouts, “You’re both under arrest for violating Connecticut’s obscenity laws.”

Sound ridiculous? Anthony Comstock was a pretty ridiculous man of the 19th century who was nevertheless instrumental in the passage of one of our country’s most restrictive federal laws concerning civil liberties and the right to personal privacy. Moreover, he was granted an insane degree of power to police it. So, the image presented in the paragraph above is indeed far-fetched, but Connecticut’s 1879 version — one of the many “little Comstock laws” that were implemented by states subsequent to the 1873 federal anti-obscenity law — illustrates what could happen. You could be a married couple who utilizes any manner of contraceptive, and — if found guilty — be subject to a fine, imprisonment, or both. Even coitus interruptus — always an option treated with natural skepticism by the woman — and the rhythm method (the Catholic Church’s favorite recommendation that compliant mothers of large broods likewise — long after the fact — viewed with mistrust) were outlawed. Nearly one hundred years would pass before the Comstock Law would be successfully challenged.

Whether you see yourself as someone who will be affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to overturn Roe v. Wade, there’s a gnawing sense that our society — already dangerously frayed — will be re-shaped by the Court’s unwillingness to preserve the most private of privacy rights of our citizens. Excuse me, . . . our female citizens. And whether you stand on the side of the majority of our citizens who wish to preserve the rights guaranteed in Roe v. Wade, or you’re instead guided by a belief system that sanctifies the rights of a fetus (or maybe even an embryo), you’ll no doubt appreciate the magnitude of this issue. It’s quite illuminating to note at this juncture that the first half of the 19th century — and even through much of the 18th century, as well — women enjoyed much more freedom (at least legally) to exercise control over their own bodies. How, then, did it all get upended? Who determined that a woman — any woman — was incapable of making her own decisions where it concerns her own body, her own health, her own needs?

To form an idea as to how our society veered onto a more noxious path, you can take a look at the disproportionate number of patent medicine ads in newspapers of the late 19th century targeting women, who were seen as constitutionally weak and nervous, whose very womanhood was viewed as pathological. It truly must have been a bewildering time for women. At the same time that they were beginning to flex their muscles in the work arena (outside the home) and to insist on being included in political discourse, they were being assaulted with messages of their inadequacy, their inferiority. Clearly, gaslighting is not a new phenomenon!

It is interesting to note that running parallel to the rise in feminist activism and advocacy was a contemporaneous (and insidious) trend that over time proved ruinous in terms of women’s constitutional protections. What began as a shift in perception evolved into a potent mechanism to wield control. You see, women had little agency until some time around the Civil War — in other words, they posed no threat to the establishment while they performed their wifely duties in the home.

As our country became more urbanized and people adapted to industrialized life, the social and business interactions that they engaged in became less intimate and less defined. . . and a whole lot less principled. The foods that people ate and the medicines they took were no longer ones that they grew or concocted. By the turn of the century, abuses were happening throughout the food and drug supply network and everyone seemed to recognize that some type of oversight was needed. When you set up a regulatory program (such as, for example, the Food and Drug Administration), you rely on experts. The mandates inherent in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were just one instance in which the opinions of the male-dominated medical establishment were deemed unassailable.

So, while women made visible gains during this time in some ways — the vote in 1920, for example — they lost immeasurably in other, more subtle but distressing ways. Their greatest surrender, in my mind, was conceding control over their own bodies to men of medicine and men who cited men of medicine. . . and even men who purported to be men of medicine. As if the matter were one of choice. It was a time of great opportunism, and a great time to be a man, especially a self-righteous, moralistic white man whose puritan (and puritanical) lineage dated back several generations

I’ve always been intrigued by 19th century American history. Admittedly, it’s probably because the invention of photography has made it easy to study intently the figures of the era. Bustled, corseted women standing stiffly next to an even more stiffly arranged Victorian settee are an invitation to reach for my magnifying glass. Even if I have no idea who the subject might be, I’m still very curious about what her life may have been like. Did she hate turnip as much as I do? What kinds of arguments did she have with her parents? Did she like to dance? And if I knew who she was, my questions could be endless.

When I study the portrait of Anthony Comstock, I’m curious about his life, too. He was part of that era when important men tugged on their mutton chops, puffed up their chests with self-importance and passed sweeping and important legislation that would leave future generations wondering what perception-altering drugs they favored when they were looking for professional inspiration and (of course) further opportunities for self-importance, further reason to puff up their chests.

It’s important to examine the broad historical context for clues — it allows for a more meaningful understanding of how we’ve arrived at this moment, one that keenly feels like a worrisome return to an earlier time characterized by huge social inequalities. Only by doing so can we fully acknowledge what’s on the line.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision has always been seen as a watershed moment in our country’s long journey to wrest from the federal government control over women’s bodies. For nearly one hundred years, petitioners had been agitating to de-fang a federal law that was forcefully promoted by Anthony Comstock, a tyrannical, mutton-chopped Connecticut yankee whose puritanical upbringing caused in him some pretty inflexible ideas about acceptable behavior among his brethren. . . especially if we include women in that cohort.

(photographer unknown)

Anthony Comstock was born in New Canaan, Connecticut in 1844, either the fourth child of eight or the fourth child of thirteen if you include his five youngest half-siblings. The son of a successful farmer, he was able to directly trace his American ancestry back six generations to the founding of Wethersfield, Connecticut. By Anthony’s time, the family had established a legacy based comfortably on agriculture and civic-mindedness. In William Comstock’s case — William was Anthony’s 4x great-grandfather — such civic responsibilities involved protecting family and community by hefting a musket at critical moments, such as during the Pequot Wars (1636-1637) when he joined his fellow puritan comrades and Mohegan allies in a massacre of 500 Pequot men, women, and children. Such was the sense of duty among Comstock men in their readiness to answer the call that each successive generation either signed up in eagerness to defend their turf (and God-given rights) and/or apply for proud membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.

In trying to make sense of Anthony’s extreme views about decorum that fueled his later crusade, an examination of his formative years goes a long way in explaining his skewed outlook on humankind. He had just turned ten (in 1854) when his mother died in childbirth. Simply put, his orderly and predictable world pitchpoled. With eight children and two servants, Anthony’s father Thomas (for a while) continued to toil and till — rather listlessly — on his farm in New Canaan; soon, however, Anthony’s two oldest brothers began to assume more responsibility for the farm’s management.

And then the Civil War happened.

And then Thomas laid down his pitchfork for good and removed to London. . . where he married a girl (younger than half of his children). Thomas would begin a new family with his second wife off in England, eventually running into financial difficulties. After crossing the Atlantic a few times, he transferred his new brood to Brooklyn, New York, where he would take up residence a mile away from his by then high-profile and very outspoken son Anthony.

Meanwhile, and before striking out for New York City himself, Anthony continued to struggle as he tried to restore order and sense in his world, but heartbreak pursued him. His older brother Samuel died (at age 21) in a Gettysburg hospital after wounds suffered in that battle. (His name appears in a long list of soldiers who succumbed in the months following the Battle of Gettysburg; interestingly, a high percentage of them were casualties of chronic diarrhea — typhoid fever, consumption, and dysentery also being frequently cited as cause of death. ) No doubt devastated by the loss of his brother, Anthony was moved to likewise answer the call, thus joining the Union cause three months later. He was nineteen. His experience as a private in the infantry exposed him for the first time to the rude realities of locker-room behavior among men. He was shocked and appalled. It would not be unreasonable to suppose that his resultant crusade against obscenity and all forms of immorality — one that lasted throughout the rest of his life — had its origins in that episode and was informed by the strict moral code that had been instilled in him by his late mother.

After mustering out and with his eyes now wide open, Anthony descended on the roiling hotbed of indecent behavior — New York City. For a while he held an academic position, but his growing indignation over what he saw as positive proof that American society (being systematically diluted and debased by the rising immigrant population) was slithering its way toward a vile and vulgar morass of immorality led him to advocate with every fiber of his being for the passage (in 1873) of the federal Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use.

The implications of this 1873 law, soon dubbed The Comstock Act (or Law), were far-reaching, opening the door for states to draft their own stringent laws that, in many cases, underscored the differences between the haves and the have-nots. People of the upper and middle classes continued — largely unhindered — to avail themselves of outlawed products, but the working class encountered all manner of difficulty in their attempts to access the same. Once Anthony was installed as “special agent” for the United States Postal Service, he was uniquely positioned to observe how New Yorkers exchanged information; some of that information made him quake with disgust and anger. With his new unfettered powers — he could open mail, arrest suspected perpetrators, even entrap people — Anthony Comstock was delirious with his own sense of importance and authority. And he was unstoppable.

And he was easy to spot a mile away. He was a short block of a man with a shiny bald head and ginger-colored sideburns that sprang audaciously from the sides of his face. Purposeful in his stride, his forward motion was, nevertheless, hindered and made comical by his habit of walking on the balls of his (tiny) feet. Often caricatured because of his physique and behaviors, as well as his idiosyncratic opinions, whenever he turned his glowering attentions on potential victims, the intensity of his gaze alone could make them tremble in fear.

It’s worthwhile to take pause at this juncture in order to contemplate the very real — as well as the emotional — fallout from this one man’s crusade. The law made birth control illegal. Let’s just start there. And abortion was seen by Anthony as the most egregious violation of the law; recalling how his saintly mother died giving birth to her eighth child, it must have been abhorrent to him that women (even those who were married) would entertain the thought of rejecting a pregnancy. They should be willing to die in service to their primary (procreative) purpose, must have been his thinking.

Moreover, it may have been one thing to arrest people who were peddling “obscene” literature — notwithstanding the subjective (and highly variable) nature of the word’s definition, but Anthony always seemed to veer into the extreme. He once was offended by an undressed mannequin in a San Francisco store display window and brought charges, (which of course were later dismissed in court.) Equally absurd was the controversy over an oil painting. Google “September Morn” — not Neil Diamond’s song, but the oil painting by Paul Chabas. Even if you don’t look it up, let me sum for you: it’s a naked young woman standing in the shallows and striking a modest pose. Her nakedness was displayed in a NYC shop window, causing our crusader to storm angrily into the shop and demand that it be removed at once. Anthony was often impulsive and quite the hothead, not averse to getting physical or threatening . As the painting had already withstood legal scrutiny earlier in Chicago, our friend Anthony knew that the painting — and the reproductions — had standing, and the most that he could do was cast his opinion publicly, declaring it “demoralizing in the extreme and especially calculated to excite immodesty in the young.”) (Wikipedia)

If there was any “exciting” going on, it was the controversy that clung to Anthony Comstock in every encounter that resulted in him zealously exercising his powers of arrest or through his efforts to otherwise publicly condemn the shameful behaviors of his contemporaries. Occasionally, there were campaigns to overturn the Comstock Law, but at least while Anthony was alive, he enjoyed the backing of some very influential businessmen‚ most notably J.P. Morgan and Samuel Colgate. As always, Congress aimed to keep the captains of industry happy. And it must be said that many U.S. citizens, too, were pleased that they could rely on the indefatigable work of this uncompromising crusader against smut. Nothing would change until 1965.

Griswold v. Connecticut, a case being closely parsed of late, has been considered — from the outset — to be one of the most influential precedent-setting decisions where it concerns right to privacy. Pursued all the way to the Supreme Court, the plaintiff Estelle Griswold, who was executive director of Planned Parenthood, (through her lawyer, Yale lawyer Thomas Emerson) successfully argued in 1965 that Connecticut’s law banning the use of and/or dispensation of contraceptives violated a fundamental implied constitutional right. Eight years later, the success of Roe v Wade would depend on a broadening of the marital privacy rights that were articulated in Griswold v. Connecticut. A woman’s (and her doctor’s) right to privacy and freedom from governmental intrusion was re-interpreted to include abortions. In Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion yesterday, he alludes to future reconsideration of — among other cases — the due process protections that were decided in Griswold v. Connecticut.

As I’ve noted, it’s important to recognize what’s on the line. It feels terribly wrong that a body of nine — not a single one of whom has the biological capacity to become pregnant, either because of gender or age — exercised their power to nullify the constitutional right to an abortion, which, let’s just acknowledge it right now, disproportionately affects black and brown women. It should also be very unsettling that Justice Thomas is essentially welcoming other cases that will further subvert the rights of under-represented cohorts — same sex couples, for example. We’re wholely unaccustomed to court decisions that so ravage constitutional protections, but it does have familiar historical echoes. Our society can’t seem to escape its tradition of suppressing rights that should be enjoyed by all constituencies (while simultaneously broadening rights that imperil our most vulnerable, as also happened this week by means of the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. vs. Bruen.) Over and over we find ways to preserve the status quo, by which I mean the perceived threat to the rights of privileged white men. Anthony Comstock — whose extreme beliefs were cultivated from the cradle and indulged for nearly his entire adult life — caused irreparable harm to our less fortunate, disenfranchised citizens. Our shameful past — we can never seem to shed it, and yesterday’s ruling simply magnifies the recurring hurt.

Works Consulted:

Gun Owners are Pretty Happy with the U.S. Supreme Court This Week

I had a dream last night that I killed someone with a handgun. I’ve never owned a gun, never even held one. Well, that’s not entirely true. When I was a young girl I was allowed to hold my mother’s .22 rifle for about 5 seconds. Other than being surprised at the weight of it, I had very little interest in it. I don’t see myself as a violent person. When I feel myself at the extreme limits of exasperation, the best image I can summon is of me kicking the source of my vexation in the shins.

Why, then, did I have this dream? It likely had to do with the announcement yesterday that the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called “New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. vs. Bruen,” struck down a restrictive gun law in New York. No longer will there be (reasonable) limits on who can carry a firearm in public. On hearing this I felt a sense of dread. Here in Massachusetts we can fully expect our own restrictive laws to be similarly challenged in the near future. Some of you may recall that our Governor, Charlie Baker, bragged about our “controlled” numbers relative to crimes committed with guns. Well, that just jinxed it for us!

The specifics of yesterday’s Court decision are summarized thusly: “An individual who wants to carry a firearm outside his home may obtain an unrestricted license to ‘have and carry’ a concealed ‘pistol or revolver’ if he can prove that ‘proper cause exists’ for doing so. . . An applicant satisfies the ‘proper cause’ requirement only if he can ‘demonstrate a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.'”

Now, that seems terribly easy to do — I mean, how hard is it to demonstrate (in this country) that one has a “special need for self-protection” when all of us are already viewing the “general community” with great distrust, skepticism, and (at times) fear. I’m left with a dispiriting sense that while we have taken one important step forward with the bipartisan federal bill that was just recently hammered out, any gains will be stripped away by the New York case ruling. And let us not deceive ourselves that it will end at New York State’s borders. As a society, have we lost all sense of reason, all sense of proportion?

It is generally agreed upon by historians that the context in which the 2nd Amendment was written relied upon a common understanding of our new nation’s greatest existential threat. All sides of the debate back in 1791 were in agreement about the dangers of a standing army. Noah Shusterman (Washington Post, 22-February 2018) distilled the prevailing thought this way: “any society with a professional army could never be truly free.” It was never about an individual’s right to bear arms; it was ever about their participation in a militia. In that fragile moment, no one could foresee the broader implications.

The debate now cannot presuppose a common way of looking at our nation’s greatest security needs. For sure, there are coalitions among the American citizenry who still fear either a foreign take-over of our country or a coup staged by army generals, but can we really say that that is a greater threat than the threat we pose to each other? And, last I saw, we have a “Regular Army”, so do citizens still feel the need to bear arms? Against whom? Has our mutual distrust reached capacity, such that we will find it impossible to disentangle ourselves from our consuming resentments and grievances, our stubbornly-held differences?

Having a dream in which I killed someone with a handgun really shook me up. Even though I convince myself that my dream took that direction because of all the recent episodes of gun violence — especially the mass shootings — the 6-3 ruling (big surprise) by the U.S. Supreme Court expanding gun-toters’ rights seems morally wrong. If it isn’t starkly obvious by now, yes, I do believe there should be limits on gun ownership and carry laws.

Grandparents

Some might call it morbid, but I’ve always been fascinated by dead people. . . and nearly dead people, which is how I viewed my dad’s parents when I was growing up. In truth, they weren’t (much) older than my mom’s parents, but where there was liveliness and humor and tenderness on the one side — all obvious signs that Papa Joe and Nana May (my mom’s parents) were of this world, Nana Morrissey and her perpetually scowling partner Gama were stern, dull, and disapproving. I grew up believing that Nana May and Papa Joe were the kinds of grandparents that one could more easily love and want to be around, to nestle (maybe) in their laps, and that Nana M and Gama were unhappy people who were born old and whose only concern was that we children not touch any of the fragile furnishings (and they were ALL fragile) in their tiny, old-fashioned home that perched — cramped and awkward — on a rocky ledge uphill from the Mystic Valley Parkway in Medford. As a child, how freely one could run around and get dirty, maybe even break things (and each other) were immensely important activities, and our degree of freedom to do so defined how we adjudged the character of our four grandparents. It was unfair and shortsighted, but that’s how children are.

Recently I acquired (from that same tiny house on the rocky ledge) a cache of archival collections and loose photos that belonged to my ancient Aunt Ginny, my dad’s only sibling. She lived to 103 years old and displayed an enduring reverence for “the family record”, maybe a by-product of her long career as an attorney. Taken together, the photos tell a story that I never knew, one that upends (in a most meaningful way) my conclusions about my Medford grandparents.

“Circus Day” (May 3, 1959)

“Circus Day” in May 1959 was one of those occasions for which there are several photos of Kevin, Tom, Chris, and me. We’re all spit-polish, scrubby-clean top to bottom, ready for Aunt Ginny to widen our country-dwelling horizons by treating us to The Greatest Show on Earth, an annual extravaganza held at Boston Garden. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus was 88 years old in 1959. I was a little over three years old, the baby of the family. (For nearly five years I was able to enjoy that vaunted status until the second half of the family began to arrive.)  In at least three of the snapshots, I’m leaning cozily into my Nana M and she’s got a protective (one might say “loving”) arm around me. To me, the gesture looks natural. As an adult with a lifetime of opportunity to reshape the narrative, could I really have had it all wrong? Were Nana M. and Gama just a typical couple of a certain age and time period, grandparents whose lives ran parallel to but distant from our other set? 

And so I begin to remember things. 

My favorite birthday cake is — and always has been — “Hershey’s Chocolate Town Special Cake” with “7-Minute (Boiled) Frosting”. Although I can’t remember how established it was as a tradition, Nana M. began making it for me for my birthday when I was very young. Each year when she presented it, I was dazzled by its exquisite, snow-white beauty and, of course, would be nearly insensible with joy as I shoveled it into my mouth. Whenever I make the same cake, I use Nana M’s magnificent creation as my benchmark, striving to achieve a rich, moist cake texture and swirly snowdrift frosting perfection that I recall her cakes having. And I can’t help but conclude that she made that cake. . . for me. . .  with love and pride. 

It seems that I never knew my Medford grandparents at all. 

Family Research — The Stories That Really Matter

It’s a simple truth that anyone doing serious family research will — at some point — hit a brick wall. The more obdurate that wall, the more determined we are to surmount it. Given the ease with which we can obtain contemporary information about people, it vexes us that with a little earnest effort we can’t find out all we’d like to know about our ancestors. Since we Morrisseys descend nearly entirely from Irish forbears who left the Isle in the period extending from the Famine (latter half of the 1840’s) up through the 1880’s, with few exceptions our ability to confirm lineage beyond the ancestors who immigrated is hampered by several factors, such as:

  • Vague references by those who settled here as to their home of origin. In most cases, we have the county name only (if that).
  • Inconsistency in the self-reporting as to year of birth, especially on census records and death records, but also marriage records. Rather than assume that the variance was born of suspicion and distrust, the inconsistencies are most likely attributable to their own uncertainty about their birth — bear in mind that in the 19th century and earlier, knowing precise dates was unimportant (unless you were Irish and neglected to register a birth within a required time period, in which case you would simply alter the authentic date to comply with the law.) Family bibles have been perhaps the most reliable records of births (or more importantly, baptisms). . . if the researcher has access to them.
  • Early census records (19th century) for Ireland were destroyed in the fire of 1922 at the Public Records Office. As a “census substitute”, Griffith’s Valuations is the go-to, but despite its voluminous listings of tenancies, teased out by townland, barony, parish, and county; it has severe limitations. (A more thorough examination would be better suited in a separate essay.)
  • Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths in Ireland did not begin until 1864. Wouldn’t you know that most of the ancestors for whom the trail runs cold is right before that year — it inevitably seems that the 1850’s is the period of time that we most need to examine? For Roman Catholics (as nearly all our ancestors seem to have been), having the name of the diocese (as well as a fair idea of year) is crucial if we want to do a work-around and establish dates and confirm family connections. (Even here, the records are incomplete, especially regarding burial information — fewer than half the parishes kept burial information prior to 1900.)

When we pause to consider the driving force behind our research, it seems we are most motivated by our curiosity about our own part in the ongoing narrative — why am I dreamer, for example? Do I get that from my dad? And, in turn, where did he get it from? Is Margaret’s (or Michaela’s) widow’s peak a genetic trait inherited from Gama’s family? Is Tom’s intensity something passed down from the Morrissey side of the family? (They were, it seemed, a very competitive and intense lot.) Surrounded as we are by blue or green-eyed siblings, Bobby and I have brown eyes — are they a Murphy characteristic? And, let us not overlook shortness — is that from the Gildeas or the Morrisseys? (The Murphys — at least the women — were on the tall side, but Annie Mulhern — Papa Joe’s mother — was purportedly a “very tiny lady”.) Following are some of the questions to which we are always seeking answers in our researching of ancestors:

  • What did they look like?
  • What types of personalities did they have?
  • Did they get along with each other? And with others?
  • Did they have any health issues?
  • What types of livelihood did they have? (And how much of that was by choice or through coercion?)
  • What was their academic life like? (Achievers? Underachievers? Smart? Lazy? The educator part of me would want, furthermore, to tease out multiple intelligences.)
  • What did they do in their spare time? What were they passionate about? (Sports, social or political causes, travel, The Church, etc.)
  • What should each one be remembered for? (I always am most moved by the ones who would otherwise be forgotten over time — the ones who strayed or disappeared. . . or were institutionalized, and the ones who never had their own children. Who can assure their legacies? Who will perpetuate their memory?)

Fortune Favors the Bold

I recently went shopping with a friend at a nearby antique market, and while we meandered through the vast indoor space — a converted mill building alongside the North Canal in Lawrence (off-shoot of the Merrimack River), we kept up a running conversation. At one point, we both agreed that we were ideal companions in that particular endeavor. Both of us have a casual approach, not in the least like how her husband undertakes the task, nor how my husband used to — each can (or could) spend up to an hour in one nook, closely examining every piece. When my husband George was alive we enjoyed our antique shop adventures immensely, but it always was the case that as soon as we entered the door, we’d part ways. Inevitably, he would emerge with something amazing, and I would be spending my money on something that before too long would end up in a Goodwill bin. I just don’t have the eye for spotting treasures; either that, or I’m too impulsive. . . or impatient. . . or lazy. Maybe I’m all those.

Every once in a while, however, I’m inspired to be different. I want to be that person who can while away an hour or two in an antique shop (or an entire morning at a fair), inspecting countless pieces of recycled merchandise, moving some aside to reach for the hidden gems. Just as gratifying would be the casual conversations that can be struck up with knowledgeable (and quirky) vendors, especially the ones who get excited when you’re curious about an item’s history or backstory. (Having lived more or less in the shadow of my much more social and outspoken partner, let me just say it’s a slow process learning to position myself center-front on that same stage where for decades I occupied a position slightly behind George. . . right where I was comfortable.)

Bembe and Yoselín rocking a Cuban son

In most rooms of my house there is at least one of George’s antique finds. I find I’m less able to part with the unique, one-of-a-kind vintage and antique curiosities that reside politely — in some cases joyously entertaining — on shelves. One of my favorites is a pair of folksy-looking Cuban musicians, hand-carved and depicted in a stylized manner. They’re an exuberant couple with posable bodies. The man is playing the güiro, the woman — bongos, and both are singing. Every so often, in order to fully appreciate their vitality, I reposition their arms or their heads or their feet. I’m not likely to ever part with my Cuban pair because their most recent story — the only chapter I’ll ever know — fills me with my own version of joy. On one of our antique adventures, George and I found ourselves somewhere downeast in Maine. As we typically did, we entered an antique shop together and immediately parted company. My interests tend to lean toward old textiles, sewing machines, 60’s lunchboxes, books, and 19th century photos. George’s particular interests were tools, toys, bottles, and anything he thought I would like. After about 30 minutes George appeared at my side and silently handed me the pair of figurines. He knew I would love them, and maybe imagined that I would add them to the decor in my Spanish classroom. Not for a moment would I entertain such a thought — I wanted them just for myself. It didn’t surprise me at all, either, that he had found them in a part of the shop that I had already breezed by.

Over the years, I feel I’ve come to know Yoselin and Bembe quite well. (Yes, I’ve named my high-spirited, posable Cuban musicians.) Like most people, I’ve formed an attachment to a possession that obviously has only the slightest of monetary value. It must be said, though, that whenever we enter an antique shop or attend a fair or (especially) a flea market, we entertain a hope that we’ll find a hidden gem. Yoselín and Bembe are enough of a treasure for me, but this morning I read in Smithsonian about a woman who really hit the jackpot. . . in a Goodwill store, of all places. For the price of $35 (if you shop at Goodwill, you understand that to be top dollar), Laura Young emerged with a very heavy but cool marble bust that she knew would look perfect in her hall entryway. Young isn’t a complete novice — she trades in antiques, so she knew she was on the better end of the transaction.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat

The 2,000 year-old story began with some famous Roman commander or emperor’s son or son of a disgruntled statesman (good guy, bad guy — it’s hard to know with certainty). In death, all these guys are elevated anyway, whether in status or as blocks of marble shaped into beautiful, proud heads and placed on a pedestal. . . literally (or, at least their likenesses are. . . literally).

Whoever was being represented by the sculpture, its beauty and value were appreciated (many centuries later) by King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made it a part of his permanent collection, housed in the newly constructed Pompeiianum Museum in Aschaffenburg, Germany. One hundred years would pass uneventfully until very eventfully World War II happened, and the Allies bombed the Pompeiianum. The shame is made greater by the fact that looting then took place by the Allies. One way or another, the stolen head made its way to the United States where it remained a secret for nearly eighty years. And now, the real story is as much about our curiosity about the moron in Texas who dropped it off at a Goodwill recycling center as it is about where it has been for eighty years.

There’s a lesson here, and I don’t think it’s caveat emptor. Perhaps caveat donator (“donor beware”) better captures the moral. Also, bona quarentibus (which, if I’m not totally making up my own form of Latin, means “Good things come to those who seek.”)

Read Smithsonian’s article : “Ancient Roman Sculpture Likely Looted During WWII Turns Up at Texas Goodwill”