Friday, July 22, 2011

Valentine Saga Hits Local Paper

For those of you who've been following the saga of the valentine, here's an interview I did with my old hometown newspaper, The Jamaica Plain Gazette:

I spent way more time on this one than I intended to...but it was such great fun!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Valentine Redux

Remember the antique valentine?  The owner has come forward!  I had traced her several weeks ago.
I found her easily enough on Facebook; however, she apparently isn't on there very much.  Her Thurber cousin, mentioned in the previous post, passed on the message.

I received a great email from Jennifer, the granddaughter of the then-child for whom the valentine was intended.  She told me her mother - Elizabeth's daughter - is still alive!  The family now lives in California.

The English couple who rescued the valentine are mailing it to the family.  Jennifer is thrilled to receive it; she plans to preserve and frame it for her own small granddaughter - born, she notes, 100 years after Elizabeth herself.

Jennifer relayed a brief family history to me; in it, she revealed that Elizabeth Lockwood's sister, Rosamond, married a man named Norman Vaughan - a polar explorer!

Vaughan served with the infamous Admiral Byrd on his expeditions to Antartica. Vaughan only died a few years ago; he lived to be one hundred.  His incredible life is outlined in his obituary:

So, at long last, a valentine has made its way home - not to its intended address, but to its intended family - whose roots now stretch from England to New England, and from the baked earth of Arizona to the sparkling shores of California.

Too, those roots are woven into the history of our country - from the 18th century slave trade (see previous post) to 20th century polar adventures.

After my recent trips to the South, I have been compelled to personally revisit the issues of slavery, race, and the civil rights struggle.  More on that in an upcoming post.

The legacy of the DeWolfe family - and their modern-day gifts of education and openness - adds still more fuel to the fire of my curiosity.  I've got to see their film and read that book.

People sometimes ask me why I trace the origins of these "orphan items".  After all, it doesn't pay, they say.

No, it doesn't.  But in countless ways, I am so much the richer for it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Resting Place, A National Disgrace

A few weeks ago, I was in Birmingham, AL to attend IGHR at Samford University.  Prior to the conference, I swung back to the airport to pick up a colleague.

I arrived early and noticed an old cemetery on the airport road - a much more interesting place to kill time than the cell phone waiting lot.

It captivated me immediately.  It was sad and forlorn in a Southern Gothic sort of way, a way in which only a Northerner - an outsider - can appreciate.  For I've never seen a place quite like this, so poignant and beautiful in its decay.

Stones dotted its ragged hills in no apparent sense of order, many listing at crazy angles.  Cement tombs were cracking, separating, and sinking into the ground.  And then there was the amazing variety of markers - monuments crafted of wood, cement, traditional granite, even kitchen tile.

But most touching of all were the inscriptions themselves - painted on concrete, carved with a stick.  Desperate last tributes are scrawled in wet cement, executed seemingly without planning.  Misshapen letters arc toward the heavens, trail off toward the earth.

They are utterly human and, to me, moving beyond words.  As an artist, I reveled in their variety, texture, and lack of uniformity.  I took lots of pictures.  Then my cell phone rang, and knocked me out of my reverie.  My passenger was on the ground in Terminal A - a minute's drive that felt like a world away.

I was pleased with myself for discovering this place, and for taking pictures that I could maybe someday work into my art - a series of paintings?  A collage?  The theme could be beauty and decay - or, rather, beauty as decay.

I didn't notice the state historical marker until I was turning back onto the airport road.  It was then that I learned who was buried here. Suddenly, I felt a bit ashamed.  This was not a quaint Southern Gothic tableau, nor a tourist photo op.

Rather, it was the resting place of three small martyrs - children who had unwittingly sacrificed their lives in the name of civil rights.  And its condition was deplorable.

To be continued...

Friday, July 1, 2011

My "Funny" Valentine: The Sequel

Ah yes, My Funny Valentine - "funny", as in strange.  You won't believe the turn this story has taken.

So, the descendants of "Sky" Thurber (I just love that name!) are contacting the descendant of Elizabeth Lockwood in order to facilitate the reunion between valentine and family of origin!

As it turns out, Elizabeth's nickname was "Licky".  Licky and Sky!  I have a feeling this couple was, in the parlance of their time, the cat's meow AND the bee's knees!

Licky's daughter is still alive!  I hope to talk to her and learn more about them.

On a more serious note - Licky's husband, Sky Thurber, has an amazing link of his own to New England history.

The Thurber who spoke to me told me that she is a descendant of the DeWolf family of Bristol, R.I. - which declares itself "the largest slave trading dynasty in U.S. history".

Several years ago, a Dewolf descendant made the shocking discovery of her family's history.  The family has produced a book and a PBS film on the topic; they have used both as educational tools in lectures about racial inequality.

One of the consultants on the film was Edward Ball, renowned author of Slaves in the Family and The Genetic Strand, an amazing account of the DNA testing of his ancestors' hair clippings that Ball found in an old family desk.

What do I happen to be reading right now?  The Genetic Strand.  Strange.

Soon, a child's holiday postcard will be winging its way across the Atlantic, bound for the family of a woman long dead.  Its penny postage stamp is no longer sufficient to carry it across the Atlantic, but its legacy spans one hundred years.

The discovery of a tiny fragment of one family's history - the smallest plop of a pebble in a pond - has grown in concentric circles to encompass the broad and profound issues of slavery, shame, redemption, and race relations.

A funny valentine, indeed.

(Photos courtesy of The Jamaica Plain Gazette)