Old Things

glass liquor bottle 1890sI love old things. One of them you see here, a bottle from the 1890s or before, meant as I am guessing, for spirits of some kind. You can’t really tell with the label mostly effaced.

I came upon this and the item below while going through a nasty drawer full of junk under our kitchen’s utility sink. It was in the 1980s that these two items first came to our notice from their sleeping-place deep down in the earth . It happened when we excavated a portion of the yard to expand our antiquated kitchen.

I don’t know what the builder was thinking when he laid out the original room when the house was new in the 1890s. Even by that era’s standards, it seems a truly terrible space to for the preparation of food. I say this because in all the 90 years before we came, this kitchen had remained the same. Sure, the stove had been swapped out and the old stove still reposes, a slumbering whale in our basement. The refrigerators got swapped out too, from the original icebox to electrified coolers, like the 1920s-era version that also slumbers below stairs.

But the basic layout?  Unchanged in all that time by which I mean to say that when we got here, there were no cupboards above sink or stove or fridge. If you wanted a cupboard you had to walk in to the next room, a room grandly called, in those days, ‘the butler’s pantry’. I called it that myself  – I had grown up in a house with room we called the l pantry – until I realized my small children thought I was talking about a pantry without a butt. (It must have been my Boston accent.)

Additionally, there were no surfaces on which to set things in this kitchen we inherited in the 1980s. Not a countertop in the place. If you wanted a surface, you had to walk into another room called the larder, where there were wooden shelves, wooden drawers and a lone square of marble for rolling your pie dough on. If as the cook, you needed to pare the potatoes you stood at the sink. When you needed to whip the potatoes, you sat at the wooden table in the room’s center and worked with the bowl in your lap.

And when our family of four sat at that table, still situated in the room’s center, we were all squeezed in so tight that someone had to vacate his seat and push in his chair in order to open the fridge for a forgotten item, and another person had to do the same so someone could check the oven to see if the brownies were done.

We couldn’t wait for that renovation. It brought us not only a larger more airy space in which to prepare and serve meals to friends and family, but it also delivered to us this last old item: a railroad spike from… who knows when, as Its irregular shape argues for a vintage older still than the 1890s. Today I am thinking hmmmm: the old Massachusetts town of Concord lies only a few hills and laps distant from here.  Maybe this is the kind of spike driven in to the earth when they first laid that Boston-to-Fitchburg run in the 1840s, and the iron monster  so shattered young Henry Thoreaus’s peace of mind over there in his cabin on the banks of Walden Pond. Anyway, here is ‘our’ spike, seen against one of my cookbooks for scale.


The past is all around us, no doubt about that! Now if I could just talk to Thoreau, or Emerson, or Walt Whitman, or my girl Emily D. over the road there in Amherst. Where do they go, the dead, the silent dead?

Called Here: For Emily

snowday dawnWhen Emily Dickinson died in her 50s her family used for her epitaph a phrase from one of her letters. “Called Back” it still reads today on her Amherst headstone, a phrase which suggests belief in a God who set her down here, monitored her as she went about the full human tour through pain and gladness and loss and merriment, and decided when He decided that He then needed her back again.

In fact there isn’t much proof that Emily believed in an afterlife and a good bit of sly evidence that she didn’t. (I think of what she wrote to a friend about shunning men and women: “They talk of hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog,” adding, of this canine, “I think Carl would please you. He is dumb and brave.” 

There, is, however, plenty of evidence that she believed in this life, for who has celebrated its minute music-box-gear turnings with such care and precision?

I was ‘called back’ to remembering all this yesterday when my cousin Rebecca sent me a quick flash on Facebook from her home in California. It said only “Emily’s birthday!”

I knew right away who she meant and looked Emily up and sure enough it was her birthday, not the day she was called back but the day she was called here.

It was snowing as I read these things, some 90 miles from her grave. Big fat flakes were falling at that hour, each one as round and soft as a coconut Christmas ball. Then I Googled Emily’s name and the word ‘snow’ and sure enough here is what she left for us, one of thousands of such pearls to help us remember what she said to her another friend in a letter once. “To have been made alive is so chief a thing.” And so it is. And so it surely is.

Now Emily, on the snow:

It sifts from leaden sieves,
It powders all the wood,
It fills with alabaster wool
The wrinkles of the road.

It makes an even face
Of mountain and of plain, —
Unbroken forehead from the east
Unto the east again.

It reaches to the fence,
It wraps it, rail by rail,
Till it is lost in fleeces;
It flings a crystal veil

On stump and stack and stem, —
The summer’s empty room,
Acres of seams where harvests were,
Recordless, but for them.

It ruffles wrists of posts,
As ankles of a queen, —
Then stills its artisans like ghosts,
Denying they have been.





Undressing a Maiden

Back again to Emily Dickinson who was the opposite of tame, the opposite of conventional.

Our Emily, who would never use proper punctuation.

How that shocked the literary bigwigs! No commas or semicolons for her! She favored the dash.

This killingly beautiful poem by Billy Collins gets at her nature and the world she lived in too. You might have to be somewhat knowledgeable about her poems to recognize the fly buzzing and the plank and the loaded gun – she really did say Life was a loaded gun – but you don’t have to know a single thing about all that to see the beauty and eroticism of this piece. And for you strictly 21st century readers, a tippet is a brief ornamental garment that hovers about the shoulders. Tulle is like organdy if that helps at all: stiff and somewhat gossamer in nature.  And whalebone stays were the joists in a corset that kept the whole edifice erect.

I’ll assume you know what a bonnet is and can visualize the ever-startling iceberg of human nakedness. Here is the poem then. Hold on tight!

Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything –
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

What a relief to undress and be undressed as she undresses and is undressed in this the poet’s fantasy! Every woman who ever wore a bra or girdle, or pantyhose,or Spanx understands the feeling. “Wild nights!” she said in one poem, a gossamer-spun fantasy of her own.

And now the poet laureate himself, reading the piece aloud:

I Knew She Was No Mouse

Up until now we’ve had only one photo of that famous recluse Emily Dickinson, in which she does look somewhat unformed and even mouselike. (Think of Robert Burns’s ode to that small rodent: “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie, O what a panic’s in thy breastie!”) She looks timorous and wee if not cowering. She also looks like you could blow her clean over by exhaling sharply in her presence.

She was recovering from an illness at the time, family members said later. It’s why she was so thin in this 1847 daguerreotype of her, made when she was just 16.

Now suddenly news has broken of a new picture of Emily which Amherst College believes is the poet for sure. (They keep all her archives – she lived in Amherst Massachusetts all her life and her dad was associated with the school.) Emily is the one on the left, sitting with her friend Kate Scott Turner.

Amherst College worked with Dr. Susan Pepin, Director of Neuro-Ophthalmology at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. She compared the two images one to one using scientific measurements. She says this is Emily all right, sitting with her recently widowed friend. She is 29.

And here is the image made by a Vermont Firm called North 100, proving the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Watch the video to see the 16-year-old change into the 20-year-old and back again:

They are the ones who produced this living emergence of the wan girl into robust adult womanhood. They tell the story here , and within this link you can find a second link to the report by Dr. Pepin, who sees more clearly than the rest of us ever could about skin folds and eye size and even the shape of a person’s cornea who has been dead since the 1880s. She notes the way light shines in a certain way off that right eye of hers; you can see it as clear as day. That is an astigmatism. Dr. Pepin says, and it is identical in both pictures.

So yes we have a resurrected Emily, that poet who wrote such wonderful things I practically keep a list of them by my bedside. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to see her in full health with that almost-mischievous smile playing about her lips.

She made so many sly cracks about organized religion, and love, and time, and yet she herself worshipped at the altar Nature, and knew what love felt like even if it was love at a distance, and sensed the ever-approaching End. Here is what she wrote once to the handsome John Long Graves who became a special friend in his years at Amherst and then, like all the others, moved away from the little village:

“Much that is gay I have to show if you were with me John, upon this April grass! Then there are sadder features, here and there, wings gone to dust that fluttered so last year – a moudering plume, an empty house in which a bird resided…. Where last year’s flies, their errands ran, and last year’s crickets fell! We too are flying , fading, John, and the song “here lies” soon upon lips that love us now will have hummed, and ended.”

This passage has always brought me near tears, and it does that again today as I type it, especially as I attend the late summer sound of the acorns outside my window, dropping like small bombs on roof and sidewalk.

‘We too are flying, fading, John.’ But not altogether, if we capture our thoughts in ink, or pigment, or musical note. Not altogether if we leave behind some sign of how it was for us when we were here.

Look at that little smile. She was no mouse! She was a lioness!

Here Lie…



This isn’t my house thank God but I’ll tell you what it’s really like living here in the growing season. I know I said it was like living inside the Keebler Elf tree and proved it with these actual pictures but an even better analogy is coming to mind now: It’s more like what that nutty little genius Emily Dickinson wrote.

See if you remember this poem, where she pictures herself and the mystery person she addresses lying side by side in their graves, dressed just in the clean white bones maybe, or maybe still in their starched Sunday best with the undertaker’s makeup pale upon their cheeks. You know it I betcha :

I died for Beauty–but was scarce 
Adjusted in the Tomb 
When One who died for Truth, was lain 
In an adjoining Room-

He questioned softly Why I failed? 
“For Beauty,” I replied 
“And for Truth, Themself are One 
We Brethren are,” He said–

And so, as Kinsmen, met at Night 
We talked between the Rooms
Until the Moss had reached our lips 
And covered up our names

Emily didn’t do punctuation, aside from these crazy dashes every few words, but doesn’t that ring a bell somehow? The image of us carrying right on with the talk while slowly – slowly and wonderfully in a way – Nature knits the green blanket that will cover us all in the end.

You saw the picture of the ivy outside my study window . Now here’s the mother dove who sat on my window sill all last summer hatching babies; whose descendants may sit here still when I and that boy I fell in love with lie all quiet in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, beneath the grand old trees and under the wide cold sky.

cool hands soft

It was a nice Mothers Day for me. My girls gave me plants and our first honorary son and his bride sent some gorgeous flowers and called – twice.  A certain young man from Brooklyn forgot to call but we’re not much on these things in our family so that’s fine  – and maybe this evens us out finally for that time I stole a photo of him from one if his friends’ Facebook pages and used it in the holiday card.

The truth is, it was  a long day for me and my back muscles were screaming bloody murder by 6pm, probably because I began the day by driving 3 ½ hours, then food-shopped, then picked up a boy so he could harvest some blossoms from our yard to give to his honorary mom. (And what an eye for beauty he has as the vaseful showed, the azalea and lilac, the rhododendron and bridal veil all so artfully arranged by him!) Then I roasted a couple of pork loins before the rest of them arrived with the side dishes and David produced a 1990 wine just on the edge of turning from awesome to dirt-like.

Of course I thought of my own mom as I do every day, since, except for a sharp yearning for the sound of her voice, she is not gone from me at all, even these 22 years after her death. But for some reason I thought more of David’s mom who lies at last beside her young husband, cut down in the prime of his life. Ruth Payne was soft-spoken and self-effacing, tolerant, free-thinking, and humble. This is what she looked like her senior year at Tufts when she was futilely trying to tell one Ralph Marotta a marriage between them would never work.. And this below is the poem that since her death has made me think of her every time I read it. Emily Dickinson wrote it about her own mother who she too missed very much, even as we all miss the ones who gave us life, remembering as we do our baby days and their cool hand soft upon our brow:

She bore it till the simple veins
Traced azure on her hand —
Til pleading, round her quiet eyes
The purple Crayons stand.

Till Daffodils had come and gone
I cannot tell the sum,
And then she ceased to bear it —
And with the Saints sat down.

No more her patient figure
At twilight soft to meet —
No more her timid bonnet
Upon the village street —

But Crowns instead, and Courtiers —
And in the midst so fair,
Whose but her shy — immortal face
Of whom we’re whispering here?

but seriously: who could be mad at this guy?