Friday, December 20, 2013


During the winter of 1912-1913, my maternal grandfather, William W. Howell (1875-1957), a physician from Boston, went to Vienna and Berlin to study the diseases of children. Upon his return, he accepted a position at the Harvard Medical School (his alma mater), where he taught pediatrics from 1913-1921; he also had a private practice with offices on Dartmouth Street.

O. Maxwell Ayrton (1874-1960) was a Scottish architect who lived and worked in London.  He passed the Royal Institute of British Architects qualifying examination and was admitted as an Associate on November 30, 1903. His projects included Wembley Stadium, National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill, Twickenham Bridge in London and Findhore, Loch Alvie and Spey bridges in Ivernesshire, Scotland.

Ayrton and his wife and children came to the USA in 1925, and, as my grandfather told it, one of Ayrton’s children became quite ill while the family was in Boston. My grandfather, who had privileges at several Boston hospitals, was the pediatrician in charge of Ayrton’s case; he was instrumental in saving young Ayrton’s life.

And so began an unlikely friendship: the Boston physician and the London-based architect remained in touch until my grandfather’s death in the letter, mostly, although each visited the other at least once more during their lives when overseas.

I have an original ink drawing sent to my grandparents from the Maxwell Ayrton family for a Christmas present in 1928; the image is 30” long, 6” high, under glass in a rich oak frame:
“A Prospect of Plymouth Sound and its Environments from the Hoe,” signed by Maxwell Ayrton.

It's a panoramic view of water, town rooflines, landscape. The detail is amazing... there’s a woman lounging on the stone wall, a boy with a fishing line, an organ-grinder (complete with little monkey); an elegantly-dressed couple with a telescope, two other gentlemen chatting, an onion vendor, two slightly overweight workingmen, a fish monger with his cart (I love the face on this guy!), a woman with two children, one of whom is rolling a hoop (my grandfather told me that this is Mrs. Ayrton with her two children)...

It hangs beneath the double window in my dining room; it’s tucked between the windowsill and the floor in a lovely, neutral patch of wall. I’ve seen dinner guests kneel on the rug to get a better look; they’re always delighted by the drawing...and the story!

Christmas and New Year greetings to you all; I’ll be back in 2014!

Saturday, December 14, 2013


These two ball-jointed mannequins were standing on a card table at a neighborhood yard sale, jammed between a Sunbeam mixer (with only one beater – what’s with that?) and a stack of old pie plates and bread pans.
I knew that I had to have them.
I shelled out five dollars for the pair and brought them home, scrubbed them up a bit.

They’re made of hardwood, are mounted on slender metal rods on solid, circular bases; they have precision joints for flexibility in positioning. They’re used in art classes for the study of the human body – they help students learn about correct scale and, if some strategic lighting is added, they provide dramatic demonstrations of shadow and form. 
They’re supposedly well-proportioned (although I have to say that most people I know don’t quite measure up to this standard).

I put them in my living room, and nearly everybody who comes here seems to want to fool around with them – they’re apparently irresistible!

I first set them up in classic ballroom dance poses: Vernon & Irene Castle, maybe, or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They looked wonderful together – his arm around her waist, hers nearly on his shoulder (she can’t bend quite that much); their opposite arms extended, palms touching... their feet poised for the first step of a Fox Trot.
I could almost hear Sinatra, or Benny Goodman.
And then one morning, after a night of good food and laughter with friends, I found him leaning against the wall of the bookcase, head down, her standing just behind, a comforting hand on his shoulder – hungover!
Another time, they ended up on the windowsill, looking out over the front lawn to the street.
          Holding hands.

It’s become a routine now: friends come over, twist them into all kinds of positions, move them around my house. I’ve found them kissing behind the coffee pot, on the bedside table in the guest room. Once they were on opposite sides of the living room, looking at each other – one peering from behind a lamp on an end table, the other from behind the television set.

Even my cleaning lady gets into the act occasionally, and I suspect she’s responsible for this last one...
I have no idea how long they’ve been waiting for me to notice them (probably since Wednesday, when she was here cleaning), but I nearly choked on my coffee this morning when I spotted them standing in the geraniums.
Adam and Eve, I thought instantly.

Geraniums are no Garden of Eden, to be sure, but it’s as close as you’re going to get in my house!

Friday, December 6, 2013


September 16, 1910

Peter Giberson
Farmington, Maine

Don’t come. Alice will put an apron on you and make you work all day if you do...Samantha

It’s been raining up here in Maine for the past few days, and we’re all a bit cranky around our edges; there’s something particularly oppressive about rainy days in late fall.
But I’ve got the cure for that: browsing through indoor flea markets where, if I’m lucky, I can find a postcard vendor with row upon row of boxed cards – a deltiologist’s dream!
          Most people collect postcards for the views, the graphics, the artist or the publisher.
          Not me; I collect for the words written on the back – and Samantha’s warning to Peter Giberson from the New Meadows Inn near my hometown is a classic!

A couple of years ago I published a small book: “Father is here...he’s as fat as a pig,” a collection of messages found on postcards sent to/from people in Maine in the early 1900s; I lifted the title directly from a postcard mailed in Lisbon in 1912 (you can find it on Amazon or on my website if you want to take a closer look).

It’s full of oddball things people wrote to each other, such as:
Dear V, will you look on the wood box and see if Sam laid a mouse there... please destroy it for it will not smell very good...

Or, one of my all-time favorites:
Dear Helen...there’s loads of pigs and cows down here, but not many men.

I wasn’t thinking about compiling a collection for a second book until I found one mailed to Leon McIntire of Middle Dam, Maine:
Received your card. Thot you was dead. Stella

Perfect title, I thought! So I’m officially collecting for the second book.

I’ve found some absolute beauties, including one to Mrs. W.S. Mayberry, in Portland:
Intended to send you a card before this but have been very busy fighting hornets...MBL

And to Mr. Fred Plummer of Orono:
You left town just in time for Mrs. Warren put your name in the paper and goodness knows what she might have discovered about you if you stayed longer...

And to a Mrs. Cunningham of Jefferson, Maine in 1912:
Walter has got his arm broke, the rest of us are all well.
Lottie is dead.


So much for Lottie!

Friday, November 29, 2013


I’ve seen trophies in other people’s houses – you know, the shelf in the living room, the table in the hall, even the occasional glass case in the den stuffed to the brim with trophies and ribbons from high school and/or college sporting events – but in my family, trophies are put to better use... this copper number, won by my grandfather (and three others) in 1907 at a Boston Athletic Association track meet: Holy Cross vs. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

It was for the four-man relay race, won for M.I.T. by R.B. Todd, C.W. Gram, H.W. Blackburn and G.S. Gould, my grandfather.

The family lore suggests he was overly proud of this trophy. He lugged it around to various boarding houses in Boston, Providence and even Ohio where he worked on his first engineering projects during the few years between his MIT graduation and his marriage to my grandmother.
They settled in Providence, bought their first house.
And the trophy went with them.

My grandmother thought it was pretty ridiculous to put such stock in an athletic trophy. She would hide it in the attic; he would find it, polish it up, redisplay it someplace in their living room, where it would stay until she grew tired of its uselessness and hid it again.

This went on for years; their children – and even their grandchildren – knew about this routine!

When my mother died, I inherited the task of sorting through boxes of family stuff that she and my father had saved over the years: books and papers and photographs and diaries; old letters and army commissions and theater programs, etc.
And one of the things I found was the trophy, passed down to my father and tucked into a box for future generations.

I’m not that into trophies, frankly – like my grandmother, I think they’re pretty useless – but I am definitely into family memorabilia; I couldn’t bear to throw it out.

I’ll bet she’d approve of the ivy!

Friday, November 22, 2013


An event?
Well, what about an annual event?
What about Thanksgiving?

With the day rapidly approaching, I found myself wondering how my ancestors celebrated the holiday, how their personal and societal perspectives might have differed from our own – so spent some time reading through old family diaries...

From the diary of John Allen Gould (1785-1860):
          Nov 25, 1847 – Thanksgiving day – My Children with their Wifes and little ones were all at home & in good health
          Nov 26, 1857 – Annual Thanksgiving. I visited my daughter Wilson (Margaret Gould Wilson) and took dinner with her and her husband. This is the first time that I have dined from home on thanksgiving day for about forty years

 Nov 25, 1858 – This was the annual Thanksgiving day. My son George and his family was with me, and Margaret and her husband called upon us in the evening. In former years my Children were usually with me on thanksgiving day, but now they with their families have become so numerous that it is not convenient to continue the practice.

My mother’s side of the family had its diarists, too; Selah Howell (1840-1910) wrote a little note nearly every day in his Unitarian “Day by Day” inspirational book. It’s confusing, mostly, in that on any given page there are comments from the 1870s through the 1900s; sometimes wading through it is an exercise in patience.
          Here are some clips from the page you see here:
              1880 – All home, children well & happy. God be praised.
1894 – All at home No. 4 Cedar Ave., except for dear old Fred. After breakfast: Will & I in Library, Fanny & Marion down stairs. Snowing hard from N.E.
1897 – All at home except dear Fred & Carry
1898 – Will, Fanny, Marion & I. Nannie in Ohio

My 3rd-great aunt, Roxanna Wilder Sabin (1832-1925) kept diaries for most of her life; my great-grandmother, though, tossed most of them in the furnace in 1925 – she saved only a few of them. Here’s her comment from 1910:
          Thursday 24 – The whole family at Waban – Ethel & I & Ed at Lute’s – Fred and Polly there. Ethel “belt crazy”

          I don’t know what “belt crazy” means, but I do know something for certain: all these entries – from 1847 to 1910 – every entry was about home and family...every single one.
And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Happy Thanksgiving to you all...

Friday, November 15, 2013


I’ve got two of the three elements this week: photo of the doorway of a particular house number; what’s missing, though, is the element of a relatively high body mass index... I am on the front porch of 11 Fletcher Street in Portland, Maine.

My family moved from Boston to Portland in the early 1950s. My parents bought this lovely old federal on Fletcher Street for something like $12,000; its market value today would knock my socks off.

I could see the water from my bedroom window; I remember lying in bed, listening to my radio and watching fishing boats and the occasional tanker navigate the harbor. Later on, my parents gave me a window sill shelf-feeder, and I filled it with birdseed every morning before school...and watched birds at my window – inches away from me – sparrows and pigeons, mostly, but it was pretty magical!

I have no idea what I’m holding in my hands – I’ve blown this photo up, magnified it, used every technical alteration Picasa can offer, but I still can’t figure it out. But whatever it is, I’m clearly pleased about it; a small smile...

I’ve got my school clothes on: my wool skirt, little sweater top; the ribbons on my braids may or may not match the color of my underwear (I apparently picked ribbons that coordinated not with my outer clothing, but with my inner clothing – a habit that baffled my mother for a very long time!). I’ve got my sturdy brown leather shoes and striped socks...I still like striped socks, by the way.

Like so many Federals (and Greek Revivals), the house on Fletcher Street had a heavy frame-and-panel Christian door, sometimes called a Cross & Bible door here in New England – the framing on the top four panels in the shape of a cross, on the lower two the spine of an open book.

That gorgeous brass door knocker looks ridiculously high on this door; it’s positioned for one of Gulliver’s Brobdingnagians, while the mail slot is clearly for a Lilliputian. That knocker has followed my family around for four generations; I am of the fifth to own it... if you’re ever in Maine, knock on my door and come in!

To see what other Sepians have found, visit

Friday, November 8, 2013


I should know better.
I made the mistake of looking up the word in my various dictionaries; they pretty much agree on the three-legged business – whether talking of furniture, cookpots or stands – but my 1770 Johnson is most specific: limited to furniture and described as “...a seat with three feet, such as that from which the priests of Apollo delivered oracles.”

Priests of Apollo notwithstanding, other uses for tripods developed; here’s a photograph of one from my magical box of family photographs.

This is my father at engineering camp in 1938(give or take a year or two), while he was a student at Brown University.
After college, after World War II, he went on to become a successful civil engineer; he built a swing bridge at the harbor in Osterville, Massachusetts in 1946 (the year I was born – it’s still referred to as “Deb’s Bridge in my family).
During the early 1950s post-war transportation expansions in the United States, he built bridges on Route 128, the “new” highway around Boston; one of those bridges won an award for the Best Bridge in Massachusetts, (but was torn down later when the road expanded again).
          And then we moved to Maine, where he built a series of bridges in South Portland. They are still standing, and I drive over them occasionally; my tires thump over the joints between the sections of the bridge, and I am amazed that he is, in a sense, still holding me up...

Other tripods?

Well, how about The Tripods, a series of young adult, post-apocalyptic novels written by John Christopher in which tripods are three-legged mechanical walking machines (controlled by “masters”) who dominate humans...ended up being a British/Australian TV series (any British or Australian Sepians care to comment?).
And then there’s James Lee Burke’s Cajun protagonist Dave Robicheaux, a detective with the New Iberia, Louisiana police department. He’s an alcoholic, a Vietnam veteran and is, consequently, plagued by various demons; he also has a three-legged raccoon named Tripod.

There’s also a tripod fish (it has a ray that extends between its two pectoral fins to create the tripod effect – it’s pretty amazing!); a tripod headstand in yoga (your head and your hands are on the ground); and, finally, Garden Tripod Magazine, a fine arts publication.

I’ve even heard of people calling three-legged dogs and cats “tripawds,” but that’s a little over the top, don’t you think?

To see what other Sepians have contributed, visit:

Friday, November 1, 2013


My grandfather had a small magnifying glass on his desk in his den; I spent hours looking at these two photographs with it, scanning the house windows for faces of my ancestors. I knew they were there – my great-grandparents, my grandfather himself and his sister and four brothers, his Aunt Ethel and his grandmother, Roxanna Sabin – they all lived here in this wonderful house.
The place is enormous. It had to be, with all those people living there – ten of them; if you add the ever-present domestic help, there were usually twelve residents, and they all appear in various census records.

My great-grandfather, John Allen Gould III, was born in 1852; he married Frances Taylor Sabin on September 10, 1884, and they purchased this house at 1206 Boylston Street, Newton (just outside Boston) shortly thereafter.
My grandfather was born in this house in 1887; he was the first of John and Frances’ six children; he remembered lying in bed on Sunday mornings while Kate, the Gould family cook, poked fresh doughnuts up through the heating grate in the bedroom he shared with one of his brothers (one of the rooms on the second floor of the back of the house).
He also remembered playing hockey in the dining room with his brothers – my great-grandmother would have the boys move the furniture out of the dining room and play hockey in there on rainy days – they used the fireplace for a goal; four of her five sons played hockey for MIT in the early 1900s!

With five sons and a daughter, the Gould household was a busy place. The housework alone was staggering. Just think: laundry for twelve, before washing machines and dryers; cooking for the Goulds and all their friends (not to mention cleaning up afterwards...the dishes, the dishes!); cleaning, shopping, sewing, mending, etc.

My father remembered being in this house when he was a boy; he dreaded the climb up the long stairs to bestow the obligatory kiss on his great-grandmother’s cheek (Roxanna Sabin was “older than Methuselah,” he told me; “and kissing her was like kissing an old deflated football”) but loved sitting on the front porch, or playing out back in the coolness of the shade trees that surrounded the circular drive or in the carriage house (just visible on the right in the bottom photo).

The house is still there, still standing, although it’s now chopped up into apartments and surrounded by cheap houses built in the 1950s. Boylston Street is now US Route 9; the road has expanded dramatically; the stairway you see in the photo is gone – the road runs right up against the side of the house.

I can’t drive by without weeping. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Whenever we visited my grandmother’s house in Boston, we’d spend time in the big living room. It was just inside the front door, off the entry hall to the right – a huge room that extended the width of the house.

There were lots of windows (tall ones that extended nearly floor to ceiling), so the light was lovely; there were two leather sofas on either side of a fireplace, bookshelves and end tables, a couple of wingback chairs; oriental carpets and, to our delight, a baby grand piano we were allowed to play!
My grandfather kept his violin in here (we were not allowed to play with that); there was a music stand and a wonderful cabinet with doors that opened up; inside were ten drawers for filing sheet music.

But, best of all, was this dish, always on the low coffee table between the sofas. It was always full of stuff – little trinkets and toys and coins and subway tokens, checkers, buttons and brass screws – all kinds of things to be sorted, divided up into piles, etc.

Spending time in that living room with Nana and the dish was magical.
          “Find all the round things,” she’d suggest...or the red things, or all the things made of metal, or all the things that rolled.
Well, the dish is now in my living room, and I, too, fill it with things – odds and ends of things I find and save – and whenever I have a group of people over, there are always a few people who can’t keep the hands out of the dish; they poke and stir, lift things out, rearrange, etc.

So take a look.

Today, you should be able to find: marbles, some polished stones, a few glass stoppers, some lamp finials, two clock keys, a brass curtain ring, a door knob plate, a glass Hershey’s Kiss, a few pieces of beach glass, my late mother’s key ring, a pulley, a medallion drawer pull...

There are at least two other things in there...

Saturday, October 12, 2013



What a wonderful’s always been one of my two favorite architectural terms (the other is fenestration, which I might tackle on a different day).

I’ve got several dictionaries:
The Concise Oxford American (2006) has two uses: “a shield or emblem bearing a coat of arms...” or “a flat piece of metal for protection and often ornamentation around a keyhole, door handle, or light switch.”
Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (how can the ninth, in 1985, be “new?”) confirms the first two and adds a third: “the part of a ship’s stern on which the name is displayed.”
It also says the word is from the Middle English escohon.
Even my trusty 1770 Samuel Johnson dictionary defines it as “the shield of the family,” but there’s no reference to door knobs, plates or keyholes.

I focus on the hardware variety.
I have quite a few escutcheons – I buy them at flea markets and antique stores. I used to put them in houses I owned, but now I just collect them; there’s something about them that intrigues me, draws me – I think of doors that open into old houses, into other people’s living rooms and lives.

These are two of my favorite escutcheons. The one on the right is an Eastlake pattern, I think, or perhaps a Mission (makes me think of Frank Lloyd Wright, for some reason).
          The other – the one on the left – is a common pattern.I’ve seen several of these, and I actually found it in a 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog...

Here’s the copy:
“Electro Bronze Plated Front Door Lock Set, is furnished with knobs and escutcheons as shown – complete with screws. Lock is reversible for either right or left hand nickel plated steel key for lock bolt and two for night latch.”

Total cost?
Eighty-four cents.

An escutcheon is one of those things you never notice until you suddenly see one that grabs you; now that you know what to look for, I’ll bet you pay closer attention. Look in old libraries, town halls, grange halls, check out old houses and school buildings, historical society buildings, churches. Every time you reach out to grasp a knob, take a look...

...then open the door and go in.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


 Sepia Saturday presents its challenges, to be sure.

We’re often scurrying, scrambling for shots that qualify for the week’s call for submissions – and this week was no exception: “blurred, scratched, undefined, and plain boring...less than perfect.”

So here it is...and it certainly qualifies!

This is me.

This is me in the late 1960s: a long-haired hippy, young and lean and blonde and quite possibly a little stoned,’s definitely me, upside down – just about to do a headstand on the front lawn at the farm.

It was probably on a Sunday afternoon when we all had a few hours of free time: after morning chores and Sunday meeting, after dinner and dishes but before evening chores began at 4:00 or so.
I had been playing my guitar (you can see an open capo in the grass beneath me), wearing my favorite shirt – one of those open-collar shirts from India that were so popular back then; gray and maroon stripes, shapeless. It fell below my hip and was incredibly comfortable; a remnant of my Cambridge days.

I’m no more than 23 years old – that alone is astonishing to me.
And, my goodness, look at all that hair!

For some reason, I’ve saved this photo for nearly 45 years; a split second of time in my life captured on 35mm black and white film. I’m not the same person I was back then, of course, but I like to think that moment is part of me forever, that I’ve carried it within me for all these years.

Whenever I look at it, I smile; I guess that’s reason enough.

Friday, September 27, 2013


Meet The Boys: Bach, Beethoven & Brahms; they patrol the Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Maine, where I take my afternoon walk. I’m not at all sure if they’re boys (who’s to know? And, more importantly, how do you tell?), but they’ve been hanging out together all summer.
          They know me now, and we’re friends.

I owe that friendship to my maternal grandmother, who loved crows and taught me to love them as well.
It took some time, believe me.

When I first started walking in the cemetery, there was quite a ruckus – great flappings and cawings; they flew from tree to tree in the woods around the perimeter, yelling at me the entire time. 
But I remembered my grandmother, and so I talked back.
“Hello! Hello!” I called, ambling along the walkways, stopping to investigate interesting gravestones. “Goodness! Such a racket!”
They hollered back, a constant harassment; I was an interloper, an intruder.
And so it went for a week or more.

I went to our local farm and feed store and bought a bag of sunflower seeds. That same afternoon, I put a couple of handfuls into a baggie, then headed out for my walk.

And this time, I took the lead.
“Hey!” I shouted, when I got out of the car. “I’ve got something for you!” I shook the seeds in the bag, held it up.
There was silence for just a moment, but then they cawed back.
“And if you keep your eyes on me, you’ll see what it is!”
I walked along, sprinkling seeds every now and then, talking the entire time; I talked about the weather, how my writing was going, how good these sunflower seeds taste...on and on.
They quieted down a little. They perched up in the trees, but they never took their eyes off me; their vocalizations shifted a bit, became calmer.
When I was a safe distance down the path, they flew down from the trees, down into the grass to find the seeds.

They recognize my car now; they’re often waiting for me. There are a few loud cawings when I first arrive – she’s here, she’s here! – and then softer calls. I talk, they talk back; I walk up and down those lovely rows and they walk with me – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

The Masters.

Friday, September 20, 2013


In 1872, the largest musical concert in the history of the world was held in Boston at the newly-built coliseum, which could hold 100,000 people (quite an architectural achievement for 1872, wouldn't you say?).

The World Peace Jubilee and International Musical Festival, honoring the end of the Franco-Prussian War, took place in the Back Bay area of Boston, approximately where Copley Square is today, and my great-great grandfather, John Allen Gould of Walpole, was there. He saved his “official programme;” it’s been stored in his tin document box since then; this week’s Sepia Saturday prompt gave me the excuse to bring it out again.

Bands from London, Paris, Berlin and Dublin performed; Johann Strauss (remember the "Waltz King?") was there, as well as his son, who directed a 2,000 member orchestra for a performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore.

The United States Marine Band played.

One of the most popular performances was by the Fisk University Jubilee singers -- it was the first appearance of an African-American chorus in a large musical production!
     Johann Strauss played the violin. The audience demanded -- and got -- an instant repeat of his new "Jubilee Waltz."
     It was a pretty big deal! 

The “programme” listed a few wonderful numbers: Rossini’s Overture from William Tell (I’ll bet those Bostonians never imagined the Lone Ranger and Tonto barreling over the plains!); Bach’s “Commit Thy Ways;” “Let the Bright Seraphim” by Handel.
Strauss added another waltz: “Wine, Women and Song.”
          There was a sextette from Lucia, performed by a “bouquet of Artists, Chorus and Orchestra.” All members of the bouquet were listed on a facing page, including two sopranos from Portland, Maine, two altos from Bangor, one Portland tenor, and a bass from Bath, just 6 miles north of my town.

While most people enjoyed the World Peace Jubilee, not everybody was pleased. One critic wrote:
          The great, usurping, tyrannizing, noise and pretentious thing is over, and there is a general feeling of relief, as if a heavy, brooding nightmare has been lifted from us all.

Oh, well...can’t please ‘em all!

To see what other Sepia Saturday contributors have found, visit:

Friday, September 13, 2013


I played solitaire the other day after breakfast.
I sat at my dining room table and had a second cup of coffee, listened to the rain outside on the porch and played a few hands of La Belle Lucie, a favorite of my grandmother’s that we all played endlessly on rainy summer days in the house on the lake.
And then, dawdling, avoiding my home office and the novel I’ve been picking at for a while, I started building a house of cards.
          That led, of course, to a little bit of research on the internet...

A “house of cards” is an argument or position that falls apart easily; it looks sturdy, but it’s not.
John Milton first used the expression in 1641: “Painted battlements... which want but one puff of the King’s to blow them down like a paste-board house built of court-cards.” (from Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England).

In its simplest terms, a house of cards is just that: a structure built from playing cards, one that relies on an architectural system of layering and stacking cards, using balance and friction to attain height and stability.
A classic example of this architecture is, of course, Stonehenge, where one horizontal stone was “stacked” on two vertical ones.
          Not cards, perhaps, but the principle is the same.

Some argue that the larger the structure, the more opportunities for it to fail (all it takes is one card, after all, to cause the collapse of the whole thing); others say that the higher a house of cards stands, the more secure the foundation, since the weight of the upper cards against the lower provides stability.
Take your pick.

In 1901, an Englishwoman by the name of Victoria Maitland, established the first known record of a house of cards, a fifteen-story structure.
          Her achievement didn’t last long; in 1902, Rosie Farner (also English), built one of twenty stories.
          And in 1903, Miss F.M. Hollams (yet another Englishwoman – what’s with those English, anyway?) built a towering twenty-five story number.
          I cannot imagine twenty-five stories: I feel successful at two.
The current world-record holder is Bryan Berg (USA), who built one more than 25 feet high in 2007.

Today, “House of Cards” is many things: a movie about a woman whose husband dies in an accident at an archeological dig; a television series about a congressman who seeks revenge on all those he feels have betrayed him; a documentary about the recent financial crisis in the United States.

There are several books, too – one a romantic trilogy in which each novel is subtitled for a playing card: Ace of Hearts, Jack of Clubs, Queen of Diamonds. Characters include the Earl of Carde, his son Alexander (called Ace) and another son Jonathan (Jack); I’m assuming the lost daughter is the Queen, but am not sure.

Other Houses of Cards are: a political thriller; the story of an Alabama college student who becomes involved with the student movement of the 1960s and, I’ll bet, topples within the cause; another’s an expose of greed and arrogance on Wall Street; a fourth tells the story of a woman’s unsuccessful attempt to build a home...a tale that ends, as the review says, in insanity.


I think I’ll stick to solitaire.

Friday, September 6, 2013


The Sepia Saturday prompt nearly took my breath away; I knew exactly which photograph I wanted to post – exactly – and you can see why, can’t you?
          I nearly tore my house apart trying to find this photograph; I searched through boxes and desk drawers, pawed through things in my cellar, things in my garage; I poked around closets – anyplace I thought it might be stashed.
          It was, of course, in the very last place I looked (I think somebody famous said that, but I can’t remember who): it was inside one of those magnetic picture frames that people stick on their refrigerators. It was even on my own fridge: in the same frame – but underneath my favorite photo of my parents taken years ago.

Here’s my father in the summer of 1990 at a family gathering in East Boothbay, Maine, at our old family summer house.

My father spent every summer of his childhood here; his mother, Nina, had an old rowboat she used every day – it was her favorite form of exercise. She also used it once a week to sink bottles, and she often took my father along to do the sinking!

Remember, this was in the early 1900s, before we had recycling laws; people got rid of their trash very differently back then. They composted all their vegetable matter, burned all paper products in a barrel (with a screen over the top – remember?) and disposed of their broken pottery and glass by dumping it offshore.
To make sure that bottles sank, Nina used a brass rod to poke out the bottom, then drop the bottle over the side of the boat. When Dad got old enough, she’d take him along. He was in charge of ramming the bottoms out of the bottles.
He loved it, he remembered...

When my grandmother’s first boat disintegrated, my grandfather had a second built; perhaps there was even a third, but I’m not sure about that.
When her last rowboat finally gave out, we remained boatless for a few years. But in 1990, we all got together and had a rowboat built to the exact specifications as the old boats; we christened her Nina, and held a celebratory launching party...
          ...and here’s my father, floating around the cove IN Nina, remembering when he was a boy floating around WITH Nina, his mother.
Full circle, I guess.

Friday, August 30, 2013


Here we are, the four of us together.
It’s 1950, I’m guessing; it’s probably Thanksgiving (or Christmas – I’ve got red bows tied around my braids...) and we’re here for dinner, I’m sure.

And...look at those suspenders! My brother and I both have them (not an exclusively male fashion statement, clearly), and even though we both look faintly uncomfortable, we’re holding our own.

Whenever I look at this photograph, I’m catapulted back through time to my paternal grandparents’ house in Newton Highlands (right outside Boston) – a tan house with brown trim that perched on the upper end of the avenue. It had an entry way, a dining room; kitchen and breakfast nook (with a black-and-white tiled floor that my grandmother washed in two stages...once for all the black tiles, once for all the white); an enormous living room with fireplace, plenty of couches (one antique horsehair one that pricked at the backs of your legs) and a couple of comfy chairs, and this bookcase at one end near the french doors.
I’ve got some of these same books in my bookcase; my brother has others.

My father’s wearing one of his ever-present bow ties; I remember the gray and yellow sweater vest my mother made for him (just peeking out from inside his jacket).
Above his head are photographs of his sister and her husband and an old daguerreotype of a Gould ancestor that now sits on a shelf here in Maine.

My mother’s black outfit is a surprise to me – she wore mostly bright colors, wild patterns – and this long, black dress may be a concession to her mother-in-law’s more restrained style. But she’s wearing lots of silver; and her smile certainly brightens things up! (She had a striking resemblance to Katharine Hepburn, although this photograph doesn’t do justice...)
          That lampshade above her head fascinated me. When the light was on, those geese seemed real; if I stared hard enough at them, they nearly flew out of the reeds and grasses. I was convinced, apparently, that they moved, and if I disappeared for any length of time, somebody would come to find me – I was always there, watching, waiting for that miracle.

It’s strange: I’ve got four cartons of family photographs and papers that go back two hundred years – photographs of generations of families in my line; formal and casual portraits of parents and their young children, parents with their youthful children, parents with their adult children.
And they’re wonderful...
...but I’ve always wondered why this is the only photograph I have of my family – of my parents and my brother and me – all together.
The only one.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013


About five years ago, I was contacted out of the blue, as we say, by an antique dealer from the greater Boston area.
            Are you related to John Allen Gould of Newton Upper Falls, Mass? he (or she) wrote in his email. If you are, I have a wonderful old Victorian calling card of his – small, letterpress script, flat-corners, very clean, – and would be willing to sell to you for $150.
            A calling card? I thought, for $150?
            You’d be “willing to sell” my great-grandfather’s calling card to me for one hundred fifty dollars?
I was infuriated by the emotional blackmail – didn’t buy it, of course – and vowed I’d never do that to anybody.

Ever since then, I’ve found great pleasure in finding things in flea markets – things with dates, names, towns, other identifying notations; things like letters, old books, postcards, photographs, pocket diaries, etc. – and, with the help of Ancestry, USGenWeb and other sources of information, locating descendants and returning these items to families of origin.
            For nothing; it’s my way of getting even!

This autograph book is one of my Lost & Found items. I bought it for $5.00, spent time the same evening looking through it, organizing the clues:
On the inside front cover: Mabel, Dec. 25, 1889.
Names and towns: Aunt Helen, Grandma Mayhew, and Cousin Florence H. Mayhew and, most importantly – because it was a full name, with initial – John R. Mayhew, Montville.
Ancestry has old census and voting lists, so I plunked his name into the search engine and held my breath...
John R. Mayhew, Montville, Maine popped up in the 1900 United States Federal Census. He was married to Helen and had a daughter Florence...“Aunt Helen” and “Cousin Florence” – those names fit.
But there was no Mabel listed as a member of his household.

There was, though, Charlotte Mayhew, 83 years old... “Grandma Mayhew” in the autograph book.
Working backwards through Grandma, I found that John had a brother, Frank (1847), also living in Montville; he appeared in the 1880 census. He was a peddler, married to Aubine; had two daughters, Lottie and...
...Mabel, who was 3 in 1880; 12 in 1889 when she received the autograph book for Christmas.

The rest took some time, and involved posting a query on the Waldo County USGenWeb site, asking for (generally) descendants of Charlotte Mayhew, Frank and Aubine Mayhew and (specifically) Mabel Mayhew...and then I waited.

A few months later, I received an email from a man who had seen the query; he was descended from Mabel’s sister (who had not appeared in the 1880 census because she hadn’t been born yet). We exchanged a few letters, and, once I was certain he was truly a descendent of Mabel’s family, I wrapped up the autograph book and sent it off to him.

A few weeks later, I received a letter, postmarked in Golden, Colorado:
Your generosity in sharing this amazing artifact from our family’s past is so very much appreciated...I wanted to let you know today just how much it means to me to hold it in my hands...a tangible, concrete piece of our family’s past...

Lost...and found.

Friday, August 16, 2013


What a funny word, I thought; where on earth did it come from?
          Apparently, from the French piquer – to stab, to poke, to spear with a sword.

A “picnic” used to be a meal shared by many people, all of whom brought something for the common pot – what we, today, call a “pot-luck.” Everybody brought something, and everybody took a little of whatever pleased them, apparently by stabbing things off platters with their swords; we progressed to serving ourselves with cutlery by 1800.

This photograph, taken in the early 1900s in East Boothbay, Maine, shows a group of adults perched on the rocks enjoying a summer picnic on the shores of Linekin Bay – their boxes and baskets of food are all piled in the middle. The man in front peeling an egg (white shirt, light pants) is my grandfather, his younger brother Allen is in the back (dark shirt, white tie, drinking from a glass); the woman on the far right is Jessie Gould Collins, one their cousins. Others are unknown friends and neighbors.
          I just love this photo: young adults – in their teens and early 20s – staging a picnic on the rocks on a lovely summer day. I can’t imagine clambering over the shoreline in a long skirt and broad-brimmed straw hat; and just think of Allen wearing a necktie to an event like this!

I thought “picnic” was a relatively new term: I was wrong!
My third great-grandfather, John Allen Gould of Walpole, Massachusetts (1785-1856) wrote about a picnic in his diary:

July 4, 1843 – The anniversary of American Independence was this year celibrated in Walpole in Pic-Nic stile. I composed some poetry for the occation which was sung in the grove to the tune of Auld-Lang-Syne.
The poetry, also in the diary, was absolutely dreadful; it included the chorus “ye sons of freemen swell the song, Ye daughters join the lay; Let hill and dale with joy resound, On Independence Day,” etc.)
          Oh, well...he was a Major in the Militia; he had the right to be sappy. 

I question, though, what he meant by having “...daughters join the lay.”

I’m sure it didn’t mean what it means today...

Friday, August 9, 2013


 This week, Alan’s Sepia Saturday post called for contraptions – those oddball devices, usually hand-made by eccentric but well-meaning tinkerers in barns or workshops.
We’ve all seen them, even used them. Some of us even still have them, stored in the attic or cellar, maybe, or out in the garage.

 This contraption, knocked together by my grandfather, was known affectionately as The Wheel, and was out in the yard in front of our summer home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. It was, simply, an old wooden wagon wheel, tipped on its side and secured to an old axle pounded into the ground; every summer, after it was mounted properly and greased, it would spin around that post like a merry-go-round.
You stepped into the wheel – your legs on either side of a single spoke – and then sat down on the rim, facing the hub. When we were all aboard, we kicked the ground with our feet, hung on for dear life as we went ‘round and ‘round.
We defied common sense and centrifugal force on The Wheel – I remember (when I was older) my hair flinging out behind me as we went around; we’d get going fast, then hook our feet into the spokes, let go and lean out backwards – our parents would shriek in horror! I have a vague memory of my brother standing up on it, although I have no idea if it’s real or imagined!
Amazingly enough, nobody ever got hurt on this thing: you’d need a helmet, elbow pads, knee pads and some kind of body armor to ride it today, and some Federal Safety Office would declare it unsafe, dismantle it, toss it away.

This picture was taken in the late 1940s, when I was three or so. I’m the smallest one, the youngest cousin, that worried-looking blonde girl (front left) with the bare legs hanging down (see those Redball Jet sneakers?); from there, clockwise around The Wheel: our neighbor Peter, my cousin Martha, and a little bit of my brother John, all of whom will grin if they log onto my blog this week.

If I got on The Wheel today, I know I’d last about four revolutions before falling off...or throwing up -- guaranteed!

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Sunday, August 4, 2013


I was sitting in a popular lunch spot near the train station in downtown Brunswick, having a light-hearted lunch with a couple of longtime friends.
Starkey (his real name is James, but I’ve never heard anybody call him that) and Laurel (her real name is Laurel), are charmers: gregarious, witty, kind, fabulous conversationalists.
They’re also hungry readers – they read everything: fiction, non-fiction, biography, essay...they simply love books, love to read, love to talk about what they’re reading.

When the man at the next table took off his jacket, revealing the print on his T-shirt, we three lapsed into respectful silence.
          “Careful,” it read, “or you’ll end up in my novel.”

“I want one of those,” I said.
We laughed, took a couple of bites, swallowed.
“Is it true?” Starkey asked, suddenly, turning to me. “Do writers put people they know in their books?”
It’s a terribly loaded question for a writer, and answering it brings up a veritable minefield of possible responses, most of which are vague, and all of which carry a germ of truth.
          I’ll answer as best I can.

The names of characters are irrelevant – I mean, they’re just names – but what comes after the names? How do I turn those names into recognizable characters; how do I make you care enough about them to become involved in the story I’m telling, in what I have to say?

The answer is fairly obvious:
I borrow bits and pieces of people I know – how they walk, or sit in chairs, how they button their shirts or put on their jackets. I take note of how people twirl lengths of their hair, chew their fingernails, or tip their heads when they’re thinking; how they fold the newspaper and hold glasses of water, how they talk to their children, their spouses, their friends.
I borrow characteristics from people I know who drink too much, eat too much, swear, yell and cheat too much; abusers and enablers, dreamers and high achievers, those who do good works, who volunteer, who do what they can to build community for us all. I adapt attitudes from friends who are doctors and cafeteria workers, farmers and attorneys, grocery store cashiers and retirees, from saints and sinners and fools.
I borrow their use of language, their words, their phrasing, their rhythm and timing; their senses of wit and humor (or their lack of both); I pay attention to their acts of kindness, selflessness, their indifference and, sometimes, downright cruelty...
...I could go on, but I’m sure you get my drift.
So, be careful.

Friday, July 26, 2013


This little fellow is Rollo Holiday, the principal character of Jacob Abbott’s multi-volume series of books for children, first published in the 1850s and reprinted periodically during the last half of the 19th century.
Rollo lives with his parents (Mr. and Mrs. Holiday, of course, who don’t seem to have first names) and Jonas and Dorothy (who don't seem to have last names), the household’s outside/inside domestic help; he’s got a cousin James and a friend George, whose father is a local farmer. The stories are selectively sprinkled with other town characters that pop in and out of Rollo’s life; the books are chock-a-block full of morals, ethics and drama.

In his “Notice to Parents,” Abbott explains that although his Rollo Books for children are meant primarily for entertainment, he also intends they will stimulate thinking, expand linguistic skills and, perhaps most importantly, cultivate “the amiable and gentle qualities of the heart...”

I have an odd sense of connection to this Jacob Abbott. He was born in Hallowell, Maine in 1803 (about 30 miles north of me), graduated from Bowdoin College (two blocks from my house). He studied at Andover Theological (where my brother lived for twenty-odd years) and was later pastor of a Congregational Church in Roxbury, MA (where my Howell ancestors lived, although they were staunch Unitarians!). 

 I’ve got ten Rollo books. They were purchased by my great-grandfather Selah Howell (1840-1910), who read them to his children; in 1880, he mentions Rollo in his diary:
Read Rollo to dear Will after supper and before his bed

In his last will and testament, Selah states:
The Rollo Books I give to that one of my children who has the most children. If none of them has children, which God forbid! the Rollo Books are to be divided equally among “the joys of my life,” the said Fred, Fanny and Will.”

(Don’t you just love the “God forbid!” in there? Talk about drama!)

Well, Fanny (see “The Face,” posted May 25) and Will each had two children, and Fred had none. Somehow, my line (Will’s) got the lion’s share of the Rollo Books, and they now live on the top shelf in my living room bookcase.

It’s amazing to me that Rollo, although he’s a child of a lost time and place, still has relevance. He learns life’s lessons as we all learn – by parental guidance (hopefully) and by personal experience (definitely). He does chores, learns his manners, rescues baby birds, carves jack-o’-lanterns, builds bridges and catches squirrels.

And learns the importance of keeping promises.
          “Why, father?”
          “Because I want you, when you grow up to be a man, to be bound by your agreements. Men will hold you to your agreements when you are a man...”

Hmmmm. Really?

Perhaps, one hundred fifty years after publication, the Rollo Series should be required reading for all politicians...

...and they’re just for starters!

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