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.