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!