Monday, July 19, 2010

A Book, A Boat, A Chair

I had no idea what I was going to see when I headed out early yesterday for the Adams National Historic Park. Yes, I knew I'd see the birthplace of both John and John Quincy (pronounced "Quin-zee" to locals), but that was about it. I wanted to see mostly what influence Abigail had in their lives, since she is the one I teach as an author. But I certainly got schooled. I loved it.

The birthplaces of both men are only about 75 feet apart, both humble, saltbox sorts of dwellings built in the 1600's. John's father was a strict man who wanted much from his young son, planning for him to enter the ministry, and made him study carefully. When John was in divinity school, he happened to witness the questioning of a minister who was not preaching the strict Calvinist philosophies and did not profess the required beliefs of the church. At that, young John decided that he was not cut out for the ministry because he didn't want anyone telling him what to think. He finished his education and took a job as a teacher, but disliked the work. He would often leave his younger students in the charge of his older ones and go off to observe meetings or other doings in the community. He knew this wouldn't work for long, so he saved up enough to apprentice himself to an attorney to study the law, as was common then instead of necessarily attending law school.

This was work he could sink his teeth into. His first case was a simple border dispute, one farmer's cow wandering onto another's property. He enjoyed moderate success with such cases for a while. Then, he nearly destroyed his practice by successfully defending the Tory officers who killed colonists in the Boston Massacre. I haven't wrapped my brain around why he defended them or how he won (it doesn't mesh with my impression of him as a great patriot and moral character), so I have to research that later. Certainly, soon after that, his actions proved him to be a great patriot. He was at the center of the revolution, from nominating George Washington to be commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Army, to helping to negotiate the peace treaty with Great Britian. He spent much of his time for 10 years away from home on state business, usually in Europe. This is where we learned about Abigail: how she farmed, raised 5 children, and kept the home together, including during the war, with the British fleet within view of a hill on the farm. She secretly melted down everything pewter or lead that she could find to make musket balls (they had the little pliers-shaped tool used for that) and, when possible, she sold things out of the home that John could ship to her in quantities from Europe and she could sell for four or five times what they cost. I think that's called capitalism! All this, and writing the voluminous quantity of letters she and her husband shared---and a feminist to boot, though she wouldn't call it that.

When John went on a particular diplomatic trip to Russia, 11-year-old John Quincy accompanied his father, with his mother's parting words to warm him: "Don't disgrace the family. " J.Q. seemed to be something of a little genius and didn't have a lot to worry about. By the age of 14, he was an official for his father, acting as a French interpreter in Russia where peace talks were being held. The genius also had moral fiber; he was an ardent abolitionist and represented the kidnapped slaves in the Amistad case, who had been taken by Spanish captors. Both he and his father were eminent scholars and statesmen, perhaps better in lesser roles than presidents, but both recognized much after the fact for doing more good than harm. (Adams was responsible for the contentious Alien and Sedition Act, which makes my political hackles rise, but that's another story.)

I had no idea that we would be seeing Peacefield, the home that John and Abigail retired to after his presidency, and short trolley ride from the birthplace homestead. This was a much larger house, added to over time by five generations of Adamses before passing directly into preservation. It was full of genuine possessions of the family, including items Abigail collected from travels during and after her husband held the presidency. Two paintings of Abigail's ancestors, speculated to be the oldest paintings in America, hung in a ladies' parlor with a number of other portraits. There were Louis XIV chairs with enormously deep cushions to raise a woman above the arms of the chair when she sat; otherwise, the arms would crack the wooden hoops in their skirts or flip their skirts nearly over their heads! The men's parlor was paneled in a deep polished wood, very elegant, but Abigail added two windows to the room because the panels made the room so dark. Waterford crystal, John Adams' very eyeglasses, nicely provided maids' bedroom AND parlor: so much was there to be absorbed. But what I was completely captivated by was the books---nearly 10,000 of them! They weren't all in the house. J.Q. was very attached to his books, never getting rid of them, and he wanted a stone building to put them in because he was very worried about losing them in a fire. I think it was actually his son who got the building done, containing both his father's and grandfather's library, making it the first presidential library. It was right behind the house, and like the home, we could go inside, but there were no pictures or getting too close to anything. Still, to stand in a single room, two storied with just a scaffold-type walkway above, cram-packed with that much knowledge, was rather like being in a church for me. I've long held that libraries are the most attractive places in the world, but my theories on that usually gather me some strange looks, so I'll leave it alone here. I've been a LOT of libraries in my time, but none left me as starry-eyed as that one.

We wrapped up the tour in the garden, where the hedgerows were planted by the original Tory builder of the home, around 250 years ago. It had lovely flower varieties in it, much as the family had it. (There was one of the descendants, J.Q.'s son or grandson, who liked to look out of his bedroom first thing in the morning to admire the garden, enjoy the air...and shoot a rabbit for dinner. The shotgun was still hanging above his window!) It was nice to see something still thriving (with a lot of gardners watching over it) after all this time.

In comparison, Thoreau's Walden Pond, where I hiked this morning, would seem a great deal less stately, with its wild growth and busy activity. While most might think of remote wilderness when they hear Thoreau's name, it was his wish that every town have a place like Walden for families to come and enjoy. That was exactly why it was closed this weekend---lots of people enjoying the water, which is unnaturally high this year. On the way out to the pond, I had the brainstorm t0 pick up a picnic lunch (convenience store pre-packaged sandwich, yikes but yummy) to enjoy at the pond. Sandwiches always taste better to me when I eat them outside. Too bad there are no picnic tables! I made do with a piece of retaining wall with a lot of other folks and enjoyed watching a group of kids playing in the water. (My only torture on this trip: not being able to get in any pool or natural water because of the healing ulcer on my foot.) Even on Monday, there was a remarkable amount of activity: large family groups, canoers and kayakers passing back and forth in a group, lone swimmers crossing the entire pond, which was really more city-lake size to me. And yes, it was a very tasty ham sandwich, Fritos, and Diet Mt. Dew. After a little rest, I hiked up the trail to the original cabin site, then back to the replica near the park. It was cloudy but still humid, and I was grateful for the light breeze. I had plenty of opportunity for video and photos. One photo op I especially loved was of an old pine tree that was broken off at almost ground-level and had been left to rot. There was a gigantic knot, looking like a goiter on that tall, thin trunk, that just made me think of "The Devil and Tom Walker," how Tom comes across the Devil in a forest sitting on just such a tree. It was even gloomy looking like in the story. I hope the photo comes out well; it will be a good set-up for when we read it. The cabin was small enough that if I had tried, I could have nearly touched the two sides, but not quite. In length, it fit a partially opened door, a short bed, and a wood box. I love my solitude, but I don't think I could have made it there two years, as Henry did.

And there, my travel ends and my work begins....but I hope you'll indulge my little self-involved rumination I'll wrap up with.

Yesterday afternoon held a treat I planned for myself, my whale-watching tour, which I adored. We saw five humpback whales feeding and flipping up their tails for as long as we could stay. Maybe the best part of the trip was riding on the top deck the whole time, having three hours of travel out there with time to just be still and think, letting everything fade into a pleasant background of ocean wind, the scent of popcorn, the sound of the happy Eastern European family behind me talking and laughing. In situations like this where most people would feel alone, I seem to thrive. I began to think of how, loving this experience in a calm way a farm girl from a land-locked state should be wide-eyed over, I had been finding myself in some ways all over New England the past two weeks. Like Miss Emily, I am often less likely to put myself out there, prefering to observe quietly and thoughtfully from a hidden spot. There are many, many times when I would like to be a recluse and spend all my time on books and writing and not worry about work or money, the way Thoreau chose to do. Like Hawthorne, I don't work well with distractions, and like him, I suffer my black moods more than I would like to admit. Frost's love of the land, his ability to link emotion to the smallest of events in nature, is like a vein of gold in my spirit; though I'm completely citified now, I always retain my respect for farm life and what it taught me. The Salem Witch Trials, their poison arrows that missed the truth in perception by miles, and The Crucible remain the clearest way I know of to demonstrate how much each one of us has done wrongand can do wrong in judging others. And watching all the activities at Old Sturbridge Village, I thought of my upbringing and how much I long for the time when things were done the "old" ways. Simply put, I had come to New England thinking I was going to learn about others, and I found parts of myself in everything I learned. I will hope now that I can convert something of the joy I find in this to my students, their lives, and their futures. That's what all this has been for. What I've gained personally is my lucky, lucky fortune.

No comments:

Post a Comment