Thursday, May 20, 2010
Captain Edward had a brother, Charles Louis Herman. I also met him once many years ago. It was my first trip to Washington D.C., a trip that changed my life forever. I was a child in grade school. It was long before the civil rights movement, equal rights for women, the assassination of President Kennedy and the Vietnam War. It was mid-summer and it was hot-a heat unknown to me growing up on an island in the middle of the Niagara River.
It was also the first time I witnessed segregation, molasses on grits, immense poverty mixed with opulent white richness and plantations. I had read about them in history books. And now, I was seeing those pages with my own eyes. Pale green plates in diners filled with cakes of grits, covered in molasses and half filled pale green cups of coffee were images that have stayed in my memories. And there was another memory. Signs. Signs that were posted over falling apart drinking fountains and shabby unclean public restrooms. The only thing well kept were the signs that read, "Colored only". While we were looking at a history past, I did not realize I was living a history present.
It was this summer that my parents took me to Washington D.C. and I met Charles Herman. I did not know then he had served in the Revenue Cutter Service, went to war in France during WWI, had suffered the effects of mustard gas and had been employed at the Washington National Monument.
What I learned that week stayed with me and influenced how I "saw" history. Not through my eyes, but through the eyes of a person who cared deeply about preserving and caring for our nation's heritage. The wall in his living room was filled from top to bottom with signed photographs. All of them thanking him for the personal tour of the Monument and "making history come alive" for the signers. History had never come alive for me. Certainly not in school books.
Then I saw Washington D.C, our nation's capital. Through the eyes of Charles Herman. There were no security checks, no guards to stand over us, just Charles and my family. Lines stopped so we could go to the top of the Washington Nation Monument. The Lincoln Memorial, Robert E. Lee Mansion, The National Archives and more, much more. He laughed, he talked with the guards and everyone seemed to know him by name. He pointed out little bits of history-sure to have been missed by my childish eyes. "Look there", he would say, bending down to point out some feature on a monument.
And then, the "creme da la creme". It came the final afternoon of our visit as we were walking down the National Mall. He asked me if there was any place I might wish to see. Never ask a child that question. I looked up and saw a man standing at the top of the Capital Building. I thought to myself if he was up there then I wanted to go below. So, I told Charles I wanted to go into the basement of the Capital Building. Down we went to a place filled with objects and a dank, dark musty smell. But it was also the smell of history and I remember it well along with the grits, molasses, plantations and "Colored only" signs. That day became "my history".
When the decision was made to attend the National Archives wiki planning meeting and to finish digitally photographing the muster rolls for the Revenue Cutter Service ship the Lot. M. Morrill, I knew I had to find Charles Herman's grave. The summer before a cousin mentioned he had been in D.C. many years before and tried looking up his grave in the Arlington National Cemetery. We had always believed Charles was buried there. Looking through the on line data bases now available I was not able to locate his grave. Charles' niece gave me photographs and information last summer and the confusion was soon learned. He was not buried in Arlington. To be sure it was a National Cemetery, just not Arlington and it was located in Virginia.
Armed with directions written 50 years ago by his now deceased sister, we decided to drive to to Virginia the day of our arrival and find Charles' grave site. I did not know I would find myself looking for a needle in a hay stack.
Much had changed over the landscape, but little had changed in the directions, for they were amazingly accurate. Driving through the immense rolling green cemetery looking out over the Virgina landscape I remembered my first meeting with Charles. Now, a different side of history was beneath my feet. In an odd way, he would still be telling me a story. Only this time, it would be one filled with sadness and humiliation.
The vast open site soon alerted us to the fact there was no way we were going to locate his grave. Doubling back to the start we headed into a freshly painted funeral home on the grounds. The woman behind the desk was impressed that the directions written down 50 years ago were so accurate. She looked up his name and gave us some idea of the "block" he was buried. Off we went. In search of the needle in the hay stack. Graves are marked by bronze markers flat into the ground. The grass obscures the plates, so it is by walking and looking at individual markers history is revealed. They are not in nice neat rows.
Plate after plate I walked. Soon in despair of ever finding his grave, I was hot and sweaty and tired. Tired of looking at names, death and history. Killed in action in wars, children of fallen soldiers, wives, daughters, all buried beneath my feet. And, all with a history and a story to tell that I did not know. "Let's go", I shouted to my husband at the far end of the site. "No, we are here now. We will find it", he yelled back. Then I heard my name being called. He had found it.
This was the beginning of my humiliation. It was partially covered in dirt and leaves, a nice bronze plate with the letters "HERMAN" across the top. To the right was Augusta B. Herman with her birth and death dates. To the left was nothing. There should have been a plate with Charles Louis Herman along with his birth and death dates. There were no visible signs there had ever been one.
Back to the funeral home. There must be a mistake. It would be rectified. Yes, there was a mistake. A very nice, helpful gentlemen came out to offer assistance. Unfortunately, my husband had told the woman behind the desk Charles had been the Head Custodian for the Washington National Monument. There was no turning back now. The helpful man disappeared to the back. We waited and waited. Then he returned. "Is he actually buried here?", he asked. There is no record that the bronze plate was purchased through us although that was not uncommon he told us. Furthermore, there was no evidence a plate had ever been installed. He checked again and came back out. "He is listed in our records as being buried in that site. Would there be any other family name to check to see who was responsible for the arrangements?" I gave him every possible name I could think of at the time.
Again, we waited and waited. He returned shaking his head. There was nothing. In all his years he had never had this situation happen. For fifty years a man who "had dedicated his life" managing one of the most important national monuments over-seeing every aspect of its daily operations was buried in a National Cemetery and not one of his family returned to check on his grave site. Until now. I felt my checks turn red. I tried making excuses. There really were no excuses.
"People who live in glass houses shouldn't through stones." How often had I been told that little ditty? History, preservation and its accompanying story had been my mantra for so many years. Yet here I sat with a history lost. Because a family hadn't bothered to preserve it. Not that Charles was an important historical figure, or that his name was chiseled on the top of a building or that he changed the course of history in any great way. No, yet he had "kept" a part of history alive and he had preserved it for me and my generation. And he was just one of many. But little histories are important for the big picture. And for those who lose sight of the trees and the forests, the big picture in time will also become lost. Our heritage is "ours" whether it is painful to remember or glorious to recount.
We cannot assume someone else will attend to its saving. For in the end its saving
is our individual responsibility. And it all starts within our own family. They are after all, an important part of the forests and the trees. "History is one generation and one story away from extinction." Perhaps it should be added "and one act of human intervention".
Post Script: For more information on the history of the Washington National Monument, one built to honor our first president, yet also surrounded by controversy surf the web. Controversy, it seems still abounds!
The position of Head Custodian was created shortly after the completion of the Washington Monument. It has nothing to do with janitorial services.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Mother's Day, May 9Th. I used to love that day when I was a child. Mainly, because for me it was a day of atonement. In one day I could wipe out all the sins of my childish bad behavior for the year. The behavior I knew hurt my mother, which never-the-less as a child and then teenager, was the necessary growing process for our species. If children (especially teenagers) did not, parents would never let them go into the world. And, so for me, I could one day a year make my mother understand what she "really" meant to me. And then, my sins of the past year were once again wiped clean.
Then suddenly, without warning time stopped and Mother's Day took on a whole new meaning. My mother died. She died the last day of the first month into the New Year. There were no more Mother's Day-of Atonement for me to embrace. Just an empty hollow place, a deep, deep chasm into a heart that ached.
The history of Mother's Day is really quite interesting. Started by a woman named Ann Jarvis, the first unofficial Mother’s Day was begun as a way of healing the pain of the Civil War. Mrs. Jarvis devoted her life to procuring the event as a national holiday. The first official Mother’s Day was held in 1908 at Andrews Methodist Church with over four hundred in attendance. Ann Jarvis sent five hundred white carnations to be worn by those attending the service. The idea was so well received, by 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day should be celebrated the second Sunday in May, a national holiday.
We tend to think of lighthouses in terms of their "male connection". Perhaps, it is because traditionally the history of lighthouses has been written primarily by men. Yet, history as another story to tell. And, this is what happened at one lighthouse, written down in the log books of the Marblehead Lighthouse.
Edward Herman was transferred to the Marblehead Lighthouse October, 1913. This was his first year at a lighthouse far from his family and his own mother. It was a time to learn the routine for the new lighthouse and that also meant getting to know his new head keeper, Charles Hunter.
Charles Hunter's mother arrived in Marblehead shortly after he began his new duties in 1903. This lighthouse was different. Women, not men were the history of its soul. In fact, the very first woman of the Great Lakes to tend a light was the widow of keeper Wolcott,the first lighthouse keeper. Her name was Rachel Wolcott. That happened almost one hundred years before Charles Hunter arrived.
History did not end with her death. Keeper George McGee began serving at the lighthouse in 1873, his wife Johanna was his unpaid assistant. He was a faithful keeper with an untimely death. At the age of 45 years keeper McGee died. Now, there was no keeper. Yet, the light did not die with his sudden death. Why? Because a woman, his spouse kept it going. She buried her husband, tended to her family-yes, she had children, young children and she never, never failed the vessels of the inland seas. On her unofficial watch, the light remained to guide.
Johanna McGee was appointed the lighthouse keeper on July 8, 1896, the same year her husband died. When Charles Hunter arrived on March 16, 1903 she had tended the light, the grounds, the keeper's residence and her family for 30 years. She was the " Good Mother".
So, when Charles Hunter brought his mother to live at the light, the people of Marblehead were already accustomed to women who were "mothers" at the lighthouse.
The year of 1914 witnessed two "firsts" at the Marblehead Lighthouse-the beginning of the last lighthouse keeper's duties and the beginning of a new national holiday. And, something else happened. The "Good Mother" embraced her children once again. Who would have known her influence or her guidance might still be a presence in the lives of a people? But it was and this is what happened that first May, 1914.
Assistant keeper Edward Herman learned the month of May at the new lighthouse meant the beginning of an endless round of painting and whitewashing. The tasks kept the keepers busy all through the summer months into early fall. May this year of 1914 also meant a new national celebration. Mother’s Day was now an official American holiday.
They were not prepared for the events. It seemed an ordinary Sunday until they began to arrive. Dozens of them, families old and young. Women with children, women without children, women who had lost mothers, women who were mothers came. Groups of tourists celebrating the first National Mother’s Day arrived at the lighthouse, beginning a tradition that continued for the next thirty years. Only war and the closing of the lighthouse grounds to the public interrupted the yearly event.
It must have been a difficult holiday for Keeper Hunter to record in the logbooks. His mother, Jane Hunter, had only been dead for twenty months.
The month of May and the new national holiday welcomed not only the arrival of tourists, but also a new life saving boat. As the navigation season began to witness increasing ship traffic, the new life saving boat was soon put to use. Edward’s ability to perform rescues was given an early baptism when a launch went ashore near the lighthouse. Unlike the Buffalo shoreline, Marblehead peninsula was jutted with rocky out cropping, making it difficult to get from the shore to the boat. In good weather, the rock posed a hazard from the constant wave action. In bad weather, the rocks not only were wet, they were slippery and rough waves made launching any vessel difficult. The "Good Mother", now had a new boat and in honor of her new holiday, was saving the life of sailors.
After the Mother’s Day holiday, the routine of painting began in earnest. The lantern room was painted followed by the watch room. Both activities took up most of the month. When the light tower was completed the wooden flagpole was painted, and if needed, the keepers were responsible for making a new pole. Even the essential wheelbarrow was dutifully painted. Life, it seems went on, for those who had lost a mother and those who had a mother far away.
When I read the log books, I was moved by how drawn the people of Marblehead were to the lighthouse on Mother's Day. Every year the numbers increased so that keeper Herman recorded many years later, "crowds of tourists at the lighthouse on Mother's Day". He had given up counting their numbers.
There have been other "Good Mothers". Ida Lewis is perhaps the most famous. In a path of unlikely history, I am connected to this "Good Mother". The year keeper Edward was born, Ida was making the news. The New York Times ran an article begging the government, Congress, to give keeper Lewis a pension. She was still serving at the lighthouse "all by herself", the article reported.
Ida, it seems had a father who was a captain in the Revenue Cutter Service. She was no stranger to the perils of the seas. Edward also served in the Revenue Cutter Service. Ida served the Lime Rock Lighthouse.
Until this week, I never realized the connection. Lime Rock is located in New Port, Rhode Island. I was born in New Port not far from the lighthouse Ida Lewis faithfully served. In fact, I realized I was born surrounded by lights. All, the "Good Mothers" to guide me on life's journey. I never knew this, until now, more then half a century after my birth.
The "Good Mother", she has been there with me and for me and a sentinel since the day I first entered this world. This weekend I am going to be at the National Archives in Washington D.C. surrounded by all the history of the "Good Mothers". And, this year May 9Th will be different. Like the lighthouse keepers, the "busy-ness" of everyday life must go on, even if it means painting the lowly wheelbarrow.
And, this year, I realize I have found myself not mourning the loss of a mother after so many years, but celebrating the discovery of the all the "Good Mothers" I never knew were a part of my life. Yes, May 9Th, Mother's Day, is both a celebration and a healing of pain. Thank you for being my light.