Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Transit of Venus ... Sort of

In my last post, I mentioned that my grandmother recently died. Now, before you think I've gone all lugubrious on you, hold up for just a moment as I want to tell you a story. It was the autumn of 2010 and my grandmother had taken very ill. While we later learn that she was suffering from low blood pressure due to a badly-prescribed blood thinner, her health and spirits dipped markedly. She was exhausted all the time, described her legs as "dead" and could barely take care of herself. To his credit, my father performed some heroic acts of piety in nursing her away from the brink. And, as he did so, my aunt suggested that I should try to write to my grandmother on a daily basis as a means of lifting her spirits.

My grandmother was something of a technophile; into her 90s, she checked her email avidly, streamed videos of political debates and wrote all of her commentaries on the little laptop she always had by her side. Thus, once "commissioned" by my aunt to do so, I began collecting stories, anecdotes and other bits of information that I could pass along to her in these daily emails. My grandmother took great interest in history, the natural world and occasions for indulging cruel delight—Schadenfreude—in my travails. I share the following story with you in her absence as she would have loved this.

I'm sure you saw the stories over the past couple days about the Transit of Venus, right? This is rare astronomical event in which Venus becomes visible passing across the face of the sun. It has only happened something like seven times since the invention of the telescope in the early seventeenth century. It prompted celebrated journeys to far-flung places in the 1760s as explorers like Capt. James Cook sought to bring back data on the time and phenomena of the Transit, which would help to establish the distance of the earth from Venus and the sun.

So, when I got a call yesterday from a colleague asking if I would be interested in witnessing this event that will not happen for another century, I was delighted to join in. The conditions looked auspicious as we hiked up to the mountain-top campus of Université de Montréal.

We arrived at about 5 PM, a good hour before the Transit was to begin. We found the joint already jumping with amateur astronomers, curiosi and gawkers.
As you might imagine, some craft is needed to watch an event like the Transit. You can't just stare at the sun! So, we kitted ourselves out with the eclipse goggles that this dufus is wearing.
The proceedings were deemed worthy of television as the interview unfolding in the central foreground of this photograph suggests. And, indeed, all looked like it was going swimmingly on this beautiful, sunny day.

However, about fifteen minutes before the contact was to begin, a thick blanket of cloud rolled in from the northeast. It completely blocked out the sun for the next hour and a half as the wind swirled up and lightning cracked through the sky in the distance. As the sky blackened, we made a quick exit for the Metro around 7:30 PM having seen neither hide nor hair of the Transit. By the time I got out of the Metro, the rain was bucketing down and I got properly soaked as I ran home. I think I can hear my grandmother laughing as I write this. Oh well; I can try again in another hundred years or so.

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Just as a little post-script: you may be interested to know that I was later able to see the transit of Venus. Or, I was able to model it while making enchiladas where the boiling sauce became the sun and the cap for the soy sauce was Venus. Spectacular!

Friday, June 1, 2012

My Grandmother's House

My grandmother died about a month and a half ago. In this photograph, taken the day after she died, I see some of the abiding features of her long, rich life. Take the yellow plastic telephone perched at the back of the wicker chair's seat, for example; it is one the many strange toys—the rusting metal trucks, the hairless dolls—she kept around in the event that children came by. Children were hugely important in her life; she worked with and thought about children constantly. Mother of four children, she collaborated on the reform of religious education after she finished seminary in the 1940s. She wrote numerous articles and several books about children and their confrontations with the kinds of questions traditionally answered by religion including her most famous book, which was in print for nearly sixty years. Although (as Mrs. Sanchez has astutely observed) my grandmother was one of the least overtly maternal people you could ever imagine, she took marveled at children and their ways. Putting an eye-catching prop like this yellow plastic phone well within their reach was sure to generate delights for her.

But, notice too how the seat of the wicker chair has been strengthened by a square of plywood. Born in Irish south Boston in 1919 and then made a child of the Depression, my grandmother hated to see things wasted. And, on the surface at least—that is, as here, on the outward-facing porch of her house—she liked to show that frugality with an aesthetic of practically-minded functionalism. If you think this plywood patching job is crude, you should have seen the knotted messes she made of my (fashionably) holey sweaters, which she often offered to darn.

I stress the outward show of this frugality as her house itself held a remarkable array of treasures. The story goes that many of the artifacts and the bulk of the library had been amassed by my grandfather's great uncle in late nineteenth-century Philadelphia. His ne'er-do-well children squandered his fortune and what remained of his prodigious collection of books and Arts and Crafts-era work (William Morris was a particular favorite, as this totemic portrait will suggest) was brought north by my grandfather's two spinster aunts in the 1960s. Amazing things remained; a Gutenberg bible, an invitations to Dryden's funeral, a letter of introduction for Gandhi. In the 1980s, an insurance appraiser found a Rembrandt print in the attic.

But, only to a keen eye would the loot that loot be visible. Typically, visitors would enter from the porch—by-passing the weird dolls, phone and busted trucks—into the kitchen where my grandmother would inevitably be seated by the soap-stone wood stove in her rocking chair. You would be ordered right back out of the house and into the garage to retrieve an armload of wood had you been so foolish as to come unprepared.

Inevitably, this would lead to some banter about navigating the Scylla and Charybdis that barred the completion of such tasks. As she had slowed down in later years—intermittently hobbled by a bad hip and then persistent shingles—she increasingly insisted upon "saving steps!" Doing so required contorting the body into a ruthless, Taylorist fantasy of totally efficiency of movement. However, saving steps was not to be taken so far that the would-be helper ended up carrying a "lazy man's load." Contrary to common sense (at least as I saw it), a lazy man's load denoted carrying so much that the job could almost be done in a single trip ... but would invariably go pear-shaped and require picking items up off the floor once dropped. I loved to tease my grandmother with the apparently contradictory instructions she dealt out as we tried to name precisely where a given load of wood fell on the step-saving/lazy man's load continuum.

As you may have guessed, precision, accuracy, getting things right were hugely important to my grandmother. If the hundreds of commentaries she read on her local radio station exemplify that conviction of voice, then this grimy fingerprints on her well-turned copy of Louis Leslie's 20,000 Words indicate the hard work—the commitment to craft—through which that clarity was achieved. Invariably, the public radio station would be on when I came into the kitchen. After running the gauntlet of the wood, she would tell me to turn the radio off. I would sit opposite her by the fire and she would start in with her standard, inquisitorial practice. When would I finish my dissertation? Would I ever get a job? Was I going to get married? How about children?

When I was a child myself, we would occasionally be received into the adjoining room to the west, the "fern room" (so-called on account of the wallpaper). That table in the lower right hand corner of the photography and the rotary phone used to flank the northern wall of the room. I remember my grandfather sitting in that chair, drinking a whiskey at holiday gatherings. 

Holidays were the only occasions when we were allowed to go into the formal dining room on the south side of the house. Prior to my grandmother's death, I never really had the opportunity to look at the silverware in the room. As a kid I was always too busy hustling dishes in and out of the room, refilling the water pitcher or keeping myself alert to this cruel game called "pig" that was sometimes played during the meal.

I realize now that many of these games were played with the silverware, but in a scrupulous effort not to see it as such. One such game involved an initiator performing a wondrous act of fiat whereby the saltshaker became "the cat" and the pepper-shaker became "the dog." One newly-minted animal would be passed ceremonially around the table clockwise, while the other moved counterclockwise. With every transfer of fauna, the carrier was required to introduce the relayed artifact by saying either "this is the cat" or "this is the dog." All of this was straightforward until the trajectories of cat and dog overlapped; two nearly identical, silver objects would descend from opposite side with relatives simultaneously declaring them to be household animals. The trick was to receive them both and pass them on appropriately without confusing their stipulated values. On this day after my grandmother's death, I was happy to have a moment to contemplate the silverware in its silence. Obviously, these pitchers aren't cats or dogs at all; they're geese.

Just west of the dining room is a formal entryway lined with portraits of long-lost relatives. My grandmother affixed index cards in the corners of many, as in the mustachioed gent at upper right. I don't think she ever troubled herself with the question of who painted these pictures. Then again, they are hardly masterpieces. But, the richness of pattern visible here—the gilt edging of the lacquered chair, the competing Anatolian carpets at right foreground and left middle-ground, the floral print of the wallpaper—this all spoke to me of a sultry, aging hedonism concealed behind the white-washed Yankee frugality of the house's front.
Walking through the house on that April afternoon, I was struck too by the glorious light captured in those far western rooms ...
... and by the baffling, distant books my grandmother liked to read: The Bible of the World, The World of Washington Irving. (In her defense, I doubt she ever read The Negro Caravan, which is second from left!)

What else is there to say that is not already latent in these images of her house? My grandmother was a great lady and a strange bird.