The Intriguing Life of Grace Potter Carroll

NOTE: As Living on the Diagonal readers may know, I’ve spent the last year and a half furiously at work on a book about the life of David Rae Smith, my dad’s first cousin. Rae, as he was known to family and childhood friends, was associated with the New York Opera company for thirty years. Research for the book led me to dozens of fascinating side stories, far too many to include in the book. This blog seems a good place for some of that extraneous material to land.

Grace Potter Carroll (1883-1978) was Rae’s advanced piano teacher. Carroll also taught Nina Simone (back when she was Eunice Waymon) at about the same time Rae was taking lessons from Carroll. Carroll was an important influence in Rae’s life and he maintained contact with her throughout her lifetime. He visited her on return trips to his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, including after she was living in a nursing home in the late 1970s.

Born Grace Stewart Potter she grew up in Chicago and showed early promise as a pianist. She got some help along the way in the person of Harriet “Hattie” Pullman (1842-1921), widow of George M. Pullman (1831-1897), inventor of the Pullman sleeping cars of railway fame. George’s story is pretty fascinating, too. Look for it in a future post.

Harriet Sanger Pullman (Photo retrieved from findagrave.com)

Grace and Hattie’s association likely came about because Grace’s grandfather, William Wallace Stewart, was one-time attorney for the Pullman company. At any rate, Hattie became Grace’s patron, in the very old-fashioned sense of the word, providing her with financial, personal, and emotional support. Hattie footed the bill for the young pianist to study and perform in Europe for five years as a student of Ferruccio Busoni and Theodor Leschetizky in Germany and Moritz Moszowski in Paris. She also studied in Switzerland and Russia.

While in Europe, Grace won a scholarship—one of twelve worldwide and the only one from the United States—to the Meisterschule of the Vienna Conservatory. She appeared with orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and London—probably more. The Asheville Citizen later reported she “has been acclaimed by European critics as well as critics of Chicago and New York as an artist of the first rank.”

Grace’s personal life in young adulthood was full of mystery and intrigue, and the Chicago papers told all about it. In 1915 she simply disappeared. She had last been seen leaving a friend’s home on her way to another engagement carrying her handbag, two books, and a copy of the Chicago Tribune. Days later the books were found under the flooring of a bathhouse. But no Grace.

According to the Tribune, authorities had been scouring the countryside for eight days when Mrs. Scott Durand, on the lawn of her Crab Tree farm, looked up and saw “a tall young woman, thin and haggard. . . . Her hat had lost its shape, her frayed lace waist had evidently once been white and her blue skirt and shoes were grimy with dust.” The two knew each other and Durand recognized her immediately. She said, probably in surprise, “Why, Grace Potter, how are you?”

“How do you do, Mrs. Durand? May I have a drink of water? I’m awfully tired and dusty.” The first thing Durand did after slaking the young woman’s thirst was to call Mrs. Pullman who “expressed great pleasure” at her reappearance. Thus the search ended.

Although Grace was thirty-three, the Tribune’s headline reported her return with the following headlines: “Missing Potter Girl Turns Up at Durand Farm” and “Girl Pianist Makes No Mention of Eight Days’ Whereabouts.” By the time the first reporter arrived at the farm, Grace was at the piano. She never mentioned her adventure. Relatives, who had earlier feared suicide, told reporters they believed “she has been suffering from a lapse of memory due to overwork” and said Grace had no memory of where she was or what happened during her disappearance.

After consulting with a nerve specialist, they decided not to mention the subject unless she brought it up and planned to “take her out west for a little while and give her a chance to get back her strength.” Hattie Pullman had her own plans for the pianist. The Tribune announced she “planned to invite Miss Potter to spend a few days with her as soon as she recovers from her nervous condition.” Relatives apparently agreed and secreted her at Mrs. Pullman’s, after which she was admitted to a Wisconsin sanitarium. By mid-July the sanitarium’s director thought she would soon be able to make short visits to Chicago, though he declared she was not yet ready to return to work at the Bush Conservatory of Music where she was head of the piano department.

The episode was not her first disappearance, however. It was her fourth in two years. But on each of the three previous occasions, she returned to the home where she boarded after a few days’ absence, each time saying she had been visiting friends.

In June of 1917 Grace went missing again only to turn up at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a couple of months later. Once again she received “treatment for a nervous condition,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The hospital staff had been aware of her tendency to wander, so when she left the hospital grounds for hours or even a few days at a time, they did not worry. However, in October she disappeared for a much longer period, and a police-assisted search was mounted across parts of three states. In the same vein as the Tribune, the Asheville Citizen announced the unexplained absence of the now thirty-five-year-old woman this way: “Chicago Girl is Missing.” To help facilitate the search, the paper provided a description: “Tall, slightly round shouldered, and brunette complexion; fluffy, curly black hair; blue-gray eyes; smooth scar on right cheek extending with corer of mouth; even white teeth. . . . Hospital officials describe the missing woman as exceedingly handsome, and one that would attract attention for her beauty in a crowd.”

Grace Stewart Potter, 1915 (Public domain photo)

The striking woman was found walking toward the hospital twelve days after her disappearance. As before, she gave no explanation for her absence except to say she had been “out in the country.” Though she was exceedingly tired from extended walking, the Asheville Citizen reported she was “in the best of health” and evidently had been well-treated during her absence, wherever she was.

The paper made the point that Grace was a well-known Chicago society woman and “niece of the famous Mrs. Potter Palmer [Bertha Honoré], society leader and club woman.”(The website chicagology.com referred to Palmer as the city’s “social dictator.”) The paper found Grace’s habit of disappearances all the more odd for the fact that she was “highly connected socially in Chicago, and bears every evidence of culture and refinement.”

Bertha Honore Palmer (Portrait by Anders Zorn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

A few days later Grace returned to Chicago and resumed her teaching at the Bush Conservatory, but not for long. The March 2, 1918 Asheville Citizen announced that Grace Potter and Dr. Robert Carroll, founder and medical director of the very hospital where she had been a patient, had been married in the Chicago home of Mrs. Pullman.

Though Grace’s marriage to Carroll meant a permanent move to Asheville and the end of her association with the Bush Conservatory of Music, she continued her performance career and her life retained a high degree of elegance. In 1922, the couple set out on a full year of traveling “entirely around the world with stops of length in many European countries doing psychological research work,” according to the Asheville Citizen. In addition to stops in European countries, their travels included Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand.

The couple resided at Homewood, a turreted stone manor on the grounds of Highland Hospital. Grace added a large music salon where she performed, taught, and often hosted other musicians, including Béla Bartók who gave private concerts for the likes of the Vanderbilts and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The music room featured cherry walls, a twenty-foot ceiling featuring wrought iron chandaliers, and a large stone fireplace.

Grace was an original faculty member of the Sayn Conservatory of Music in Asheville, founded by Russian violin virtuosa Elena de Sayn, Grace’s classmate during her European studies. After de Sayn moved her conservatory to Washington, DC, Grace traveled there for ensemble study in preparation for a series of concerts at the Congressional Library. She also played with the New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and North Carolina symphonies.

Grace Potter Carroll’s life apparently became more sedate after her marriage, but she continued to promote music in the area and to teach piano lessons privately for the rest of her life. She did not pocket any income from those lessons. Her obituary in the Asheville Citizen said she put those fees into a loan fund for promising students who wished to further their musical education. In return the students, including Rae, presented recitals at Homewood once they completed their studies. It was all part of her philosophy that no one succeeds in a vacuum. As she pointed out in a 1933 interview with the Asheville Citizen, “What any person is able to do is only made possible by the unselfish help and devotion of others.” She knew that from personal experience, and since she felt she had been unable to adequately give thanks for the help she had received to achieve success, she tried to pay it forward through the scholarship fund. She wanted to teach her students the same lesson.

Music to My Ears

 

When I wasn’t planning to be Debbie Reynolds when I grew up, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I didn’t picture myself playing so much as bowing to the standing ovations. Oh, the applause!

I began taking piano lessons when I was seven. Dad drove me to Mrs. Kennedy’s each week for my 7:15 class before the start of the school day. How I treasured my red-and-white-covered John Thompson piano books. We haven’t owned a piano for thirty years, but I think I still have one of those falling-apart books tucked away somewhere. Some things are just too precious to give up. I mostly remember “Toreador Song,” “Berceuse,” and “Spinning Song”—one of my favorites.

I was never going to make it to the concert stage. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that—I swooned over playing, but I didn’t relish practicing scales at all. Yet, my dreams were reignited the 1959 day a 33-1/3 LP of twenty-five year-old pianist Philippe Entremont playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition showed up in our home. Now, I could listen to Chopin all day, but I heard Entremont’s Pictures in my sleep. I sat next to our high-fidelity stereo cabinet listening for hours as my head and shoulders swayed and bounced to Mussorgsky’s rhythms. Nothing would do but to obtain the sheet music, which I practiced relentlessly. Next thing I knew I was playing at least the first movement, “Promenade,” at the recital of my new piano teacher, Katherine Saleeby. (She was very patient with me and my musical whims.) Even today, I recognize Pictures at an Exhibition after hearing only the first note.

entremont (2)Young Philippe Entremont at the piano, circa 1959

It’s like that with other pieces, too. Along with a hundred or so college classmates, I sweated through our mandated Music Appreciation class. We spent long hours in the library’s listening room, dropping the needle at random points just as our professor did for tests, hoping if we did it often enough we could identify the music by hearing a mere measure. I guess it worked because, as long as I’m familiar with a piece, it rarely takes more than a couple of notes for me to know what the next ones will be, even if I can’t call up title and composer.

Somewhere along the way, my parents’ Entremont recording disappeared. Knowing how much the music meant to me, the  Gnome spent years (way before the internet age) searching for a Pictures album. One day he surprised me with an orchestral recording. But it was not the same. Many more years later, we were lucky to score the original Entremont solo.

Several years ago, the pianist came to town, conducting (I think) the New Orleans Symphony. Of course I was there. At some point he sat down at the piano. I don’t recall what he played—not Mussorgsky, but it didn’t matter. I wept.

File:Philippe.Entremont.jpg

Philippe Entremont, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)

(You can listen to the first three movements of the 1959 solo recording here.)

On the Edge

File:Graduation hat1.svg

This is the season of endings and beginnings. Where I live we are only now seeing spring come into its fullness with all its attendant hope and promise. Our current spring followed a particularly hard winter, both in real and metaphorical terms, so the season of rebirth is particularly welcome this year. The calendar may tell us summer begins in a few days, but I intend to savor spring as long as I can.

The spring of 2021 brought a number of graduations to our family. After more than a year of almost zero in-person events, I count myself lucky to have been able to attend one of these ceremonies—a high school graduation. Somehow, high school graduations seem a little more exhilarating than the same event following a college career. Perhaps it is because these seventeen and eighteen year olds find themselves on one of life’s particularly sharp edges. Whatever futures await them, their lives are about to change in some very big ways.

Until now, most of them—though certainly not all—have lived under the protective wings of family. The clothes they wear, the roofs they sleep under, the food they eat have been the worries of others. When the car broke down, when they were upset about something a teacher said or a classmate did, or when they hit upon a problem they didn’t know how to solve they knew help was in the next room or a mere phone call away. Their tomorrows will be different and they can feel it, but they understand they can’t really comprehend what that’s going to mean.

They are on the edge. On the edge that separates childhood and adulthood. Maybe that’s why their joy in this moment seems particularly honest and pure. The heavy stuff comes tomorrow or the next day or next month. Today they feel only relief and pride at having reached their biggest-yet milestone as they smile and laugh and hug and mug like the children to whom they are saying good-bye.

After the festivities of last week were over and hundreds of snapshots were taken, the remainder of our graduate’s evening was celebrated with family. The next day was reserved for friends. One after another hosted get-togethers, whether a day on the lake or a cookout complete with toasted marshmallows. We got to participate in one of those, too.

It started out as a family party, but quickly expanded to include now-former classmates. They were the stars; family members became spectators. That was fine by me because, except for the laughter of babies, almost nothing can rival the unadulterated exuberance of teenagers enjoying each others’ company. I eavesdropped unabashedly on their giggles as they reminisced about moments passed, shared favorite television and online programs and episodes, laughed at every scene in the movie they were watching as they munched on chips, gummy worms, and M&Ms. Their already high spirits rose with every chuckle.

Edges can be scary. But they amplify what is joyous. I hope all this year’s graduates and everyone who is sitting on an edge feels the same kind of elation I was part of a few days ago. As the salutatorian at our stadium-filled celebration ended her address to her classmates, “Peace out, Shawties.”

Meditation for Memorial Day

As regular readers of Living on the Diagonal may know, I’ve been working rather furiously on a deeply personal book project for almost eighteen months. It is about David Rae Smith, my dad’s first cousin. Rae spent his entire career as a professional singing actor, and my goal is to tell the story of his life and the world surrounding him. One ‘side effect’ of my research is that I’ve come up with lots of fascinating material which simply could not find a place in the manuscript. But it is impossible for me to ignore it, so I thought I’d share some of those amazing extras through this blog. Maybe you’ll find them as engrossing as I do. This week’s entry seems an appropriate way to prepare for Memorial Day when we commemorate those who died while serving in the United States military.

Though most of Rae’s career was spent on the opera stage, he also had numerous appearances in regional and touring musical productions as well as concerts. Among the latter was a performance of British composer Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

File:Benjamin Britten, London Records 1968 publicity photo for Wikipedia crop.jpg
Benjamin Britten
(Photo by Hans Wild for High Fidelity magazine, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t let the title fool you into thinking Britten composed this piece as some kind of glorification of war. It was quite the opposite. Britten’s anti-war sentiments were strong. As stated by the California Institute of Technology, the piece was “a denunciation of the wickedness of war, not of other men.” Britten made that point rather powerfully by writing War Requiem to be sung by three specific soloists: one German, one British, and one Russian. Cal Tech says, “The piece was also meant to be a warning to future generations of the senselessness of taking up arms against fellow men. (Source: http://www.cco.caltech.edu/~tan/Britten/britwar.html)

Britten composed the nearly-90-minute piece 61 as a commission for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. The original, built in the fourteenth century, had been destroyed in a World War II bombing blitz. At around 8:00 on the night of November 14, 1940, the cathedral was bombed the first time. Fire fighters managed to put the resulting fire out, but more direct hits created new fires which, in turn, created a firestorm. Meanwhile, the attack had set fire to more than two hundred other buildings in the city. Firefighters were overwhelmed not only by the fires but by damaged water mains as well as a crippled phone network which prevented them from knowing which fires needed to be attacked first. Citizens—those who survived—huddled wherever they could during the surprise attack as 500 tons of high explosive bombs, 30,000 incendiaries, and 50 landmines were dropped on their city. Eleven hours following the initial attack, they finally heard what they’d been waiting for, a siren signaling the all clear. They climbed into a dreary, smoky daylight to discover the medieval cathedral; the library and market hall; the 16th-century Palace Yards; hundreds of shops, factories, and public buildings; and 43,000 of their homes—more than half—destroyed. Imagine the shock and overwhelming helplessness they felt walking out into that scene.

File:Operation Moonlight Sonata- Bomb Damage in Coventry, November 1940 H5599.jpg
Soldiers march in the aftermath of the Coventry blitz. (War Office official photographer, Taylor, E A (Lieutenant), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
BE037585

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Coventry Mayor Alfred Robert Grindlay survey cathedral remains. (Photo: “BE037585” by Sabatu is marked with CC PDM 1.0)

Though the ruins of the original cathedral were left to serve as a reminder of the bombing, a new cathedral was built alongside it the following decade. Along with the cathedral’s 1962 consecration, the Coventry Cathedral Festival was held as a national celebration to symbolize an international act of reconciliation, and Britten was commissioned to write a new piece for the occasion. He readily accepted the challenge and composed War Requiem as “an act of reparation,” according to the English National Opera website. (https://eno.org/discover-opera/an-act-of-reparation-the-story-behind-brittens-war-requiem/)

Britten’s approach was to juxtapose traditional Latin texts with nine poems about war written by Wilfred Owen. Owen’s poems on his World War I reality of trenches and gas warfare stood in stark contrast to the era’s public perception of war and to the haughty, chauvinistic works of poets from earlier wars. Owen, who had already witnessed many war horrors, suffered a concussion after falling into a shell hole in March 1917 and was caught in the blast of a mortar shell. Following several unconscious days lying on an embankment amidst the remains of fellow officers, he was hospitalized and treated for ‘shell shock.’ He returned to duty a year later.

Twenty-five-year-old Owen was killed in action in France on November 4, 1918. Those who know their history realize the date preceded the signing of the November 11 Armistice by precisely one week—and almost to the hour. All but unknown in life (only five of his poems were published before his death), Owen has since become recognized as one of the great war poets.

Wilfred Owen

In the March/April 2020 issue of St. Austin Review, Dana Dioia wrote, “The First World War changed European literature forever. . . . For poets, the unprecedented scale of violence annihilated the classic traditions of war literature—individual heroism, military glory, and virtuous leadership. Writers struggled for a new idiom commensurate with their apocalyptic personal experience. . . . Their work, which combined stark realism and bitter irony with a sense of tragic futility, altered the history of English literature.”

Britten’s War Requiem was an immediate success, praised by both critics and the public. The Library of Congress has preserved the work in its National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” According to the English National Opera website, War Requiem’s reception was “more than its creator originally bargained for: it soon took on the mantle of a public statement of outrage against war, conflict and violence, sentiments that were only intensified in 1964 with the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War and the growing international discomfort with the atrocities unfolding in Vietnam.” I suspect Britten was not disappointed by that.

Britten dedicated his masterpiece to five men: two who died in World War II, two who remained missing, and one who survived the Normandy landings, though he died by suicide in 1959 two months before his wedding. The composer said his goal in writing the work was to make people think. He quoted Wilfred Owen on the score’s title page: “My subject is War, and the pity of War / The Poetry is in the pity . . . / All a poet can do today is warn.”

A full-length screen adaptation of War Requiem was made in 1988 using the original soundtrack and featuring Laurence Olivier in the role of an aging veteran.. The experimental film can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOVIjKvOcE4/.

In 2010 the musical Bullets and Daffodils, set to Owen’s poetry, told the story of the poet’s short life. It can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRAzY310wYQ.

Anthem of Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

—Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47393/anthem-for-doomed-youth)

Joggins and Home

(The end of this reprise of our 2018 trip to Nova Scotia comes to a close with this post. But stay tuned for a couple of extras coming soon. To ‘travel’ virtually with us from the beginning, click here.)

Bittersweet is the best that can be said for what was to be our last day in Nova Scotia. To ensure as much time as possible in Cape Breton, we had planned this to be a long travel day. It would take us practically to the border with New Brunswick, in the tiny rural community of Joggins. So tiny that AAA couldn’t find it to map out this portion of our trip. So tiny even a number of Nova Scotians didn’t recognize the name. Yet Joggins is home to yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Joggins Fossil Cliffs contain the most complete fossil record of life during the Coal Age, 300 million years ago. That’s a full hundred million years before the dinosaurs, so these fossils, preserved in the very place they lived, are the dinosaurs’ ancestors. Some of the fossils found here are giant insects. According to the Joggins Fossil Cliffs website, this is the only place on earth where you can view these rare plant and animal fossils in situ. Well, I was impressed! 

The tide is out at Joggins Fossil Cliffs. It will rise by an astounding 43 feet at high tide, cutting off access to the beach area.

See the tiny person in the middle foreground. You must walk down many, many steps from the top of the cliffs to reach the beach, something like 75, as I recall. That’s about six or seven stories! But we did it.

Giant insect?

We stayed the night at a true bed and breakfast inn, though we’d found it through Airbnb. We were joined by a young couple driving from Halifax to be with family for Canada’s Thanksgiving weekend. The four of us enjoyed a visit in the living room where we shared our respective’ backgrounds and learned a bit about cultural similarities and differences while enjoying some of our host’s homemade wine. Not only does Bridget own and run the B&B and make wine, but she’s also begun a business manufacturing buckwheat pillows—and she’s a former international professional singer, besides. (And her breakfast was fabulous!)

Crab Apple Inn, Joggins, Nova Scotia

The next day saw us driving across New Brunswick and into Maine. Though the leaves had only just begun changing color in Nova Scotia, they were really showing off in New Brunswick.

Not be the sharpest photos ever taken, but hey . . .

we were going 110! (in kilometers, of course)

Crossing the border back into the States was harrowing—at least the waiting was. We’d read that we needed to itemize all our purchases and have them and all receipts readily available for inspection, so we’d spent a long couple of evenings getting our documentation and souvenirs organized. Though we’d practically sailed into Canada (no lines and only a single benign question by the border agent), we waited here for close to forty-five minutes. Plenty of time for us to begin feeling guilty for merely imagined offenses. Cameras were watching from every angle. We tried to look innocent and nonchalant. Did that make us look like crooks instead? Our unease only increased when the border patrol unlocked and entered the RV in line in front of us.

Finally, it was our turn. We were asked the nature of our visit, if we’d enjoyed our stay, and whether we’d purchased anything other than souvenirs, personal gifts, and incidentals. That was it. A lot of worry for nothing.

In Maine, we made a little detour to stay in Seal Harbor, right at an entrance to Acadia National Park, a place I’ve always yearned to visit. Was it exhaustion as we were nearing the end of our travels? Was it being surrounded by so many leaf-peekers and their vehicles after so much Nova Scotia tranquility? Whatever the reason, we were underwhelmed. It was the only disappointment of our twenty-five-day journey, but it was about to be made up for in a big way!

We made one last detour before the big push to get home. When we’d come across an Airbnb listing in the small village of Newbury, Vermont, we added a day to our itinerary just so we could take it in. Everything about our host, her home, her village seemed so iconically New England.

And so it turned out to be. The home we stayed in is almost two hundred years old on a street of similarly aged residences, mostly modest clapboard homes with gabled fronts. Most of the village’s structures were built either between 1790 and 1860 or in the ten years following a devastating fire in 1913.

Not every residential neighborhood is on a town’s Main Street, which, in this case, is also Vermont Highway 5. Never was there a quieter thoroughfare. Between the residences is the core of the village, the Village Common, a large green space for public use. The village hall, village school, and Methodist Church sit on one edge of the Common. The entire village, flanked by the Connecticut River, is a historic district.

Simply idyllic. Just our style.

Linda, our host, is a professional photographer. She works in black and white, uses old cameras with actual film, and has her own darkroom. Like the Gnome, she collects cameras. (I told her she should count them before we left–wink, wink.)

She was kind enough to take us on a walking tour of her charming village the next morning. We passed the Village Common, the school, the church, the post office, the village hall, the public library. We stopped for chats with other morning strollers. We talked about the village’s history and Vermont’s fabled town meetings. We took in the village store (the oldest country store in Vermont) for a steaming cup of coffee and yummy homemade cinnamon rolls, then sat on the steps to chow down. We dropped in at the bank to study old black and white pictures of the fire.

The bank is closed on Saturdays, but our host has a key. (It seems that the few villagers who lock their doors share their keys with the neighbors.) Linda loves her hometown and its history, and it shows.

Unfortunately, sometime between our return home and getting to this point in my travel diary, the last two hundred or so photos mysteriously disappeared from our camera. I had to resort to Google to find a couple of photos to share. 

Newbury Village Store. Photo credit: redjar [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Tenney Public Library, Newbury Village, VT. Photo credit: Magicpiano [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

Newbury Village UCC Church. Photo credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/56/NewburyVT_UCCChurch.jpg

Just because our travels are over, don’t think I’m through writing about Nova Scotia, There are still a couple of reflective posts (and, of course, photos), so I hope you’ll come back to see what they are.

A Couple of Nova Scotia’s Historical Sites

(I’m reposting a travel series from a couple of years ago. If you’re like me, you are patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for a safe return to the road. If so, how about traveling along with me on a virtual road trip. To read about our Nova Scotia travels from the beginning, start here.)

In previous posts about our visit to Nova Scotia, I’ve mentioned a couple of sites that deeply moved me, promising to delve into them later. Today, I’m keeping that promise with memories and photos of our visits to Grand Pre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration.

A little history is called for here. The Canadian encyclopedia entry about the Acadians of Grand Pré begins this way: “Soldiers rounding up terrified civilians, expelling them from their land, burning their homes and crops ‒ it sounds like a 20th century nightmare in one of the world’s trouble spots, but it describes a scene from Canada’s early history, the Deportation of the Acadians.” The story of the expulsion of Acadians from Grand Pré is painfully evocative of our own Trail of Tears history, when the Cherokee were led on a forced march from the east to Oklahoma.

In French, the forced deportation was known as le grand dérangement. Sounds fitting. Since 1604, Acadians had created a thriving, peaceful community in the Bay of Fundy area. During their 150 years here, they developed an impressive dyke system to control the bay’s high tides, a method still in use today; they developed and maintained a rich agriculture; they created a massive and gorgeous landscape

The arduous task of building earthen dykes to hold back the Bay of Fundy’s high tides

A  typical Acadian farmstead

An image of  an Acadian day in the fields

A portion of the 3200-acre landscape of Grand Pre’

Meanwhile, the British and French were engaged in a long tug of war over Nova Scotia. The Acadians had sworn neutrality in any conflict between the two countries, but that wasn’t enough for the British governor. In 1755, he hatched a plan to surround their churches, threatening entire families with bayonets, while breaching the dykes and burning homes and crops. The first 3,000 deportees were sent to Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Georgia while 7,000 more were shipped to other British colonies, France, and the Caribbean during the next seven years.

Try putting your family in this scene:  panicked flight, trying to stay together, leaving everything–everything–behind forever.

People found themselves left, like Longfellow’s Evangeline, to wander fruitlessly in search of the families they’d been separated from. That, too, sounds all too familiar in today’s troubled times. (Only later did Acadians find their way to Louisiana because of their familiarity with the language. Thus did the Cajun culture become established.)

Detail of the statue of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s heroine, Evangeline. It graces the entrance to the memorial church built in the early 20th century which serves as a museum today. It was a church at this approximate location where British soldiers set up headquarters, rounded up the village’s men and boys, and told them their land, livestock, and almost everything they owned were to be forfeited to the Crown, and that their families were to be deported.

By 1764, the British government allowed small groups of Acadians to return, but they didn’t return to their former lands—nothing was left for them there. Instead, those who returned settled on the mainland and in Cape Breton. It was, indeed, as the Acadian Shores restaurant patron we overheard had said, a shameful moment in Nova Scotia’s history.

But Nova Scotia can at least be proud of how it owns up to inglorious historical moments. I was impressed by this trait both here and at the Canadian Museum of Immigration, located in Halifax.

Even before you pay your admission fee to the immigration museum, the Wheel of Conscience almost smacks you in the face with its raw power. A circular steel structure about six feet in diameter, the wheel includes names of the approximately one thousand Jews who were aboard the MS St. Louis in May 1939, the eve of World War II. They were fleeing Nazi Germany, seeking and being refused entry into Canada and other countries, including the United States. With nowhere to go, the ship was forced to return to Germany where a quarter of its passengers ultimately died in concentration camps. 

 The kinetic sculpture also features four rotating, interlocking gears, each one larger than the one before and each emblazoned in red with a single word—from smallest to largest: hatred, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism. As visitors study the sculpture, they can’t help but see their own reflected faces looking back at them.

Inside, the exhibits are equally powerful. The museum is located in the very place, Halifax’s Pier 21, where more than a million immigrants came into Canada between 1928 and 1971. It’s logical that the museum would tell what that experience was like.

But the museum is more than that. It also tells the story of 400 years of immigration to Canada, and it takes an even broader approach, looking at refugee life as a whole, documenting through both visual and oral exhibits the horrors that force people to leave their home countries.

What horrific conditions would cause you to make this kind of journey? For how long? To what unknown future?

Imagine living in a tent this size with your entire family and all your very limited possessions, buckets for washing yourselves, your food, your dishes, and more. Imagine living here for up to eighteen years–or more? What would have brought you here?

Some of these painful exhibits come with a warning: “Not suitable for some visitors.” I tend to shy away from such stories, but I think we should force ourselves to face them so we can remember—cannot forget—the realities that send people fleeing all they know in hopes of finding a better life, a safer place, for their families. I did not photograph them.

Among other displays we visited were life-size replicas of a ship’s cabin, a life raft meant for eight that carried as many as thirty refugees, a child’s trunk, a family’s crate carrying everything they could cram in.

You can read notes handwritten on cardboard luggage tags from previous museum visitors who had immigrated, and you can watch videos of immigrants telling their personal stories. As moving as these exhibits are, what touched me most was finding myself in the company of a number of immigration ‘veterans,’ individuals who had landed at the immigration center in Halifax—at this very site when they were mere children. Other visitors were children of immigrants who had come through the port of Halifax. It was truly humbling to hear their stories, to be in their presence.

We didn’t want our visit to Nova Scotia to be touristy; we didn’t intend to spend much time inside museums. Our trip was meant to be about getting a feel for day-to-day life in the province and getting to know real-life Bluenosers while soaking in the phenomenal natural beauty of this place. But I’m really glad we took time out to visit these two sites. They, too, tell a story about the real Nova Scotia. And the rest of the world, in the past and, unfortunately, the present. They remind us about ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as well as hope and the possibility of redemption.

This moving piece of public art, “The Emigrant,” near the Immigration Museum, pays tribute to those who have said goodbye to their families, hopefully temporarily, in search of a better life for all of them.

(Check back next time for more of our Nova Scotia travels.)

Along Nova Scotia’s South Shore

(I’m reposting a travel series from a couple of years ago. If you’re like me, you are patiently (or maybe not so patiently) waiting for a safe return to the road. If so, how about traveling along with me on a virtual road trip. To read about our Nova Scotia travels from the beginning, start here.)

It’s not every day the Gnome and I plan an overnight stop just an hour from the previous night’s lodging, but that’s just what we did on much of our Nova Scotia journey. It’s a good thing we did, because a one-hour drive anywhere else easily turns into an eight-hour adventure of the senses in this maritime province, especially when you decide to take the slowest, most scenic route, traveling out to this cove and that one, and stopping at every photographic opportunity you see. That’s approximately one per minute along the South Shore of Nova Scotia!

We had already made a sunrise visit to tiny, picturesque Peggy’s Cove on one of our Halifax days. Peggy’s Cove was one of our most delicious memories from our first visit forty-nine years ago, even though we were shrouded in fog. We could barely wait to see it again. It did not disappoint.

Our destination today was Lunenburg, stopping at the villages of Chester and Mahone Bay along the way. Chester’s waterfront is nothing less than stunning.  (Click on images for a larger view.)

The village sports a small park with a couple of stirring war memorials. One features a Nova Scotia Highlander atop a monument honoring the 54 area soldiers killed during World War I. The other is a thank you from Norway. During World War II, more than 1,000 Norwegian merchant ships were at sea when Nazi Germany invaded the country. The ships sailed to the nearest allied ports. Thus, Chester’s Hackmatrack Inn became a convalescent center for the sick and injured Norwegian seamen who headed for safe harbor in Nova Scotia.

We wanted to stop in Mahone Bay to see its photogenic ‘Three Churches.’ Though we never found the best spot to photograph them, we still enjoyed their beauty—along with three or four tour busloads of other folks. DSCF3596

Quite by accident, we happened upon other visual entertainment, as well. The village was preparing for its annual Scarecrow Festival, which was set to begin in five days. Everybody gets in on the act from families to churches to dentists. (Look closely—can you see the braces on the dentist’s patient, bottom right. These characters were, of course, in front of a dentist’s office.)

We discovered a small nearby beach for a picnic lunch where a couple of folks from the area recreation department had set up shop encouraging residents to visit this little-known treasure. (Nova Scotia has few sand beaches, but this is one of them—sort of.) 

They invited us to fill a jar with sand and shells as a memento of our trip. And here is where we found, as we did over and over, the very best thing about the province—its people. They asked where we were from, commiserated over Hurricane Florence (which was on every Nova Scotian’s mind), found out where we were headed, and filled our heads full of not-to-be-missed places to visit on our journey. It was great fun meeting them.

Next on our agenda was Blue Rocks, Lunenburg’s ‘answer to Peggy’s Cove,’ even tinier and just as much off the beaten path. 

Downtown Blue Rocks

And, finally, just around suppertime, we made it to Lunenburg, whose Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America. In spite of its tourist appeal, this fishing village has managed to retain its authenticity since its founding more than 250 years ago. Quite a feat.

Lunenburg streetscape

Old Town Lunenburg’s buildings are not reproductions. These are the real deal.

Detail, detail, detail!

A 1870s shipbuilder’s home

Nova Scotians sometimes refer to themselves as Bluenosers and here’s their proud reason why, I’m told: the Bluenose schooner, launched in 1921, raced undefeated in international competitions for 17 years. The Bluenose II, a faithful replica, was born and lives in Lunenburg just like her predecessor.

Complete with passengers

Just as we expected, our ‘one-hour’ trip turned into a long and busy day, and we were definitely ready for an early bedtime before the next day’s activities. Stop by next week to see what we discovered next.

DAVID RAE SMITH, OPERATIC BARITONE

I had barely put the final touches on my last book Blackberries and Biscuits, the story of my mother’s life and times, last fall when a writer friend asked me what was next. I told her I needed to take a break from writing for a while.

Well, that plan lasted for about a minute. I plunged right into developing a book from previously written anecdotes of a number of my ancestors. Seemed like a pretty easy topic since I’d already done most of the work. But before I got my writing feet wet with that book, I got distracted by one particular story, that of my dad’s first cousin, David Rae Smith. Rae, as he was known in the family, had no descendants to tell his story. Nor did any of his immediate family have any descendants. I found myself a mission–and a new passion.

I’ve been hard at work researching Rae’s story ever since. I’m sad to say it’s still a long way from completion, having been interrupted by all sorts of personal, family, and world issues (can you say COVID-19?) But I’m still hard at work on it.

I think maybe it’s time to share what may become the book’s opening scene. Perhaps sharing will give me a little extra incentive to keep at it.

David Rae Smith, baritone, New York City Opera

Look, Julius, I don’t care if he’s under contract with the Shreveport Civic Opera.. I want David Rae Smith!”

All right, all right, Bev. I’ll make it happen.”

Of course, I don’t know if this was the exact conversation between New York City Opera Impresario Julius Rudel and his resident star mezzo soprano Beverly Sills, but it may well have gone something like that. As the March 29, 1978 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported, “Smith was released from his contract at the request of Beverly Sills who wants Smith to join her in the cast of a New York City Opera production of The Merry Widow,” a show which would take place four days later.

Whether Rae needed that validation of of his talents or not, it must have felt good to the baritone to know how much the best-known diva of the era valued him. He had performed opposite Sills in San Diego the previous year, a production that was broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in late November and recorded for Angel Records. Sills must have appreciated the dynamic.

Newspapers all over the country publicized the 1977 event, usually beginning with words similar to those in New Mexico’s Deming Headlight: “Public television will present a new English-language production of Franz Lehar’s zesty operetta, The Merry Widow starring Beverly Sills Monday, November 28 on PBS as it was presented earlier this fall at the San Diego Civic Theater.

“Appearing with Miss Sills in this all-new San Diego Opera Company production will be Alan Titus, Nolan Van Way, Glenys Fowles, Ryan Allen and David Rae Smith.”

The company’s musical recording of Widow highlights was the 1978 (February 23) Grammy award winner for Best Opera Recording. (Other 1978 Grammy recipients included Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Martin, Donna Summer, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, the BeeGees (“Saturday Night Fever”), Orson Welles, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Ann Murray, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire.)

How did the son of an Asheville, North Carolina, letter carrier and a homemaker make his way to the Grammys and the opera and Broadway stages?

In truth, the multi-talented Rae had many career choices, and his path was the result of a multitude of happenstances—in addition, of course, to his great natural abilities.

Based on his early accomplishments, Rae could have been successful at almost any career: politics, acting, the law, concert pianist, vocalist, radio personality, scholar. It must have seemed as if the world was his pearl-studded oyster.

* * *

Rae as Professor Harold Hill in Brevard Music Center production of The Music Man, 1971, with co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center, Overture  magazine, 1972. Used with permission.

A Life Well Lived

My mom died a couple of weeks ago—about 5:20 pm, July 7, to be exact. I don’t write this to ask for sympathy. Yes, I’m sad, but I’m also filled with gladness. And, yes, I just feel a need to share. It’s part of saying goodbye, so thank you for sharing with me.

My mom, Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates, in her late 80s. Who wouldn’t fall in love with a smile like that?

Mother was three months and a couple of days shy of her ninety-seventh birthday. She lived not just a long life, but a full one, full of joy and wonder. But in the last year or so, it was clear her body was letting go. She had been losing weight, had little appetite, had more trouble getting around with her walker, didn’t have much to talk about. Still, the end came fairly unexpectedly.

And that, in my mind, is a good thing. She was an avid reader. She started early and never stopped. It was one of her very favorite activities. Her room was filled with books. In the last few years, she said to me numerous times that she was so glad she loved to read, was still able to read, couldn’t imagine life without reading, and that she felt sorry for all the people around her who didn’t seem to care that much about reading.

Mother couldn’t keep up with the number and names of her great-grandchildren—after all, some of them she had rarely seen—but she knew us children, and still recognized the sound of our phone voices, even before we announced ourselves.

Mother lived in a small assisted living facility for the last seven years. I wish that could have been different, but it wasn’t. Yet the folks who work there gave her a new lease on life. When she first arrived, her health, both physical and mental, were in rapid decline. Regular and healthy nourishment, keeping to a medication schedule (and the correct one), and socialization got her back on track within days. It was a miraculously quick transformation.

Because of the pandemic, I had not been able to visit Mother in person for the last five months. From the first days of the shutdown, I feared I would never get the chance to see her again. That has been the case with so many people these last few months, and my heart weeps for them.

But when Mother called out for help, she was rushed to the hospital, and the hospital allowed visitors—just one per day. My brother spent the first day with her and I got to be there the second day. Of course, our first words to each other were, “I love you,” as we grasped hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Those were close to the last coherent words she said. A few hours later she started receiving morphine and she was moved to a hospice facility the following day, where visitation was a little more relaxed. I got to spend the night in her room. My brother and I, our spouses, and a couple of friends all had a chance to touch her, to tell her what we needed to say whether she heard or not, to hold her in the light, and to say goodbye. Yes, it was sad. But it was beautiful, too.

For all these things, I am grateful. I’m grateful for much, much more, too—Mother’s love of nature, her happy outlook on life, her smile, her laugh, her guiding light, all the skills she taught me. I’m grateful that we had a happy, healthy family life where she and Dad showed us children how to adult, how to parent, how to maintain healthy relationships with our own spouses. I’m grateful she was an adventurer, always willing to try something new. I’m grateful she always supported us in our endeavors, both when we were children and as adults. I’m grateful that once we grew up and began living on our own, Mother continued to support us but that she knew better than to ever once criticize or interfere in our lives. I’m grateful for her warmth and her love.

The best l can do to honor her is to model the life she lived, and I will thank her every day of my life for giving me that.

The Story I Need to Tell

What story do I need to tell right now? The same story I needed to tell yesterday, last month, last year.

It’s the story of family. The stories that compel me most are of family members who have no one else to tell their story. I want to memorialize their lives.

A few generations’ worth of my forebears

I remember the day (about thirty years ago) I was driving to another county for a meeting. As usual, I tuned into NPR. A man was talking. It was the middle of something—I couldn’t tell what. But I was transfixed as he talked about sitting on the porch under the feet of his aunts and grandmother as they rocked and snapped beans and told and retold stories handed down to them, stories that ultimately led him to hard-to-find discoveries of his personal history.

The man was still talking when I reached my destination, so I didn’t get to find out who he was or exactly what he was talking about. But I was haunted by the bits of his story I heard. His voice stayed in my head. Only years later did I discover, when I heard a snippet of the story again, that I had been listening to a recorded talk given by Alex Haley about his genealogical discoveries that led to the writing of Roots.

My husband surprised me with this album–the haunting story I’d heard on the radio years before.

I will never write a story with the power of Roots. That is not the point. The point is that if a story isn’t preserved, it disappears. I believe our personal histories matter, and even a few random anecdotes about our ancestors can help us better understand who we are. They can give us a sense of self, of belonging, of profound truths.

If I know a story or can ferret one out, it feels like both an obligation and an honor to be the conduit between my past and future. If I can keep a story alive, I can keep the memory of cherished people alive, as well.

When I’m conscious of what my forebears lived through, how they lived through it, how they survived, I see life differently. When I study the history of their times, I feel them holding me up, and I want to do the same in my turn.

The story I need to tell right now is the one of my cousin (once removed) who sang with the New York City Opera for thirty years and left no descendants. And the story of his brother, a P-47 pilot in World War II. He was on a bombing mission to clear the way for Patton’s assault on Germany when he was killed just six weeks before the war in Europe ended. He left no one to tell his story, either.

              

Brothers Rae and Ed Smith, my cousins once removed