Not THAT Grover


Now be honest. How often have you celebrated the birthday of Grover Cleveland? I thought so. Well, this is a first for me too. But it’s about time, because THIS Grover used to live in our neighborhood, as we learned during a Local History and Geography homeschooling lesson.

Cleveland (1837-1908), our 22nd AND 24th President, was born on this day in Caldwell, New Jersey, one of the nine children of a Presbyterian minister. When he was 16, his father died, and Cleveland left school to help support the family. From that point his career followed such an uneventful path that one would not imagine it arriving at the White House: assistant teacher… scribe… secretary.

Then a position as law clerk in Buffalo led to his admission to the bar without his ever actually having attended law school. Or any university. Or finishing high school. Yet he launched what turned out to be a prosperous law career. (Aren’t you just kicking yourself, you lawyers, for frittering away all that money on your education?) Well, what else was there to do after that but… run successfully for sheriff, and then Mayor? And Mayor Cleveland’s refusal to award city contracts based on political connections was remarkable and unusual enough to establish his reputation for honesty, and propelled him next into the Governor’s seat.

As the Presidential primaries loomed in 1884, the Democrats, who had not won a Presidential election since before the Civil War, eyed the blunt outspoken Cleveland as a possible challenge to the series of weak and corrupt Republican administrations with which the public was disgusted. Reformist Republican voters (“Mugwumps”) deserted their party to help put Cleveland in the White House. That’s what this country needs. More Mugwumps.

Cleveland sent shock waves through his supporters when he announced that his appointments would be based on ability rather than loyalty or party affiliation. What a concept. He also used the Presidential veto freely, especially when a bill called for profligate or potentially fraudulent spending. The most contentious issues of his Presidency were protective tariffs (he was skeptical) and the gold standard (he supported it). Ongoing disputes and enemies made over these issues led to his supposed defeat by Benjamin Harrison in the 1888 election. (Acknowledged fraud achieved Cleveland’s loss of electoral votes in key states, although he won the popular vote.) The ruinous policies of the Harrison administration, however, led to Cleveland’s re-election in 1892, leaving him to deal with the resulting crises of bank failures, economic depression and unemployment. (Hmm, where have I heard that before?)

When he entered the White House, Cleveland was a bachelor, but he had the responsibility to supervise the upbringing and education of Frances Folsom, the daughter of an old friend who had passed away and named Cleveland as executor of his estate. Cleveland must have thought she turned out pretty well because in 1885 he asked her to become the First Lady. She was 21, beautiful, and charming—he was 49—the media and the country went wild. The wedding took place in the White House with John Philip Sousa conducting the Marine Band. Frances, the youngest-ever First Lady, was extremely popular, and the activities of their growing family were followed eagerly. Baby Ruth had a candy bar named after her.

Which brings me back at last to the neighborhood. In his first term, the Clevelands modernized Oak View, a country farmhouse in northwest Washington, to use as a retreat, and Cleveland commuted downtown by buggy. Unfortunately the house has since been razed, but his presence gave the name Cleveland Park to the neighborhood. In his second term, the Clevelands, now a family, rented Woodley, the mansion built in 1801 for Philip Barton Key (Francis Scott Key’s uncle), as a summer home, where the children could enjoy peace and quiet and country air far from the bustle of the White House. This house still stands and is currently Maret School. Now, whenever I stroll by, I imagine the little Clevelands cavorting on the lawn.

Paris Memory


This rather yellowed sketch is from a previous lifetime when my husband and I were first married and living in Paris, drawing, painting, sculpting. Before children. Before we became rather yellowed ourselves. I chose this particular walk down la rue des souvenirs, when we were temporary expatriates, in honor of Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), whose birthday it is today.

Beach was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and was actually christened Nancy, but she later changed it to a name she chose herself. There were generations of clergy and missionaries on both sides of her family, but Beach chose literary passion and Francophilia over religious fervor. Definitely similarities there though.

Perhaps she became a Francophile during her father’s assignment to the American Church in Paris when she was fourteen, because she returned to Paris later to pursue studies in French literature, and stayed for the rest of her life. Her research led her to a meeting, collaboration, and romance with Adrienne Monnier, who had in 1915 opened a bookshop-cum-lending library specializing in French translations of modern works. By 1921 Beach’s own shop, Shakespeare and Company, was installed across the street at 12, rue de l’Odéon, in the Latin Quarter, offering classical and modern literature and periodicals in English and English translations.

Shakespeare and Company quickly became one of the centers of the Paris literary world, with authors, poets, and readers wandering back and forth across the street between the two complementary shops (imagine!) to engage in discussion, exchange news, and borrow money (struggling writers being ever short-handed). But she was far more than a seller of books. Kind, cheerful, enthusiastic, and generous as well as learned, she took it upon herself to help aspiring writers succeed, introducing them to one another and to helpful contacts, taking them round to visit Gertrude Stein’s salon of poets and artists, organizing readings to bring their works before the public. She helped James Joyce and Henry Miller find publishers for their work, which was banned and unprintable in their native countries.

When the Germans invaded Paris in 1939, Beach was forced to close her shop and spent six months in an internment camp, afterwards hiding out with a friend (she was after all an enemy American) until the war’s end. The shop never reopened after the war, but a new version was launched in 1951 under the same name, with Beach’s permission, on rue de la Bûcherie (about which more in a later post).

Pretend you are a young, aspiring American writer on your first visit to Paris. Back on the farm they think you’re crazy. You wander into Shakespeare and Company and encounter Ernest Hemingway… F. Scott Fitzgerald… Ezra Pound. Miss Beach ropes you in to help edit press proofs. In the afternoon she takes you to the Steins’ to see the new work of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and in the evening to admire Josephine Baker dancing at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées. Paris in the 1920s was a refuge from Puritanism, Prohibition, and Prejudice, and Sylvia Beach did her part to make it so. Happy Birthday, Patron Saint of the Independent Booksellers.

CakeYellowRoses2 Kara

Amerigo the Beautiful


If you live in North America, when you awaken in the morning do you lie in bed gazing at the sky and thinking to yourself, “Why is this continent named America when it might have been called any number of things?” Well, if so, I can show you this page from our current homeschooling lesson book: it is named for Amerigo Vespucci (1452-1512). Perhaps now a little light bulb goes on in your head, a memory from an old geography class.

Today is Vespucci’s birthday, although how this is known is amazing to me—old baptismal records I suppose. Vespucci was born in Florence, Italy, and in adulthood he went to work for a Medici banking/investment house in Seville, Spain that helped finance Columbus’ second voyage to the New World (the one that was to prove beyond a doubt Columbus had indeed reached India).

Vespucci gives the impression of having been a bright, lively fellow with either great charisma or influential contacts, because he was invited by two different kings (of Castile and of Portugal) to participate as an observer on four voyages to the unfamiliar yet promising lands across the Atlantic. Since he was tiring, as he wrote, of his profession’s “frail and transitory benefits” (which observation remains true in the 21st century), he packed his trunk and off he went.

These expeditions actually ventured much further south than had Columbus’ ships, exploring the coast of what would become Brazil, stopping for days or weeks at a time to look around and trade/dine/lodge/fight with the people they met along the way. It became clear that south of the Caribbean islands was an entirely unexpected continent.

When Vespucci returned to Europe, he published accounts of his travels, describing the new landscape with its strange birds, plants, animals, the people and their customs, and the various adventures he had among them. He wrote in such engaging and entertaining detail (also poignant and dismaying to a modern eye) that it caught the attention of mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller, who decided to name the surprise continent in Vespucci’s honor on his brand-new map of the world. And America it remained, eventually coming to mean not only the southern but the central and northern sections as well. The entire Western Hemisphere! The most you can hope for today is to get an avenue named after you, or perhaps a candy bar.

CakeDaisies Grandma Marie

A Love Story


How is this for a romantic tale. Intellectual semi-invalid is still living at home in seclusion in her mid-thirties, quietly writing poetry and essays. Her published, widely read poems catch the attention of a handsome fellow-poet, six years her junior, who writes her a lengthy letter that says, among other things:

I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett… so into me it has gone, and part of me it has become… and I love you too.

Thus began a correspondence—reluctant on her side, urgent on his, between Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861), whose birthday it is today, and Robert Browning—that culminated in their growing mutual attachment and eventual secret elopement. Like many (all?) romantic tales, it had its dark underside, this one of slavery, paternal tyranny, multiple sad deaths, and mysterious illness.

Barrett was the first-born in a large prosperous family in Coxhoe, England, whose income derived partly from slave-worked plantations in Jamaica (perhaps this was related to Barrett’s later abolitionist stance). She was educated at home and demonstrated in childhood a gift for language: writing poetry, reading Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante, and learning Greek, Latin, and Hebrew (incorporated later into her poetry) sufficiently well to take up translation and analysis. To these she later added Italian, German, and Spanish.

But by age twenty she was already declining physically from some unknown, untreatable cause. The deaths of her mother and grandmother took their toll on her, and the accidental drowning of a favorite brother made her a recluse in her misery. In the meantime the abolition of slavery in England brought an end to the Jamaica income and obliged the family to live simply. Throughout all this she continued to write and publish essays and poetry, passionate, deeply felt, finely crafted, expressive of political and social as well as personal themes. And despite her seclusion, she corresponded widely with other writers and scholars.

Thus Browning was smitten. When he finally whisked Barrett off secretly to tie the knot and honeymoon in Italy, her father disinherited her—as he did each of his children who chose to marry. Yikes! Some family therapy would not have been amiss here.

After their marriage Barrett showed Browning the sonnets she had been writing, the most famous of which (not the one above, but number XLIII) has been widely reproduced and even (gasp) parodied. The couple stayed in Italy and, despite their late start, Barrett/Browning gave birth to a little Robert when she was 43. So their tale concludes probably as happily as any—with the two of them madly in love, raising their babe, writing poetry together, respected, reasonably comfortable, and in ITALY besides. Happy Birthday (and apologies), Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with gratitude not only for the poetry but for the love story.

Saved by the Bell


Today is the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), whom many may think of as American but who was actually born in Edinburgh, Scotland (he later became an American citizen). Bell was practically destined for his future work, given his background—grandfather a speech teacher/researcher/writer, and father an elocution specialist who developed something called “Visible Speech,” a sort of alphabet of lip, throat, and tongue positions used in talking, in order to train deaf people to speak. Those were the days when use of the hands while speaking—even if you weren’t deaf—was considered unseemly in Anglo-Saxon culture. Humph.

A bright, curious, inventive boy anyway, interested in mechanics, botany, and music, he took up the family passion: the study of speech. Even his own mother’s growing deafness was an encouragement. He was homeschooled for a while, then sent for a few years of formal education, culminating in a combined learning/teaching career, but he always pursued his own experiments on the side. After Bell’s two brothers died of tuberculosis, his alarmed parents decided to take their sole remaining son, always delicate, for a cure. Where? To the Swiss Alps, you ask? No… to Canada! where they bought a farm on a river and converted a carriage house into a workshop for Alexander’s tinkering. It did the trick. Parents, take note.

Bell went on to a career of teaching deaf pupils in Boston, but carried on his experiments, and eventually succeeded in producing, with assistant Thomas Watson, a “harmonic telegraph”—the telephone; founding Bell Telephone Company; and going on to create the metal detector, the wax recording cylinder (later used in the phonograph), and the first, and very successful, hydrofoil boat.

It’s hard to imagine a world without Bell’s telephone. Perhaps it was inevitable—others were exploring along the same lines—but it doesn’t diminish the wonder of his accomplishments and of his lively inventive being.

So go call your Mom, and wish her a Happy Alexander Graham Bell’s Birthday.

Oh Canada…Oh Henry


Aren’t you sometimes struck by a peculiar conjunction of events in your life? This is what’s happening here now:

1. The Olympic Games taking place in Vancouver are wrapping up. Every night we’ve had views of the fantastically beautiful British Columbia.

2. In our current homeschooling block, North American History and Geography, we now happen to be studying Canada, at this moment the Great Expulsion of 1755, when the French residents of Acadia (renamed Nova Scotia) were forcibly removed by the British.

3. We are reading “Evangeline,” the poetic interpretation of that event through the story of two ill-fated lovers, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

4. Today is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s birthday (1807-1882).

Longfellow was born actually not far from the setting of the poem, in Maine when it was still part of Massachusetts. He hoped when still in his teens that his would be a literary path, and it was—professor of languages at Bowdoin and Harvard, translator of Dante, novelist, and, in his day, probably the most popular of American poets. He was admired for his character as well as for his work. Twice widowed tragically and never recovered from his grief, he nevertheless forged on, productive, kindly, modest, and gracious in the face of later artistic criticism.

His poetry is definitely that of another era: strongly rhythmical, musical, metaphorical romantic storytelling with a capital S. You can’t listen to “Paul Revere’s Ride” or “The Song of Hiawatha” or “Evangeline” without being carried away on the current of vivid word-pictures and harmonious sound, and chanting under your breath at odd moments during the day: THIS is the FORest primEVal… It is poetry meant to be read aloud. If you haven’t ever done so, read the opening lines aloud now in your best storytelling voice, and wish Longfellow a Happy Birthday.

George Washington’s City


Today is the birthday of George Washington (1732-1799). Washington was a man of many gifts and a genuine 18th-century celebrity: a hero of the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, intelligent, courageous, honorable, hard-working, serious, strong and muscular, modest yet dignified, an enthusiastic dancer, a fine dresser, and, according to a friend, “the best horseman of his age.” He was also unusually tall, which always seems to impress one’s fellow citizens mightily even if one is a prize dunce. The fact that he was pretty much universally admired made it possible for the wobbly, newly-unified country to survive its first few years. He brought people together. Without him we might not have remained the United States.

In fact Washington was, like so many of the Founding Fathers, an impressive fellow in so many ways that I cannot attempt to cover them in a single blog-post. So I offer here only one of his accomplishments, from our homeschool Local History and Geography lesson on The Founding of Washington, DC. And what a story it is, full of intrigue, scandal, and spurious investment opportunities. Plus ça change…

Once the squabbling Thirteen Colonies agreed to band together, shove the British aside, and govern themselves, they had to select a capital for the new nation. Several different cities had temporarily housed delegates and/or the Declaration of Independence itself throughout the Revolutionary years, and others put forward what they considered justifiable claims for their own beloved towns. Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies and so would have been a natural choice if it hadn’t been a hotbed of Quakers, free blacks, abolitionists, and other Yankee troublemakers. The southern states said, If you-all choose Philadelphia, so long USA, we are out of here.

A deal was finally made to carve out a brand-new capital in more southerly location somewhere on the Potomac, and who ought to be allowed to choose the spot? None but the universally trusted and unanimously elected First President. So Washington made an exploratory journey and selected a 10-mile by 10-mile piece of land that included the little ports of Georgetown and Alexandria, situated between the Chesapeake Bay/Atlantic highway and the tempting lands to the west.

No one was really delighted with the decision except perhaps Washington himself, who worked hard both during and after his Presidency to keep interest alive and oversee the exceedingly slow construction of the new Capitol and President’s House (see the young Congress’ unwillingness to pay for anything, Each Day post 2/21). Washington, DC slowly developed from a small muddy provincial village into an interesting city that is at last worthy of its namesake. (I believe a recognizable shift took place sometime during the Kennedy administration.) Happy Birthday, dear George Washington! Our debt to you is incalculable.

Now I am going to go bake a cherry pie.

(For those interested in this subject, I recommend the excellent Washington: The Making of the American Capital, by Fergus Bordewich.)

Alien Farm Boy


DevinAge2Mess DevinAge2Party

Here are a painting and sketches of my son when he was around 2 or 3 years old, when he could count among his achievements succesful potty training and looking adorable.

Today he turns 26 (!!!) and still looks adorable (still potty trained too). He’s also a more sociable party guest than as depicted in this old sketchbook (although somewhere along the way he lost his Mess Detector). Besides this he is funny and smart and a wonderful writer; speaks Japanese fluently, which is useful in his work for Japanese television; is a cool painter; is sweet to his parents, generous to his friends, and a fabulous big brother to his little sister. Happy Birthday, dear Devin, and thank you for coming.


Morning Has Broken

Today is the birthday of Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), born in London, England, into a rather bohemian musical, literary, theatrical family. The lucky girl. She was delicate, and so was homeschooled among shelves crammed full of books—fairy and folk tales, history and mythology. She began writing quite young and was encouraged (of course); in her teens she collaborated with her brothers on their theatre productions; by age 19 she sold her first fairy tale.

Farjeon went on to write a range of literature for children: stories, history verses, plays, and lots of poems, among them the one above written in 1931 to accompany an old Gaelic melody and later popularized by folk singer Cat Stevens and other musicians. Her work abounds in wit, unexpected turns of phrase and plot, magic, humor, and nonsense. She is probably best known for her collection The Little Bookroom and the Martin Pippin stories, but if you have a little girl who loves to jump rope and she has NOT read Elsie Piddock Skips in her Sleep, you must drop everything and run straight to the library together to check it out. (If it has not yet been pulled from the library shelf and sold on Amazon. See Each Day post 2/11/10.)

Japanese animation lovers, take note. The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon, an Eleanor Farjeon story originally published in 1955, is presently being adapted for a Japanese/Korean animation feature, scheduled for release in spring 2011. Now wouldn’t that surprise Eleanor.


A Long Winter

(click twice to expand to full-size)


Then you may get a sense of the resilience and inner resources of the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), whose birthday it is today. Such was the winter they experienced in Dakota Territory during the winter of 1880-81.

Wilder, born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, is well-known from her “Little House” books depicting 19th-century pioneer life through the eyes of a growing child. They are unique in combining a finely observed and personal yet unsentimental window into iconic aspects of American history: travel by covered wagon, homesteading, Indian migration, education in a one-room schoolhouse—with fascinating homely detail: cheesemaking, house construction, sugaring off—and a glimpse into the inner life of a bright, curious, imaginative girl struggling to adapt to the circumstances of her time and place.

The family’s joys are simple, their sorrows formidable. Crop devastation, malaria, prairie fires, and a sister’s blindness are described; the death of a baby brother is left unrecorded, probably still too painful to include. The books are a quiet testament to stubborn faith, determination, love, and courage, virtues frequently lauded but less often demonstrated. A bouquet of wildflowers on a clean checkered tablecloth and a family hymn accompanied by the paternal fiddle are the stuff of a boundary between hope and despair.

Although she had written magazine articles and newspaper columns, Wilder didn’t publish her first book until 1931, when she was 64, after having been asked for years by her daughter Rose to put her childhood memories on paper. Since then her books have been published in 40 languages and have informed, inspired, and enchanted many millions of readers. Happy Birthday, Laura Ingalls Wilder! You certainly were (and remain) a shining light of my growing-up.