Sunday, March 13, 2016

Thinking About the Sabines

I am still researching and thinking about the Sabine family, who owned the Back Bay townhouse where we live (on the second floor) from 1909 to 1950. I've found a lot of illuminating material this year, but it is mostly from the Sophia Smith Archives at Smith College, and it is not out of copyright until 1950. So I need to get permission from Dr. Jane Sabine's surviving next of kin to post photos or quote from it, and that is not moving forward, mostly because I am procrastinating. Which is mainly because I had already written to her heir (widower of her only granddaughter) and heard nothing back, so I'm afraid I've offended, scared, or upset him somehow. I don't generally think very highly of my writing skills, but I will say I write pretty good letters, so I was taken aback that he never replied. I need to contact him again but I don't want to offend him further, if I have.

While I contemplate my next move, there are a few things I can tell you about the Sabines' daughter Janet, which I'll be posting very soon.  

I spend a lot of time thinking about the Sabines, usually silently but sometimes out loud. My husband not only tolerates it, he welcomes it. He has been working on a biography of an archaeologist for many years, and he has spent all of those years ruminating to me about his subject in the same way. I never minded; I enjoy talking about people and history (especially from the turn of the 20th century). But he is certain that I'm truly a kindred spirit now, and our conversations are much more equitable. 

It's very common for us to start talking, out of the blue, about a number of long-dead people we've never met, connecting them to whatever subject we're talking about. We are both on a first-name basis with all of them. We've been wondering about "George," "Mary," "Daughter Mary," "Lyon" and "Tosca" for years. Now we speculate about "Wallace," "Jane," "Janet," and "Ruth" at the drop of a hat. 

"I wonder if the girls kept their toys in that cabinet, or if that's where Wallace kept his tools," I'll say when we're in our bedroom. 

"George's class photo was taken on those steps," I'm often be told as we're driving past Memorial Hall in Harvard Square.

"The Sabines liked to go out for ice cream sodas," I'll say as we're in line for a vanilla shake at Shake Shack. 

There's even a common link between our subjects — Harvard president Charles Eliot, who was already getting plenty of airtime, both around here and on "Mount Desert Island, where he had a house at Blueberry Ledge in Northeast Harbor (not to forget his other house there, Toffeepot. I mean Coffeepot. And that's how our cat Toffeepot got his name.)

I can't walk along the brick sidewalk of my street anymore without thinking (in the back if not the front of my mind) of Dr. Jane Sabine. As a frail but still spirited widow in her 80s, she wrote to her fellow Smith alums in her annual class letter of taking her daily "promenade," as she described it. Although she was once an intrepid world traveler, at the end of her life she was reduced to walking around the block, because she was afraid of being hit by a speeding car if she crossed the street. I think about her when I wait for traffic lights. 

I can well imagine that some people would find it creepy to learn that a stranger is enthusiastically researching their ancestors. But I also know that many of the descendants my husband has contacted throughout his biographical quest have been thrilled to hear about what he's up to and were happy to dig in their attics and basements and send him material. It strikes me that he has all the luck and it doesn't hurt that he has a prestigious post at a top university and a pile of publications and honors to his credit. Whereas I am absolutely nobody when it comes to credentials. I never set out to be a biographer, historian, or academic. I accidentally tumbled into this passion and project last May, when I picked up the mail. I get cranky when I compare my situation to his. But, on the other hand, I think MY subjects are far more fascinating and attractive than his. And I get to live in their house, look out their windows, stare at their ceiling medallions, and walk on their floors. I put my hands on their doorknobs, place flowers on their mantels and books on their built-in shelves, and climb their stairs. Some of my understanding of the Sabines is osmotic.

As you've probably seen from the photos of our place, which I post here all the time, our house is filled with old furniture and reproductions. Even our bathroom is a bit old-fashioned, and our rugs, curtains, lighting, artwork, silver, and dishes are mostly antique or look that old. "Modern" furniture has never appealed to me, mostly because it doesn't seem as elegant or as comforting, but also because it always looks depressingly "dated" to me, whereas antiques are timeless. Where other people see a "contemporary" kitchen, I find that the hardware and granite are screaming something like "2007!" And the last few decades haven't exactly been a pinnacle of design excellence, in my opinion. So, we stick with the tried-and-true. Aside from a couple of newer pieces and our computers, TV, phones, and appliances, our place would feel very familiar to a time traveler from the early 20th century. I used to say that our long-dead grandmothers could walk into our living room and make themselves right at home. Now I realize the Sabines could, too. And that makes even easier for me to try to imagine how they lived in our rooms.

I'll post soon about a few things I unexpectedly discovered when I began to wonder how Janet lived when she got married and lived in Manhattan.

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