Monday, May 9, 2016

Thinking about the Sabines... and Life

This portrait of Wallace Clement Sabine arrived via email
 from the Harvard Archives this week.

I became interested in the Sabine family almost exactly a year ago and have been doing research, after a fashion, ever since. Since we live in part of their house, I am reminded of them all the time. Last week brought me several discoveries about their lives. I'm still absorbing what I learned.

On Tuesday I got information from two government offices I'd procrastinated about visiting for a long time. I had a free afternoon and was downtown, so I casually decided to get them over with. And then I walked home stunned; I was so gobsmacked that I decided to drop in on a friend for a while because I was not doing well crossing streets. I'm sorry to be mysterious, but I learned things I never expected to know, and wish I didn't know. It changes everything, and I'm not sure it can or should be shared. I'm expecting additional information (in the mail) in a few weeks that I suspect will be equally unsettling and private.

On Friday afternoon, my husband sent me the photo above. He'd made some inquiries at the Harvard Archives on my behalf, and they sent this, plus a small black-and-white photo of Sabine's oil portrait, which is in storage in the Harvard Art Museum. It was painted posthumously from a photo, I believe. He would have had no time at the end of his life to sit for a portrait.

I'm fairly certain that the photo above is his passport photo from 1916. I had only a bad photocopy of it before. It was probably taken around the time he became ill with the kidney disease he neglected to treat, which eventually killed him in 1919.

Later on Friday I was heading to a reception at Harvard with my husband when I was invited to visit a key Sabine location I'd hoped to see since last spring. Goodbye, husband; hello, new best friend.

I took photos, of course, but they're not very good since I was excited and had to hurry. I'll tell you about it soon. I had such a good time that I didn't bat an eye when my husband reported that I'd missed meeting President Faust. I've been hoping to talk to her, to suggest adding some kind of Sabine memorial to the new Allston campus. Another time.

All of this has given me insomnia. I spend the long hours thinking about, you know, Life. Here's what I've come up with so far:

1. There are no happy endings. Nobody ever lives happily ever after — I figured that out when I was a kid but it continues to sink in, in various, depressing ways. Everything falls apart at the end.

2. The truth of that is so universal that it's probably okay. It's probably part of a plan. Might as well accept it, make the most of the good times, and hope to go out with a bang.

Historical research is filled with surprises, big, tiny, wonderful, terrible — if you're lucky. For me, one of the bigger surprises is how deeply events that occurred before my lifetime can affect me now. I don't know if I'm overly sensitive, too imaginative, heavily invested, or just human. It hardly matters, I suppose, since I can't help whatever it is. I'm obsessed with the past nowadays, spending days and nights exploring facets of facts from every angle, trying to make sense of them. Everywhere I go, they accompany me, and everything I see can be a reminder: maybe a clue, maybe a new way to approach the facts I can't understand. Fortunately, a lot of it goes on quietly in the background while I do other things. It percolates; occasionally a new idea emerges.

While I'm probably boring everyone around me, I'm often absorbed enough to feel like I'm living in two different places and times at once — as we do when we're reading a good book. But this story has no ending yet, and when it does, I hope I'll get to tell it. It's a very odd sort of feeling to have other lives unfolding inside your head.

Since I live in the very spot where much of the story took place, how I wish my walls could talk. But I'm also beginning to wish they would go away. More than ever, and to my surprise, I'm in the mood to move. You'd think I'd be tied to this house for the foreseeable, but I've learned that the Sabines certainly weren't during the decades they owned the place, and I'm not, either. They had a point. I won't abandon the work of figuring out their story, but it would be healthier to not be continually reminded of it.

More to come.


  1. our goal should not be the happy ending.. when it is we stop living, stop striving, stop trying. The goal is to do the best we can with the pieces we've been given.

  2. Hi!
    Happy to hear you're in the mood to move.
    I was hoping to read one of your great real estate updates.
    Seen any places lately that you especially like?


  3. Can't wait to hear what happens next! I certainly feel reading about the Sabine family has been enriching for me. You may enjoy the 2002 movie "Possession." As a person with an interest in history and genealogy, I thought this understated movie captured the thrill of the hunt for information, and how it can become, as you describe, like existing in 2 different time periods.

  4. I hope you get to tell the whole story, because I've really found it fascinating. I understand how you might feel swallowed up by it, though, and at least want to remove from the scene of the action. I'm totally with you on the weather - no temps over 70 suits me fine.


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