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Fringed polygalas

If you walk nearly every day in the Holyoke Range, as I do, you get a chance to notice the smallest things.

Today, it was fringed polygalas, orchid-like stunners no bigger than your littlest toenail, looking like tiny prop planes about to head off into the wild blue yonder.

Ivy-leaved toadflax

When I was researching my book in London, it was also May. I was entranced by this little plant growing in a crevice of the massive stonework flanking the British Museum. 

I stopped and took a photo and almost immediately a voice murmured in my ear “Ivy-leaved toadflax.” Startled, I turned and saw a small, elderly woman. “Ivy-leaved toadflax,” she said again, and went on her way.

So many things were like that, in the researching and writing of my book about John Dixwell. The smallest things caught my interest and kind librarians, archivists, or even tenders of ancient burial grounds did what they could to help me find what I needed.

John Dixwell’s widow, Bathsheba, is buried in a locked cemetery in Middletown, Connecticut. I had to get a key from the fire station to gain access, and then I had to look pretty hard to find her. First, I found the gravestones of Sambo and Fillis, likely enslaved African Americans, in the back-right corner. Yes, here were New England people who even in death were treated like the smallest things. No last name for Sambo, who died in April of 1776, and the bare minimum for Fillis. 

Nearly fifty years earlier my seven greats grandmother got to have much more information on her grave, but at least Sambo’s has the classic skull with angel wings, though we can’t be sure “Fillis” was his wife.

Here is Bathsheba’s 1729 grave. Many, many of the red sandstone markers were crumbling and illegible, but not Sambo’s, Fillis’s or “Bathshua” Dixwell’s.

All of the characters in my book, including my parents, are long gone. And yet, it feels like such a satisfying compensation for the loss of them that I have written a book honoring their journeys. I am old now myself, though I was only 28 when I first discovered John Dixwell’s existence in an old book in the British Museum. I do not even know if I want a gravestone, but I am happy to think my book may last a little while.

As I was thinking of what I wanted to write today, I remembered James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead.” In the final scene the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy, has to reckon with his own smallness, and the finite nature of it all, from tombstones to tiny flowers, to each of our lives. He gazes out the window at snow falling in the darkness of the night.

“It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”


Posted on: Thursday, May 12

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