Thursday, September 17, 2009

Faith in the Future

And just when one thinks that this new generation doesn't have a clue about the history and dignity of the past, I meet Elizabeth Call. This young woman greeted me yesterday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. She's a 19th century specialist at the library there who has both a library and history degree. Not your movie script writer's vision of a librarian, but a bright, interested, and energetic young woman with a winning smile and eyes that light up when she thinks she has the research you are searching for. She didn't take any short cuts in giving me and my associate an introduction to the resources the society has available for study. We were not an exception in getting her undivided attention: While we were buried in street maps, trying to pin down an address where my subject lived (of course the street numbers have changed along the course of history--eek!), a young man came in to get help finding the history of the house he had just purchased. Elizabeth was on task within seconds.

This BHS building was originally a men's club and it is truly amazing. The tile floor that leads you to the library is a work of art.Woodwork was installed to last centuries. The men who were the original members set up the society to research and store their own family histories in an age when wealth was being created at astonishing rates. The entire area around the society, Brooklyn Heights, is truly like stepping back in time. It is a short subway ride from Manhattan and has streets lined with row houses about four stories tall and with wide stone steps leading up to often imposing entrances. The iron enclosures that surrounded the courtyards were intricate and here and there being restored to their original patina. On one block, they were semi-circular--stunning.

I have not gone to Brooklyn very often, and in some ways, it was like being a tourist in a foreign land. The preservation of the architecture, the leafy arbor overhead, and hushed street noises allowed me to wander back in time when the subjects of my research walked these streets, climbed the steps, and lived behind the heavy drapes in the elegant bay windows. Pretty shops and places to stop for lunch and tea made this even more of a stranger in a strange land experience.

Elizabeth did lead me to some promising research about Matilda Caroline Morgan, who married the soldier whose letters have inspired my current work. Her father was a Connecticut man who came to Brooklyn at a time of great growth before the Civil War. We believe we have located the mansion where she came as a young girl who had just lost her mother and several little sisters, just months old when they died. One child died just after her mother. This time that we revere for much of its magnificence was also a time of great tragedy in many ways. Matilda's life experiences represent those of so many women at time when childbirth and infancy were often dangerous. But on this day, I was at the time of a new beginning for her and her brothers and sister. And later in the day, I was to walk by the townhouse that was her marriage home. Someone is at work on making it a home again. Faith in the future--in America's surprising Brooklyn, New York

NOTE: A delicious new book for travelers to Paris--an about two-hands-full size paperback--Paris Made by Hand. I take my hat off to The Little Bookroom (don't you love this name?) and author Pia Jane Bijkerk for this darling presentation of places to shop in Paris for handmade and crafted items. The stops are arranged by areas so one might canvas one at a time, if one wished. This treasure has just landed on my desk. It is meant as a gift for a friend who has lived in Paris and makes lots of things by hand--Ciba Vaughan, who worked with me both at Better Homes and Victoria. When Ciba comes to visit, as she did recently, the first thing she asks is if you need any mending, buttons sewed on, whatever her talented fingers can accomplish, which is just about everything. When I get the chance to spend an afternoon with it, I'll send on a couple of the great finds. You may want to add it your own bookshelf and pop it in a suitcase should plans take you to Paris. Bravo. Pia dedicates the book to "Mum and Dad." Heart beat....


  1. Well, I love this discovery journey and hope your research continues to find just such marvelous guides! Nancy, please do tell us if you found any little cafes or restaurants in Brooklyn on your visit? You paint such deliciously vivid word portraits of your favorite finds, it's just like a visit...well, almost. I still need to bake a pie this weekend...!
    Love, Karen Marline

  2. Oh I have heard about Pia's new book and planned on picking it up in Paris next week. I hope I find it right away; so I can enjoy it while there.

  3. Thank you for the heads up on the historical society; I have been trying to find the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for a novel I'm working on. They may be able to point me in the right direction.

    I adore those Little Bookroom books. They are inspired. I practically wore out The Flea Markets of France in Provence last summer. I can't wait to get the new one.

  4. I am also a fan of those little books, and have this one on my current wish list. I also like historical societies. Ours has a research center in a fairly new building that a jammed full of city directories, insurance maps, bound newspaper volumes, family histories and other essential pieces of information for the local historian or genealogist. On any give summer afternoon, you can visit the research room and get help on whatever you are researching from an area history buff.