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| The Feet of Clay Department: Longfellow
My family keeps all the juicy bits of gossip to themselves. It’s a sign of our
pathologic narcissism, not stinginess, not genteel politeness, not ‘If you
can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’ etiquette.
If one of us knows something that doesn’t matter to them and it doesn’t do
them any good personally, they never speak about it. It’s why I am always
the last to know anything really interesting without having to do all the
This is also why I never find out about all the people in our past that could
conceivably make for good copy, by more than one genre’s standard. The
rest of us, the living kin still around (the ones I can see for myself), are
plenty weird but not enough to be interesting when there are so many more
kinky-but-readable dysfunctional families out there. Not that we would be
normal by comparison, we are too off to ever meet that criterion. But we
are just B-list types, not worth the editorial space, unable to justify any
word count at all.
Knowing something tantalizing and titillating, and knowing me: a major
history nut and a huge fan of New England (moving to Massachusetts
because of it), my mother never bothered to share the news that her
paternal grandfather knew Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
“By the shore of Gitchie Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water” Longfellow.
The author who made Hiawatha live and breathe so vibrantly that his
character was the first paper hero I had in grade school. The very man who
gave me one of my first role models for nobility and bravery.
This little tidbit wasn’t worth mentioning at any point in any of the years
since my birth, when it would have helped for extra credit during any one of
twenty-plus years of school. There was nary a peep, especially when I was
struggling to find something to write about that was based on some truly
engaging personal information. When I sought just one juicy seed that I
could spawn into a river of prose that would make anybody swim upriver to
read, mum she was.
I don’t know what made her spill it at last.
It gets better. . .
Not only did this guy, my very own blood, know Longfellow; he knew him
well and saw him daily for years.
He also hated the man.
This makes it really odd that my Mom didn’t share the news. She adores
trashing anybody with better looks, more money, and more fame. She
thrives on seeing the Mighty fall. I guess if she told anyone, somebody
might write about it and then she would possibly get a little positive
This is not what my mother wants.
My Mom lives to be Anonymous. It is her oft-stated creed that she would be
one of the Great Ones, The Eighth Wonder, if there were anybody in the
world with the sense to recognize it. Of course, there isn’t anybody like that
in existence. Acknowledging that truth makes her especially happy and
content, the Undisputed Queen of Unsung, ruling her well-demarcated
territory. . .
Anyway, on to the good stuff:
Apparently John Philip Donovan, her great grandfather was the son of a sea
captain. A real honest-to-God sea captain who came from an orphanage in
Ireland after his parents had died of typhoid. This superb example of
surmounting disastrous childhood obstacles and getting a real job was one
of twelve siblings. And he was all mine.
My mother forgot his name.
He then went on to marry Lena Dutra, who was Portuguese, with real
Basque ancestors no less. However that happened is another untold saga.
Along with whatever emotion, burning curiosity, devotion, duty, etc., that
propelled her to travel the high seas right alongside her husband.
Yes-siree-bob. I shared chromosomes with somebody who overcame strife,
got to the top of a paying profession and supported his family by himself,
thank you very much. It could be done by one of us and here was the proof!
No wonder I never heard of him.
Doesn’t my mother know how long I spent trying to find a plausible plot
with any precedent whatsoever, from any remote corner of my existence?
Of course she did and she never felt the helpful urge to share this possible
treasure trove for high adventure, epic romance, possibly a Homeric ballad
and who knows what else.
To add insult to injury, this man, my very own Great-Great-Grandfather
was a blockade-runner in the Civil War. We are talking a Rhett Butler
prototype in my family tree and I didn’t have a clue? I swear, when is the
statute of limitations up on child neglect. To not know this? Geez!
All this good material and the Longfellow part was still to come.
It turns out the son of this sea captain, my mater’s grandpater, “a spry,
straight little man” worked at a tobacco shop in Haverhill, Massachusetts
for several years. Longfellow stopped in regularly. Apparently, J.P. would
get furious because Mr. Longfellow came in and read the newspaper every
single time and never paid for it.
This took place after Longfellow had achieved renown, so any sympathy for
a ‘starving artist’ wasn’t necessary. It would have been if he was still some
anonymous reader patronizing J.P.’s place of work. By then, Longfellow
was no deserving, downtrodden soul who came in to his establishment to
get out of the cold for a few moments to hunt through the Classifieds. He
had made it to the Best Seller list.
“This is so great!” I goggle and gabble with excitement, “and what else did
Great-Great-Grandpa say about Longfellow, the Mooch?”
My mother thought for a nanosecond and flashed through the severely
edited zip file of her family’s history and said there was nothing else, that
was all. The ONLY information she had about the ONLY celebrity that
made a cameo appearance in our family’s biography and that was it?
Of course it was.
So don’t ask me for details. There are none to be had. I tried, honest I did.
It figures, I guess. I should have known.
If Longfellow had possessed any admirable previously unknown traits, and
he probably had a million, nobody in our little gene pool would care. That
is not how it works with us.
Feet of clay, that is all the maternal half of the tree is interested in. The
rest of the statue, 90% of the icon, with all the beautiful stuff that made it
immortal, is not worth any attention.
At a guess, there are probably about 7000 or so more famous people that
have touched our lives in the past. They must have been able to live up to
their press and were deserving of their fame, though. Because of this, any
brush with the rest of us is doomed to oblivion. It’s for certain sure that I
will never find out about them.
I was lucky to get this!