Stories Told in Pictures.

 

5  I RECENTLY chanced upon the photograph above, in a 1922 book called The Anthropology of Florida, published by the State’s Historical Association. It was one of a few gems within the book that were all the more delightful for coming so unexpected; nothing about the dry-looking publication even hinted that anything truly interesting might await inside its covers. Yet sometimes I take a look, just in case…

I flipped a page, and saw this picture looking back out at me. Something about it grabbed me. It’s a fascinating thing, the way photographs work; there is nothing “static” about the encounter. Where first I’d caught a glimpse only of indistinct “Seminole Indian,” as I took a closer look I saw emerging a portrait of father and son (or so I now imagine to be the case), that had been there all along. And as I paused for a moment to more carefully consider, and better “see,” something in the father’s expression and bearing, in relationship to his son’s, bespoke to me that universal ideal of fatherhood, that most natural and highest and most noble of impulses: the devout wish that one’s son might have a bigger and better life, perhaps more enriching and alive with possibilities, than has been his own.

Or, put another way, a wish from deep in one’s gut (often expressed as a sigh) that the world were a better place: a place more “open” and fair, more just and safe, closer to free of liars and their lies, of cutting hatred or disfiguring racial assumption. This young man of 1922, mirroring exactly  his father’s posture yet called upon to wear the buttoned-up clothing of a culture not his own, straddles impossibly two very different worlds, and no one would be more keenly aware of the perils in the gap between them than his father.

Just guessing from the picture, if the boy is around 17, his year of birth would have been about 1905, and his father’s in turn sometime between the 1870’s and 1880’s. To a certainty, the young man’s grandfathers, and quite probably his great-grandfathers as well, would have been called to active duty on behalf of their People, forced into battle for their liberty and freedom and the lands that had become their home. Their lives would have been truncated by that seemingly endless on-again/ off-again white aggression beginning in 1817 and ending at last only in 1855, a shameful historical passage sanitized in today’s schoolbooks as the “Seminole Indian Wars.” The father here would have been born shortly after the last of the declared “wars,” but certainly known his own boyhood in its very long and dark shadow.

Yet in his eyes, I see only calm dignity, and openness. And maybe, hope?
_________

The picture brought to mind this classic painting by Norman Rockwell:

4

Breaking Home Ties     Norman Rockwell

The painting is a great one, in my view, because it says so much, so truly. (Note that in the painting the old man is holding in his hands, along with his own, the boy’s hat. It is all he can do for him. When time for good-bye comes, any minute, one of the simple and heart-rending acts taken will be to place it tenderly and proudly on the young man’s head, a father’s wordless blessing.)

Our circumstances are all quite unique, but we tend to forget or overlook the great and human ties that bind us all. Maybe we would all be much enriched, and feel considerably less alone, if we were able to better remember.

Thank you.

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"Gazing Toward Key Biscayne, Then & Now, and Pondering."

 

CONSIDER the view toward Key Biscayne as, say, my 11 year-old Dad once knew it, and day before yesterday.

key

In 1941, there was no bridge, and foot or bike would take you only as far as the seawall. Thereafter, available choices for further progress involved swimming, or a boat.

Plans had been made to start building a bridge to the chain of islands that year, as successful negotiations had been concluded between the County and the Matheson family, but when a small Naval base in Hawaii by the name of “Pearl Harbor” suddenly leapt from relative obscurity to national obsession, it went right “out of people’s heads.”  Thereafter, America became heavily engaged in foreign affairs for four years, more or less, during which time it temporarily lost its focus on the bridge, altogether. The country did learn, however, how very proud it truly had a right to be of its young men and women that had stepped forward in such numbers, and fought so hard and well.  (They earned a place as the “Great Generation,” and part of their greatness was their eager willingness to pass along that mantle.)

So 1947 became the year that work finally commenced on the bridge, beginning with the purchase of the land on which the toll plaza has always sat, from the Estate of James Deering. (At some point after his first massive purchase from pioneer Mary Brickell, he had picked up the unbroken span of bay front stretching to the north from his estate (or at least, that which was then available for sale, which was nearly all of it). His property reached as far as the far side of where the Rickenbacker Causeway now begins.)

And the rest, as they say, is our history.
_____

The notion that “change is a constant” suggests, misleadingly, that it is a consistent and predictable variable that may be foreseen and “managed,”, and that any day now,  in the natural order of things, it is likely to stop blowing our minds, completely. Ain’t gonna happen!

Thank you.

(Photo on left by Gleason W. Romer.)

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”Mary Brickell Averts War with the Seminole: An Account of a Little-Known & Extraordinary Act”

 

Freedom’s Just Another Word
for Nothing Left to Lose

 
–Kris Kristofferson, Me and Bobby McGee

(Note: Throughout this account, reference is made to “the Seminole tribe” for purposes of simplicity and convenience. Seminole is less a tribal identity traditionally recognized as such by Native Americans, than a grouping made by white people for practical purposes, describing an alliance formed by members of a variety of traditional Native American tribes, joined by a miscellany of those of African descent, all seeking refuge and the promise of safety in Florida’s wilderness during the same or overlapping time frames.)
____________

IT WAS July of 1874.  Mary Brickell, heart beating like a drum as she stepped mindfully upon the uneven and rocky ground and tree roots below, cradled infant daughter Maude in her arms as she made her way along a nearly forgotten old jungle trail deeper into the ancient, thickly forested hammock.  She was only a few minutes distant from the family home, at Brickell Point, within the vast and unbroken span of ancient green forest that followed the bay’s shoreline all the way down to Cocoanut Grove from the river’s south bank, but might as well have been in another world.

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She walked alone, and her intended destination was a nearby encampment of hostile and angry Seminole Indians, some well known to her and others come there from all over the State, in a common spirit of defiance and desperation. They had endured a great deal and were near the end of their rope, and there was no place further to run.

They were preparing for all-out war.

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She could not have known exactly what to expect, and had certainly been given no guarantees as to safety, her own or the little life for which she was responsible. And neither had any promise of safe return been made. She was perfectly aware that some might call her actions “insane,” or even suicidal.  But she had to go, even if she herself could not be completely sure as to the reasons. (She had certainly not been foolish enough, for one second, to ask for anyone’s permission.)

The deep woods surrounding were quiet and still, in fact unusually so, yet the Native people were almost certainly aware of her approach, having been alerted far in advance by the watchful scouts that moved through the deep woods so soundlessly, nearly invisible. They had reported the unusual sight, and the group awaited quietly and patiently her arrival. Some of those who had come may have glanced at one another, questioningly. “Did they say, ‘a white woman and her baby daughter?’” “Yes, that is what they said.” “Humh.”

“We know her. She is our friend. She is called Mary Brickell.” They knew her given name, of course, but had long since taken to addressing her with affection and respect as “Sister,” in much the same spirit as they knew her husband as “Chief.”  Yet they must have all remained quite puzzled. A grim battalion of armed troops, the stink of mortal fear in their sweat, they might have expected, and been prepared for.

But why on Earth would Mary Brickell be coming here today, with Maude?

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THAT summer, a near panic among the white settlers had seemed to fill the very air, a crescendo of heart-stopping anxiety as close and smothering as the heat. It had been only 16 years since the last of the dreadful guerilla attacks in the “Third Seminole War,” when no one had been safe, and the awful experience remained indelibly etched in the settlers’ memory. [To put the timeline in perspective, if Mary Brickell and her infant Maude were taking their walk today, the last attacks would have come in 1999.] The wily Indians kept appearing suddenly and from out-of-nowhere, uncannily when least expected, like vengeful ghosts that meant business, bearing weapons all-too real. When they materialized they had come only to kill, and in mere minutes, their awful mission accomplished, they’d disappear back into the Godforsaken jungle as completely as if they’d never come at all. The terrifying scenes of carnage and bloody mayhem left behind would forever haunt the unfortunates who first found them.

Both the killing and the surreal, sputtering militaristic responses to follow had all finally wound down, and a fair number of the Indians been either placed in rusty shackles and chained, or bribed for small amounts of cash to allow themselves to be taken away to “Indian Territory,” in “O-kla-ho-ma” or some other dismal place which they knew only was far, far away. They had learned also that the faces of any who had gone, would never be looked upon again.

But no treaty had been signed, and the most stubborn and willful Indians were still very much “out there.” And of that the settlers of the time were certain, because they saw them all with some frequency: heading up the Miami River toward town, in their dugout canoes laden with hides, pelts, and plumes to trade, or walking about on the streets, and sometimes even in the proper stores, exactly like white people!

They were hard to miss, in fact, a tall, stately, and dignified people, garbed in their distinctive clothing so brilliantly colorful. The women often wore strings of colorful beads around their necks, high enough to fix their heads stiffly upright, and on their dresses hung decorative hammered silver coins. And every single one of the men, it might be noted, always carried their rifles with them wherever they went. Loaded.

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That summer, it had been 2 ½ years since Mary and the children had made their unforgettable first approach in from the Bay, on a schooner chartered in New York, toward that most picturesque spot where William had had a spacious house built for them by two fine carpenters brought down from back home, in Ohio, using building materials also shipped in. (Brickell and fellow traveler Ephraim Sturtevant, an acquaintance also living in Ohio (and the father of one Julia Tuttle) had first made the journey together down to the wilderness of “Bay Biscayne” in 1870, to have a look. They both liked what they saw, and, after considerable maneuvers clearing title, bought. Brickell acquired the entire bay front, and much of the land from the south bank of the Miami River on down through to Coconut Grove. He also picked up an additional 640 acres on either bank of the New River 30 miles to the north, at Fort Lauderdale. In all, he paid $3,500. for over 2,500 acres.)

That schooner had carried William and Mary, ages 46 and 35, respectively, children Alice, 14, Emma, 8, William, Jr., 6, Edith, 5, Charles, 3, and Belle, 2, a governess hired to help with the children, and a housekeeper.

In a sense, the Brickells brought culture to this beautiful but utterly removed region. The children received a fine education from the governess hired by the family in part for that purpose, and any children of school age within practicable distance were invited to attend “classes” without charge. In fairly short order, Brickell saw to the construction of a simple wooden building, to serve as a store vending to fellow settlers to the basic staples needed by truest pioneers for their kitchens and homes, and as a trading post for the Seminole.

William Brickell’s trading post was of huge importance to the entire history of the region, to follow. He was the first white man to establish commercial dealings with the Seminole, creating an invaluable new context for non-threatening, positive interaction. He conducted his business affairs with integrity and

respect, and in his dealings endeavored to pay fairly, and kept his promises. This alone was an extraordinary thing, but perhaps his greater contribution was something more simple. He was the first white man that many of the Seminole encountered who was not hell-bent on their destruction, and/or prone to employing any form of trickery available to achieve an unstated agenda of their utter displacement, and removal to God-only-knows where, cut off from the very roots they had put down in a strange and wonderful part of the Earth they had come to call “Home.” He gained in return their trust, always hard-earned, and staunch loyalty. The Brickells consistently remained good friends to, and effective advocates for, the tribe.

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THE months before Mary Brickell’s quest had been very hard on her family. Tragically, young Emma had quite suddenly taken ill with spinal meningitis, and died on April 4, 1874, at the age of 10. Both father and mother were devastated, but William was hit especially hard. For reasons known only to the heart, he had always felt a special affinity for the child and adored her unreasonably, as she had him. When she took her last breath and her little soul flown heavenward, so had part of his. On the surface, he’d become bitter, with much of his anger focused (and understandably enough) on Henry Flagler. Yet in deeper truth he had suffered wounds more grievous by far, and closer to the very heart of him. Now, nothing else really mattered. William Brickell was known to laugh at times, and carry on with his legendary tall tales much like before, but in truth would never again feel “at home” on the Earth, despite its occasional comforts and endless intrigue. He would not rest until he might once again hold his Emma’s beautiful face between his large hands, and make her giggle as only he could, before covering her face with tiny kisses.

When he got the awful letter bearing the news, reported by his wife as best she could, in shaky hand, he happened to be away on business in Key West. As he read on, a nail was driven further into his heart, already shattered, as he learned that a feverish Emma had called out for him only moments before her little heart had taken its last beat. The fact had been intended to comfort him, but he was far beyond comforting. He immediately penned a reply, giving stern instruction that little Emma’s body was under no circumstances to be buried before his return. He had to say his own goodbyes, forever.

In the same letter, he was also informed of the surprising news that his wife had again given birth, on the very day of Emma’s death. He had known of Mary’s latest pregnancy, but fully expected to be there for the birth. Maude arrived prematurely, but both she and her Mother were pronounced healthy and well. The attending physician opined that the early onset of birth might likely have been triggered by the mother’s shock and grief.

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SO, though the matter can be only the subject of speculation, it is possible that Mary Brickell had indeed been “mad with grief” upon setting out just after that noon hour to find the war party. And considering the timing of the event, little Maude might be seen as less a fragile burden, Mary’s responsibility to safeguard against an overwhelming Universe, than anchor keeping her spirit from simply floating out of her body, and forever elsewhere and away, for the sadness. If Emma’s loss had been catastrophe, Maude’s birth on the same day might at least be seen as a promise.

Years after the event, an adult Maude Brickell chronicled what she had learned of it. In an excellent book by Beth Brickell (no known relation), William and Mary Brickell: Founders of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, the author outlines the prelude to the meeting, and Maude’s account thereof:

Dr. Harry A. Kersey, Jr., who did extensive research about the relationship between the Seminoles and settlers for his book Pelts, Plumes, and Hides, noted that in 1872 the federal government considered sending a special agent to Florida to check on reports of unrest among the Seminoles. A year later, in 1873, word spread that the Seminoles were planning a revolt and were going to kill the whites. Panic spread among the settlers, and they prepared to abandon their homes and leave the area. Although the report turned out to be false, unease continued between settlers and Indians.

“Then, according to Maude’s sketch, soon after her birth in 1874, “the Indians were expected to go on a rampage… Indians from all over Florida met… south of the Brickell home… Mrs. Brickell, with Maude, a tiny infant in her arms, went out and met the Indian Chief Big Tom Tiger and talked to him and explained to them [that] Mr. Brickell was away and she was alone with the children. After a lengthy conversation, the chief promised Mrs. B. to go away and never return in a war against the whites. They never fought again.”

“Maude Brickell was rocked and petted by all the important Indians of her time. She was the first white baby that many of the Indians had ever seen. The Indians became staunch friends of the Brickells, coming to their home for food, medical attention and advice.”

No more is spelled out in Maude’s sketch, and in any event, she had been at the time but an infant. But the Seminole make their promises only with extreme care and in a spirit of greatest solemnity, because they always keep them. Exactly why their unusual meeting with Mary Brickell that day affected them so deeply as to promise an end of war, forever, is not at all clear. Yet it is certainly a wonderful question, and rich with possibilities.

But that Mary Brickell had stepped far beyond the realm of the known, or safe, and done so for the benefit of others, and thus in the truest and greatest sense played the part of hero, there may be no doubt.

Thank you.

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Time-Tripping with Images #5: Mouth of the Miami, ca.1880’s

 

river mouth

HERE is an apparently (quite skillfully) hand-colored vintage image, undated, of the mouth of the Miami River. It is amazing!

The view is facing south, toward Brickell Point, and (further) Coconut Grove. There is plenty of room to imagine.

Thank you.

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“May the Magical Moments, be Yours."

 

moon

THERE is magic in the moonlight, and always has been. It quite possibly exists only in the fleeting moment, yet abides outside of time.

One night about 10 years ago, the moon hung so full, yellow, and close to the horizon as twilight fell that I had to share the sight with my friend Cecil, now departed. I called and asked if he’d seen the moon that night, and he said no, he hadn’t been outside. “You have to go right now, and take a look!,” I told him. “It is breathtaking!” So he did, and there we each stood in our front yards, phones to our ears, he in Coral Gables and I in Shenandoah/ Little Havana, gazing up at the sky.

“Paulie, I can’t see a thing,” he said. “Nothing but gray clouds up there in this neck of the woods, tonight.” I was crestfallen. “Oh,” I breathed. It was so beautiful from where I stood; it didn’t seem right. “But I just love it that you called me to go and look at the moon! It reminds me of this wonderful quote. It’s one of my favorites. It goes…” Then he cut himself short. ” I’m not going to even try and repeat it now, and mangle it.”

“I’ll go ahead and email it to you, when I get back inside.” And sure enough, a message from Cecil awaited in my inbox. Here’s the quote that he’d been moved to share with me that night:

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that.

How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.”

                                           ― Paul Bowles, “The Sheltering Sky”
_______________

May the most magical moments be yours.

Thank you.

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We Love Our Mothers…

 
growingintothemystery mom
My Mom

 

Because they choose the hardest and most blessed of  paths.
They choose us

Because they give up so very much, in so many ways, to set upon that path,
Yet see our births much more as sunrises than any kind of sunsets
And continue to do so,
In bold defiance of all reason

Because many have struggled with the great questions of
“Who am I to be somebody’s Mom,”

or
“Is it mine?”

and yet forever lay those huge battles to rest
upon first holding warm human flesh to their breasts
that is of their blood,
crying out with hunger

And, the diapers need changing.

 

Maria-Joni-POST1

Because they love our fathers
And none need it more

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Or at least give it their very best shot
And no more can be asked

Because they are the most gentle
yet by far the strongest people from whom we learn


Because they keep the hounds at bay
During those God-awful days when we first bring back home
our band instruments
From junior high school,
Sometimes bigger than ourselves

And they hear the promise of sweet music
when others can hear only blaring assault
an unimaginable instrumental “raspberry”

They hear the promise of music most noble,
And we imagine them saying,

“Just you wait…,”


not stopping to give a damn
(at least as far as we can see)

how the deaf clanging world
sated with its own cacophony
might presume to pass judgment
on our future potential



Because the lessons they teach us are without number
And from the heart

(I think I shall always remember the tenderness
of being tucked in at bedtime
and saying my prayers:

Thank you for the world so sweet,
And thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,

And Thank you, God,
For everything
)

Because they teach us that Earth is our home,
And one another our people,
Yet remind us in their being of something much Greater
And more celestial

gammy n us Art

Because long, long before anyone else
even seems to have a clue,
They see that it is our differences
Our quirks
That make us special
And so we cannot lose.


Because it is part of their mission
To show us poetry in motion
Real life in its unfolding


Because love opens all doors,
And only those who have stepped through that portal
Can meaningfully invite us to step on through


Because they hurt when we hurt,
And are there whenever humanly possible to dry our tears

Because they are doing the very best they can
Day to night and night to day
Working quiet miracles

Because quite possibly more than anyone else, ever,
They want to see us succeed
And will be the last ones
(Almost always)
To sell us short
In a world that seems Hell bent on doing just that

Because we see ourselves reflected in their eyes
And sometimes must stop and feel “Wow”!
For there we see, and are reminded, that
we are all of us brought into this world
As somebody’s greatest dream


Because they die a million deaths in fear for our foolishnesses,
While we are infants in our cribs and teenagers and commuters
and sometimes parents ourselves

And pray with all their hearts
That it not be given them to see the sun set upon our lives
While they still cast shadows upon the ground


Because not only would our lives not be without them,
We cannot imagine really living without them

Because they love us
as the sun gives light
Without reason, condition, or limit

Because they listen to even the silly, stupid things with an open heart,
The things that are maybe most ours,
And never laugh or turn cold

Because it is often not easy for them to pull it all off,
Day after day.

It cannot be

But in their hearts we become their reason
And we are all of us blessed


Because they can drive us crazy sometimes
In ways that we somehow know

We will miss terribly some day

Because they are each and every one,
One of a kind,
And absolutely 100% irreplaceable
In the heart of our hearts



And we wouldn’t
Couldn’t
Have it any other way

And yet deep in our hearts

(though we cannot bear the idea)
cannot
must not forget
that will have them with us only yet
for a while


Because they have taught us that Love Never Dies
And no union so close to the quickening very heart of being
So much of God made, so uniquely and especially blessed
Can ever be severed
(What has always been, can never end, you know)

Because we know that they will be among the first to greet us
Upon crossing Heaven’s threshold of light most golden
At last
And so, OK, Heaven must be all right,
It couldn’t really be Heaven without them

Because the greatest miracle of all
Is knowing in your heart
That you are somebody’s greatest miracle



For all these reasons and so very many more
Though in truth we need no reason at all
We love our mothers.

And so I say, from the heart,
Thank you!,
To all the mothers in my life
So precious to me

And

I love you, Mom

More than words could ever hold

I feel that my heart, from here to eternity,
And throughout whatever seasons may then come
may cry out always first “Mommy!”

With gladness
And with gratitude

Because you have given me,
Given unto all of us,

The greatest and by far most fine
Gift of all
(Really, the only one that matters):

Yourself.

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Hammock Sleeping 36 X 48"

 

1

I LOVE the experience of painting at night, in so many ways. I learned some time ago that the real thrill of creating with colors, and textures, the true treasure of the experience, that almost always unexpected, “Oh, WOW!” moment that keeps one moving forward,

NEVER comes from capturing what you think you already see. The moments of genuine *discovery,* that will jump right up and off the canvas and back into the soul, brighter than before,

tend to cross my path when I stumble most blessedly into the hidden, or interstitial, as in [between spaces that first seemed so solid]. So there can be a feeling of falling at times, but there’s no other way I know of, that is safe.

Where you “up the ante,” and will find that things get really interesting, is when you take whatever that *next step* may be, beyond that which shows, or follows the outlines of a pathway known to you.  There will always be an element of risk in it, yet you’ll do it anyway, for some crazy reason that you will probably never understand, but in any event need not explain.

& maybe on the opposite side of that small (giant)  leap you may find what has always patiently awaited the hour of your awakening,
& the gift of your vision

(We all need one another, though we forget)

Because the realization that might start to dawn on you is that there’s never been any *void* anywhere, unless all and everywhere alike may be music of the void, in unison
(& I don’t think so)

When a moment suddenly comes alive, it’s like something’s breathing there, and… what is it?  Probably some part of me unclaimed
or otherwise put, it’s all in motion, together, with no part of anything excluded.  And so it is with us, whether or not we see
______
“It’s a ‘landscape,’ right?”  “Yes, if I am a pina colada!”
(A delightful aspiration, come to think of it.)

“But hey Paul, it’s just a scene from life that you’re painting, right?”

“NO!, I am painting my experience of that scene.”

(Thinking “G*ddam artists, with their %^$#* bullsh*t,”) and I can understand, but say,

“No, it’s not that way.” [ “That is not what I meant, at all.  That is not it, at all.”] 

“Which is what, exactly?  Your ‘experience,’ I mean”

I’m afraid that there is no way of answering that question, until a painting teaches me. If I already knew, why would I paint?

Yet, there is a profound kindness at play here, you have to understand;
because on one level that is not unimportant, I have no idea what I’m doing. Why? Because I don’t want to! I will *know* ever, only if I am always somehow learning through an experience that is new
What’s new?   

Every
          single
                   Breath.

Otherwise it holds no interest for me. Oh Lord, hear my plea:
We who live, suffer (we’re good, with the “joy” part, thanks)
When I am awake, may I be awakening
Trusting that the pain is more cloud than brick wall

And when I sleep, may I dream, always bigger,
always closer
to another infinite Awakening
to dream

So when my time has come, and I no longer cast a static shadow
upon ground always spinning dizzily in space,
Those who love me might ask “Hey, Where’s Paul got to?”

And they will see the answer when least expected
up in the stars
out in the sea
And they, God bless them, will smile,
and say “Ah;
he is exactly where he’s always been, and wanted to be!”

And maybe a bird on the wing will fly overhead,
high up against the sun,
or the breeze will caress a palm frond,
or you’ll hear a child’s voice of discovery,

and you will feel, with zero doubt,
“yeah.”
____

Thank you..

Post Script: “Jeez,” he thought as he hesitated only briefly before pressing with this finger the spot on his keyboard triggering “Publish,”
I REALLY hope this translates”
And just then, he could have sworn he heard,
ever so softly,
the kindest & most gentle laugh
you can imagine

& he said to himself

“yeah”
!

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"Starting at the Beginning”: One Family Takes Shape in Florida.

 

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I wanted to share a family photograph, taken (probably) in 1915, in West Palm Beach, so we might say a quick “Hello” to my paternal grandmother, Annelise Petersen. She’s the little girl to the right of her Mother Mathilde, opposite coquettish older sister Kathe. At this point she still dreams in German; it’s not yet been even two years since the three boarded ship for the United States of America, through Ellis Island, leaving forever behind the home they had loved, and life they had known, in their ancestral home of Flensburg, in the far north of Germany. (Her father Johannes Petersen had preceded them, presumably in the hopes of making for them such a home as he might be able.)

The following “caption” is scribbled on its back, in the handwriting of my aunt Bettina (their first-born, and Dad’s oldest sister):

“This is Annelise Crockett’s mother, Mathilde and her and sister Kathe in West Palm Beach. She was 7 years old. They had lived in Chicago for the first year in America. The landlord raved over Florida so they came by boat, with her father, to see it and moved here.”

The picture is of special importance to me because it is the earliest still-existing of family taken in Florida, and quite probably also the first taken, period.  So it is exactly here that my family’s story first flows into, and becomes part of, that great and vastly colorful river known as Florida history.  After settling briefly in Miami, the family would homestead in the Redland area about thirty miles south, creating “Bonita Groves,” a tropical plant showcase/ productive fruit and citrus grove/ tourist attraction, and both of the girls attend and graduate from Redland Farm Life High School.  The school is still open and active today. 

Yet before young Annelise would graduate as valedictorian in her class of 8, she would meet a young man from Tennessee making quite a living as a “binder boy” in Florida’s white-hot land boom of the time, having first pulled into Miami Station in 1923 after receiving in the mail a one-way train ticket sent by two of his brothers already here.  His name was H.B. (“Bruce”) Crockett.  It turns out that the principal of his one-room school house back in Tennessee had likewise somehow made his way down to Miami, as did so many other thousands at the time, and found suitable employment as the principal of Redland Farm Life. “Bruce,” he had offered thoughtfully, following a chance meeting, “listen; we’re having a social this Friday evening down at the school, and you really ought to think about joining us. There’s a lovely girl that I believe you’d want to meet.”

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Young Annelise (right), as my Grandfather would have first come to know her, accompanied by sister Kathe. The year is 1923-24. The pair are captured in a casual moment tending to their assigned duties of hospitality (including serving up any of a large variety of fresh, chilled fruit juices to the thirsty), at “Bonita Groves,” the family’s homestead/ citrus grove/ botanical outdoor scientific laboratory/ tourist attraction that once beckoned invitingly to travelers of every description, from the whole world over, in that larger green oasis some thirty miles south of Miami, yet peaceful and still, known as the Redland. (Below) the family homestead, with citrus arranged festively in the front yard in possible anticipation that the image might one day be published in this blog!

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So he had made the first of many remarkable journeys some 30 miles south in his Model T automobile, back before there was a US-1, or for that matter any consecutive paved road, at all.  Upon first laying eyes on Annelise, he used to say, he “lost his heart.”  He was an absolutely impossible romantic, and saw no reason why he should not become the luckiest man on Earth.  For her part, Annelise saw no reason to resist her destiny. They were married in the Dade County Courthouse in 1925, and shared 69 years together as husband and wife.

Mrs. Crockett became a beloved teacher of Fifth Grade at Coral Way Elementary for 25 years, and older sister Kathe, known as “Mrs. Wilson,” gave her all to teaching the German language to generations, at Coral Gables High.

Thank you.

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"’Where Humans are Caged and Monkeys Run Wild!’” My Aunt Bettina Lives Dangerously, Takes Job at Monkey Jungle, 1950’s

Dateline: Money Jungle!, 1950’s   “Paul’s Safari Into Miami’s History”

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My Aunt Bettina McMakin Erdman was a lovely and unusual personality, and the first-born of my father’s family.  After her passing last year, her son (my cousin) Patrick McMakin bestowed upon me a bounty of family photographs, including a few I have previously shared here, and this one. Pat now lives in Thailand with his family, and has called the place “home” for most of his adult life. Nevertheless, he feels deep in his heart a living connection with Miami, where he grew up.

At its root, the sacred connection that we share is our grandfather, H.B. Crockett, who in many ways served as a father to Pat, at times when he needed nothing more, and nothing else would have done.

Bettina is the statuesque blonde to the left. To her right is my great-aunt Kathe Wilson, older sister of my grandmother and a greatly beloved teacher at Coral Gables High School, where she taught German until 1976, when her 70th birthday compelled her retirement by law.  Her devoted students were deeply distressed to hear that news, and found the situation sufficiently intolerable to undertake a focused lobbying effort intent upon changing  it. They fired off hundreds of letters, they lobbied locally, and also traveled to Tallahassee,  where in some cases they actually cornered legislators in the halls.  And they prevailed! Close to the end of session, Senator Bob Graham (D) submitted a proposed revision that became law.

Despite their heroic efforts, the amendments came too late to protect Kathe Wilson. As is standard, their effective date was October 1 of the following year, by which point another school year would have begun, and “her students” begun working with a new teacher.  Aunt Kathe felt strongly about not interfering with that relationship.
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And that the photograph was of those two at the Monkey Jungle, would’ve been all I’d have known to say of it, had I not casually shown the image to my Dad on my cell phone, while over at their place for a dinner gathering last week. “I’ll be darned,” he said, dropping an olive into his icy martini, “She [Kathe] must’ve been visiting her at work, looks like.” I had no idea. “Oh, did she have a summer job there?,” I asked. “No,” he said, “she worked there… for quite some time, as I recall.” “You’re kidding.” “No, she used to…” he began, before becoming hopelessly distracted in his search for some item lost deep within the bowels of the cluttered refrigerator. “Work with the monkeys?,” I offered. “Yes,” he exclaimed,  quite obviously “done” with the entire tangent, and impatient to get back to the visiting company. “She used to do… certain things, with the monkeys” he added in a crowning summation of nonsense, before heading back out. I smiled.
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And yet, with that simple information alone, he had given me all I needed know. The photograph now had a context!  So, I am able to explain that the moment here forever frozen in time captures a simple but fairly intimate family connection,  the surreal setting and all the various primates surrounding (excluding, of course, my aunts) notwithstanding.  Aunt Kathe loves her niece, and is delighted to take the time to pay her a visit at her most unusual workplace. A good time is being had by all.  And upon reflection, it seems quite clear to me that Aunt Bettina would have indeed been excellent with the animals, because she would have approached them intelligently, with an open heart and a desire to learn from them, much more than to “teach.”  In that sense, two of the teachers in the family, both of the very best kind, are enjoying an easy visit together, possibly comparing notes.

The Monkey Jungle is a rarity among tourist attractions of the old school (having gotten its start in 1936), in that it is still open for business (even using the same corny slogan!).  At the same time, however, the facility is doing some valuable and serious work in human education, and proactively engaged in the protection of some severely endangered species, with a light touch that somehow makes it all fun. More information about the place can be found at www.monkeyjungle.com .

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Finally, I must share that my fortuitous encounter with my Father got me to thinking: since old photographs rarely come with captions, and he is now the last surviving member among his “first family,” what other basic questions haven’t I thought to ask? Where exactly might lie the largest gaps in my own understanding of the story of my family’s history, and how might I begin to recognize them? What simple questions might I most regret some day, not having asked?  

I am aware of being in a very blessed position, in having the extreme luxury to ponder the question. But even so, food for thought…

Thank you.

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Vizcaya, 1941.

 

 

The original grounds of Villa Vizcaya included the current sites of Mercy Hospital and La Salle High School on the east side of Bayshore Drive, and a parallel tract across the road where the Villa’s working farm busily hummed away, and fields of crops yielded a rich harvest. (Including the current site of the Museum of Science, and the Bay Heights subdivision.) 

My Dad remembers canoeing on the waterways.  During much of his childhood, in the late 30’s, early 40’s, the house sat vacant after Deering’s death in the late ’20’s.

It is an interesting fact that Mr. Deering had ordered a fine china service for use in his planned winter home, shipped as freight on a “state of the art” ship departing from Southampton, England– “The Titanic.”

On another note: it is sad, to me, that the man’s being gay– obvious as that fact may be from his documented relationships, journals, photos, and (gasp) yes! the exquisite taste so very evident throughout the House– is still generally officially “swept under the rug,” according to the wishes of the family or for whatever reason.  Poppycock.

Note that one of the two recurring themes chosen for the home (along with the Caravel, or old-fashioned sailing ship) is the seahorse– one of the few animals that is  neither male nor female alone, but both.

To me it is not a matter of malicious or prurient gossip, or disrespecting privacy.  To the extent this architectural marvel is of significant and public importance, and it is, it can only be seen as dunder-headed to shy away from the true motivation and passion that brought it forth and guided this dream into being.

James Deering, a “confirmed bachelor,” would father no children, yet desperately felt the need to leave behind a legacy for future generations.  That was his training, and the prevailing culture of his day, a sort of “noblesse oblige.” 

And so Yes, as the volunteer guides report, he indeed set out “exploring” around the world for an ideal locale and climate suitable  for the winter home of a gentleman of his (probably smothering) stature and station in society.  But sometimes a home is more than a home.  Much more.  Here, we have a true-blue “labor of love,”  created with all of the considerable energy, time and attention (not to mention wealth) only a truly remarkable man could consistently and flawlessly bring to bear, over the course of many years. That understanding seems a preliminary threshold to really “getting” what the Villa and its grounds are all about.

With this fundamental information censored, the visitor is left to wonder what it’s all about.  Consequently, thousands have probably construed the place as an orgy of indulgence, a “showpiece” for its own sake evidencing the pride and vainglory of the “idle rich” of that time.  Nothing could be further from the truth, nor more unfair to the memory of Mr. Deering and the cast of thousands (literally) who worked so hard to manifest this “dream by the Bay” in such amazing detail.

It seems evident to me that this question  is not about sex.  It  is most truly and deeply about love. And we all continue to share in the benefit, eighty years later.

Thank you, Mr. Deering.  Your dream lives on, and we are all enriched as a result.  Rest in sweet peace.

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