Today is Thursday, August 17, 2017

No place like Holmes

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Dear Anne, As I sit at my breakfast table, I see a small limb bending down near our bird feeders. On this limb is one small piece of a leaf. As I look at that leaf, I am reminded of a portion of a poem I read many years ago. “And if I should live to be/The last leaf upon the tree in the Spring; Let them smile as I do now/At the old familiar bough where I cling.” Please tell me the poem this is from and the author. I have wondered for a long time. This is interesting to me because I am that last leaf …the youngest of six. My siblings are all gone, each having lived to a “good old age.”

                        -J. P. B.


If you read last week’s column, you recognize my distinguished correspondent. She’s a gifted writer herself, taking the ordinary and peeling it back to its deeper ribs. Years ago Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., [(August 29, 1809 – October 7, 1894), a doctor, known for his wit, a lecturer at Harvard, the “Autocrat of the Breakfast Table” (a reference to one of his most famous prose works, a collection of essays compiled and published in 1858, and a serendipitous connection to the correspondent)], wrote “The Last Leaf,” a part of which is quoted above.  

If the United States Supreme Court sprang into your head, that’s Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., (March 8, 1841 – March 6, 1935), Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932, and Acting Chief Justice of the United States January–February 1930. Theodore Roosevelt appointed him, but their friendship didn’t last after Holmes started deciding cases in a way that produced unhappiness in President Roosevelt. That happens in government, but it’s not all Murder in the Cathedral, luckily. [OK, that didn’t fly over everyone’s head, but I’m talking about Henry II of England and his murmured disgust with Thomas á Becket, a murmur that led to the murder of Thomas, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Murder in the Cathedral is the title of a play about that by T. S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot, 1888 – 1965. American-born English poet, dramatist, and critic; awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. The Wasteland is probably his most famous poem.) ] But I digress. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., himself is the subject of a play (and a movie that shows up late night every once in a blue moon), The Magnificent Yankee.

I’ll resist adding a paragraph on blue moons.

His dad, Oliver, Sr., had friends like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell. And they were proud to know him. He was a leading light, published in The Atlantic Monthly, followed by many readers. He’s categorized as one of the Fireside Poets, along with Lowell, Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier.  Formerly big names in 11th grade English.

Sometimes I despair over our times, the cold hearts passing as warm, shallow emotions pretending depth, loud noise and guttural sound parading as music and poetry. The muses are no doubt sending search parties to other sections of the universe.

Well, the times were extremely harsh during the lifetime of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. Born into a country soon plunging into another war with Great Britain, Holmes would experience America’s growing pains – the expansion of territory, the debate over slavery, the increasing industrialization and population growth. And a terrible war within the borders with 625,000 deaths.

Those harsh times produced some great literature, some of it surprisingly comforting. Often noble. Humorous. Warm. “A Poem ForThe Meeting Of The American Medical Association At New York, May 5, 1853” – how about that for a title? Opening stanza: I HOLD a letter in my hand,-/A flattering letter, more's the pity,-/By some contriving junto planned,/And signed per order of Committee./It touches every tenderest spot,-/My patriotic predilections,/My well-known -something- don't ask what,-/My poor old songs, my kind affections.

Those of us with some silver in our hair (or lots of it or no hair at all) recognize the concluding stanza of “The Chambered Nautilus.” Memory work; again, 11th grade. Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,/ As the swift seasons roll!/ Leave thy low-vaulted past!/Let each new temple, nobler than the last,/ Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast?/Till thou at length art free,/Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!    

ONLINE DEPARTMENT “Chuckles for Your Day” (Thanks, J. W.) ▪ If I’m ever on life support and seem to be fading, try unplugging the machine then replugging it. Works on almost everything else nowadays. ▪ Two birds fussing at a young one: “First you stay out late; then you start dying your feathers. What’s next – beak piercing?” ▪ The sign reads: “The Hokey Pokey Clinic – A Place to Turn Yourself Around” ▪ Sure I’d love to come over and visit you while you talk with, and text to, other people on your phone the whole time. ▪ Sometimes I think I’m in preschool or is it high school? Wait, I’m at work. ▪ Husband day care center features no fees. Wives just pay the bar bill when they pick up the guy, maybe off the floor. ▪ Next time you get a call from a blocked or unknown number, answer it in a whisper and say, “It’s done, but there’s blood everywhere.” Hang up. ▪ The flower shop displays a sign saying “How mad is she?” next to three pictures: a vase with one rose, a vase with six roses, and a vase with a dozen roses. ▪ A sweet daughter helping in the kitchen asks, “Mom, what’s it like to have the greatest daughter in the world?” The savvy mom replies, “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask your grandmother.”

BW (Bigtime Word) triskaidekaphobia - fear of the number thirteen. It’s simply not worth having something that hard to spell. Stick to arthritis. Challenging enough.


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