Sister Laura landed at Logan Airport to join us for a whirlwind Thanksgiving weekend. As young students and faculty, forty-some years ago, we hadn't really learned much about Eastern Massachusetts.
We started out on a chilly Friday morning to walk part of Boston's Freedom Trail which is marked by a line of red bricks in Boston skyline the pavement. Talented and knowledgeable National Park Rangers gave talks at the more important stops, such as Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church. Longfellow's poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" was exposed as mostly myth. We hadn't known Revere was one of 50 riders spreading the alarm, nor that the real hero of the night was Robert Newman, who actually set the light in the steeple with redcoats in the neighborhood, nor that one rider was a 14-year-old girl who substituted for her sick father.
Across the street from the Freedom Trail -- which is marked by a line of red bricks in the pavement -- is the moving Holocaust Memorial, a line of tall glass towers on which are etched millions of identification numbers of concentration camp inmates. Quotations Bootts Mills looms from survivors are inscribed on marble inside each tower.
Our walk took us past Irish pubs (quite a few, not surprisingly), a mix of Boston churches, skyscrapers and historic buildings, Italian restaurants, yuppie shopping malls, a bustling farmer's market, and the revitalized waterfront, full of daylight as a result of the dismantling of the ugly overhead freeway, courtesy of the Big Dig. Near the park, gilded pieces of trash embedded in the pavement turned out to be civic art -- which never ceases to surprise!
There was snow on the ground in Lowell, Massachusetts, where the American textile industry got its start early in the 19th century. Along the broad, swift Merrimack river, some of the mill buildings have been transformed into condos, while Lowell boarding house others are part of the National Park, placed through the influence of Paul Tsongas, a native of Lowell.
The entry into the Bootts Mill museum is a shock. Dozens of looms are set up and threaded; even with just a few running, the noise is deafening. It made the floor vibrate and our ear-drums ache. The mill occupied four huge floors, and the workers trudged up a steep narrow staircase to get to position for their thirteen-hour work day.
After the view of the working mill, an outstanding exhibit tells the story of the industry and its changing work force. New England farm girls -- who were part of what some mistakenly believed would be an industrial utopia -- were soon replaced by European immigrants, and the area became a hotbed of labor troubles, as the mill owners struggled to compete with newer factories by squeezing the workforce. The high point in mill production was perhaps 1850, and the 150-year-long decline of the mills Museum of Fine Arts cat tells the history of the slowly declining local economy, never quite dying, but never revitalized. One side benefit for Lowell has been a steady stream of upwardly-mobile immigrant families mixing together in a hodgepodge of cultures, each seeking their own vision of the American dream.
A treat for visitors is the trolley service, run partly by the National Park Service and partly by a group of volunteers. We rode twice, first in a restored Lowell street car with wicker seats, its current supplied by its connection to overhead wires, and second in a New Orleans streetcar (naturally it's marked for the Desire Street route!)
Sunday we joined cousin Marilyn to visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but we were an hour early, so we first made a short visit to the Musem of Fine Arts across the street -- a kind of Art Appetizer!
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum had been one of our favorite One of Boston's art treasures places back in the 1960s and so we were eager to see it once again. Housed in a building constructed about 1900 under Mrs. Gardner's direction are the artworks she and her husband had collected during years of foreign travel. A woman of strong opinions, she crowded paintings, sculpture, porcelain, icons, autographs, rare books, and architectural features into an enormous four-story building with a huge skylight providing a temperate climate for the central garden courtyard.
Here's the kicker: if the museum trustees move any of the works of art from the positions they occupied at the time of her death, the entire collection would be sold and the proceeds given to Harvard University!
As a result, the Gardner Museum is old, worn, getting darker and drearier -- and clearly failing to live up to its promise to bring Peabody Essex Museum scene great art to the public eye. As if to add insult to injury, the empty frames where evil art thieves slit the canvas to remove 13 masterpieces in 1990 -- to sit in the homes of even more evil art collectors -- remain starkly on the walls. If you knew their whereabouts, you'd hardly be tempted by the $5M FBI reward
And why hasn't Harvard shown a little generosity? Do they really need the proceeds of the sale of the Gardner's treasures so badly? Do they really want to hurt their city by breaking up a magnificent art collection for the sake of their already bulging endowment? Surely the two beneficiaries of the Gardner Will -- Harvard and the Museum Trustees -- could reach a compromise that would provide the public (remember them?) with a better opportunity to view the Gardner collection, in keeping with the best of modern museum practices.
In marked contrast to the Boston museums is the newly remodeled Figurehead Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem. Five years ago we visited the PEM and found it a quaint old warehouse stuffed with the treasures acquired by nineteenth-century Salem merchantmen, along with models and paintings of the ships and their milieu.
While we were elsewhere ... the PEM found a big pot of money, built an enormous new museum, and spread the exhibits about in dozens of thematic galleries. We had to disregard our warm memories of the old museum and open our eyes to appreciate the new one.
What we gained most was an appreciation for Chinese culture, old and new. The old was represented by the galleries full of Chinese objets d'art made for the export trade -- because China was so poor it scarcely had an internal market for art. The new was represented by Yin Yu Tang, a lovingly reconstructed home of the extended Huang family, who occupied it for eight generations -- until 1982.
This was the home of a "prosperous" merchant family for two hundred years, and it showed that China -- even in 1982 -- was so poor that the people lived without the benefit of machinery, making tools and furniture out of materials at hand. Yet through the Saling ship, Salem harbor poverty shone the light of Chinese art and culture, with its strong emphasis on family and on tradition.
And best of all was an absolutely gripping video of a modern Chinese marriage -- still arranged by the families, still governed by traditional feasts and firecrackers and wedding night rituals, and still representing the forced dislocation of a young Chinese woman from the home of her parents to that of her in-laws, where her role in the hierarchy will be totally changed.
Before rushing back to the airport we had time to walk through Salem's historic district, past several attractions based on the Salem witch hunts, and past Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables.
Visiting more than ten tourist attractions in four days was a little breathtaking, but it provided us with a welcome break from weeks of typing and proofreading genealogy -- not to mention a glorious opportunity to spend time with Laura.