Love and Marriage, Part 4: Sisters

As some of you know, I’m in crazy writing mode. I have a deadline coming up, and my life right now is writing and more writing with breaks for the gym and food. By sunset, which comes early now, I can barely form comprehensible sentences, and it’s time for dinner, a TV show, and bed.

BUT—this past weekend, I took a break for my little sister’s wedding. Our newly married daughter and her wife flew in for the weekend, and we went to a wine festival on Saturday,

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the annual Red Bank Battlefield (Fort Mercer) reenactment Sunday morning,

Red Bank Battlefield

Red Bank Battlefield American forces firing the cannon

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The charge by the British troops!

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A casualty of war

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and then my sister’s wedding on Sunday night. On Monday, my husband and I went out to lunch at our favorite Indian restaurant with my daughter and her wife before they flew back home.

My sister was my maid of honor when my husband and I married 36 years ago. I never thought I’d be at her wedding, standing at her side to witness her say her vow of love and commitment to her long-time partner in love and life. For over twenty years, she and her now wife have been together. They’ve built a life for themselves in their beautiful house with their two cats and a dog. My dad did not get to see this day, but he would have been thrilled and excited. My ninety-two-year-old mother was there, smiling—and dancing, too. I know this was an event she never thought she’d witness.

Some people would say I’ve been to two “gay weddings” in the last two months, but to me, they were simply weddings of two couples in love. One is a young couple just beginning their lives together, and one an established couple of many years, but they, too, are now newlyweds. My sister’s wedding was a joyous affair. As they gazed into each other’s eyes, my sister and my new sister-in-law said their vows. Family and friends surrounded them in a love cocoon from which they emerged transformed, married. We cried tears of joy, and laughed and cheered as they broke the glass.

Sunday morning had dawned blustery and cold. My daughter, her wife, and I walked to the battlefield. I’m writing an encyclopedia of daily life during the American Revolution—it was a weird and wonderful seeing people dressed in the clothing of the period I’ve been writing about. We took a tour of the Whitall House. I wondered what the strong Quaker woman who had lived there over two hundred years ago would have said about two women marrying. She was a woman who spoke her mind—I’ve no doubt that she would have had an opinion. Despite being morally opposed to war, she cared for wounded soldiers in her home. Perhaps she would have disapproved of a same sex marriage (a concept that she would not even have considered), but I like to think she’d recognize the love in the hearts of those committing to a life together. My daughter and her wife glow, and everyone around them feels their love. The beating of the drums that day on the battlefield marked the rhythm of soldiers and battles. The hearts that bled out that day—and stopped–had been hearts that loved and had been loved.

Sunday evening was filled with warmth. Hearts beat excitedly with anticipation and were filled with love. I got to see my sister married, something remarkable, simple, and profound.

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We’re excited and waiting for the wedding to begin!

New Review: Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast

Forgive me for sharing another review of Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast (along with the companion volume, Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis). I value the reviews from academics so much, and I’m happy to see it has received great reviews from scholars. I hope they continue. But I’m thrilled to see this book also receive mass-market attention, as in really mass market, as in Playboy. I write academic history books and reference books; my books are typically reviewed in academic journals and more specialized sites. So I’m going to take my few moments of almost-fame and share this review with you.

“Readers of this magazine may be forgiven for thinking they know a thing or two about body parts. But with two new volumes, Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast and its companion, Cultural Encyclopedia of the Penis, publisher Rowman & Littlefield shows there’s always more to discover. From the ‘divorce corset’ (an early-1800s device to lift and separate) to ‘magical penis theft’ (the superstition that a man could lose his member to witchcraft), we’re not ashamed to admit we learned quite a bit. . .”
–Cat Auer, Playboy

 
The Playboy article has a chart with some fun facts from the books, if you want to learn more. Or better yet, buy the books! (Wouldn’t they make fun coffee table books?) I just noticed Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast is available on Kindle–so you can take it everywhere.
Thanks for reading!
–Merril

Apples and Honey

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Apples and honey

on the blue kitchen counter.

Round braided challahs,

waiting to be sliced.

Soup is simmering,

and tables cleared.

Preparation done.

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Guests arrive

in a swirl of

arms, legs,

hugs, and kisses.

Mom’s walker

appears

before she does.

I pull;

my brother gently pushes–

she’s in.

One cat dashes

up the stairs,

vanishing for the evening.

The other watches us

with his huge eyes—

What does he think as the

sun-dappled day turns

to cool moonlit night?

Try this wine.

You don’t like it?

No—

it’s like bubbly, sweet air.

My daughter and I look

at each other

and open the red.

 

Snapshots of a moment;

pause to remember.

 

Family and friends

around the table;

the symbolism of

the new year explained.

Pre-teen eyes roll–

when do we eat?

Golden pumpkin soup,

salad with pomegranate seeds,

noodle kugel,

brisket and chicken, too,

because. . .well, just in case.

If my stomach is any indication,

this is going to be a very good year!

Love and laughter.

That’s what holidays mean.

 

Kids scurry away from the table.

Talk of youthful “adventures.”

Kids return—

Ooops! Change the subject!

Change—

the subject now!

 

Laughter.

Mouths covered by hands.

They both do it.

Is it genetic?

 

Latin scrapbooks

and “Footloose” dancing

across wooden floors—

the innocent joys of

being high school nerds.

Own it.

But you were always

incredibly poised,

and wise beyond your years.

 

Apple Cake, Flourless Chocolate Cake, Baklava--Early Celebration requires extra desserts to ensure sweetness for the year! ;)

Apple Cake, Flourless Chocolate Cake, Baklava–Early Celebration requires extra desserts to ensure sweetness for the year! ;)

Desserts!

Yay!

Extra sweetness

for the new year!

More wine?

Coffee?

I can’t eat another bite.

 

Guests leave.

Tables back

to their usual spots.

No Disney dancing

cups or magic cleanup.

But wouldn’t that be great?

The vanished cat

runs down the stairs,

hesitates at the kitchen,

stretching his long legs–

he sniffs,

and yawns.

Did I miss anything?

Love and laughter.

The joy of a holiday dinner.

Snapshots of life.

Pause to remember.

I got special cards! <3

I got special cards! <3

 

Because of our schedules, our family gathered for a dinner to celebrate Rosh Hashanah early this year. Wishing all of you health, happiness, and sweetness for this new year–and throughout your years!

It’s Here! A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast

“This unusual encyclopedia focusing on the female breast is scholarly and exhaustive, yet pleasurable to read. It should find its place among one’s favorite reference books. “

–Marilyn Yalom, Stanford University; author of A History of the Breast

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Yesterday, my husband and I visited our younger daughter and her boyfriend in their new apartment. They live about an hour and half away from us in Reading, Pennsylvania. We had a lovely visit and a delicious dinner prepared by my daughter. We talked and their dog and cat entertained us, as pets do. When my husband and I got home—well past my usual bedtime—my husband discovered that my author copies of my new book, A Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, had been delivered to our house while we were away. What a perfect end to my Saturday!

I don’t care how many books you write—it’s always exciting to see and hold the new one. And if it isn’t, you probably shouldn’t be a writer.

I realize that this book is not the type of book most people will rush out to buy for their personal libraries–although I would be pleased if you do! However, if you think it is a book that might be useful for any businesses you know of, or schools, or libraries, please do recommend it. I wrote several of the entries, and I compiled and edited the entire volume, but I also had the help of scholars from all over the world, including the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Poland, Romania, Argentina, and Nigeria. The book covers nearly everything you could want to know about breasts—breast anatomy, breast cancer, breast augmentation and reduction, breasts in art, literature, movies, and pop culture, breasts in fashion, topless protests, breasts in history, and more. Come on, you know you want to flip through it now, don’t you? Really now, don’t you?

One of my assistants

One of my assistants

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He finds the box more interesting than the books.

A Short Stop on My Writing Journey

“Being a good writer is 3% talent, 97% not being distracted by the Internet.”
–Anonymous

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.“
–Ursula K. LeGuin

 

Once minute I’m researching religion and the American Revolution on the Library of Congress Web site; the next minute my husband is telling me that none of the TV stations are coming in. We soon discover our Internet service is no longer available, our landline is out, and we can’t access the Internet from our cell phones either. Fortunately, we can still text and call from our cells. I was beginning to panic and wonder what good cell phones are in an emergency if we can’t use them. Not that this is an emergency, of course, but what if? Yes, that’s how my brain goes. And when I’m facing a book deadline, it doesn’t take much to throw me into panic mode.

It made me think about the whole process of writing and research —at least in the US in 2014. Or at least for me–perhaps I shouldn’t speak for others. I have a house full of books, journals, and material I’ve printed out. I also have papers and pens. I can use my laptop, and we have power, so there is not a problem with recharging it. Nothing is actually preventing me from writing, but I’ve become so accustomed to going online to find a citation, to fact check, and to look up material, that I’m almost paralyzed without Internet access. I am writing this now, but I’m unable to post it. Clearly, I can write, it’s focus I’m having a problem with. My soul is being tried, and I’m facing my age of no reason.

I suppose if desperate enough, I could go to Starbucks or my local library to use the Internet, but that would involve driving. And getting dressed.  You might think I’m joking. But one of the great things about being a writer who works from home is I don’t have to get dressed to work. Sometimes I don’t get dressed all day. I can work in my exercise clothes, my PJs, or some comfy sweats.

OK. Now that I’ve revealed way too much, I guess I should go back to my real writing work—at least what I can do without Internet access. My book manuscript is due all to soon. Eventually, my husband who has been on hold with Verizon for about half and hour might find out what the problem is. Until then, I guess I’ll hold off on the fact checking, and open one of these lovely books piled helter-skelter on the buffet behind me. Oh hello there, you wondrous thing! You marvelous book. I could never totally abandon you.

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I’m not joking about the book piles.

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My research assistant

But. . .oh Yay! We’re back online. I love you books, but I need to check Facebook now.

And the journey continues.

The Influence of One

“Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.”
–George Eliot

“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.”

– Ansel Adams

Influence. Who influences us and who do we influence, perhaps unknowingly? A recent blog post by Laurie Buchanan on her Tuesdays with Laurie blog made me ponder these questions.

We’re all influenced by the times in which we live. Perhaps a Neolithic storyteller imagined worlds beyond ours, a place filled with fantastic creatures that swooped down from the sky. It’s possible. But it’s unlikely that he or she imagined televisions or the Internet. Perhaps though that storyteller inspired others to create new tales or paint, or think of worlds beyond. Entirely possible, and a scene I like to imagine. Still, although a rare genius such as Leonardo da Vinci can imagine or predict objects far beyond the imaginations of his or her contemporaries (see for example, his moveable cart, “the world first self-propelled vehicle” ), most of us are constrained by our times and knowledge.

As a historian, I study the past and past influences. In turn, I’m influenced by the words and actions of those who lived long ago. As a writer, I’m influenced by everything around me. But who knows for sure where that creative spark comes from? I have some way of seeing things that others perhaps do not, some odd synaptic firing that allows me to put images into words on a page. But I am still influenced by what I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I’ve heard, art I’ve admired. I’m influenced by the sound of the crows outside my window engaged in their “Marco Polo” calls to one other, the sunlight reflected and glimmering on the butterfly bush gently swaying in the faint summer breeze, and the cat sleeping next to me, lost in his feline dreams.

As a writer, I hope that my words influence my readers, and make them think, laugh, or cry. As a human being, a parent, wife, and friend, I also hope that I’ve influenced others, as they’ve influenced me.

Last week all of these various worlds—history, creativity, family, and influence came together in one wonderful example.

Those who read my last post, know that in my house the Mandelbrot cookies I bake are known as “Mommy Cookies,” and that I baked them for my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Two days after the wedding, while visiting a historic site, my newly married daughter and her wife encountered a historical interpreter portraying an early twentieth-century Jewish immigrant making Mandelbrot in her New England kitchen. My daughter’s reaction was to get a bit teary-eyed (as I did when she told me the story), as she thought of how I make those cookies, our Mommy Cookies. A traditional recipe that I’ve updated became a family tradition that has influenced and affected my daughter and me. The reenactor, however, will never know how her portrayal in that historic site resonated and influenced my daughter.

And now that I’ve told you, the influence of that portrayal has expanded.

 

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

-William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5

 

 

 

 

Love and Marriage, Part 3–Food

And so it’s done. My little girl, my first born, is now a married woman. I am still teary-eyed, but happy and content to know my daughter is married to the woman she loves.

She and her lovely bride were married this past Sunday in a beautiful, tender, loving, and funny ceremony at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, NJ. The brides were beautiful—my daughter wore my wedding gown, now known as “our gown.” The weather was perfect, and the aquarium setting was striking. Shark tanks inside and the Delaware River and Philadelphia skyline outside—what could top that? Only the love in their eyes as they gazed at each other.

In the days leading up to the ceremony–which of course were filled with last minute chores to do and items to pick up, drop off, and assemble—we all tried to find ways to relax and de-stress. On Friday night, my daughters and soon-to-be daughter-in-law and I went for a long walk through our town and along the river. My husband then joined us for a family movie night as we watched “Frozen,” a movie none of us except my younger daughter had seen. The tears and laughter during the movie were a prelude for the wedding symphony to come.

Of course, over the days leading up to the wedding we ate and ate. On the Thursday before the wedding, I baked the brides-to-be a pre-wedding challah. We tore chunks of it off to eat with cheese, as we sat outside at a local winery on a beautiful summer night. Bread and wine—looking back it seems symbolic and perfect for a pre-wedding feast. Plus, I’m all for eating bread for dinner.

Challahs cooling on the counter

Challahs cooling on the counter

Food is often an important feature of holidays and special occasions. In my family, food is always a feature, a necessary and expected part of such celebrations–if not the most important part. Why should weddings be any different? I baked many batches of cookies to give to those who attended the rehearsal dinner. After all, I wouldn’t want anyone to get hungry in the middle of the night!

Because food is so important, I made it the subject of my toast at the rehearsal dinner. I hope the brides will not mind if I share an edited version of that toast:

Tonight I’d like to discuss what’s really important in marriage. That, of course, is food.

When two people marry, they bring their pasts with them—and this often includes family quirks and traditions. They attempt to meld or accommodate different ideas about proper meals—when and what to eat. Vegetarians and meat-eaters; picky eaters and adventurous eaters; those who like formal dinners and those who prefer casual dining—it can be a challenge to make these differences work.

When Doug and I first started dating—way back when—he had never experienced the joys of a full Jewish brunch—lox, cream cheese, “yum yum” fish, bagels, and everything else. Nor had he been exposed to the spicy, “exotic” foods of India, Thailand, and China. But he willingly embraced it all. (He also was not used to people blurting our wildly inappropriate things during holiday dinners—or people who cry at everything–so I will try my best not to do either, but instead stick to the subjects of food, love, and tradition.)

Many of our family traditions involve gathering around a dinner table. Food is a source of gustatory delight and memories—the strawberry shortcake dinners we ate after picking strawberries, for example– but it also a source of comfort and tradition. During holidays we eat foods that represent particular thoughts or events. We savor the round challah at Rosh Hashanah (made from my Aunt Sima’s world famous recipe) and enjoy it with honey for a sweet year; we devour way too many fried latkes and donuts at Hanukkah in remembrance of the oil in the temple; and we eat the matzoh, charoset, and other foods at our Passover meal that symbolize the ancient story of the Jews fleeing Egypt and slavery.

When Megan and Sheryl were growing up, I baked lots of cookies, including Doug’s favorites, which became known as Daddy Cookies, and my favorite, which became known as Mommy Cookies. Daddy Cookies are Welsh Cookies, a type of tea biscuit cooked on a griddle. They are popular in the Scranton, PA. area, and I got the recipe from his grandmother. Mommy Cookies are my version of Mandelbrot, which I describe as Jewish biscotti. These cookies are totally different—in shape, texture, and ingredients. Yet, they are both sweet and delicious, and Megan and Sheryl grew up eating both types. Doug and I are very different, but even though we prefer different types of cookies, we can appreciate the other’s favorite. We share many mutual beliefs, interests, activities, and love. Megan and Clare are also very different people with different backgrounds and tastes who have come together because of their love for one another and their shared interests–including food.

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Welsh Cookies, aka “Daddy Cookies”

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Mandelbrot, aka “Mommy Cookies”

Megan and Clare –it makes my heart sing to see you together. I am so glad you found each other and that you’ve chosen to share your lives together, and that we here are fortunate to be able to share in your celebration.

Doug and I are pleased that we can gather together with all of you tonight over a fine meal and share food, love, and traditions. We’ve prepared a little gift bag of symbolic goodies for each of you, which includes Mommy Cookies and Daddy cookies. There are also some sweet and salty fish-shaped treats. Fish, obviously, symbolize the aquarium site for tomorrow’s nuptials. Sweet and salty represents the happiness and tears that come in marriage.

Please raise your glass now and join me in toasting my daughter and my almost daughter-in-law. To Megan and Clare—may you enjoy many delicious meals together. May your lives be filled with sweetness–and may you cry only tears of happiness. I love you. L’Chaim!

 

 

© Merril D. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Summer of Breasts and Revolution

 

I’ve been busy this summer with professional projects and personal issues and events. Unfortunately, this has left me little time to post to my blog or visit the blogs of others. I apologize and hope to have more time later in the fall.

 

In July I reviewed the page proofs for my forthcoming book, Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast. It covers everything you always wanted to know about breasts in history, art, fashion, literature, movies, popular culture, and science. It should be out in October, or perhaps even before that. Grazia De Michele reviewed it for the Breast Cancer Consortium. You can read the review here:

 

I’ve also been working on my next book, another encyclopedia, titled World of the American Revolution (ABC-CLIO). As the deadline approaches (GULP!), I am scrambling to write numerous entries on a wide variety of topics. Let me just say there have been ISSUES. Contributors dropping out; contributors not coming through with acceptable articles; contributors who plagiarize. . .But I have also had some wonderful articles submitted. So it goes.

 

In addition research, editing, and writing entries for my books, I’ve been writing many test items this summer—after all, I have a daughter getting married and there are a few expenses to be covered. The bridal shower has past and the wedding will soon be here. I can’t believe that something that seemed so far away is now almost here! There will be more on that topic in the future.

 

With so much going on, my husband and I did not even attempt to make vacation plans, but we have taken a few hours here and there to visit places in the area. Following my theme of “revolutions,” we went to Eastern State Penitentiary for the “Bastille Day” Celebration as envisioned by the Bearded Ladies theatre troup. My husband and I stood for free with the mob. We cheered and jeered as Edith Piaf introduced celebrated figures from the past to help bring about revolution. Or something. Well, we all know from Les Miz that revolutions need songs. And apparently they need line dances, too. Because this is Philadelphia, Marie Antoinette—joined by Tonya Harding—threw TastyKakes from the top of the prison with the cry, “Let them eat Tastykakes!” It is true Philadelphia craziness that has to be experienced to be believed. You can see more about it here.

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After the “execution,” my husband and I went on an after hours tour of the prison. If you are ever in Philadelphia, visit this museum. It is fascinating. The prison opened in 1829 and was considered a model prison with each prisoner kept in a solitary cell. The prison was in use until it closed in 1971.

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On another day, in lovely summer weather, we walked through the famed Philadelphia Museum of Art. We saw an exhibit of proposed architectural changes to the museum. The alterations, if they happen, will be done in stages, and will take decades to complete. The proposal that has met with the most discussion is one that would change the famed “Rocky” steps.

 

After visiting the Medieval and European galleries, we went outside to have a picnic lunch and walk. It was a beautiful day to walk by Boathouse Row and along the Schuylkill River. When looking walking along the river, it is easy to imagine the nineteenth-century city of Philadelphia.

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Looking at the Philadelphia Museum from the Waterworks

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A solitary rower on the Schuylkill River

 

We have also managed to make two brief trips to the beach (down the shore, as we say here), as well as some trips to local wineries.

 

So this is my summer of breasts and revolutions–and a soon to be wedding. It’s been brightened by family and friends, sunny skies, stress-busting trips to the gym, and some glasses of wine. Chocolate, too, of course. I hope all of you are having a good summer! Back to work for me.

 

Love and Marriage, Part 2: War

There are marriages that turn into war zones, as husband and wife become enemy combatants in the trenches and minefields of their shared lives. But sometimes partners who love each other have the misfortune to live or to be separated during an actual war and to live in a real war zone.

 

Lovers parted by war. It’s a theme found in ancient myths and stories, as well as more recent tales. Homer’s famous epic poem, The Odyssey, is the story of Odysseus, as he journeys back to his home and his wife Penelope in Ithaca, following the Trojan War. The Odyssey has provided inspiration for many works. In 1997, for example, Charles Frazier recast The Odyssey as a Civil War tale in the novel Cold Mountain. In this story, W.P. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, becomes a deserter. As he travels back home to find his love, Ada, he is helped and hindered by people and situations resembling some of those in The Odyssey. Although they knew each other only briefly, it is the thought of seeing Ada that keeps Inman going. The story alternates with Inman and Ada narrating chapters. Ada learns how to survive and finds strength she never dreamed she had. The novel was made into a successful movie and will soon be an opera.

 
The wonderful quirky 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen, was also loosely based on The Odyssey. It involves 1930s-era escaped convicts led by Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney. It also boasts a wonderful soundtrack of country, bluegrass, blues, and gospel that features Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, The Soggy Bottom Boys, and others.

 
But the reality of war is something else. It boasts soundtracks of battle cries, tears, moans, gunshots, and bombs, as well as music. War separates soldiers and their families, sometimes forever. Those in the midst of battles and ambushes might literally fight for their lives, while those left at home are sometimes left to face occupying troops or deserters, destruction of their homes, and food shortages. The recent tragic and sometimes horrifying news from places all over the globe demonstrates that these situations still exist. We humans are very good at finding ways to destroy our cultures and ourselves.

 
And yet, love endures. Goodness, hope, and beauty endure.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
–Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl

 
As I work on my next project, an encyclopedia of daily life during the American Revolution, I’m reminded of two things—life goes on during war AND daily life is changed by war. Sometimes it is undeniably and irrevocably changed, for the better or for the worse. For many Americans, the era of the American Revolution is confined to images of “Patriots” fighting “Redcoats,” the “Founding Fathers” gathering in Philadelphia, and perhaps some faint knowledge of the Boston Tea Party. It is something remote. But of course, as in all wars, there were real people who fought, died, profited, mourned, and just went on living. There were also those left at home who planted crops, sewed and washed clothing, gave birth, committed crimes, were victims of crimes, wrote poetry, got drunk, lived, and died. And they loved and were loved.

 
Those who were literate and had access to paper, ink, and a way to get letters delivered, attempted to communicate with their friends and family.

 
“I am rejoiced to hear you are well; “I want to know many more perticuliars than you wrote me, and hope soon to hear from you again. I dare not trust myself with the thought of how long you may [illegible] perhaps be absent. I only count the weeks already past, and they amount to 5.”
–Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14-16 September 1774

 
War. It goes on. But so does love.

 
In one of the most poignant and beautiful letters that emerged from the blood and horror of the American Civil War are these lines from Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah:

 
Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.”

 
Sullivan Ballou was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
You can read the entire letter here.

http://www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm?id=253

Love and Marriage–Part 1

Weddings are on my mind. Last month, my husband and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. Like most couples, we’ve had our share of good and bad times, but fortunately more good than bad! Weddings, of course, are merely the start of a marriage. They’re like the first stage-setting paragraph of what one hopes will be a long, enthralling novel—the type that has you turning pages as fast as you can, even while you savor each word and hope it never ends. The wedding is the preface to the book, the overture to the opera.

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During our very own opera semiseria, we’ve raised two wonderful, talented, kind daughters, one of whom is getting married (wearing my gown!) next month—hence my focus on weddings. She is marrying a wonderful woman, and they are deeply in love. Over the weekend, I attended a shower for the two brides, organized by our younger daughter for her adored older sister. Both brides were indeed showered in love and affection.
Throughout much of history, and among many people of many different cultures, marriage was based not on love or even companionship, but instead on economics and politics.
“Your daughter should marry my son so we can join our two clans—or nations.” “What dowry does she bring?”
Or as the song, “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof explains:
Hodel, oh Hodel,
Have I made a match for you!
He’s handsome, he’s young!
Alright, he’s 62.
But he’s a nice man, a good catch, true?
True. . . . . .

Did you think you’d get a prince?
Well I do the best I can.
With no dowry, no money, no family background
Be glad you got a man!

For those who don’t know the show or movie, Fiddle on the Roof is based on Sholem Aleichem’s tales of Tevye the dairyman in the small shtetl of Anatevka. The three oldest of Teyve and his wife Golde’s five daughters marry for love—unheard of! This prompts a song between the Teyve and Golde who wonder if they love each other? “It’s a new world,” Tevye says.
Around the mid-eighteenth-century, Anglo-Americans began to place more emphasis on “companionate” marriages—and to expect more love and companionship from their partners. This is not to say that loving marriages did not exist before this time.

For example, Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) wrote the following poem to her husband, Simon:
“To My Dear and Loving Husband”
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cAnneot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

The rise of a companionate ideal does not mean that all marriages were based on these ideals. Many marriages took place for economic practicality—farms benefit from having men to do heavy agricultural work and women to do the preserving of food, the cooking, laundry, and childbearing. Even urban households needed someone to raise and care for children.

 
Regardless of love or economic necessity, enslaved people were not permitted to marry legally. Slaves were not citizens and had no rights. Some masters permitted their slaves to “marry,” but it was not legal, and all slave relationships were transient because families could be broken up at any time. Race remained a factor in marriage after the Thirteenth Amendment officially prohibited slavery in 1865 because interracial unions were not permitted in many states. Finally, well into the twentieth century, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit interracial marriages. Mildred Jeter, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white, married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but they were arrested after they returned to and lived in Virginia, where they were arrested. The court gave the couple a suspended sentence under the condition that they leave Virginia. “Under our Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

 
My younger sister is getting married in October to her long-time partner. They love each other, but now that Pennsylvania has permitted same-sex weddings, they also want the legal protection that goes with marriage. Love and the practicalities of life.
So I will be attending two “gay weddings” within a few months. In my mind, however, they are simply weddings—a celebration of and for two people who are deeply in love choosing to publicly declare their love for each other—and wanting to have the same legal safeguards that other wedded couples have. Two couples who are choosing to begin a new chapter in the book of their lives. I am fortunate to be able to share their joy.