May 23, 2005
Family Group, Late 1930s
Poem: "Family Group, Late 1930s" by Christopher Wiseman from Crossing the Salt Flats. © The Porcupine's Quill. Reprinted with permission.
Family Group, Late 1930s
My grandmother, the family elder, stood
Here that day, her husband, recently buried
In the grass outside, not twenty yards from her.
Strange emotions, I'd guess, it must have stirred
In them, the body and the baby so close,
But they crowed round this font, watching the show,
As Christopher Stephen Wiseman was named and blessed,
Validated, readied to go forth.
I'm sure she prayed for me, that vicar's widow.
I'm sure they all did in their different ways.
I'm sure they smiled as I screeched at the cold water,
Was hurriedly passed back to my mother's arms.
Today I'm alone. Same church. Same font. And I think
All that crowded family's dead. All gone
But two, my grandmother's children in their nineties,
And they will never come to this place again.
All gone, and my life well along, my children
Married, thinking of children of their own.
I look at it, the dark oak lid with its black
Iron ring, the stone carved all around
Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me
For of Such Is the Kingdom of Heavenand I feel
A weight, as if I've been transformed to some
Sort of reluctant representative,
Helpless, filled with demanding generations.
The oldest man. The family patriarch now.
But how much wiser than when I was that baby?
I lift the heavy lid. Two inches of old
Stale water lying at the bottomhardly
The stuff of legend. I smile, though why in God's
Name I should, I don't know. Between me and my car
Lies my grandmother, next to her husband,
And how have her prayers for me turned out, and why,
I wonder, do I walk past her so quickly?
Literary and Historical Notes:
The New York Public Library was dedicated on this day in 1911.
It's the birthday of Margaret Wise Brown, born in Brooklyn (1910). She wrote Goodnight Moon.
It's the birthday of Jane Kenyon, born in Ann Arbor (1947), who spent the last days of her life working on her last collection of poems, Otherwise.
It's the birthday of the man who gave us the system of classifying and naming all the living things on the planet, Carolus Linnaeus, born in Råshult, Sweden (1707).
He was a botanist. He taught at universities. At a time when Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe, Linnaeus set out to import exotic plants and animals, hoping they could be raised for profit in Sweden. He hoped to raise tea and coffee, ginger, coconuts, silkworms. He experimented in clams.
It was at a time when people named plants and animals in many different ways, usually based on what they looked like: Queen Anne's lace, ghost orchid, and swordfish. But even within a single country, a plant could be called by half a dozen different names by different people, so Linnaeus decided to develop a naming system based in Latin. He put each specimen into a large group called a genus and a smaller subgroup called a species, and that became the binomial naming system, which he published in 1758.
His botanical experiments failed. The tea plants died. The coffee didn't make it in Sweden, and neither did ginger or coconuts or cotton. Rhubarb did though, and Linnaeus, late in his life, said the introduction of rhubarb to Sweden was his proudest achievement. But today we remember him for his contribution to taxonomy.
When he published his taxonomy in 1758 he listed 4,400 species known to science at the time. Today there are more than one and a half million.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®