Oct. 26, 2014

Rummage Sale

by Jennifer Maier

Forgive me, Aunt Phyllis, for rejecting the cut
glass dishes—the odd set you gathered piece
by piece from thirteen boxes of Lux laundry soap.

Pardon me, eggbeater, for preferring the whisk;
and you, small ship in a bottle, for the diminutive
size of your ocean. Please don't tell my mother,

hideous lamp, that the light you provided
was never enough. Domestic deities, do not be angry
that my counters are not white with flour;

no one is sorrier than I, iron skillet, for the heavy
longing for lightness directing my mortal hand.
And my apologies, to you, above all,

forsaken dresses, that sway from a rod between
ladders behind me, clicking your plastic tongues
at the girl you once made beautiful,

and the woman, with a hard heart and
softening body, who stands in the driveway
making change.

"Rummage Sale" by Jennifer Maier from Now, Now. © University of Pittsburg Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1776 that 70-year-old Benjamin Franklin set sail on a diplomatic mission to France (books by this author). It was his fourth and final transatlantic trip. He was accompanied by two of his grandsons. When they arrived in Paris in early December, Franklin took up residence in a fancy hotel in Passy, whose proprietor insisted that Franklin didn't have to pay until the Americans won their independence. Franklin was famous in France — mostly because of his scientific work — and news of his arrival spread quickly. Everyone had a theory on why he was in France: for his health; to protest America's break with England; to put his grandsons in a better school; to broker a commercial deal; or to retire to a Swiss chalet. Both the French and the British spied on him ceaselessly, intercepting his mail and enlisting his servants. They reported on everything, from his grocery bills to his laundry.

During Franklin's nine years in Paris, he made himself at home. He acquired hundreds of books, and set up a small printing press — he even invented a typeface called "Le Franklin." His home was always open for entertaining, and the French loved him, despite the fact that he spoke French poorly, didn't understand elaborate French social code, and often ignored it even when he did understand it. But he was passionate about the American cause, and wildly exaggerated the strength and organization of the Continental Army. France secretly aided the cause of the revolution, sending money and supplies, but was reluctant to declare a formal alliance. In October of 1777, the British lost the Battle of Saratoga, and the French decided that the rebels might win after all and signed an alliance.

In 1783, Franklin signed the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war. He returned home in 1785, when Thomas Jefferson was appointed to succeed him. Many of his friends thought that on the ship ride home he should write a memoir of his years in France, but his brain was back in science. Instead, he wrote a pamphlet called "Cause and Cure of Smoky Chimneys."

It's the anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, a canal to connect New York City and the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. The canal was 360 miles long, 40 feet wide, and 4 feet deep — just deep enough to float barges carrying 30 tons of freight. It was built by European immigrants — mostly Irish — who were paid $10 a month. They were also given whiskey, which was stored in barrels along the construction site.

When the canal was finished, cannons were lined up along the towpath just barely in earshot of each other. They fired one after another from Lake Erie to New York City, finishing the relay in 81 minutes, establishing the fastest ever rate of communication in the United States at that time.

It's the anniversary of Norway's separation from Sweden, in 1905. A hundred years earlier, Denmark had given Norway to Sweden, but relations between the two countries had been rocky all the way though the 1800s. Around the turn of the century, Norwegian nationalism was on the rise, so on this day in 1905, the union was peacefully dissolved and a Danish Prince, Carl, took the name Haakon VII and was made king of Norway.

It's the birthday of the playwright John Arden (books by this author), born in Barnsley, England (1930), who was bookish and well behaved until he joined the army, where he said, "I heard a lot of stories which I found rather distressing and not what I thought the army was for." He came home and started writing plays that attacked British conformity. He's best known for his play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959), about four deserters from the British army who try to persuade the local people in their town that war is pointless. John Arden said, "Theater must celebrate noise, disorder, drunkenness, lasciviousness, nudity, generosity, corruption, fertility, and ease."

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James (books by this author) wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote, about a young woman in Europe. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but he also said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

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