Dec. 14, 2011

Lilac Sunday

by Diana Der-Hovanessian

Let us agree to meet
here some winter
when the park

gates are locked,
and the arches thinned
of their vaulting green

to climb the wall,
thaw the icicles
and watch the rain

like flowering
cherry and lilacs
that kissed your hair;

some winter
when the fog is heavy,—
to return to this light.

"Lilac Sunday" by Diana Der-Hovanessian, from The Circle Dancers. © The Sheep Meadow Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1542, Mary Stuart ascended the throne of Scotland. She was only six days old when her father, James V, died. King Henry VIII of England, who was her great-uncle, tried to use the familial connection to unite England and Scotland, and drew up a treaty arranging the infant Mary's eventual marriage to his son Edward. The Scots resisted, and Henry began the six-year "War of Rough Wooing" in an effort to force the Scots to comply. The child's mother, Mary of Guise, negotiated a marriage pact with Henry II of France instead.

From the age of five, Mary Stuart grew up in France, in the court of Henry II, away from the political machinations taking place in England and Scotland. She received a good education, not only in courtly pursuits like music, dancing, and horsemanship, but also in Latin, Spanish, Italian, and Greek. Though she became an enduring symbol of Scotland, her upbringing and identity were thoroughly French. When she was 16, she was wed to King Henry's eldest son, Francis, who was 14 at the time, and sickly. It was a purely political marriage, but she was fond of her young husband, who became king upon his father's death in 1559. Six months after her marriage, Mary's Protestant cousin once removed, Elizabeth, acceded to the throne of England, and Mary — a Catholic — was second in line for the crown.

Mary Stuart was widowed at 18, and returned to Scotland to rule in 1561. She found the country of her birth had converted to Protestantism in her absence, and her cousin Elizabeth viewed her with suspicion and hostility, afraid she had designs on the English crown. Her countrymen, too, saw her as a foreigner; her policy of religious tolerance won them over, and it didn't hurt that she was tall, graceful, and beautiful. Unfortunately, she was also easily besotted, and in 1565 she fell passionately in love with, and hastily married, her cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. They had a son, James, but Henry proved to be an ambitious, drunken embarrassment. He was murdered two years later; it's not clear whether Mary had any foreknowledge of the crime, but she married the chief suspect, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, after he abducted her. Bothwell was soon exiled by the Scottish nobles, and Mary was deposed in favor of her one-year-old son.

In 1568, Mary fled to England and sought the help of her much more politically savvy cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. Rather than helping her regain the throne of Scotland, as Mary had hoped, Elizabeth had her imprisoned, using Darnley's death as a pretense. In 1587, word reached Elizabeth of a Catholic plot on her life, a plot that implicated Mary; she reached the conclusion that Mary was too great a threat as long as she remained alive. Although Mary argued that she was a sovereign ruler of Scotland and not an English subject, Elizabeth ordered her trial, and later, her execution for treason. Mary's son James made no protest; eventually he succeeded the childless Elizabeth to the throne, becoming King James I of England.

Mary was executed at Fotheringhay Castle on February 8, 1587, and it took two — possibly three — strokes of the executioner's axe to behead her. A little dog, which she had kept as a pet during her imprisonment, had snuck along to the gallows with her under her skirts, and refused to be parted from her after her death, until Mary's ladies in waiting carried it away to wash the blood from its fur. When the executioner held up the severed head with a cry of "God save the queen!" the luxuriant auburn hair came off in his hand. It was a wig, and Mary's close-cropped head, gone gray during her time in prison, tumbled to the ground.

It's the birthday of Shirley Jackson (books by this author), born in San Francisco (1916). Her short story "The Lottery" begins innocently enough:

"The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner."

As the story progresses, the reader finds that this "lottery" is a yearly ritual in which townspeople select one of their number and stone him or her to death, believing that the sacrifice ensures a bountiful harvest. The story appeared in The New Yorker in June 1948, and many readers were horrified. They canceled their subscriptions and sent in angry letters, which the magazine forwarded on to Jackson. She said, "Of the three-hundred-odd letters that I received that summer I can count only thirteen that spoke kindly to me, and they were mostly from friends." Even her mother scolded her and suggested she write something to "cheer people up." Jackson was most horrified by letters from people who wanted to know where they could go to witness a lottery like the one she'd described.

Her best-known novel is The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a quintessential haunted house tale, but she also wrote light, humorous tales of her family life in books like Life Among the Savages (1953) and Raising Demons (1957). She raised four children and only wrote after her household work was done. She said: "I can't persuade myself that writing is honest work. It's great fun and I love it. For one thing, it's the only way I can get to sit down."

Today is the 60th birthday of Amy Hempel (books by this author), born in Chicago in 1951. When she was 15 and finished with high school, she moved to San Francisco. She went through a horrible two-year span, during which her mother and her aunt both killed themselves, Hempel herself was in two serious accidents, and her best friend died of leukemia. She was always an avid reader, and thought she might like to write, but skirted around it for a while. She worked as a journalist first, because it felt secure; it had rules she could learn and a formula she could follow. As it happened, the rule about grabbing a reader's attention served her well when she began writing short stories. "Journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one," she told The Paris Review. She said she always starts a story knowing the first and the last lines.

It was Hempel's guilt at failing her dying friend that led to "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried," her first, and most widely anthologized, short story.

The last moonwalk took place on this date in 1972. The mission was Apollo 17, and it was the longest and most successful of all the Apollo missions. Commander Eugene Cernan holds the distinction of being the last person to set foot on the Moon. He and crew member Harrison Schmitt unveiled a plaque, which read: "Here man completed his first explorations of the Moon, December 1972. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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