Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hilda and Martha

This is an excerpt from my essay “Twenty-Two Thousand Days” (Sonora Review Winter 1999), about my great-aunt’s line-a-day diaries, which my sister inherited and shared with me after our great-aunt’s death. My great-aunt died at the age of 99 in 1991, and was survived for a few years by her partner Martha. The two women had been together for fifty years.

 In the third volume of my great-aunt’s line-a-day diaries, covering the years 1940-1944, I discovered several small scraps of paper on which my great-aunt copied out excerpts from her diaries. One scrap of paper reads:

Jan. 19
            M + I up late—Breakfast
and quiet interlude—lunch
to Gallery to see Van Gogh
pictures. Hat—Emily—MJC
+ I to smorgasbord at
Hotel Rochester.

On the back of the paper, in Martha’s handwriting, comes the reply:

If I recall we saw Frances
Baker there, too, and I
didn’t have money to
put in the Dutch
collection vase—or whatever
it was. Also my new hat
blew off on Univ. Ave. Right?

For these two women, who lived together for fifty years, my great-aunt's diaries provided a single lens for the recollection of a shared life.

She and Martha had been together for twenty-five years when I was born. I was born to their companionship; it was natural and unquestioned. My letters were always addressed to both of them, and in my great-aunt’s replies, Martha was always present—my great-aunt’s other self. On February 2, 1976, my great-aunt wrote to me:

Ground Hog Day 1976 and what a day it turns out to be! Yesterday we had a thaw. Today we awakened to a blizzard. We had errands planned for today, but instead we are holed in, and thankful that there is food in the larder. Also we are thankful for firewood. If the wind dies down a bit, we’ll have a hearth fire.

Martha has been out to the bird feeder with sunflower seeds. The sparrows throw the seeds around,—then come the squirrels to clean up the ground. When spring comes there are a lot of shucks to clean up.

I had though to go out and cut boughs from the forsythia bush today—but it isn’t working out that way. I don’t have the equipment for getting through snow banks.

The “we” of my great-aunt’s letters, her usual pronoun, seemed to split kaleidoscopically into “Martha” and “I.”

What do I know about their intimate relationship? I have sixty years of her daily notations, and all I can say for certain is that she and Martha loved each other. That is all, and everything. This seems to me to be a beautiful model for a life—a life shared openly and lovingly, with its secret intimacy always reserved. 

I think of those scraps of paper—Martha’s hat blowing across University Avenure—and all the intimate associations these diaries evoked, all the richness of shared experience. A diary is a small workshop for the creation of the self. But if anything, my great-aunt’s diaries, full of their shared experience, were aimed not at the creation of the “I,” but at the creation of the “we.” The “we” of her letters, the “we” that slid back and forth between two women for fifty years, on scraps of paper, in conversation, in the silence between words.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rose and Evangeline

Rose Elizabeth Cleveland
In 2007, I published an essay in the New England Review about Rose Elizabeth Cleveland, the sister of President Grover Cleveland, who served as her bachelor brother’s First Lady until his White House marriage. I’ve been thinking about Rose Cleveland again recently as Minnesota prepares to vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Rose Cleveland, who was a scholar, essayist, poet, and novelist, never married, but she ended her life in a committed relationship with another woman: the widow of Bishop Henry Whipple of Faribault.

Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson seem to have met in Florida in the  winter of 1889-1890, and later exchanged a series of passionate love letters, which are preserved in the Minnesota Historical Society.

“My Eve looks into my eyes with brief bright glances,” Rose wrote to Evangeline, “with long rapturous embraces,—when her sweet life beneath and her warm enfolding arms appease my hunger, and quiet my soul and carry my body to the summit of joy, the end of search, the goal of love.”

The exchange of love letters came to an end in 1896, when the thirty-six year old Evangeline Simpson married the seventy-four year old Bishop Whipple. But this was not the end of the story. The bishop died in 1901, and a few years later, Evangeline and Rose were together again.  They settled down together in Bagni di Lucca, Tuscany, where they worked in a military hospital during World War I, where Evangeline wrote a book about Tuscany, and where they are buried together in the same crypt in the Protestant cemetery.

The story of Evangeline and Rose remained hidden for half a century after Evangeline’s death.  Finally, in the late 1970s, an anonymous note arrived at the offices of the American Library Association’s Task Force on Gay Liberation.  The note, which was passed along to historian Jonathan Katz, explained that in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society there was a binder of love letters that “revealed a lesbian relationship” between Rose Elizabeth Cleveland and Evangeline Whipple. The letters were not listed in the card catalogue.  According to researcher Judith Schwarz, the Minnesota Historical Society “listed the Whipple-Scandrett Papers as comprising only nine boxes.  The love letters were in an unlisted, unmarked tenth manuscript box.” 

In response to Katz’s inquiry, the historical society reviewed its policies and decided to list the letters in its catalogue.  In 1989, Katz published a feature article on Rose and Evangeline in the national LGBT news magazine, The Advocate.

In the summer of 2003, the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church met in Minnesota.  In the convention’s exhibit hall, there was a display about Minnesota’s first Episcopal bishop, Henry B. Whipple.  The exhibit, according to press materials, “included probably the first openly-public mention of a same-sex relationship from another century: that of Bishop Whipple’s widow, Evangeline, and Rose Cleveland, the sister of U.S. President Grover Cleveland.” The main order of business at the convention that year was the confirmation of Rev. V. Gene Robinson, of New Hampshire, as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. 

“The humanity of each of us,” Rose Cleveland wrote, “is like some Aeolian harp constructed by the Master Musician and laid down tenderly by Him upon the sea-shore where winds from every quarter play continuously.  An enlightened Christianity would leave it, free and sensitive, upon the shore—would open it to all the winds that hurry to and fro, that it may give out to heaven and earth its full completed harmony.”