If blog is a foreshortened form of “weblog,” shouldn’t a book launch be called a “blaunch” (uniquely apt for The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, as Elaine’s dear mother was named Blanche)? For the purposes of this mini-blog, I would like to adopt the quasi-honorific terminology, as I offer a brief sequel to the book launch itself. Monday’s blaunch culminated with a dinner at Villa Vito’s, while Tuesday’s reception, held at the Inn at Phillips Mill culminated, fittingly enough, with a sumptuous dinner at the Inn at Phillips Mill, as a guest of the owners, Brooks and Joyce Kaufmann.
The reception itself was an honor for me to attend, and allowed me a chance to sign a few more books and offer to my august group of attendees a few Curious Autobiography pens and t-shirts. Indeed, the guests themselves made the gathering special, where we met up with, among others, Sue, who helped me organize, Robert, Jeannie, Becky, Marcy, Kevin, Henry, Janet, Ursula, John, Brooks, Joyce, Marion, and Fred, and, in spirit, Elaine. Marion prepared a lovely photographic tableau, a visual reminder of days bygone, days of significance to all who happened to know Elaine.
But some of those in attendance did not know her. If they had met her, at best they barely remembered. But they were there in part to share a few moments of fellowship and merriment. But perhaps that is not the only reason they or any of us were there. We were there to aver, whether implicitly or explicitly, silently or articulately, that Elaine’s life had meaning, and that, beyond this perhaps less than obvious fact, our own lives have meaning, too. Thus, that small convergence of souls, by the mere incidence of its convergence, asserted that all life has real meaning, because there is, amidst the apparent disorder and chaos of our frazzled existence some kind of cosmic significance to life, certainly unseen and discernable only through the eyes of the soul. Such significance, or the author of it, gives every memory meaning, every intention potential, and makes every action worthy of bothering to do.
But I wax philosophic. To return to the delightful reception, I should say that I have attended very few gatherings so charming and delightful, made so by the wonderful aforementioned group of attendees. We told and read stories and in passing reflected, without going overboard, on the quasi-philosophical values espoused above. The dinner was equally delightful, and at it we read one additional short excerpt from The Curious Autobiography, to which we added a story, not found in the book. That story will be the subject of my next blog. It is the Ghost of the Inn at Phillips Mill, as true a ghost story as you shall ever read. But that next time. Until then, thanks for following these two blog updates and pondering with me the verbal, ethical, and likely superfluous implications of a world like blaunch!
On July 16, 1969, I recall quite clearly Elaine Jakes pitching on the floor in front of her television set with a small group of friends—including Sheila, Sallie Bailey and Emily Ward at least for a few minutes of that early morning event—for the Apollo moon launch. This “breakfast-bun watch party” occurred in Elaine and Sheila’s small flat, as Delores Davis was wont to call it, at 14 W. Bridge Street in New Hope, Pa, just behind Villa Vito‘s wonderful Italian restaurant, famous then and now for its abundante “Mangia Platter.” But no one was thinking about that delicious dinner special at that moment, not simply because it was early in the morning—8:32 to be precise, when the launch happened—as the launch itself, along with Elaine’s delicious grilled cinnamon buns, was all that anyone was thinking about.
By 4:00 p.m. on May 25 of 2015, however, all I could think about was the very Mangia Platter that had not been anyone’s mind on that morning of 1969. Why? Because I had been in front of wonderful Farley’s Bookshop on the corner of Ferry and South Main, where Jen Farley had helped me set up my table for what was to be a launch of a less fiery sort, in this case merely a book launch, specifically that of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes. It was not merely old friends who had known Elaine who bought copies of the book but a new cohort of folks taken by the title or the book cover: to name a few, a charming Swedish expat and now resident of New Hope, an itinerant biker and his wife, a lovely young woman who looked forward to reading it on the long drive back to Arkansas. (Don’t worry, she was not to be the one driving).
One of the more telling moments came when someone who did not buy a book said curtly, “Who was Elaine Jakes anyway? Why should I care about her?” Such an excellent question! I answered it in just a sentence or two: “She was an ordinary person who discovered along the journey that life really is astonishingly extraordinary. She was who you, with a little luck, might just become.” And that my reader, is simply why I write this blog—that you might share in the extraordinariness of one human being’s life and thus find the same for your own—and want to share with you something of the joy of the book launch, complete with pictures and warm hugs from new friends and old—(thanks picture takers and makers, Keith and Jeanette, Marion and Betsy and salesperson extraordinaire, Kathy!). It was, all in all, a great day, if not quite as spectacular as the Apollo XI mission’s lift off, nonetheless exciting on its own terms and, unlike the moon mission, this launch was followed by a wonderful dinner at Villa Vito’s—thanks Ursula!—involving a mounding Mangia Platter with homemade white tiramisu. A day that I hope that you, my dear reader, may enjoy sharing in, if of necessity only through this blog. Thanks for your readerly support, and if you can get to New Hope any time soon, be sure to buy a book at Farley’s and then go over to Villa Vito’s on W. Bridge St. and treat yourself to a superb Mangia Platter!
“The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be.” The words of an arguably pretty good poet, Bruce Springsteen, from a song called “Jungleland,” not necessarily his best ditty, for his best songs are all on his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.” That record that was, like TheCurious Autobiography that inspires this blog, quirky, innovative, and pushing the envelope of its genre. Nonetheless, the words that open this paragraph and stand out in “Jungleland” are of interest here, offering as they do a not-so-subtle criticism of poets “down here,” meaning, I suppose, the poets of the pockets of cities where trouble brews, where fights break out, where lawlessness rules.
Yet that is not what I want to talk about with this installment of the Residual Welshman’s blog. Rather, I want to say that, thanks to Elaine Jakes, I knew, even when I was a child, some pretty fine poets, whose names have not abode in my memory, for my mother introduced me to them when I was too young to remember. I think, though, that they were not the poets that Bruce Springsteen criticizes, for though they were “down here,” they were nonetheless writing something meaningful. I met them and heard them read in Philadelphia when Elaine lived on Pine Street with Sheila, who loved me as if she were herself my mother. Those poets performed at the Egg Bar on the corner of Twelfth and Spruce. They had profoundly deep bathos, reading their works aloud with insufferable pathos and an earnestness that befit a time of social upheaval and change. They wrote about racial equality and social justice. They didn’t write “nothin’ at all.” But Bruce Springsteen did not hear them. I did.
When Elaine moved to New Hope she became part of a new circle of friends, many of them artists. A few, like Leni Fontaine, whose workshop was on Fisher’s Alley, James Martin, whose small woodworking gallery was on North Main, and Gretchen Laugier, whose rather spacious atelier was on South Main, were quite good. Others, like Cookie McMurphy, were rather bad. Cookie did not seem to me to know much about art. She did, however, know a great deal about “texture,” a word she liked to use quite frequently when attempting to speak about art. As a lad I took “art lessons” from Cookie, which was fun, for I liked playing around with plaster of Paris and paper-mâché, two artistic expressions that seem curiously French (particularly the latter). “Why should French art forms,” I wondered at age nine, “be of such great interest to a woman who is obviously of Scottish descent? And why,” I continued to muse, “is she so concerned with texture? And why,” my juvenile mental nattering mustered one final thought, “does she smell of cheese?” Of these three queries I only ever got a satisfying answer to the third: her apartment was directly over Ye Olde Cheese Shoppe of New Hope. That is why Cookie and her dog, Thom (with a silent ‘h’), always smelled of cheese.
But to return to the art lessons. I am overbold in criticizing Cookie McMurphy’s lack of precision, shall we say, when it comes to art, for I am even worse at it. But I learned not so much from Cookie—though I did learn from her quite well the importance of texture—about the value of art as I did, say, from Simone Martini, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Marc Chagall, Rob Evans, Paul McCoy or Makoto Fujimura. These taught me on their own, through their art.
Art and poetry. That’s where we began, and that’s where we shall end. I think Paul McCoy or Mako Fujimura would agree with me that the point of art is the expression of something true, something real through a means that reflects that something; I say this, because on separate occasions I’ve had dinner with Paul and Mako and I have been lucky enough to hear each of them speak about their own artistic creations. Leaving aside any Lessingesque difference between verbal and non-verbal expression, I think I can say at least that poetry shares a particular quality with good art: each points beyond itself to something else, a grander idea. Neither kind of artistic expression is meant to be pretty; rather each wants to be good, divulging a kind of beauty that is not associated with an aesthetic ideal of beauty. Rather, poetry and art direct the viewer or reader toward something beautiful not as beauty is known with the eye, but with the soul.
Another word for what that beauty might be or at least encompass is, I think, “meaning.” Art and poetry can remind us in this flood of mortal woes, in the chaos of life that, while there is not always order or deliverance from our immediate circumstances, there is meaning in the middle of them. Would that there be comfort, too, but that is perhaps the subject of a future blog—nay rather, it is the provenance of poets and artists, of which I am certainly not among the latter. I do not have a dog with a silent ‘h’, I do not smell like cheese, and I was always a bit skeptical about “texture” as being vital for every art project (though Paul and Mako would be right to say that it is for some). Nor do I believe that plaster of Paris comes from France or even that paper-mâché is entirely French. To wit, another friend of mine, a papyrologist, tells me that the ancient Egyptians used it liberally for mummy masks. But more on mummies and their masks on another occasion. For now, perhaps it is enough to admit that I could be wrong about plaster of Paris. But if I were, would it not in that case be le plâtre de Paris?
New Hope, Pennsylvania, was our home for the better part of our life. I say our, but I really mean that of Elaine Jakes, for I, her son, resided there but during my childhood. Still, most of my formative years were lived there, and it is a town with a particular, even peculiar name that sanguinely points beyond itself to a better place, a vision of a better future. Though one might find a different account on the Internet, I, as a lad, heard on more than one occasion a story that the town is haunted by the ghost of the great patriot John Coryell, who in the second half of the eighteenth century had owned the ferry that provided crossing of the Delaware River.
Washington’s troops often found refuge in Coryell’s Ferry, a town that had only some ten years or so before the founding of the United States, changed its name from the previous designation, Wells Ferry. Even that name seems to be second in the sequence of names, as it had hitherto been known, it seems, as “Robert Heath’s (tract of) land,” which Heath had received from William Penn himself. Indeed, the name Coryell’s Ferry obtained for a mere twenty years—though some sources say twice that—but not just any twenty (or even forty) years. During a lustrum or so of those years, one far from minor event known as the Revolutionary War took place, during which the town, by then called Coryell’s Ferry, saw a number of American troops crossing to and from Lambertville (then also called Coryell’s Ferry) en route to New Jersey and New York. The name Coryell’s Ferry abode until the Pennsylvania-side settlement was renamed “New Hope,” a name derived from a mill built afresh on Ingham Creek by an important young investor.
That investor was none other than Benjamin Parry, who poured his life into the community, and whose descendants have remained in the area for many generations, holding as family property the “Parry Mansion” until 1966, when it was converted into the town’s historical museum that it remains today, located on the borough’s principal “cardo” (N/S street) directly across from Farley’s Bookshop. That corner of Ferry and Main is still the town’s intellectual and cultural center, as Farley’s Bookshop represents the continuance of learning, reading, wit, and culture, while the Parry Mansion
serves as the guardian of the town’s rich and unique history, which includes figures such as Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton (admittedly not the best of friends), along with James Monroe (during the Revolutionary War a mere lieutenant but later American president). In the course of that war, Lieutenant Monroe had, at a certain point, stayed at Thompson-Neeley Farmhouse at Washington’s Crossing, a mere stone’s throw south of Coryell’s Ferry. Add to all this that a Revolutionary War canon, placed on a street island just in front of the Perry Mansion, serves as a fitting symbol of the American resistance and, ultimately, victory.
Yet the precise reason for the change of the town’s name, I suppose, is at least slightly shrouded in mystery, mystery that likely gave birth to the undoubtedly spurious story—a ghost story, after all—I heard in my childhood about John Coryell, whose son George, was the last living pallbearer of George Washington, passing away in 1850. Roy Ziegler records that John was a “colorful” figure (Ziegler, p. 10). However colorful the historical John Coryell was, the tale of his ghost is equally colorful, at least in the account that Elaine relayed every All Hallow’s Eve: Coryell, she would say with an eerie storytelling pitch in her voice, had taken to drink (her storytelling emphasis not my own) and had become the scandal of both towns that bore the name Coryell’s Ferry, i.e. New Hope, and across the Delaware River, the town that would later be called Lambertville. Add to this unsavory detail that Coryell gambled as well and generally behaved like a bad fraternity boy, even though fraternities other than Phi Beta Kappa had not yet quite been invented.* He managed the inn (and tavern) that his noble father Emanuel, a French Huguenot, had owned and that John inherited at an early age, as Emanuel had died young, in 1748, leaving a brood of several children behind. It was said that John, after an appropriate period of mourning for his too-early-deceased father and, perhaps, as a strange expression of his grief for him, would dance on that tavern’s tables whenever he wanted to, especially when he was inebriated. In such a state, he would sometimes hook ropes, borrowed from his ferry business, over the roof beams of the tavern and swing from them as if a daring young man on a flying trapeze. And this, so Elaine’s story went, was something that happened quite often, so often in fact that business at the tavern thrived, as many a patron simply came to be entertained by this forerunner of the Blue Man Group, as much as they did to eat or drink.
To support his alleged gambling habit, he increased the number of his acrobatic shows from Friday and Saturday nights only to four days a week and, when not hung over, he would often rise early to practice. This went on for many years, in fact, beginning as early as 1750, shortly after his father’s death. During that time, John raised a family, drank a bit too much, and kept on gambling (though, Elaine averred, only “lightly”), but nevertheless vigorously and firmly supported General Washington during and after the Revolutionary War, helping the American cause in whatever way he could—from feeding and (as a prototype of the USO) acrobatically entertaining the troops, gratis of course, to smuggling weapons and spies via his ferry barges. During the war, in fact, Coryell’s Ferry played a vital role in assisting the Americans but denying the British passage over the Delaware.
The end of this noble, patriotically speaking, but, in terms of vices, perhaps somewhat indecorous life came when John Coryell’s swinging practice simply got the better of him in 1799. When privately rehearsing for a Houdini-like trick (an anachronism merely for effect) involving extricating his left hand and foot from being bound together when swinging on the rope with his right arm only, John Coryell managed to get so entangled that he hung himself. The suggestion of suicide swiftly ensued; but such an act his son George (named after the first president) and all John’s friends, particularly those fervent for the American cause, firmly denied.
So much did the mere rumor, however, vex John Coryell’s mostly noble (though beset-with-a-few-vices) soul that, unlike his son, who rests in peace in a grave alongside that of Sam Holcombe, one of Washington’s spies, he knows no rest, and to this day haunts the landing of Ferry Street,
and sometimes, too, can be heard moaning even across the river in the environs of what is now the Lambertville Station Restaurant and Inn, which was, when Elaine told the story, an old-fashioned railway station. All this in spite of the fact that everyone, especially General Washington, no doubt rightly insisted on death by acrobatic error. Washington’s avowal notwithstanding, it is said that one can, at the ferry docks, still ascertain his ghost howling in the most disquieting fashion, “Where is my rope, my rope? I want to swing, to swing again!”
So the story was told, and to it was added the rumor of a curse, a most improbable one, that his untimely (if probably accidental) death brought upon the city a greater ignominy and shame than mere gambling and drink had brought upon Coryell himself during his lifetime. And, that if the redundant (and thus confusing) names of both towns were not changed from Coryell’s Ferry, the curse would obtain, one of blight, drought, gnats, mosquitoes, and general lack of prosperity. And that’s the real reason that Benjamin Parry called the city New Hope—not simply because of the rebuilding of “New Hope Mills” on Ingham Creek. Unfortunately the requisite change of the name did not ward off gnats or mosquitoes.
Such a ghost story was the one I heard as a boy. Yet what has all this to do with the lofty opening of this particular installation of the blog? That bit, the bit about “hope” being something that looks beyond itself, I shall have to come back to next week. Suffice it to say, that in the coming weeks—specifically on Memorial Day from 1 to 4 p.m. at Farley’s Bookshop, right across the street from the Parry Mansion and just around the corner from the very ferry launch that Coryell’s shade is still said by some to frequent, there will be a launch not of a barque but rather of a book: The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, whose historical details are at least as true as the story of the change of the name of Coryell’s Ferry to New Hope, Pennsylvania. I hope to see you there where I will be signing copies of the book, and in the meantime, beware of ghosts in need of rope, even noble and patriotic ghosts!
*Please note that I have no evidence that John Coryell was anything less than a patriot; this is a mere ghost story, and I certainly have no desire to misrepresent this man’s undoubtedly noble character.
Over one hundred years ago, the great British writer G.K. Chesterton suggested that the human experience is, like that of Robinson Crusoe, one of collecting soggy broken pieces of life, and trying to survive on a deserted island after a shipwreck; as he puts it, “all things have had this hair-breadth escape: everything has been saved from a wreck” (Orthodoxy [New York, 1908] p. 64). Fortunately, my family made it to America in 1869, and with them they brought, miraculously “a teapot, tea leaves … and a cheese plate, … a frightful one at that, … transported from Wales to Pennsylvania … in a trunk that served as the family’s covenantal ark … the objects of this story, but not the object of this story” (Curious Autobiography, p. 9f.). We were the family of “Great Might-Not-Have-Beens,” to use another expression from the same page of Chesterton’s enlightening book. We might not have been if the boat did not make it; we might not have been if Lucy Hughes Jones had died when delivering her child, Elizabeth Ann (for both of them nearly died at the moment of Lizzie’s birth in 1871). And we might not have been who we became without the journey itself, which, as Elaine notes in her autobiography, is the object of the story.
And who are we to say that we, this small band of Welsh men and women, mostly the latter and yes–we were primarily a matriarchy—became anything at all? This question is ultimately the central focus of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes and will be the central focus of this blog. Put another way, does an ordinary life, the lives of Welsh immigrants, have any meaning? Is there such a thing as destiny or fate? Put perhaps a bit more positively, is there a purpose for our lives? For life?
Good heavens, we’re waxing philosophical and lest we get bogged down in a blog that is meant to be fun to read, let’s tell a story, as story that may or may not illustrate what we mean. (Before I go further, I should say that I will shift back and forth from the first person singular to the first person plural, as Elaine’s voice still echoes in my head, and she now writes, in a sense, through me—nothing too mystical, just a fact.)
That story is an aspect of one that we tell in the Curious Autobiography, but there remains an important part of that story that we did not include in the book. It has to do with the packing of Lucy Hughes Jones’ trunk for the voyage to America, for which trip she was, for the first and only time, leaving Llanelli (not at all pronounced like it is spelled). Now I should add that, though the Welsh take packing very seriously, in my experience, they mostly hate to travel. That is possibly because the Welsh are said to be descended from hobs, or elfin hobs, to be precise about it. Now we might call these elfin hobs merely elves, but we would be mistaken.
The facts are these. Hobs are quite close cousins of elves, closer even than elves are to leprechauns, to whom they are related on their father’s side—never through the maternal line. A not very precise analogy might be the way the Welsh are related to the Scots, and the Scots to the Irish. Yet, while leprechauns are strictly Irish, hobs are not exclusively (though they are mostly) Welsh, and elves, of course, are not exclusive to Scotland, though everyone knows that they are found there quite often. Of the three, leprachauns, elves and hobs, the last group most dislikes travel.
But let us return to the admittedly ironic idea that even hobian descendants hate to travel, albeit the Welsh are good packers. It is no small piece of information for our family’s history that into that trunk, that ugly black trunk with the name Lucy Jones clearly painted in what was then much more distinctly visible paint, went the things that would serve to remind our family in America of our Welsh heritage and, more than that, of our significance. Among these objects were the family cheese plate (whose face always frightened the small children), several Welsh warming sweaters, two quilts, a Welsh serving platter, a Welsh flag, and a tea service, if a quite limited one, the centerpiece of which was Lucy Hughes Jones’ favorite teapot that features brown undulating swirls not so much like the tide of Mumbles by the Sea as that of the inlet that touches upon Llanelli itself.
Those fragile objects might well have tumbled one on the other in the trunk and broken had not an especially curious hob (and thus less afraid of travel than most) named Gwilym, at the last moment, just before the trunk was closed, jumped inside. It is said that he used the teapot for his pillow, the platter for his bed, and the cheese plate for his footrest during the journey, thus keeping the most important objects from breaking. Gwilym, by the way, would eventually come to live in the family’s piano, where he stored nuts stolen from dishes put out when company came. He seems to have enjoyed gathering and hiding his nuts as much as eating them. These objects, not icons or totems or idols, but mere objects, would prove to be symbols that we were not “Might-Not-Have-Beens” but demonstrably “Have-Beens,” which if it has a less than glorious ring to it, nevertheless begs the question of significance, even if, perhaps especially if, you happen to be descended from an elfin hob.
What is the significance, then, of these objects and the lives that they represented, or any family’s significance, any human being’s significance? The answer to that question is one that, even if it is intended for all, seems to present itself only to some, and it does so in most cases only over a good deal of time, often a lifetime. And so it is our belief that it is tightly bound to the journey, not simply a journey, such as ours was, from Wales to America but bound to the journey that is each person’s life.