March 1996

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Searching for the

American Revolution


Thomas D. Cornell

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Conclusion

Part II

Sitting-Room Sessions

After accepting a faculty position in the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1982, I had my hands full preparing lectures and continuing the work on my dissertation. Not until receiving my Ph.D. degree from Johns Hopkins in 1986 was I able to visit Grandma Cornell regularly.

Over the next couple of years, I experimented with the frequency of my visits. I found that during the summer I could go nearly every week. But once classes resumed in the fall, I had to plan my schedule more carefully. Visiting Grandma every two weeks turned out to be more than I could handle, while going only once a month didn't minister sufficiently to her needs. Fortunately, we both were comfortable with three-week intervals, and—until her death in January 1990—that's the schedule I tried to follow.

Typically I'd arrive after supper on Friday for an overnight visit. The first thing we'd do was to settle ourselves in the room at the front of the house. The "sitting room" (as she called it) had a pair of tall windows that overlooked the porch, and along its walls were several bookcases. Near the middle was a card table, and all around were chairs of various sorts.

Because Grandma tended to live in the back half of the house, the sitting room wasn't usually heated in winter. But before my arrival, she'd turn on the electric space heater—and as my contribution I'd bring a supply of wood for a fireplace fire.

Once the room warmed up and we were comfortable, I'd begin our session by giving Grandma the new photographs I had brought. We'd then talk them over, label them, and add them to the albums I had gotten for her.

Working with photographs turned out to be something we both enjoyed. The summer after graduating from Hopkins, I had purchased two cameras—specifically for my visits with Grandma. The Polaroid Spectra, with its built-in flash, enabled me to take snapshots both indoors and out. The other camera, a 35mm Nikon with a micro lens, enabled me to copy old family photographs—and I soon discovered that making these copies on Grandma's front porch (which received diffuse light from three sides) yielded excellent results.

I had gotten the cameras mainly for my own use, to record the things that Grandma talked about. After she saw what I was able to do with them, however, she became very interested. My picture taking gave her the kind of control over images that she had long sought. In effect, then, I became her photographer, and often the second day of my overnight visit would be devoted to taking the pictures that I was to bring with me the next time I came.

Meanwhile, I also developed a system for taking notes on Grandma's stories. As early as my 1981 visit, I had realized that waiting for convenient times to write down what I could remember didn't work well—because I lost too much in the process. Using a tape recorder was one possible alternative (especially since I had conducted several taped interviews as part of my dissertation research). But in Grandma's case I decided that a tape recorder would be too intrusive.

What I finally ended up doing was to pull out a pad of paper whenever we began talking and to take notes as we went along. Not until returning to my apartment would I write these up in full. But if I did so within a day or two of my visit, I found that I could recover much of what Grandma had said.

There's no doubt that she and I each had high expectations for our visits. But implicit in the habits we developed was a mutual willingness to tailor our expectations to fit the circumstances.

Early on, Grandma set the tone by reading me Emerson's poem "Forebearance":

Hast thou named all the birds without a gun?
Loved the wood-rose, and left it on its stalk?
At rich men's tables eaten bread and pulse?
Unarmed, faced danger with a heart of trust?
And loved so well a high behavior,
In man or maid, that thou from speech refrained,
Nobility more nobly to repay?
O, be my friend, and teach me to be thine!

For my part, I was to forebear putting too much emphasis on the research I wanted to accomplish. I wasn't to press for more than what fit comfortably into a grandson's visit with his aging grandmother. For her part, I'm sure she would have liked me to come more often and to stay longer each time. Yet she always made me feel that the way things turned out was just right.

From time to time I deliberately tried new activites. But I always did so with an eye to whether or not these new activities furthered our relationship.

For example, I once compiled from my notes all the things that Grandma had told me about a particular topic, and then on my next visit I showed her the resulting essay. But even though the essay was based on her stories, she was very uncomfortable reading them in my phrasing.

After that, I took no more essays to show her. Yet I continued to write new ones—because doing so helped me identify questions that I hadn't yet asked. Some of these essays focused on her education: grades 1 through 8 at the one-room schoolhouse on the hill, grades 9 and 10 at the Campbell Union School, grades 11 and 12 at the Corning Free Academy, and college at Geneseo and then at Albany. Other essays focused on her early work as a teacher: at Campbell, at North Tonawanda, and at Mansfield, Pennsylvania.

But even though I always came prepared with questions, I never worked my way down a list. Instead, I let the conversation flow out of our interactions. I raised my questions only here and there, as appropriate opportunities arose.

Some of Grandma's acquaintances must have puzzled over what the two of us did together, hour after hour and visit after visit. (Grandma once commented that she'd been asked about this.) The answer, of course, is that we talked. We talked about the pictures I took. We talked about the questions I asked. But most importantly, we talked about the things that she wanted to share with me—especially, the historical work that she'd done over the years.

The evidence of her work was everywhere. Piles of papers and books took up nearly every level surface in the sitting room—not just the table tops and the bookshelves, but also many of the chair seats and much of the floor. Nor did the accumulation stop there. Instead, it continued from room to room throughout the first floor of the house.

My first inclination had been to bring order to this apparent chaos. I even went so far as to show Grandma a sampling of boxes from Light Impressions (an archival supply store in Rochester) just to see how she'd respond. We did undertake some work along these lines, but not much—for it turned out that the piles were her system. Having the piles spread around, in full view, kept their contents accessible. For her, that system worked. Invariably, she was able to extract the things that she wanted to tell me about.

Yet the sitting room was different. The piles elsewhere in the house tended to be storage, while the ones in the sitting room tended to be on-going projects or "show pieces." In addition, despite most of the first floor being "off limits" to my housekeeping activities, Grandma permitted me to clean and straighten the sitting room on a regular basis—because that kept it in good enough shape for her to receive visitors.

When other family members came to Campbell, I sometimes joined them. Usually their presence made it harder for me to concentrate on Grandma's stories. But such occasions also made it possible for me to step outside the process and watch for a while.

Sometimes I even felt comfortable enough to get out my camera and make a visual record of out sitting-room sessions. In one of these pictures—which dates from March 1988—Grandma is talking to my brother Don:

On top of her handbag, Grandma has laid an opened book, while Don holds on his knee a pen and a folded sheet of notebook paper. To Don's left is his son Brian; to Grandma's right is his son Steven; and in the background (over Don's right shoulder) is the top of the card table, with its spread of books and papers.

In the second photograph—which dates from September 1988—Grandma is examining a quilt from a closet upstairs.

This time my brother Bill and his wife Linda were visiting, with their children—that's Ruth in the lower left-hand corner. I knew that Grandma's stories were often richer if she had things in front of her, so when the talk turned to quilts, I made a point of bringing one down—and Bill snapped the picture.

But Grandma really didn't need my help in locating objects to talk about. Her sitting room was filled with such things—with the American Revolution being especially well represented.

Above the glass-covered bookcase, for example, was one of the few items that she had allowed to be hung on her walls:

The framed print of E. G.. Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware" was an image so familiar that Bill's daughter Anna had no trouble identifying it.

And atop the small white bookcase in the opposite corner of the room was a ceramic statue patterned after another famous painting, A. M. Willard's "The Spirit of '76:

If the story that Grandma was telling were to end and if the ensuing pause were to grow too long, she had only to cast her eyes around the room for further inspiration. "Bring that statue over here," she might say, and once it was safely cradled in her lap, she'd be off again—until the kids got restless, or until the fire burned out, or until the time came for us all to go to bed.

1996, Thomas D. Cornell
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Conclusion
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