No. 18

PrintPrintEmailEmail

In this age of the small, temporary family, when rootless organization-couples roam from one bedroom suburb to another, ending up in a Florida trailer, our readers may enjoy a reminder of what we used to regard as the Good Life. This gentle and appealing tribute by a son to his father was written by George Howe for a few friends, but we think other people will be moved by it. “Number 18” was Wallis Eastburn Howe, 1868–1960, an old-fashioned gentleman, an architect, and a lifelong resident of old Bristol, Rhode Island.

He was born in 1868; when he died he was ninety-two. He was the eighteenth and final child of his father, an Episcopal bishop who had already lost two wives before marrying his third.

It was hard for his parents to pick a name for the baby. All the ancestral ones, and most of the biblical, had already been divided among his seventeen elders. The Bishop finally named him for a long-dead youth with whom, in the 1820’s, he had studied theology.

The boy grew up in a household of sanctity, but neither his righteous father nor his gentle mother could protect him from his mischievous older brothers. To teach him to swim, they threw him off a dock into the deep waters of Narragansett Bay. Behind the family farmhouse in Rhode Island was a raspberry patch. When there were not enough berries for all, the other boys would call out, “Watch out for the weasel!” to frighten him, and he would run out of the patch, himself no higher than the bushes, as fast as his spindly legs could carry him.

He was left-handed by nature, and stammered throughout his life. He claimed that one handicap caused the other, for the Bishop forced him to eat with his right hand. A misplaced elbow at mealtime could throw the whole circle of feeders into chaos. It was a rule of the Bishop’s board that if any of the children failed to eat all his food, the remainder was brought back, meal after meal, until he did. As an old man, No. 18 remembered, with disgust, finally downing a four-day-old spoonful of oatmeal. By another rule, the children took turns at saying grace before meals. The elder ones were adept at the conventional blessings, but when No. 18’s turn came—he was five years old then—he said simply, “O Lord, make us g-graceful.”

That was the first utterance he remembered making. His first composition dates from 1880, when he was twelve. In that year his native town became two centuries old. The Bishop had been named Poet of the Day. He sat on the piazza with a ream of foolscap and half a dozen quills, constructing one of those ponderous Odes, in several cantos, for which, in that tolerant decade, he was a little more than locally famous.

No. 18 sat behind him—out of sight, I am sure, of his groaning father—and saw no reason why he couldn’t write a poem too. Here it is:

It is morning; I am sitting by the door, /And I listen to the humming-birds /And watch to see them soar. /And I think of Little Rhody, /The place where I was born,/And the fishhawks slowly circling /In the cool September morn, /And the sand so whitely glistening, /And the shells along the shore, /And the bay so blue and sparkling /Which I shall see once more. /For I dream it in my dreams, /And fancy them I see, /And wish that it might come to pass /That thither I might flee.

The fact that he was right in Little Rhody at the moment never struck him until years later, and never struck the Bishop at all.

Not that the Bishop was without humor. His see was Central Pennsylvania, and his Palace, as he liked to call it, stood in Reading. He loved to tell his children about the Pan-Anglican Convention at Lambeth, somewhere in the 1870’s, when Queen Victoria received the American bishops along with her own. As he and his wife entered the door–he in shovel hat and black apron and she in bombazine—the major-domo bellowed down the hall,”‘IS GRICE THE LORD BISHOP OF CENIRAL PENNSYLVAN- EYE -A and mrs. ’owe.”

The boy went to college at Lehigh in Bethlehem, not far from the cathedral. By the time he had finished, and was ready for a profession, the Bishop faced the same dilemma as at his christening: all the careers were pre-empted by the older sons and sons in law. There was a doctor, two ministers—and even another bishop—and a naval officer, a stockbroker, a fledgling author, and two brothers in coal and iron. There seemed nothing left for No. 18.