- Historic Sites
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
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:
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.
The Bishop, in conclave with the elders, decreed architecture for No. 18, in the belief that neither stammering nor left-handedness would impede a boy who was to spend his days over a drawing board. He had chosen literature for No. 17, who stammered too, and whose eyes were weak; neither an architect nor a poet needs the same vision or fluency as a coal and iron man. Through the rest of their long lives, these youngest two, No. 17 and No. 18, were to remain closer comrades than any other pair in the Bishop’s brood.
From Lehigh, No. 18 went to Massachusetts Tech, and No. 17 to the Harvard Graduate School. They roomed together on Mt. Vernon Street in Boston. Their landlady seated the two stammerers apart, to spare them the titters of the table d’hôte. One day she led a new boarder over to their corner. The brothers scrambled to their feet, and stammered their how-do-you do’s. The newcomer held up three fingers, said simply, “th-th-three,” and sat down beside them.
When No. 18 was graduated from architectural school, a classmate proposed a partnership in New York. But No. 18 told him, “I’d rather be a big frog in a small puddle than a small frog in a big one.”
“Well,” said his friend, “why not be a big frog in a big puddle, as I shall be?”
And he was; but No. 18 chose to stay in his birthplace. He started as a draughtsman for three dollars a week, at an office in Providence, eighteen miles away. He commuted by electric train, and continued the same routine for fifty years, until automobiles put the trains out of business. By the time he was twenty-nine he had saved enough to be married. He fell in love with the prettiest girl in town. The girls wore corsets then; he used to boast that he could—and often did—encircle her waist with his two hands. She was the only child of the Episcopal minister. Since her mother had died when she was only six, she depended on her widowed father, and he on her. She was a popular girl at clambakes and Germans—so popular that her father feared he would lose her and be left alone in the rectory. He was glad when she chose the young architect; and the Bishop, who was twice a widower himself, was glad too.
They were married in 1897 by her father in his own church, when she was twenty-one. No. 17, the favorite brother, was best man. The groom fainted at the rail, somehow without the knowledge of anyone but No. 17. When the Rector put the question, “Wilt thou have this Woman to thy wedded wife …” and when the answer came back, “I w-w-will,” he never noticed that it was the best man, not the groom, who had answered—or if he did, he never let on.
Married life began in the rectory. When the first child was born, the young father was so fretful at the childbed that the mother shooed him away. When the second child came, he lolled at the window with pipe and novel. “Brute!” his wife gasped, “what are you reading?”
“The Iron Woman,” said No. 18, “by Margaret Deland.”
Neither his left-handedness nor his stammering did impede his work or his happiness. Once he fell down the empty hoistway of an elevator, breaking his left wrist.
“Damned fool that I am,” he scolded himself. “I just didn’t look.”
But he learned to draw with his right hand, and was ambidextrous thereafter. At the age of eighty-seven he drew, at 1/16″ to the foot, a sheet of the ancient buildings in his beloved home town. It was a present for her 275th birthday, and it would honor a draughtsman of any age. He loved his trade.
His humor! Once he was visited by a client who proved to be stone deaf. When he had left, one of his draughtsmen asked him how the interview had gone.
“W-w-well,” he stammered, “a team can get along with a no-good catcher or a no-good pitcher. Not with both. Now he can’t catch and I can’t pitch. But we got the job anyway.”
When he sang, he ceased to stammer—whether it was Mandalay at the piano, or the Offertory with the choir, or just a hymn with his morning shower. There, his favorite was:
In the bathroom was a framed certificate that the Bishop “Having Contributed to the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children the Amount Required by Law,” was a “Member of said Corporation for Life.” The family used to ask No. 18 whether the certificate meant an amount of money or an amount of feeble minded children; he would laugh and say that he wasn’t sure himself.
Again, a client was describing to him a color she wanted: “gray and pink, but not really either, because it must have light in it.”
“I know exactly,” he told her. “The color of the inside of an elephant’s ear by moonlight.”
There was a builder in town whose initials were C. I. The trade always nicknamed him Cast Iron. His son’s initials were E. H. “ They ,” said No. 18, “stand for Even Harder.”
But none of his children remembers seeing him angry with anyone but himself, for even the best of reasons. If they disappointed him, his sorrow was punishment enough. He was president of the town council during a strike at the town’s big factory. A striker, in the crowd at the gates, threw a stone which caught his temple.
“It was quite a hard stone too,” he said rubbing the bruise, “but I don’t believe it was meant for me. There isn’t such a good shot in town.”
When his father in-law had to give up the rectory because of his age, No. 18 built a house of his own and took him along to it. There the venerable clergyman died at eighty-three. Those of his grandchildren who are old enough still remember his daily cold plunge, and the smell of tobacco and theologies in his room, and the photostat of Shakespeare’s epitaph over the door, whereby he warned broom-wielders to keep out:
The couple had six children, spaced over twenty-three years. Every Christmas No. 18’s present to his wife was sweetened by a poem or a drawing, or both. When the first grandchild appeared, for instance, he made up a necklace of artificial pearls, strung among six wooden beads. The beads stood for the children. A red wooden heart—the grandson—closed the necklace at the bottom, and there hung from it a single pearl—a real one. In his beautiful calligraphy he illuminated this parody on a sheet of cardboard, and sang Nevin’s famous melody to her, with gestures, before the Christmas tree:
In that same year a friend of his marvelled, “How you can carry on your profession, and Mary can run a taxi service and an antique shop, and the two of you run the Library and almost run the church, and still look after six children, from a grown man down to a baby, I don’t know.”
“I d-d-do have a varied life,” he conceded. “Before I go to bed I’ve got to see that my youngest son gets his bottle, and my oldest d-d-doesn’t get his.”
His youthfulness! He ate lunch at a businessmen’s club in the city. His tablemates looked on him as a firebrand radical, more dangerous with each passing year, though he was senior to them all. He believed in the goodness, and the irresponsibility, and the immortality of the common man.
As the years glided past, his descendants multiplied. He could hardly remember the names of all, still less their birthdays. On his own, then, he would send each of his six children a check. The amounts were for the number of their children and grandchildren—that figure he proudly kept track of—multiplied by two dollars.
His self-sufficiency was part of his happiness. When his wife died, a few years after their golden wedding anniversary, his oldest son stayed a week with him in the empty house. Mostly he stared out at the harbor, saying little, but when he drove his son to the train, and kissed him good-bye, he blurted out, scolding himself again, “O-d-damn it, I don’t miss your mother yet.” He designed a double gravestone, such as you sometimes see in ancient cemeteries, with his wife’s dates, and the day of their marriage, and the names of both sets of parents all cut on it, and the date of his own birth on his side.
“We hope you don’t feel gloomy,” his children told him, “to see the stone waiting for one more date.” “On the contrary,” he answered, “it gives me a sense of S-s-social Security.”
He addressed his last parody to his own photograph (and it is rare to see two, nine decades apart, of the same face):
He died surrounded by his children. A tempest roared over the harbor, but applewood glowed in his fireplace. When the next breath failed him, there was a flutter in the room as if a bird had flown, or as he would have said himself, had h-h-hatched.
Man’s monuments prolong him briefly; his children, who are another word for his love, may extend him forever. No. 18 leaves five hundred buildings as a reminder, and a round fifty descendants. None, in the sixty-three years since he fainted at the altar, had preceded him, and there are more to follow. They cannot repine.