(Find Part I of this series here.)
After I went to Springfield, and visited the Fitzgerald plot in Calvary cemetery, I re-read with a greater sense of a context, and with much closer attention, some of the memory pieces written by my father that came out in The New Yorker in the late seventies and were gathered in the posthumously published book The Third King of Knowledge.
Jim Huston sent me the never-before-seen letters discovered in the attic of the building that had housed my grandfather’s offices in the teens of the twentieth century, letters dictated by my five-year-old father to my great aunt Agnes from Rockhaven R.I, where the children vacationed, and a poignant never-seen-before photograph of the two small boys that had remained hidden in the attic of a building since 1916.
In time, I matured the intention of writing a personal account of my father’s life, and arranged to go to the Beinecke Library in New Haven, where my father’s papers are archived. I was floundering about how such an account could be written, whether it had any relevance in today’s fragmented literary and intellectual world, whether there was enough material to make into something that would honor my father and the times he lived in and contributed to, and I went to the research library for only a few days.
The librarians were helping me to rush through as many of the 132 archival boxes as I could in the time, with the idea of getting an over-view and perhaps returning at some other time with a greater focus.
I have no idea what I am looking for, I told them.
They suggested mildly that if I knew, it would make the retrieval of the boxes much easier. I had considered starting at Box 1 in the request for the first ten boxes, but prioritized “Series V: Personal,” “Series II: Writings,” and “Series IV: Financial and Legal,” for reasons that had to do mostly with my curiosity about my father’s first wife: as a teenager, I had been the one to discover that he had been married before his marriage to my mother, when I looked into a Who’s Who in his attic studio. I had experienced a wonderful and disorienting excitement as I rushed down the stairs to tell any of my five siblings who were around, and every time I had thought about it since, I had seen again the small print of ‘m. Eleanor Green,’ glowing and in relief, although I had no memory of the dates.
The absence of any of the skills of the scholar and researcher were immediately apparent. I didn’t even have a notebook, I was yet incapable of knowing how the laptop I brought could help, and I had barely mastered the convenient digital camera I borrowed.
On the very first day, rushing through the strangely organized material, I came across sheets of headed writing paper from the Springfield Illinois Hilton. In one of them, in my father’s elegant spidery hand, is a list of names, arranged in an attempt to remember the layout of the Fitzgerald plot in Calvary cemetery.
Jim Huston had told me that as a young librarian, he had had briefly seen my father when he had come to Springfield on some kind of research visit – he had been struck by the navy blue beret and the green book bag, so familiar to anyone on the campus at Harvard where my father was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric, though new to Jim – but he had never talked to him, and he could not remember what inquiry he had made at the library. He could not remember the year or the season, but he thought it must have been in the late seventies, and I know it was not summer because my father was wearing the beret and not the panama he frequently wore against the heat. When I asked him, Jim said that he did not know whether he had visited the cemetery.
These three sheets of paper showed that my father did indeed visit Calvary, although there is no evidence that he went into the office and asked for a photocopy of the card showing the ownership of the plot as I did. At that time, photocopying itself was still a measured activity, done only when necessary.
Standing in front of those gravestone as a man approaching old age, did my father wonder why his mother was not there, as I had been wondering since my own visit?
I had never focused on my father’s official biography, and it wasn’t until a minor dispute arose with the Poetry Foundation, that my attention was drawn to a discrepancy. I had told them that my father was born in Springfield on October 12, 1910, and that had been posted as fact on the Poetry Foundation web site, along with a photograph I gave them. But some one contacted them to point out that every Who’s Who that listed my father’s biography agreed that he was born in Geneva, New York.
The Foundation, however, trusted that a daughter would be the better authority.
It turns out the daughter had no authority at all, and was wrong: my father was indeed born in Geneva, New York, not in Springfield, Illinois, as is clearly shown in a copy of his birth certificate that I found among his archived papers when I made my first visit to the Beinecke Library.
Geneva, on Seneca Lake in the county of Ontario, where Anne Stuart Fitzgerald’s family lived, is still considered a vacationing resort, and once I realized that that was where my father was born, I wondered: my grandparents were married in Springfield and my grandfather’s legal practice was there. Why was Anne in Geneva? Did the young couple consider she would benefit from lake breezes, away from the high Mid-western humidity, and they came to stay with her parents as her pregnancy progressed? Perhaps they decided to stay east for the birth of the baby, among the familiar comforts of her childhood home, and then return and settle back to family life in Springfield. Or maybe he accompanied his pregnant wife to Seneca County and then returned to his job. It may not have been easy for him to leave behind his legal practice for any length of time. Or Robert Emmett was still in precarious health and in need of more extended periods of rest. As I speculated about domestic arrangements that would explain why my grandmother gave birth in New York State, Jim Huston sent me copies of family obituaries. Among them was the one for her from the Springfield State Journal on March 25, 1913.
Anne was not yet thirty-five when she died: wouldn’t her parents have still been alive? Perhaps her mother and father could not make it to Springfield for the funeral and they decided to claim the body, and my grandfather was in a state of shock, did not realize what had happened until he found himself unable to visit her graveside. In the first years to come, to grieve and mourn, to ‘rage against the dying of the light’ -- though Dylan Thomas would not write those words for another forty years – her husband would repair to the local dive instead, to whisky and games of poker.
But there was no mention of parents in the obituary. There was mention only of her sister who lived in California, although with no married name to account for this cross-country residence. What kind of profession or job would take a young woman there in 1913? I realized that I did not even know whether Agnes was younger or older than Anne. If she was younger, how much younger, and why so far away? If she was older, she would be older than thirty-five, and if still unmarried, she would fit into the characterization of her I had carried with me since childhood, of the difficult and crabby old spinster aunt who seemed always to raise a faint eyebrow and a forbearing smile from my mother whenever mail came to the various rented houses we were living in, in Italy, regularly bringing thick buff colored envelopes stuffed with articles cut out from American newspapers, annotated all over in a large sprawling hand in the English I barely knew and could not read.
But Jim had also sent me transcripts of obituaries from the Albany Register of New York State, and when I turned to them, I learnt the startling fact that my grandmother’s mother died three days after Anne gave birth to my father,on October 15, 1910.
I immediately thought that Anne and Robert Emmett must have come to be with a dying mother, until I noticed that the obituary said “Mrs Ann Montague Stuart, wife of Thomas A. Stuart, proprietor of the Carrollton Hotel, died this morning after an illness of but a few days’. So there was no lingering bad health that required an affectionate and concerned daughter to come back home during her pregnancy, leaving a husband behind; there is instead the sudden, the unexpected. What kind of illness would be so sudden and so quickly virulent? And even more importantly, how could the joyous birth of a first-born not be affected by this event?
Within two years of his wife’s death, in June 1912, Anne’s father, Thomas Stuart also died. The obituary says “Mrs Stuart died about a year ago and since then Mr. Stuart’s health has been gradually failing.” What desolation is hidden behind that laconic description of failing health?
“The time of the funeral will be decided on the arrival of his daughters.”
Both Anne and Agnes were expected back for the funeral of their father. I had no idea where Agnes might have been coming from, and wondered whether she could have met Anne in Chicago. But I knew that my grandmother was a few weeks pregnant with my father’s brother Monty when she got on the train for the long trip from Springfield for the funeral and burial of her father in Albany. Perhaps her husband escorted her. Did baby Robert go with them, or was he left behind in the care of Nora, the Fitzgerald grandmother? If the sisters had to linger east after the death of their father to put the family affairs in order, did Anne return to a toddler enraged by the apparent abandonment, as my mother told me I had been so enraged by her absence when my brother was born that I would not look at her for days?
What effect did pregnancies and births bracketed by such crucial losses have on Anne? My father was living through the terrible twos that are so familiar to us in the closely explored and analyzed childhood of our time. Was the period so different that mourning itself was different, or did his mother’s double bereavement affect the baby and toddler, and begin so early to shape Robert’s personality?
Anne herself was less than a year away from her own death, from her removal from her son’s life as if by a razor, and from the trip by train in a casket from Illinois to the capital of New York State to be buried in the Stuart plot in St. Agnes, the Catholic Cemetery of Albany.
It is difficult not to be shocked by these multiple familial deaths in such a short span, three death in four years. The only remaining member of the Stuart family was Agnes, Anne’s sister who at the time of her sister’s death lived in California. But I did not know whether she had already moved there when their mother died three years before or when their father died, or why she lived there. There is no mention of either sister coming to the funeral of their mother in her 1910 obituary. Anne was there, having just given birth. Agnes must have been there too.
Since the two obituaries from the Albany Register had been sent to me by Jim Huston and had not been among my father’s papers, I did not know whether my father ever knew that his maternal grandmother had died three days after he was born and that his maternal grandfather had died when his mother’s belly was barely swollen with baby Monty and he himself was not yet two, constantly on the move like all toddlers, up and down his mother’s lap, dashing and tilting headlong with peals of laughter into danger and adventure, trying language and being only understood by her.