A time for memorials, Part 3


imageA first draft of my father-in-law’s gravestone, as rendered on a Starbucks napkin by my beloved.

*  * * * *

A plan was made, and an appointment was set. I would head to Newport RI on a chilly January morning to meet the world-renowned Nick Benson, and to discuss a fitting memorial for my dearly departed father-in-law.

As I drove south in dark, my thoughts were simple: I couldn’t wait to see where this genius of lettering on stone made his magic happen, in a place where generations before him had performed the same magic for more than three centuries. I was anxious to stand on the spot where John Stevens plied his trade as a colonial subject of the British crown, and where the historic words of Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been transformed into breathtaking memorials. I’d even get to see where the Zofnass gravestone had been created, the one in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery that had serendipitously sent me down this very road.  I arrived just before 8AM. It was easy to tell that I was in the right place.

imageFounded in 1705. Yep, here we are.

imageAnd in case there was any question in my mind, this reminder that Nick had written to himself and set out on his desk made me feel like my presence could be no more delightfully anticipated, had I been royalty.  No doubt about it, this was where the magic happens!

Nick was busy in the back of the shop when I arrived, but was quick to answer my knock and happy to show me around. He must have a standard ten minute tour, because who walks in and doesn’t immediately want to poke around?  Since we’d discussed his recent work on the renovations at Yale to the art and architecture buildings that my father-in-law had originally built, Nick took me straight to the project he was currently working on–a quote from Ulysses on two gorgeous slabs of granite, to be set over the entry to a new Yale undergraduate dormitory. The fact that this quote would be installed directly next door to Ingalls Rink, the Eero Saarinen modernist marvel that happens to also be a Macomber project highlight from back in the day, was a happy coincidence.


Behind that curtain, magic happens.

After a quick walk about, Nick and I settled in at his shopfront desk and discussed the particulars for my father-in-law’s memorial. We’d need to determine if we were doing one gravestone for both my father-in-law and mother-in-law, or if they would have matching markers, side by side. It helped that we could begin our conversation with a work we were both familiar with–since I loved the Zofnass headstone, and since Nick remembered it well, it provided us with a useful shared template. As for what might be incorporated beyond words and dates, I offered some possible graphic elements that my father-in-law himself had designed, which were etched on the wedding silverware he and his bride received back in 1953.


Ever since my first Thanksgiving with my beloved’s family, I’ve adored this design.  I love that each symbol had a special meaning to my in-laws: the snowflake to commemorate the bride and groom’s love of skiing, the apple blossom in honor of their springtime wedding day in New Hampshire, and a fanciful ocean wave, to remind them of their honeymoon in exotic Hawaii.

imageNick immediately sketched the wave, once as depicted, and once again in its mirror image–once for the bride, and once for the groom. The speed with which he produced this idea was stunning.


And in a trice, we had a working document. Just like that. Three hundred years of history, multiple generations guiding the way, one gifted artist at the ready, a little bit of backstory to work with, and voila!  All that was left unfinished were a few details to iron out and options to be considered.

To spend an hour in the presence of a true artistic genius, to work out a plan to memorialize the father of my beloved, and the man who’d been a second father to me–well, simply put, this was a joyful hour in my life, and one that I will remember forever.

imageOh, and just in case I need a little reminder?

Nick let me keep his note. Which warms my heart, every time I pass the fridge.


A time for memorials, Part 2

IMG_7430This is the gravestone that led me to Nick Benson.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

* * * * *

Previously on Here’s What I Know So Far…

Knowing my beloved and I would be in charge of procuring a gravestone for my father-in-law, and knowing my beloved was about to get on a plane for a three week adventure in Addis Ababa and Dar es Saalam, and knowing that it would be most useful for him if I were to get this project on track while he was away, I suggested we make a very short visit to the Mount Auburn Cemetery before he hopped on the plane for Africa.  Since the Mt. Auburn is a frequent walking and birding destination of mine which has, over the years, become a most beloved and well-trod place for me, I wanted my husband to partake in a quick field trip so that we could gain some consensus around examples of what I thought were really good grave markers, along with some that didn’t work so well.  The Zofnass gravestone, long a favorite of mine, was our first stop.  As it turned out, my hubby knew the next generation of Zofnasses!  He emailed them that day, and we heard back within 24 hours.

* * * * *

Paul Zofnass responded in a trice, amazed that we’d located his family plot, delighted that we’d liked what we’d seen.  He told us that one of his favorite undergraduate courses was titled “New England Graveyards,” and that, like me, he was and continues to be fascinated by the history and artistry that can be found in our local cemeteries, and at the Mt. Auburn most especially.  He also provided a fuller backstory for his grandfather, Emil.  Paul wrote:

I wanted a Colonial style gravestone that told a bit of a story of my family heritage, starting with my grandfather, who made the tough decision at age 16 to escape from Lithuania and travel steerage to New York, without a penny to his name, and without knowing a word of English. He arrived ill with tuberculosis, was quarantined for 6 months, then migrated to Alaska to be a lumberjack while recuperated. He later moved to Texas, where he worked as a cowhand on a Rio Grande ranch. The ranch was frequently raided by Mexican rustlers, and he was severely shot during his time there.  When he recovered, he returned to New York and took a job as a seamstress for a small mattress manufacturer.  There he learned the business, and eventually started out on his own. He founded the New York Mattress Company, later known as Red Cross Mattresses.

This is the sort of personal detail I pine for when I wander around the Mt. Auburn.  I’m always on the lookout for remarkable backstories.  Alas, space tends to be limited, epitaph-wise.   And in our case, for my father-in-law (and down the road, for my mother-in-law), the words we chose would need to fit on a small flat stone.  As with the Zofnasses’ gravestone, our memorial descriptions would need to be concise.

Paul also told us about the men who had produced this remarkable work of art:

Our gravestone was carved by a father/son team in Newport RI, strongly recommended to us as the best for classic work. They were well known at the time, but have subsequently become famous. The son did a wonderful job for us.  The father is a famous sculpture, now retired.  Their office in Newport is fascinating. I would highly recommend them, they were wonderful to work with.

I bet you can guess, gentle readers, how many minutes passed, between when I read that paragraph, and when I went on line to see what I could discover.  Yep: zero minutes.  I was on it like a flash!

Here’s what I learned:

Nick Benson is the grandson of the man who bought John Stevens’  little letter carving on stone operation.

John Stevens opened his original shop in 1705.  He moved his operation across the street just a few years later. It stands there still.

How long ago is that?  Well, let’s see.  Benjamin Franklin hadn’t been born yet, and Queen Anne was in charge in Newport, back when John Stevens started carving letters on stone.  More than three hundred years under one roof, just across the street from where it all began. Which makes it one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the country.

What else did I learn?  I learned that Nick Benson is a certifiable wizard at what he does.  He was awarded a so-called genius grant by the MacArthur Foundation.  He’s also been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with a national heritage fellowship.  The NEA described his work thusly:

Mr. Benson learned his craft through a journeyman and apprentice system.  In addition, he traveled to Basel, Switzerland, to study type design and calligraphy with European masters.  Renowned for its flowing sculptural qualities and precise design, the work of Nick Benson and his father can be seen on the Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; the Poet’s Corner in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York; and the National Gallery of Art, the Kennedy Center, and the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.  Recently, Nick Benson completed the work on the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. 

Okay, yeah, but what’s he done lately?  Well, let me see:

IMG_8100The World War II Memorial in Washington DC.  I’m pretty sure this is Nick Benson on the right, with Tom Hanks on the left.

IMG_8101The MLK Jr. Memorial, also in Washington DC.

IMG_8104The New Yorker had a nice piece in the Talk of the Town about Nick’s work on the FDR Four Freedoms Memorial, on Roosevelt Island.  It was a labor of love, decades in the making.

He’s also undertaken a myriad of work for multiple renown museums, for the Mellon Foundation, and for Yale University, including their recently renovated art and architecture complex.  In other words, Nick has done some of the most magnificent and significant lettering on stone on the face of the earth.  A remarkable man that we’d discovered by complete serendipity.

So, I wondered, how long would it take for this modern-day Michelangelo of typeface and stone carving to get back to me?  Do calligraphy gods answer their emails?

It turns out they do.  And, okay, I had used my writer-ly wiles, to entice Nick Benson with the notion of producing a marker for a man whom I’d guessed he’d have been happy to meet–the man who built the Yale art and architecture buildings back in the 1960s that Nick had produced the gorgeous new lettering-on-stone signage for.  Bless his heart, Nick wrote me back the very next day:

When I read that your father-in-law had worked on the Yale Center for British Art, well, there we are! Also, my uncle Richard was the Dean of the Art School for quite some time.

We have much in common. Please do come and see us. It would be a joy to meet you and work on a fitting memorial. We do have a year of work ahead of us as it is now. That isn’t as bad as you had thought, thankfully.  (I’d guessed he might have a backlog of work that would extend out a decade or more.)

Feel free to give me a ring at your convenience. My numbers are below. If you don’t reach me on my land line please try my cell.

Very best,

And then, this fabulous PS:

By the way– I have been making forays into fine art, and when I read that your father-in-law went to MIT and “was for all things theoretical, things mechanical,”  I thought he may have liked the explorations I am taking into the juxtaposition between our ancient craft, calligraphic form and theoretical mathematics. Attached is an image of a calligraphic interpretation of Peter Higgs’s Standard Model of the Universe according to particle physics, hand carved into slate. I hope you enjoy it.

IMG_8102I don’t get it, but I love it!


I mean, seriously.  This master, who had me at Zofnass, was marketing his amazing skills to me.

So, we made a date.  And I knew I was in for something special, to see a genius at work, to get to step back into history.

That’s the final piece of this story, which deserves its own post, coming soon.



A time for memorials, Part 1

IMG_7779This is Jackson Falls: a beloved spot in my life, and a place of remembrance for my family.

* * * * *

It’s been awhile since New Year’s Eve, but still, I find myself in the land of Auld Lang Syne—that year-end post-it note to stop and think of the people in our lives. Three weeks into 2016, and I’m still here, despite the fact that such prompting once seem silly to me. What does that song mean, anyway? Who forgets old acquaintances?

When you’re young, you haven’t had time to forget the people you know: your family, for starters, then neighbors and schoolmates, college classmates and teammates, housemates and workmates. Old acquaintances aren’t old enough to disappear on you, when you’re busy growing up.  And even as the years go by, with social media at the ready to update us on our grade school classmates’ doings, the oldest of old friends are never more than a click away. So why the required reminder, as the old year passes to the new, to stop and remember?

IMG_6805I really wish I could have known this man during this era of his remarkable life.

Well, now I know. You get older, and people start disappearing from your life. First to go are the ones from your grandparents’ generation, and then your parents’.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is headed.  Which is why it starts to make sense, to make a point of thinking about old acquaintances, and to ponder, every now and again, how you yourself might want to be recalled. Auld Lang Syne is a little bit of memorial practice, along the way.

* * * * *


Memorials, it turns out, have been very much on my mind.

Just over a month ago, my father-in-law passed away. For most of his eighties, this ambitious and vibrant and generous man had been on a slow but steady decline.  Since autumn, his lack of energy and his inability to rally for much of anything clearly signaled that the end was near. Remarkably, even as his body became a frail vessel for what remained of  the stalwart individual we had known and loved, his mind was still in there, still processing.  He recognized his loved ones, and knew what we were up to. He was delighted to hear about the things that mattered to his adult children and his beloved grandkids. His life ended the way most of us hope ours will end—at home, with no beeping machines or medical interventions, with his wits about him and his lifelong sweetheart at his side. He got to slip away with the knowledge that all would be well for the people he loved the most.

Even though we knew it was coming, the memorial process was daunting. Our to-do lists were full of people who needed to be contacted, details that needed attending to.  By the time we got to Christmas Day, when the whole family gathered together at the edge of a beautiful river to share Georgie stories, to laugh and shed a few tears, there was a relief, that we’d gotten this far, that we’d done what needed to be done, that the only project remaining would be the planning of a public memorial service, scheduled for springtime.

Well, not quite the very last project. The final and most permanent reminder of the man we knew and loved, the last memorial act of all, would be the placing of a stone marker in Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in the town where my in-laws raised their kids and lived most of their adult lives. My father-in-law would be joining the Alcotts and the Emersons in a great Concordian forever after.  Whatever we placed there would be a final memorial to the man we all adored.

* * * * *

With remarkable camaraderie, my husband’s family rallied to handle all the tasks at hand. Each of us pitched in to return calls and follow up on arrangements, and to coordinate my mother-in-law’s holiday travel and meals and lodging, once we all determined that New Hampshire would be the place for us to gather together. We also got good at delegating tasks to the person most capable, or most interested, or most available. Which is how I ended up on gravestone duty. Clearly, I care.  Perhaps more accurately, I was the most opinionated.

IMG_7505When you live in Cambridge and you love the Mt. Auburn, your standards get set a tad high.

So, since I needed a little bit of direction (or consensus, at least) before I got started as the gravestone project manager, I asked my husband to accompany me to one of my favorite places–the historic and remarkable Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  I wanted to show him some gravestones that I thought were particularly wonderful, as well as some that I thought didn’t work so well.  I wanted to give him a sense of options that might be worth taking, choices worth making.

Here is a photo of the very first gravestone I shared with my beloved.  It’s one I particularly adore for  the beauty of the stone itself, the artistry of the hand-carved lettering, and the delightful combination of typefaces:

IMG_7447Ah, Emil.  Immigrant, Hunter, Mattress maker!

There’s something about both the style of this memorial, and the selection of descriptive adjectives that simply delights me. Plus it’s just a work of art, this stone.  It also is one of the few in the Mt. Auburn that includes lower case lettering, which to my mind is much more friendly, and much less headline-y than all capital letters.

My husband’s first comment?  “Hey, I know these people!”  Well, not the ones already buried there, but Jesse’s children and Emil’s grandchildren. Which led to a series of emails between us and the Zofnasses, which led to emails and phone calls and, not more than a week after that walk through the Mt. Auburn, a trip to the John Stevens Shop in Newport RI–where, it turns out, artisans have been carving beautiful lettering into stone markers and tablets and memorials for over three hundred years. Three hundred years!  John Stevens opened his shop in 1705!

Which is its own amazing story, deserving of its own blog post.  I promise I won’t make you wait too long for the next installment.

IMG_7739Our memorial picnic table, at the edge of Jackson Falls.

Stay tuned!