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