On July 27, 2012, my publishing partner, John Amiard Oberteuffer and I succeeded in submitting to CreateSpace.com the manuscript, cover, and supporting information about the enlarged Reminiscences of my father, Charles D. Coryell, prepared in 1960 for the Columbia University Oral History Research Center, Joan Bainbridge Safford, interviewer. The new title is A Chemist’s Role at the Birth of Atomic Energy. In October 2011, when Seelye and I traveled to Massachusetts, to celebrate my 50th Reunion from Lexington High School, we visited John Oberteuffer and Kathy Mockett who reside there and in Brewster, on Cape Cod. John and Seelye are classmates from LHS ’58, seniors, the year my classmates were freshmen. John’s father and grandfather were talented painters. As a post-doc at MIT, John worked on the MIT reactor nearby Charles’ A. A. Noyes Nuclear Chemistry Center. John has self-published as John Amiard, Swedish Blood, a detective story inspired by family ties. John graciously volunteered to help me publish the Reminiscences. In May 2012, when Seelye and I traveled to Boston again for Seelye’s 50th college reunion, John and I set to work in earnest, founding Promethium Press, and making decisions how best to collaborate across the continent. Today is the culmination and the beginning of the next step: preparing the eBook version. In history, on July 27ths 1501, Copernicus became canon of Frauenberg Cathedral, 1866, the Trans-Atlantic cable was laid, and 1940, “The Wild Hare,” Bugs Bunny debuted.
Labyrinth Diagram, Chartres Cathedral, France
Labyrinth, Harmony Hill, Union, Washington
Looking down, my feet slowly pace the labyrinth at Harmony Hill, Union, Washington. Made by oyster shells successively placed ten inches or so apart, the path spirals under a towering coastal hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla, with narrow feathery glistening green needles. In the grey autumnal morning I notice someone has placed along the way halves of a giant brown bivalve resembling a granddaddy mussel. Intrigued, I study their triangular shape, pointy joins, dull bronze exterior with flattened spines like tiny upended slats along the wider ends, their pearly blue-brown nacre interior. At the center several intact mated shells lean upright against the massive brown bark trunk. Few, they stand out! Where did they come from? Their thinness and fine spines toward the outer third suggest warmer waters, but Atlantic or Pacific? Who dared add these outsider shells like syncopation to the chunky blue-white natives?
Looking out, mist clouds the view to Hood Canal, Olympic mountains, world beyond. Looking up, strong branches radiate thickly from the great trunk and obscure the sky. Amidst foggy light, grey salt air, pliant chocolate humus underfoot, raindrops ping on nearby foliage. Acer macrophyllum, big-leaf maple leaves have drifted face down, their strong ribs and stems on top. What life do they shield like tents underneath, like buffalos decaying into the prairie, or whale carcasses on the sea floor?
This place in nature embodies the Chinese character 王, wang′ for king. Like the ruler, the central tree mediates among earth, society, and heaven. Mapping the same character, the Ming Dynasty architects of the Beijing Temple complex aligned along a single axis the Altar to Earth, Hall of the Ancestors, and triple-domed Temple of Heaven. To retain the Mandate of Heaven or the right to rule, expressed in freedom from disasters and harmony in the realm, the emperor worshipped in rituals set seasonally and consecutively from the bridal-cake Altar to Earth, through the single-domed Hall of the Ancestors enclosed in a circular “echo” wall, and finally, into the monumental three-tiered Temple of Heaven. Outside, the sentinel hemlock recalls the four giant pillars inside the Temple of Heaven. Restored in the 1920s, such ancient evergreens of great girth from coastal Oregon replaced the semi-millennial originals. Today, east and west of the Pacific Ocean, living and built trunks hold up the dome of the sky.
Looking in, the creators of the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France provided a peaceful diversion from crusading. Monks laid the path in stone in the floor toward the back of the nave. Early pilgrims traced the same path, progressing on their knees. Here, outside, I wish the narrow paths were wider, the diameter of the labyrinth and its walk, ever larger to embrace the whole earth, humankind, nature, the massive tree stretching to the sky—pointing into deep space: the Great I AM.
Looking after. Faith and poet Rainer Maria Rilke teach to question and be patient for answers. My inquiry about the unusual shells brought the information that a visitor involved in the care of cancer patients had placed them. The edible Atrina rigida or Stiff Pen Shell, also called Pearl Oyster, is native to the Gulf of Mexico and abundant along the West Coast of Florida. Its reddish bronze color, elongated asymmetrical triangular shape and irregular rows of more delicate spines toward the end contrast to the grey-white and bluish tones, chunkier bumps and ripples of the stocky Hood Canal mollusks. Both species live in salt waters over which the sun sets.
The metaphor of cancer dances on the edge of my imagination. Like these odd Floridian Stiff Pen Shells, cancer cells turn up beyond normal boundaries. Living, some grow and travel more aggressively than others, none know when to stop. Cells go rogue. What accounts for the increasing incidence of cancers? How have we heedlessly and arrogantly introduced new chemicals, upset natural equilibria, waged war within and among ourselves? What therapies can we devise?
Love made the labyrinth and the welcoming havens. The labyrinth is not a maze. In treading our journey, we can lose our way, but are never lost.
S-N: Altar to Earth, Hall of Ancestors, Temple of Heaven, Beijing, Peoples Republic of China, Reign of Yong Le Emperor, Ming Dynasty, 1420 C.E.
Temple of Heaven ink and watercolor sketch by Maria Coryell-Martin, Beijing, 8/16/04
“To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.” -Psalm 123.
Looking North across Hood Canal, The Brothers Peaks, Olympic Mountains, in fleeting November afternoon sunshine.
Heartfelt thanks to St. Andrew’s House and Harmony Hill, neighbor retreat and conference centers in Union, Washington.
Can’t Bust ‘Ems
Recently I have been wearing my vintage denim Can’t Bust ‘Em overalls to uproot dandelions while the garden soil is still moistened by rains. See my previous post for my history with the cheerful edible and invasively prolific “Dandy Lions, Lions’ Teeth.”
The overalls date from my radical feminist days learning and teaching auto mechanics, writing minutes for Aradia Women’s Health Clinic, and counseling for the nascent Women Studies Program. All B. C., before children.
Between September 2006 and December 2008, we moved to Washington, DC, so Seelye could serve as Program Manager for the Cryosphere at NASA Headquarters. As trailing spouse, I searched out local farmers’ markets and organic grocery stores for nutritious foods to support the more intense and travel-filled life there. I attended liturgically conservative and socially diverse and welcoming All Souls Memorial Church on the other side of the Zoo from our posh rental in Cleveland Park. We chose it for the indoor swimming pool, the tree-dense neighborhood across the Klingle Bridge from the well-used public library, and easy Metro commute for Seelye. I volunteered in the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage at the National Cathedral, and I joined the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. While we were away, both children invited their beloveds to live with them in our Seattle home. Carl and Sarah married on July 20, 2008, in our garden. Maria and Darin married on September 20, 2009, on the 900’-long former ferry dock at Indianola, Washington.
For Halloween in 2006, the National Zoo transformed pocket parkland into mock cemeteries. The tumbled tombstones named real lost species. After 35 years in 2007, Aradia closed its doors, hammered by rising need, high costs for security, and dwindling funds for reproductive health care. To transform my sadness and root myself in DC, at the Writer’s Center Sara Taber’s course, “The Writer’s Toolbox” resulted in my ongoing Gentle Writers support group, my auditing the Radcliffe seminar, Writing Past Lives and Gender in June of 2007, and subsequently, my joining the Washington Biography Group. Proximity to New York catalyzed my resolve to obtain and proofread my father’s narrative of 1960 for the Oral History Collection of Columbia University. Only one reel of his voice survives. It is a gripping story of his formation as a scientist, his life as a chemist on the Manhattan Project and his views on the post-war politics of the scientists striving to keep civilian control and peaceful uses of atomic energy, and still germane. Now preparing the aural transcript for publication on the web challenges my computer competency, stretches my comprehension of science, and deepens my respect for history, human frailties, ethics and scholarship.
Thanks to Seelye’s work in August 2008, I traveled with him to Ilulissat, Greenland, my first trip north of the Arctic Circle. A year later, we visited our son Carl and his spouse, Sarah in Singapore and continued south to visit friends from our DC apartment building in Sydney and Canberra, Australia, my first trip south of the equator.
With the potential demise of polar-orbiting satellite, ICESAT 1 from August of 2008, NASA administrators asked Seelye to develop ICEBRIDGE, employing aircraft to survey the Arctic sea ice, and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the most rapidly changing regions. ICESAT II is due to be launched in early 2016. Currently the majority of our orbiting earth observing satellites are working beyond their expected lifetimes.
Ice sheets press into glaciers. Glaciers form tongues and ice shelves as they reach the sea. As a linguist, I pay attention to glacier tongues. In our lifetimes, the retreat of the Ilulissat Isbrae or Jakobshavn glacier tongue is shocking. (See Dr. Waleed Abdalati’s slide below). The iceberg that collided with the RMS Titanic likely originated in that glacier, resulting in the gift to Harvard of Widener Library. On February 26, 2010, as our expeditionary-artist daughter, Maria and Seelye prepared their respective Art from High Latitudes and ICEBRIDGE exhibits at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle for Polar Science Weekend, the Mertz glacier in Antarctica in a collision with an iceberg lost the area measuring roughly 50 miles long by 30 miles wide, 75% of its tongue.
Worldwide, glaciers are experiencing rapid changes with unpredictable outcomes. Seelye worries about creeping sea level rise. I worry about the scales, the modes of grasping truth, how to exercise compassion and maintain balance, serenity. We seem to have learned little from the financial meltdown, the speculation, the greed, the cruelty of monopolies and the subversion of the Constitution to prosper corporations above persons. While my personal life is full of love, health, nutritious foods, meaningful work, deep and sustaining friendships, I tremble for the fragile planet, for the rate of species loss, for the heedless mining of groundwater, for loss of courtesy and respect in public discourse and conduct.
The exuberant abundant dandelions, spreading exponentially, pose questions. What is enough? What are the right actions? I’m not sure anymore that we “Can’t Bust ‘Em.
Postscript. Maria observed that my conclusion is uncharacteristically pessimistic. Occasionally, Seelye crows that in the evolutionary sense, we are finished, done! While true, upholding truth as we understand it, and encouraging our young motivates me to keep learning, writing, loving. In DC, a Dutch friend lent me her copy of Professor Jürgen Pieters, Speaking with the Dead, (Edinburgh, 2005) from which I learned two wonderful affirmations. First, Machiavelli would spend his evenings by dressing up, entering his study, and conversing with his mentors, Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, vivifying them in his imagination to refine his own writing. Second, as a Chinese Language and Literature major, I have a sketchy grounding in history of Western thought. When my Gentle Writers confronted me, “Julie, you’re a poet!” I was shocked. “Not I, my mother was a poet.” In Pieters book, Aristotle’s definition of poetry as not metrics or form, but evocative power of language helped me understand their meaning. So maybe we can put on our “Can’t Bust ‘Ems” even if we can’t read the buttons without glasses, and they are worn and holey, and we can do our best to inspire, encourage, and work however we can. As my father often quoted, “The motto of Caltech is (Gospel of John): “The truth shall set you free.” As my friend Jill advised in our youth, “Let’s have a cup of tea with our dragons.” A very tasse.
She Kept the Stove Top Clean
To savor life some suggest the exercise to write your own obituary. As if preparing for death highlights what is important in the present and what survives.
When Jack Marinsky and Larry Glendenin discovered element 61, a rare earth, in the reactor at Oak Ridge in the spring of 1945, they approached my mother to name it. She invoked Prometheus, saying, “Like Prometheus, you have stolen fire from the gods and mankind may suffer for it.” Thence the name, Promethium. Prometheus’ punishment was to be chained to a rock and to suffer daily attacks of an eagle eating his liver. From his daring, humankind benefitted. Taming fire enabled survival in cold places and developments in agriculture, gender roles, and cooking.
Remembering them all, in my turn, I invoke Hestia, hearth-tender for the gods on Mount Olympus, for me, just out of sight past the bicuspid Brothers to the west in the State of Washington. My hearth is not a natural fire, dancing over kindling or coal, but a space-age Corning ceramic cook-top and oven. The late burly chef James Beard who made a tiny 33-1/3 rpm vinyl record to accompany the manual called it “a cooking appliance.”
Newly pregnant with our firstborn child, we bought the cooking appliance in January of 1975, in order to stop squabbling about who would clean the tricky spiral coils and readily burnt saucers of the original electric stove in our kitchen. The salesman glowed about the toughness of the heat-strengthened ceramic surface and and did not refuse Seelye’s test to drop his bonafide Swiss Army knife from as high as he could reach above the demo model. He did. No chip, no crack. Moreover, the self-cleaning oven proved well-insulated, with a see-through window and light to illumine the capacious interior.
The smooth glossy white surface sold us. To clean: simply wipe it with a paper towel and Bon Ami or Corning cleaner whose oxalic acid component does not scratch the ceramic. Occasionally use a single-sided razor blade to scrape burnt deposits. The top can hold a liter of spilled fluid, too. When cool, it serves as a counter, making space in a two-fanny kitchen for unloading groceries, rolling out pie crust or kneading bread. Bright lights indicate when the burners or “tempassure” units, are at the designated degrees Farenheit; when cooling, HOT; or when completely cool, OFF.
The clock with digital display, accomplished by rolling plates clicking in place to form the numbers, controls the self cleaning, timed baking, and a plug-in outlet for other appliances like a coffee maker or crock pot. With age the mechanism turning the plates has worn. We are now using the third replacement clock. Since the price of that idiosyncratic part has risen like college tuition we use exterior timers and set the clock after power outages or seasonal changes, by throwing the coupled circuit breakers downstairs in the basement. This requires complicated arithmetic. We console each other that the aging of the cooking appliance delays our own by requiring mental agility to calculate to the minute the correct time! Thanks to the Babylonians for base 60 math.
A key feature of this modern hearth is that three of the four circular heating elements contain at their center a ring with imbedded thermistors.These insure that the the temperature on the bottom of the flat pot matches that selected on the dial. Because these “tempassure” circles require direct, full contact, a warped, footed, or charred pan will not heat well. Properly employed and cleaned for optimum heat transfer these units allow dependable simmering and no boiling over. The fourth circle, larger of the two sizes, functions like a regular electric coil, pumping out heat on low, hotter and high settings. It takes a long time to cool. The designers of this post-Sputnik stove, however, failed to plan for cooking stir-fries in the ancient spun-steel round-bottom wok. Slower to come to breathe, woks work, but not like over a hot gas fire. But then, new pilotless gas stoves cannot hold a low simmer like this one.
Too, I know the inventor of its catalytic converter which cleans the exhaust during the self-clean cycle. Chemist Henry Petrow once asked me if I smelled yeast at the end of the self-clean cycle. He explained that it would have exponentially expensive to catalyse the exhaust through two more steps, to alcohol and to water. “Yes,” I replied, but it feels natural to have a yeast smell and preferable to the intermediate step, alcohol, signaling the end.” Alcohol does not have happy associations in my family, yeast does. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast…”
I love this stove. I love the man who bought it with me and shares the care, cooking, and cleaning of it. It makes for joy to think of all the meals, parties, soups for the well and sick, bread, pumpkins, turkeys, roasts, play dough sculptures, cookies, science experiments that have changed phase in its embrace. I delight in the calculations for timed bake, timed self-clean, and resets for power lapses and seasonal time change. Fall back, spring ahead.
My father wrote and I approved for my mother’s grave stone,
Grace Mary Seeley Coryell
14 September 1914 – 5 May 1965
Beloved Wife, Mother, Poet.
Although I cherish the words “Belles Lettres,” and I would prefer to be cremated and nourish “flars,” and maybe have some bone bits sprinkled in the ocean like my father’s in the Pacific, I could do worse than have my heirs write,
Hearth-tender, She Kept the Stove Top Clean.
My mother, Grace Mary, loved Halloween. When I was little, she crafted memorable costumes for me. The first costume I remember was simple and characteristic of my mother’s humor. She transformed me into Gus the Ghostwriter from Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby and Barnaby and Mr. O’Malley cartoon books, popular during World War II. She covered the toddler me from head to toe with a simple sheet, cut out the eyes and embroidered black cotton glasses and belted the outfit with a lightweight chain just like the nearsighted comic anxious Gus.
When I was four she made my favorite, preparing it over several weeks of delicious suspense. First she soaked an old pair of footed one-piece pajamas in spent coffee grounds and hung them on a line in the basement to dry. A dear friend of the family, Hazel Lumbert, my father Charles’s former secretary the year he wrote the PPR, provided a realistic painted molded-rubber mask for the outfit. Lastly, she enlisted my help to cut out and color four cardboard flaps to disguise my gloves and shoes as …paws. Came dusk she dressed my wriggling animal self as a wonderful wolf!
As I set out on all fours to prowl around the kitchen, the back doorbell rang. Mr. Luongo was delivering fresh laid eggs. My mother opened the door to greet him. When I appeared around the refrigerator as a wolf, he almost dropped all the eggs. Because my mother had so skillfully engaged me in the process of making the wolf suit, I relished the power of being scary.
Not too much later, she turned me into the Easter Bunny with the hallmarks of Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit: red vest, perky ears held upright by stuffed Kotexes, a prominent gold watch, and white gloves. As Gus was a scared ghostwriter, her creation of me carrying offerings to our neighbors of painted eggs on a silver tray celebrated Easter in a secular way with literary elegance.
I believe now that her energy and imagination at work for me was spiritual. She taught me the real meaning of All Hallow’s Eve and that the spooky celebration heralds two days of honoring the dead, first saints and then all souls. As the early November days passed, my mother would grow sad. She was remembering her mother, Grace Louise, who in 1900, married Frank Seeley and moved from prosperous Leavenworth, Kansas, to the isolated boom mining town at 9,400’ of Goldfield, Colorado, above more famous Cripple Creek. In 1902, Thomas D’Entremont Seeley was born. Because of the altitude, threats to health and difficulties for children, the family moved to Colorado Springs. Frank Seeley, Jr. was born in 1908. My mother was born during the Battle of the Marne, on the Feast of the Trinity, September 14, 1914.
I know she had fun growing up zestful for horse riding, camping, hiking, making and cooking over fires. Her older brothers teased her devotedly. They told her to dig a deep hole in the back yard and she would reach China. She loved a big white stuffed bear named Snowball. She and her pals loved to visit the Chinese curio dealer in town. They would knock on the screen door and ask if they could enter, announcing, “We smell punk.” The storekeeper would invite them in, “You sit in the corner and no one will notice.” All my growing up my mother delighted in spontaneous witty wordplay: puns, repartee, telling quotes.
In her high school years, Grace Mary deepened her love of language. She wrote poetry and formed a writers’ circle. With her lifelong friend, Joanna Jolly Ritzman she supplied all the senior quotes for their yearbook. Although both of her brothers in turn went to nearby Colorado College, the Great Depression was gathering, so that by her graduation in June, 1932, there was no money for her to attend college. By documenting in her book The Invisible Scar the Depression era loss for women in opportunities for education, employment and vocation, Caroline Bird has helped me understand Grace Mary’s lasting sorrow for her lost chance.
I do not know what my mother did for herself after graduation beyond writing, cooking and homecare for her family. Before their marriage, 2 December 1937, she had published thirteen poems, more than my father had papers in print. She did have a well-loved black and gold-trimmed Remington portable typewriter that was only replaced by a snazzy Olivetti Lettera 22 teal blue portable when I was in high school. It is indelible on my heart that on the afternoon of November 4, 1932, eighteen-year old Grace Mary and sixty-year old Grace Louise went shopping together. They arrived home, and Grace Louise starting coughing. Grace Mary held her but the coughing would not stop. Within 15 minutes, Grace Louise died of a collapsed aorta in her daughter’s arms.
Knowing this story and impatient with my own sorrows, in her 19th year, my daughter Maria exclaimed to me, “You carry your mother around like a dead ghost.” I do. I do. I have felt it a duty and a love to make vivid to my children the dear and the good about my mother, and her woundedness. As my suitor, their father fell in love with my mother, her humor, her cooking, her hospitality despite her deadly addiction to alcohol and barbiturates. And I miss her. I long for her witty and comforting mothering that shone through the bad periods of our life together. Above all, I have tried to keep healthy, to understand her illness and grief, my own vulnerabilities, and to propagate in a hungry world, the nurturance and love for her child, that I always felt in her company. Holy ghosts and Holy Spirit.