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2018 Summer Reading

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Summer Reading 2018: Living Along the Underground Railroad

The personal and historical past coexist easily in Mimi Schwartz’s lively recounting of life in a Princeton cul-de-sac

2018 summer schwarz when history is personal

The writers and editors at NJ Spotlight like to take advantage of the August slowdown to ease back on the throttle themselves and spend more time with family and friends. While we’re recharging, however, we’ll be posting an excerpt from a book or author with a New Jersey connection every day as part of our Summer Reading series. We’ll be back rested and ready on September 4. Have a great Labor Day and keep reading.

Princeton’s Mimi Schwartz is an award-winning essayist and nonfiction writer who has addressed some of our thorniest issues. In her latest book, “When History is Personal,” the professor emerita of Richard Stockton University links 25 moments in her life, mid-20th century to today, to the larger social and historical issues that shape them. The following excerpt, “Off the King’s Highway,” opens up her Princeton home of 48 years and tells its secrets, including as the last stop on the Underground Railroad.

Off the King’s Highway

Off the King’s Highway, now called Nassau Street, you’ll find a cul-de-sac of six houses—and we’re #4, second house on the left. It’s the white Colonial, circa 1902, with black shutters, a large front porch with pillars, eight wooden steps that ice over every winter, and a cherry red door that was black in 1970 when we moved onto Evelyn Place.

There’s a button in our hall next to the kitchen that rings on the third floor, calling the servants. I press it now and then, hoping someone from the past will appear, but so far we’ve received only written messages: “Helen was here, 1922,” scrawled beneath three layers of wallpaper we stripped off the dining room wall. And “How’s the old Princeton house? I lived in it from 1944–58,” handwritten across the top of a charity solicitation letter from Chicago a few years back.

No servant has descended the steep back stairs our children dis- covered while Stu and I were in the basement inspecting the furnace with Mr. Mackle, the last owner. In dreams, those stairs lead to hidden, velvet chambers; in real life, they end at the little bathroom on the second floor.

From the dining room window, you can see what was Evelyn Col- lege, now a two-family house. It spans the cul-de-sac like an old queen with outstretched arms, and looked very tired for years—until Jeremy and Debra bought her right side. They found a photo of the original trim in red and green and wanted authenticity (he’s a historian), but settled for deep green and gray, with touches of reddish brown—and convinced Paul, the owner of the left side, to follow suit.

It looks good, luckily, because the oak tree that shielded the front view died after the town laid new water pipes under its roots. By the following spring, half the branches didn’t bloom, and the tree commissioner—who had assured the neighborhood “the oak would be fine”—cut it down and planted two spindly birches I can’t get used to.

At the Quarry’s Edge

Evelyn College, founded in 1887, was the first school of higher education for women in New Jersey and Harper’s Bazar (sic) predicted “our country shall come to speak with equal pride of the sons and of the daughters of Princeton.” It was to be Princeton University’s sister school, what Radcliffe was to Harvard—except Evelyn College folded ten years later because of “moral turpitude.” Or so the story goes, the one about its girls meeting Princeton University boys in the old quarry behind the college.

Natasha, who lived for fifty years on the college’s right side (where Jeremy and Debra now live), had a photograph of the last Evelyn College class: a dozen or so young women in Victorian bonnets, corsets, and dresses with scores of buttons. There was so much to undo and take off! I can’t imagine the logistics of making love on the rocky ledge before a steep drop. Whatever the “moral turpitude”—Stolen kisses? A few beers?—I’ve told this story first for years, preferring its rhythms of turpitude and scandal to the other story of the college going bankrupt after a diphtheria (or some say influenza) outbreak.

Recently I discovered a third story at the Historical Society of Princeton that I find most convincing. Miss Elizabeth D. McIvaine, quoted as the head of Evelyn College, blames “the opposition of Princeton University to any work for the higher education of women.” Her father was the Princeton professor who enlisted his fellow professors to teach the Evelyn girls courses in classics, astronomy, ethics, psychology, and metaphysics—the same courses, with the same rigor, as they taught the Princeton boys. The girls did well, evidently too well. The boys complained. You don’t really teach them the same things, do you? Trustees complained. Princeton University withdrew its support. Diphtheria struck. People whispered of drinking, boisterous songs from the quarry, and trysts in the hotel on Linden Lane, one street over:

Eva, Eva, l-y-n
Eva, Eva, let me in!
So it seems that all the Evelyn College stories are true when you piece together the shards of fact scattered here and there. Princeton University, three blocks up the street, admitted undergraduate women in 1969, one year before we bought our house. My husband, who had just gotten tenure in Princeton’s Engineering School, had no women taking his courses. Twenty years later, there were a half dozen or so; but by 2006, when Stu retired, half of his courses and five of his last six PhDs were women. He liked that, an MIT boy, Class of ’61, who regretted the dearth of women beside him in wind-tunnel labs. He especially liked, as did I, that Princeton’s first woman president, Shirley Tilghman, spoke at his retirement party. So thank you very much, Evelyn, whoever you were. And thank you, Miss Elizabeth D. McIvaine, who continues for me (despite a new story I just heard) as president of Evelyn College—and as builder of our house with its back stairs of dreams.

The Value of Old Bricks

Our street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Which means if our front porch keeps sinking, we have to replace four pillars and a railing with 110 spindles, so they look exactly as before. Approximations won’t do, says the carpenter who came to fix what we thought was a wobbly front step. We assure him we value historic details; it’s why we fell in love with this house and street that credential us, the children of immigrants, to enter America’s past. But when this cheerful old-timer says, “A new porch could cost as much as a kitchen,” we quickly agree with his suggestion to reinforce the old brick cornerstones with new bricks that are hidden from the street (and the National Register rules).

The old bricks might have been made, possibly, in Horner’s Pottery, a once-thriving factory in this neighborhood that predates the American Revolution. Pots, pie plates, jugs, and bricks came from the quarry clay and gave our historic district its name: Jugtown. It’s hard to imagine our quiet, little street as the center of a town with two quarries, a clay pit, the Horner factory, a tavern, hotel, carriage shop, tannery, grocery store, firehouse, hay press, smithy, bakery, chapel, two schools, and two doctors. How does that happen? One world morphs into another with barely a sign, save for the pale green plaques mounted on the eighteenth-century house fronts scattered around the neighborhood.

I did unearth two pottery shards while I was planting hosta near our garage. The shards sit on the shelf of our screened porch between a dozen rocks, mostly obsidian and garnet, which we “mined” in Maine on a rainy vacation with two small, restless children. There are also two arrowheads from a summer trip out West. And fossilized seashells found during our sabbatical year in Israel, 1972. And what we think is an ancient Greek glass perfume bottle, the size of a thumb, that our daughter Julie found sticking out of a seawall near the port of Acco when she was nine. Same trip. It has kept its luminous, silvery green even with its glued cracks after one of us dropped it. They are all mixed up, these rocks and relics: half dreams, half history; untested and undated. Vessels of memory we relish chipped, cracked, or whole.

Blue Wallpaper

The wallpaper came with the house: blue and white vines on our bedroom walls. Not my style. I am more a white-wall girl, or else give me subtle halftones, more texture than pattern. Yet here was a kind of modern Colonial print that looked new even though the Mackles put it up five years before we came.

Someday we’ll change it, we said then, but it never happened. Decades later we see it every morning as the sun slants its way through the window shades. And every night the shadows of the dogwood tree sway across cheerful shapes that darken when we turn off the reading lights.

The wallpaper looks new, that’s why. Not a crack of plaster shows through, not even a hint—and we’ve done no more than repaint the ceiling and window trim every five or seven years. Who would mess with that, even if the style is not yours? You make it work, and after a while you can’t imagine sleeping in a room of white walls.

Above the Mantelpiece

One wall in the bedroom, over the fireplace, is painted a solid blue. And Karma is framed there, our purebred collie, who arrived one day out of nowhere. On my twenty-seventh birthday! She is nose-to-nose with our son, Alan, when he was five or so. And there’s Dad with his handkerchief tied as a hat, rowing me across the lake on the day I passed my swim test at Camp Inawood. And Stu and his kid brother, Howie, wearing cowboy hats, as they share a shaggy pony in Brooklyn, while mother Rose stands close, a stacked, sexy blonde of the 1940s. And my grandparents, Opi and Omi, sitting up straight as always, smiling with Old World propriety at a family dinner. And my mother, looking confident and younger than I do now. And our daughter Julie wearing her Northwestern University graduation cap, a tassel dangling forward, her proud Dad’s arm around her. And Charlie, Stu’s father, bare-chested, at Coney Island, a young hunk of a guy in the 1920s. And my sister Ruth and I standing in front of the flowered chuppah when I, at ten, was maid of honor at her wedding. And Ruth and Hannah, the sister I never knew, who died of strep throat the year my family came to America. Here they are playing on a Swiss ski slope, a pair of dark-haired, little girls in matching sweaters that my mother knit, their tiny, fur collars black against the snow. I see them all from my pillow, morning and night: those who are gone are not gone, and what once happened is still happening.

Carved Beams, Hidden Tunnels

“George Washington,” Alan announced at age seven, “slept at Hugh’s house.” Hugh, age nine, lived around the corner and evidently showed Alan “GW,” carved into a low beam in Hugh’s basement. I never saw it, but I did see a photo of “1730” carved into the wooden mantelpiece in Hugh’s living room. The house was built in the 1700s, and the photograph was in a local history book along with a mention of Washington quartering his soldiers in our neighborhood. So Alan’s GW story, like the two wooden beam stories, and the three Evelyn College stories, all feel alive around me.

As does the story of the Underground Railroad, which was once across the street from Hugh’s house. Secret rooms hid runaway slaves heading for Boston and Canada. An escape tunnel ran under the intersection where traffic jams up today. If their luck held, if the fugitives evaded the bounty hunters in wait on the banks of the Raritan River ten miles to the north and got to the other side, then our neighborhood was their last stop before liberty. I think about that when I walk past the large yellow house, now an office, and imagine their voices praying as I walk to the bank.

I grew up thinking that New Jersey was part of the North; but Southern parents considered Princeton University the last “safe” school above the Mason Dixon line to send their sons with their servant slaves. Many guessed wrong. After four years of abolitionist professors, quite a few Southern sons freed their slaves, and three freed families settled on the other side of the quarry behind Evelyn Place, now a park. According to “The Princeton Recollector,” an oral history project in town, their descendants “belonged to the Jugtown Quick Steps and would challenge the Pine Street Gang to games.” One descendant, a generation or two after that, was key to integrating Princeton’s public schools in 1947, the first New Jersey school system to formally do so. And, in another intersection of history, her daughter taught in the elementary school where my daughter started kindergarten.

Side Porch Sherry

At first, in 1970, our cul-de-sac seemed full of “old” ladies who were probably younger than I am now. There was Natasha, the widow of a famous mathematician, remarried to a New York composer. The James sisters next door with their white, white hair, curled tight. And Mrs. Kahler, with a heavy German accent, stooped and solemn-faced.

Only Barbara, Paul’s wife, was under thirty like me when we moved in. Between us we had five kids under age seven, who would play Hide and Seek and Pop a Wheelie, while we sat under the ceiling fan on my side porch, drinking afternoon sherry. After two glasses, we didn’t hear anything but our giggles, and that seemed fine (the cul-de-sac was pretty safe from cars and no one worried about strangers then). We’d sip and talk, feeling quite civilized, until there was a big shriek for help, or it was time to call in the gang, give baths, make dinner.

Barbara, nee Boggs, came from a well-known Southern political family; politics was in her blood. With her quick wit and irresistible smile, she soon became freeholder and then mayor. Which meant our street was plowed first when it snowed. Even better was the can-do energy she infused in everyone: to be an upbeat community. Benches started appearing everywhere, and we became outdoor people who walked, biked, and sat in outdoor cafes whenever it was over 55 degrees. Restaurants kept adding tables on their section of sidewalk, and we would have been dancing in the streets by now if Barbara had lived.

It happened so fast: a spot on the eye, melanoma, a black patch— until she added sequins, and then purple, red, and gold patches, one for every outfit. They made us smile, we got used to them, expected new bursts of her energy—and then she was gone. It seemed impossible. She was fifty-one and full of life, and she died when I, the one who had had breast cancer, was alive—and all around us, the elderly ladies thrived.

Natasha, until well into her eighties, took the New York bus on the corner to the Courant Institute to translate mathematics articles from Russian. Mrs. Kahler, high into her eighties, hitched a ride with us to New Hampshire. And the James sisters, late in their seventies, assured us at every Labor Day picnic how much they loved to hear Julie play the piano in spring when our windows were open.

Then one day, the James sisters were gone to separate nursing homes. By choice or necessity no one knew. Then Natasha died followed by Mrs. Kahler. Paul, Barbara’s husband, became the oldest on the street, with Stu next in line until Dick and Scotia moved across the street. Dick, a filmmaker, is five years older than Stu and hauling his video equipment in and out of his van daily. Very reassuring, as are Barbara’s wooden benches. There are five on the way to the center of town, and Stu and I stop to sit on them, especially when a red-and-purple sunset lights the whole sky above town: Barbara’s favorite colors.

The White Picket Fence

What was once the Kahler house, first one on the right, now has a white picket fence. It looks cheerfully Americana, defining boundaries with slats open enough to see into, but not enter without unhinging the gate. The rest of the street sprawls as before, one yard spilling into the next with scattered hedges here and there.

I rebel against the fence as I do to any change of my landscape that I didn’t initiate, including each leaf that falls after we rake. “So we’ll rake them again!” Stu says with equanimity; but he also accepts the giant maple falling over in the last hurricane, its top branch landing inches from our front door. And the holly trees that were Mr. Mackle’s “perfect specimens”—he’d made a special trip to Connecticut for them—are now giants with arms joined to block the light, creating a muddy tunnel to reach the side yard. We should have pruned them, we learned too late: after the tree roots sapped the soil nutrients and killed the grass, according to the gardener. He suggests bluestone steps to cross the mud, and Stu says, “Sure, why not? Let the next owner tackle the mud.”

I want our yard as it was when Mr. Mackle took us around, giving us Latin names to every prized bush and tree before he allowed us inside. We joked he would give us a test before we could buy the house, but barely listened, assuming his perfection would stay as is. Every generation seems to think of “now” being forever. My grandchildren assume the white picket fence has always been there, and even their parents forget that it wasn’t. So they don’t look for dips and chips as I do, waiting for what feels permanent to be gone.

Furniture for Sale

Albert Einstein used to visit our street. So did Thomas Mann and other European intellectuals who, fleeing Hitler in the 1930s, resettled in Princeton to start again at the Institute for Advanced Study. They gathered in Erich Kahler’s house on the corner—dark brown then and no picket fence—to discuss history, politics, art, and literature, as if talk might soothe the wounds of dislocation and loss.

Or so I imagine from the way my father and uncles gathered in each other’s living rooms in Queens, talking about leather business strategies, family gossip, and money troubles as I grew up. They fled Hitler as farm boys-turned-businessmen and never went beyond high school. I doubt they heard of Erich Kahler’s Man the Measure or Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil (Broch lived for years in the Kahler house) in their efforts to rebuild the comfort of their lives with conversation.

Erich Kahler died the year before we moved to Evelyn Place. All we knew is that Mrs. Kahler was his housekeeper, and then his wife. How clever of her! we thought for twenty years, filling in narrative gaps with a “duped-old-man” plot. We were wrong, I learned when reading Eileen Simpson’s memoir, Poets in Their Youth. She and her husband, the poet John Berryman, had spent many evenings in the Kahler living room. She describes the salon for displaced scientists, economists, mathematicians, and musicians in this way:

One stepped off a Princeton street and was plunged into Europe. Erich, dressed in a well-worn velvet smoking jacket, pulled back the portieres on a room in which a circle of chairs had been arranged around a large oval table. On its inlaid surface had been set out a crystal decanter of sherry, Bavarian wineglasses and a plate of Viennese cakes baked by Lili … a Viennese art historian who later became his wife.

So much for our invented, dime-store plots. If not for Hitler, Mrs. Kahler would have had a seat at Erich’s table as art historian. As a refugee, and female, she had to take what she could get and, like my father, she made it work—as caretaker, lover, housekeeper, wife, and widow. She had grit, unwilling like so many others to live on memories of what had been lost.

For years, Mrs. Kahler would call our son to mow her lawn. “I vant to speak to Alan!” she’d screech into the phone, and because she was demanding and didn’t pay well, he’d often disguise his voice: “Sorry, Alan is not at home.” This was before we learned of Mrs. Kahler’s past; but even after we knew, we’d joke about her—until a Viennese friend who had known the young Lili in Europe scolded me: “Lili is an amazing woman! Yes, she’s harsh. But she is honest. And she has always been a true friend.”

Mrs. Kahler lived into her mid-nineties, taking in boarders who also did chores, like her lawn. Twice in one month, she fainted and refused to let the Rescue Squad take her to the hospital. It looked as if she were destined for a nursing home, but Lili Kahler had other ideas. She placed an ad in the newspaper for a furniture sale, put neatly labeled prices on all Erich’s Old World furniture—the inlaid table, the giant mahogany armoires and sideboard—and invited her niece to come up from Washington DC for the weekend. The niece found her aunt dead upstairs (lots of pills, we heard) while downstairs would-be buyers of antique furniture lined up at the front door.

Many are shocked by this story, but I find her gutsy. No quiet little old lady, she, willing to be ignored as if she weren’t there. When, at eighty-eight, she asked to hitch a ride to New Hampshire, we thought Six hours with her in the car, talking and considered sneaking off in the middle of the night, taking the train, canceling our plans altogether. But with Mrs. Kahler, “No” was not an option. We took her round-trip two years in a row. We listened to her battles to get a street light on the corner and the difficulties of compiling Erich’s letters for Princeton University, and tried to feel generous about helping the old.

Now the older I get, the more generous I feel to the Mrs. Kahlers, wondering if I were alone, what I’d do if someone, against my will, called 911 for me.

Sheepskin Rug

I’m not sure where we got it, probably from a friend of my father’s who also made leather. The sheepskin was white and soft, maybe four feet by six feet, and didn’t smell of farmyard like the large cowhide rug did, so it landed on our screen porch. I put the sheepskin in our bedroom, on my side of the bed, and liked stepping onto its soft assurance morning and night. Our son, at the time besieged by nightmares of robbers climbing the back stairs, found it to be a perfect refuge, so for months or longer, I’d have to pay attention not to step on him.

We had a carpet beneath the fur, wall-to-wall blue, but it was the sheepskin between my toes that soothed and fortified. I miss it—and have ever since we sold it in a garage sale in the late 1980s. We, then in our forties, decided to make some extra cash by getting rid of things lying around, like a useless rug.

We made $575 at that sale and felt triumphant. All that junk. A collapsible coat rack that I miss whenever we have a party. My grandmother’s two teacups I miss whenever I open the dining room cupboard for good dishes (not too often). Five lace tablecloths from my grandfather’s store in Stuttgart, way too much trouble to iron. The claw-footed bathtub. Wooden skis and dollhouses. The sheepskin rug.

That junk feels like lost history. Pieces of our past sold for $5 to $50, and we should do it again, get rid of more. That’s what we keep vowing: another garage sale. It makes total sense until I step out of bed onto a rough, flat rug.

The Back Deck

The deck in the garden is rotting and we debate: Should we bother to fix it? We don’t use it that much. The trouble, or maybe the good thing, is when we look at rotting boards, we feel rotten. Peeling paint and the leak seeping through the den ceiling from the upstairs bath- room have the same effect. They are extensions of the achy shoulder, the bad knee, and the shorter breath climbing to the third floor.

So we repair, repaint and rebuild. Not with the optimism we had redoing the kitchen after Stu’s heart attack and my breast cancer. The breakfast nook of 1990, with its glass walls, sunlight, and garden view, has warmed us every day since then. Still, we say yes to the deck, telling ourselves that if we sell the house (we never say when), rotted planks would make potential buyers wonder what other rot is hidden. Our thirty-something carpenter recommends using cedar “that will last another fifty years,” which makes us look at each other and laugh. Pressure-treated pine is just fine.

Becoming History

We start with a bookcase in half a room on the third floor. I say “half” because the eaves make the other half impossible to stand in. This was once the Moon Room, painted a royal blue with silver stars and a yellow moon to shine above our children as they played. It is now the Computer Room with built-in files angled into the space where you can’t stand straight.

Two bookcases line the one normal wall, filled with travel books, shoeboxes of slides, my parents’ 16-millimeter films, and hundreds of loose and framed photos from my mother’s apartment. It’s the perfect place to sort our lives, so our children don’t throw out the relics with the clutter.

Stu takes down two dozen manila folders of clippings from the New York Times Travel section: Montreal 1973. Paris 1985. Those yellowed, crinkly articles can surely be dumped into the large plastic bag, one of many we plan to fill. Two hours is what we’ve allotted ourselves to start us off.

Stu begins piling articles next to the plastic bag. “What are you doing?” I ask. “I want to check these out before I throw them away.”
“They are easily twenty years old!”

“There may be some good restaurants. I’ll call a few phone numbers.”
I know better than to argue and begin taking guidebooks off the bookshelf: Egypt 1987; California 1973; Boston 1969; Rome 1986. I feel the same “You-never-know-when” allure and keep Egypt, giving up the rest.

We fill up two bags, half-pleased, half-guilty that it wasn’t six. We’ll do the basement next, we say. Old paints, dead batteries, bins of old wood, broken radios, and coffeepots will be easy to throw away. This fall maybe—or next spring.

I write this in my study, surrounded by books. Surely I can give away the ones I never liked and the yellow-paged paperbacks that crumble in my hands. But so many are very old friends—Austen, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Montaigne, Marjorie Morningstar—who hold the girl who filled their margins with ideas about love, destiny, and contradiction. My son says, “Why buy print books with the library down the street? Anyway, Kindle has bigger font.” I agree totally and don’t try to explain why new versions of old favorites are in front of my old copies.

Sturdy Illusions

I noticed a small hole on our front lawn the other day. I tried to fill it, but the dirt kept disappearing. I mentioned it to the guys who mow the lawn, and yesterday, on my way to tennis, late as usual, they called me over. “I’m in a rush,” I said, but they kept motioning. I came closer and saw that the little hole had become one foot in diameter, deep and dark.

One man had a flashlight, and when I leaned over, there was a giant chamber, eight feet wide and eight feet deep, under more than half our front lawn. The upper walls were made of brick, the lower were made of mud and rocks. I was flabbergasted. All those years of feeling safe running across the grass, thinking we lived on a sturdy piece of history, and it could have caved in any minute! It happened to Paul, I learned later. He’d been walking on the floor of a shed behind his house, and the floorboards collapsed under him. He fell into a similar hole, he told me, but fortunately his son David heard his calls and got him out with a ladder.

What were these chambers? I imagined the Underground Railroad. I imagined the Horner factory basement; the bricks looked like those kinds of bricks. The town engineer said it was an old septic tank, but we weren’t sure. Maybe we should call the Historical Society; it could be something amazing, we thought, until reality set in. There could be a huge hole in front of our house for months, years maybe. We’d have to sell the house with the hole. The engineer is right, we decided, and the gardener filled the chamber with seven truckloads of stone.

Now you can’t see a thing, whatever is down there. Whoever buys our house will, like us, be drawn to its solid square shape, its sturdy white pillars, and all the possibilities of the past they evoke.

Author photo: © Monica Khanna, Princeton Headshots

Excerpted from When History Is Personal by Mimi Schwartz by permission of the University of Nebraska Press, © 2018 by Mimi Schwartz

Purchase this book on the University of Nebraska Press website.

Read more from the 2018 Summer Reading Series.

Mimi Schwartz is an award-winning, socially conscious American author, educator, and public speaker. Her recent books include “When History Is Personal” (2018); “Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village” (2008); “Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed” (2002); and “Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction,” co-authored with Sondra Perl (2006). Her short work has appeared in Agni, Creative Nonfiction, The Writer’s Chronicle, The New York Times, among others.

A recipient of the Foreword Book of the Year Award in Memoir, Florida Review Editor’s Prize, and New Hampshire Outstanding Literary Nonfiction Award, Mimi’s Schwartz’s essays have been widely anthologized. She is professor emerita in writing at Richard Stockton University.

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