The Dark Regions Beyond

February 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

jackmans

The Baptist Missionary Magazine, October 1904

the-baptist-missionary-magazine

The Dark Regions Beyond

I have become obsessed with the Jackmans, hunting for any clue as to who these people were before the crisis in Sadiya and what became of them after. I imagine they lived a comfortable life in upstate New York, where Mr. Jackman studied the law before his conversion to missionary life in 1904. Just a few years later, based in Sadiya, Assam among the headhunting Abors and Miris, Rev. Jackman reports: The loving Father has most wonderfully kept us. Dangers have come near, but the Master was nearer to ward them off and little harm has come to us (quoted in a section of mission updates at the end of Mary Mead Clark’s memoir A Corner in India). Sometime between 1907 (when little harm had come to them) and 1920 (when Rev. Lyman Ward Beecher Jackman crossed the street to the mission bungalow directly opposite his own and lodged four large bullets in Major H. D. Cloete’s head) something had gone terribly awry.

And why do I care? What difference can this possibly make to me? What do I hope I will learn? And yet I have spent the better part of a day sitting in front of my computer hunting for a photograph of this couple, as if somehow their image will explain to me how a marriage can go so terribly awry.

After hours of searching, I find my way to the October 1904 issue of The Baptist Missionary Magazine and a listing of re-enforcements to missionary fields abroad with accompanying photographs of the husbands and wives. And there they are, Rev. and Mrs. Jackman, an attractive couple. Do I detect a trace of uncertainty in Mrs. Jackman’s eyes, a wistfulness for all that she must soon give up in support of her husband’s dreams? Does she know, already, somehow, the destiny that awaits them in a distant land?

She is a beautiful woman; I can imagine her upswept hair, her delicate neck, her sad eyes enticing others to comfort her. Her husband, on the other hand, seems serious, like my grandfather. I can imagine Rev. Jackman neglecting his wife – not through any willfulness or lack of love but simply because he is driven by a zealousness that blinds him to a different passion he might have chosen.

I look at their photographs and I know they have no idea what is waiting for them in the wilds of Assam, near the border of Tibet, far from family and friends, in the dark regions beyond.

[Note: This is part of an unfinished manuscript I was working on – and which I put aside – when my own marriage unexpectedly fell apart several years ago. I return to this work now in preparation for an upcoming talk on three generations of Witter women in India. My step-greatgrandmother Mary Barss Witter wrote a letter home in 1920 to her four grown children by her first marriage, informing them of Rev. Jackman’s murder of Major Cloete, his friend with whom his wife was having an affair. My greatgrandfather Rev. William E. Witter, a missionary in Assam, had been called up to be the spiritual advisor to Rev. Jackman during his trial for murder.]

A Cautionary Tale

February 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

a-cautionary-tale_coc-copy

New York Tribune, March 29, 1920

A Cautionary Tale

So much hinges on the texture of a moment: how one word, one gesture can shift the earth beneath our feet. Suddenly the ground cracks open, swallowing people, houses, animals, rail lines. Whole villages disappear, collapsed into the earth or hauled somewhere else. Whole families vanish, erased from the record.

Think of the Jackmans: how quickly they became a story not to be told. How they arrived in Assam with the flush and speed of their missionary zeal, how later Reverend Jackman discovered that his wife was having an affair, how he fell stunned to the ground, how he ran to their bungalow to get his revolver, how he crossed the road, how he called the Major to his verandah, how he shot him dead, how William Witter was called up to Sadiya to serve as his spiritual advisor, how Mary Barss Witter cautioned her children not to speak of this to the outside world.

Silence: such a strange demand, a betrayal of the most human of instincts – to have at least one person on this strange earth who can say, Yes, this is what I see, this is what I feel.

[Note: This is one section of my essay “Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – A Memoir in Fragments” published in Hayden’s Ferry Review #50, Spring/Summer 2012]

Later

February 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

martha-donovan_87-copy

Photograph by Autumn E. Monsees

Later

I am holding my grandmother’s diary of 1940, printed by Caxton Press and sold by C. Coomaraswamy Naidu & Sons of 27 Chinnatambi Street, Madras, India. Pages of printed information explain how to treat sunstroke or the bite of a mad dog or when to expect a full moon or how to write a will. But what I most want to know is what my grandmother felt the day my mother boarded the S.S. President Garfield to begin a long and lonely voyage across the world. I turn to Saturday, July 13 and I am stunned to see nothing – not one word. How can this be?

Perhaps my mother and grandmother were worn out from the long journey from the dusty plains of Podili to the bustling wharves of Bombay, too exhausted to talk. And what could they say, what words could they give to each other that could feed the hunger in their hearts?

Three months later a huge cyclone would sweep through the coast of Bombay, uprooting trees, boats, lives.

[Note: This is one section of my essay “Dangerous Archaeology: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother (and Others) – A Memoir in Fragments” published in Hayden’s Ferry Review #50, Spring/Summer 2012]

Honeymoon

February 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Theodore Volney Witter and Mildred Nasmith Witter, 1912

Honeymoon

Every time I look at this photograph, I half expect Butch Cassidy to appear on his bicycle to steal my grandmother away from her beloved to the sounds of Burt Bacharach’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” playing in the background. I have always thought my grandmother looked like the beautiful and sensuous Katharine Ross who played the Sundance Kid’s lover in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. As I look closer, I see that my grandfather might, if he removed his glasses and smiled just a little, be able to pass as a young Paul Newman himself. They are a handsome couple, however you cut it and, while not the sort to rob banks or trains, they are about to board a steamer, leave family and friends behind, and light out for India where they will remain for the better part of their lives.

Here on This Ridge

December 31, 2016 § 4 Comments

Swinging next to Ronnie's wharf on Hurricane Ridge            (Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)

Swinging next to Ronnie’s Wharf on Hurricane Ridge (Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)

Here on This Ridge

Children with sparklers illumine the night, a dozen
children with a dozen sparklers racing in circles
around the old well boarded up like a swimming
float in the middle of the field. They spin and careen,
a crazy constellation of legs and laughter and shooting
stars, tiny sparks rising behind them into the dark. We

watch them and remember our own days here on this ridge –
lying with our backs to the solid earth, eyes seeking the shooting
stars that our own parents promised would come, or learning
to dance for the first time at the Fourth of July street dance
in front of Highway Market Number 2, here at the end of this spit
of land, hardly a highway at all this dirt road that tumbled

into the ocean and upon which we danced, or jumping off
Ronnie’s dock at midnight under a full moon shimmering
its light onto the surface of the sea and feeling the coldness
of that water not as something to be feared but as simply
a feeling, a sensation like hunger or sleepiness or maybe
even love. On this July night, we watch our own children

for whom the night holds no fear. There has been no catastrophe
as the news had cautioned, no planes plunging to earth, no
children falling down empty wells, no children drowning in the sea,
no broken legs, no broken hearts, just children running around
like wild children of the forest bearing flowers as gifts for us
for whom even a simple sound has become suspect.

Martha Andrews Donovan

Notes:
The first draft of this poem was written in the summer of 2002 when so many of us – after September 11, 2001 – felt shattered and uncertain. As we enter 2017 – another time of great uncertainty – I hope, perhaps naively but certainly fervently, that we may all find moments of beauty, these unexpected gifts that sometimes appear and surprise us.

Publication note: “Here on This Ridge” was awarded First Place in the Poetry Society of New Hampshire National Contest for November 2011 and was published in Poets’ Touchstone that year.

The Strangeness of Water

December 23, 2016 § Leave a comment

Sea Smoke Rising off Bass Harbor (Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)

Sea Smoke Rising off Bass Harbor
(Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)

Aphorism #11

Let the sea’s constancy – the strangeness of water – startle you.

Follow the Sea

September 29, 2016 § 2 Comments

14424966_787560911347560_5959526427222995740_o Lopaus Point, Mt. Desert Island (Photograph by Martha Andrews Donovan)

Aphorism #10
There are many ways to be lonely and there are many ways to be free – 
follow the sea, the rushes of the salt marsh, the curve of a peregrine’s wings.