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Writing on Water: Recalling fond memories of Cousin Clara

I remember Dr. Clara Hammond McGuigan as a skyscraper of a woman. She might have been of average height but when I tilted my head back at age 5 or 6 to look up at her, with her grey hair poking out from under her navy blue felt hat, her face seemed far away.

Perhaps it was the way she strode up to me each time we met, swooped down like a large bird and gave my hand a brusque shake: “Do you remember me, child? I’m your cousin Clara. Fifth cousin, once removed.”

Cousin Clara was born in 1863 in the Quakertown section of Ledyard. She began her education at the Lambtown school with popular teacher Samuel Lamb and, by age 15, began teaching at Old Mystic School. (The schoolhouse was eventually moved to Mystic Seaport Museum.)

At age 25 she was the first woman to graduate from Philadelphia College of Medicine. She became Superintendent of the Whipple Home School for the Deaf in 1895 and changed the name of the school to the Mystic Oral School with the hope that it would emphasize the value of lip reading and oral expression for the deaf. When she retired from the school 27 years later, she embarked on almost a half century of world travel and family history research but continued to stay in contact with the school and its activities.

I became aware, in the early 1950s, of her many visits to our family home in Old Mystic. She wore a long wool coat and felt hat regardless of the season and came to speak with my grandmother about Whipple family genealogy. Whenever she returned to the Mystic area, she visited the Oral School first and then came to our house to reveal her latest findings in her family research. She usually brought a deaf child about my age with her from the school — not the same child each time — and they were always boys (or that’s what I remember!).

“They need to get out in public and communicate, especially with children who can hear,” she said about the child in tow.

The school also represented an important limb in the scaffolding of the Whipple family tree because it had been started by an ancestor, Jonathan Whipple, who discovered in 1830 that his infant son, Enoch, was deaf. Jonathan devised a method of lip reading specifically for young children, and Enoch grew up to become a successful farmer and blacksmith with many of his associates not realizing that he was deaf.

In 1869, Jonathan, assisted by grandson Zerah Whipple, founded The Whipple Home School in Ledyard, and Zerah invented a form of phonetic called the “Natural Alphabet,” showing the various positions of the organs of speech used while talking. The school relocated to Mystic in 1872.

Clara led the school through the challenges and deprivations of World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918. In 1921, she negotiated the sale of the school to the State of Connecticut, as well as its continuance as an oral school.

In 1959, the school’s mission was changed by the state and it became the Mystic Education Center. Today, the buildings are empty with an uncertain future.

The children whom Clara brought to our house often spoke in loud, unmodulated tones. I became accustomed to this vocal music at an early age because my job was to entertain and communicate with the visiting child while my grandmother spoke with Clara about her latest discoveries in the quest to construct the Whipple family genealogy.

She arrived in a blue, 1949 Dodge. My older brother, Bob, a lover of anything with wheels, was usually the first to see the car enter the driveway.

“Clara’s here!” he shouted with eyes wide. “She’s parking the car! She’s getting out!”

We stood at the window with our noses to the glass. Bob would spend the rest of the afternoon examining the car and its glimmering silver bumpers. I was curious about the new kid.

When Clara and the child emerged from the car, she would lead him by the hand over the bluestone walkway to the side door of our house. I was at the door, ready to greet my new charge. Clara would walk right up and loom over me, as usual.

“Ruth, this is Jimmy and be sure that he can see your lips when you speak to him.”

Sometimes Clara asked me to play my violin and she would place the boy’s hand on the wooden front piece. He grinned with big eyes as I launched into the “Carnival of Venice” or “Beautiful Dreamer,” unlike my brother whose face scrunched up in pain when I played.

“He can’t hear it, but he can feel it!” said Clara as Jimmy’s shoulders rose and his smile broadened with my squeakiest tones.

Clara and my grandmother often sat side by side in armchairs as they talked. Clara would open a large black satchel, perhaps her old doctor’s bag, and reach in to pull out bits of paper and notebooks with lists of names and sketches of circles connected by lines. These were maps of Whipple ancestors and descendents.

It was Clara who explained how my parents descended from two brothers, Noah and Jabez Whipple. Noah had 32 children (with three wives) around the end of the 18th century, so Clara had her work cut out for her tracking down descendants.

I discerned from these periodic meetings with Clara that my grandmother knew things. She remembered things. As I grew up in the presence of her prodigious memory, I assumed that memories were somehow secure and would always be accessible.

She was a vault of information, a raconteur of reminiscence nimbly fashioning a new familial connection from Clara’s research.

The image of the two of them speaking with their heads nodding inspires me to think that I can recover — or unwrap — memories that seem far away.

I believe that the body remembers even if the brain lags behind. A physical movement is often connected to a memory, if I’m paying attention.

The smell of wet wool reminds me of Clara. Writing is the best conjurer of all, especially if I start with “I remember.” I wonder what memories will linger for all of us from this pandemic and what my 2-year-old granddaughter might remember after these months living with me during the crisis?

Cousin Clara and my grandmother generated energy when they shared memories. Clara, who died at 100, eventually compiled the definitive book about the Whipple family: “The Antecedents and Descendants of Noah Whipple of the Rogerene Community at Quakertown, Connecticut.”

My grandmother had loads of advice for me: “If you want to remember something, use your head.” “If you want to do something, get off your dime and do it.”

“Don’t try to be something because you already are something.”

“Practice your violin; people who are something can play a musical instrument.”

Out of mercy, I won’t play my violin, but I am intent on remembering.

Ruth W. Crocker lives in Mystic. She can be reached at ruthwcrocker@gmail.com.

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