Regarding the wooden thing on the couch.

18 Feb

My mother’s side of the family is the type that has a motto. A seal, a crest, a family tree in calligraphy, dry and oft-folded, a clear and famous lineage. She comes from Plymouth, straight from Mayflower stock, a direct descendant of Governor Bradford himself. I’m enough Pilgrim myself that it’s only a mildly obnoxious stretch, I’ve decided, to say that Sarah Vowell has written a book about me.

My mother’s family motto is Frangas Non Flectes; latin for Break, Don’t Bend. From as early in my life as I can remember– no doubt this was my introduction to the very concept  of a “motto”, perhaps even of “latin”– my father laughingly railed against the dreadful advice this motto offered. (My father’s family might have a motto itself, if anyone could trace them more than a generation or two into Irish obscurity, but I’d have to guess it would be “Leave Me Alone, I Am Going Into The Woods To Look At Stuff”).

“Imagine a tree,” he’d say by way of dramatic illumination, “that follows this motto. A little breeze comes up and what does it do? Oh, it breaks in two! Because it can’t bend!”

My mom would counter that he was missing the point, failing to understand the virtue of standing strong in one’s convictions and refusing to compromise. Probably my father would follow that with some colorful comments about uptight Calvinists. It was all good natured. The kind of heated, hilarious debate anyone would be lucky to grow up amidst. After all, family mottos; who actually has those? It never, you know, came to blows.

It did, however, come to carving.

When I was really young my father carved this amazing, heavy eagle sign, emblazoned by his proposed revision of the family motto. The weather’s taken the lettering off to a large degree, but if you could read the banner here you’d see writ boldly: Flectes Non Frangas.

Bend. Don’t Break. Indeed.

I bring this up not only to raise issues of Yankee intransigence and the joys of mixing lapsed Catholics and protestants in one small kitchen. And really, my mom’s motto is not as bad as it could be. I did some genealogical research and was delighted to find that other families have mottos like “Wars! Dreadful Wars!” and “When Plucked We Emit a Scent” (granted the latter was for the Rose family, but still). I bring it up also because I’ve realized that some people don’t know that I come from artist parents, and specifically from a father who carved and painted birds.

Me = fallen apple. Close to tree.

This eagle is not very representative of my dad’s work. My dad was meticulous to an uncanny degree, steady handed and empathic to wood in a way I may never fully understand. He worked with the most delicate of chisels and knives, fine-tipped Dremmel tools, thick reading glasses. The majority of his work involved individually carved feathers, beaks as fine as seashell, realistic claws curved brightly from believably-fleshed toes. This piece is comparatively chunky, simplistic, rustic. So when my mom generously lifted the eagle down from its roost on her shingles and passed in on to me recently, I thought to ask her what inspired him to make a piece in this particular style.

She pointed me towards John Bellamy. Or, as he seems generally and officially known: John Bellamy, Carver of Eagles.

Bellamy is an artist, who naturally never considered himself as such, who lived and worked in Maine and throughout New England in the late nineteenth century. In addition to making furniture and clocks and mysterious and esoteric Masonic whatnots, he’s most famous for creating these carvings for ships stems. Eagles grasping banners, always emblazoned with adages like “Don’t Give Up The Ship”.

While I think of this iconic eagle-clutching-dramatic-declaration image as something that’s just been around since the world’s inception, it seems that Bellamy was really the guy who established the tradition. He’s even quoted as saying: “There is one thing I can say as to this work of mine. It is original with me and never known or heard of until I produced it.” A great and ballsy quote, really, and something I’d like to be able to say someday about my own work.

It’s safe to say that my dad was using Bellamy’s work as the model for this eagle of his. And Bellamy seems a fittingly eccentric and incorrigible character for my dad (who once carved a collection of realistic, severed heads and mounted them on poles along his property line when a new house was built a bit too close) to feel kinship with.

Needless to say, it’s a great honor for me to have inherited this eagle. It’s seen better days, having hung happily out in the elements for decades, and though I like the way the weather’s aged and altered it, I plan to restore it a bit. Jay and I will be combining forces– his knowledge of repair and preservation and my hand lettering and feathering skills– to repaint the motto and fill some cracks, stop the rot that’s bitten into a few spots and bring back the brightness of feathers and eye.

It’ll be a great multi-generational collaboration, and a great coming together of all sides of my family; my pilgrim mom, my yankee dad, and my Italian husband-to-be.

I hope that Flectes non Frangas, a motto re-appropriated and adjusted and modernized, will hang well in our less-than-traditional home. An overseeing, inspiring mascot to all or our flexible, unbreakable undertakings.

5 Responses to “Regarding the wooden thing on the couch.”


  1. Kylie Batt - April 11, 2010

    Извините, сообщение удалено…

    My mother’s side of the family is the type that has a motto. A seal, a crest, a family tree in calligraphy, dry and oft-folded, a clear and famous lineage…..

  2. Kylie Batt - April 16, 2010

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    I’m enough Pilgrim myself that it’s only a mildly obnoxious […….

  3. Kylie Batt - May 13, 2010

    Я думаю, что Вы ошибаетесь. Давайте обсудим это….

    I’m enough Pilgrim myself that it’s only a mildly obnoxious […….

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