Monday, May 26, 2008

Saludos Brooklyn- Gracias Emily

We had a rare elegant evening out, two of my friends of mine and me. Yesterday was the 125th birthday of the Brooklyn Bridge. A local pape even down here in Santo Domingo ran an article on it. Someone called to tell me about it, it being one of my ancestral contributions to the world and she mentioned that she was going to the Georgian State Ballet (former Soviet Union) performing at the National Theater here in Santo Domingo. By chance a friend was en route to town and we managed to meet.

It was a stunning, acrobatic, and dramatic performance in an elegant setting, worthy of New York. We drank a toast to the Bridge.

My thoughts are with the Bridge today and the great procession of ancestors who live on in my heart. I am humbled and weeping a bit in their memory, as they have left great and heavy imprints on the earth and blessed me with a life of privilege and extraordinary opportunity and great depth.

I was married from the house of my great uncle, John Augustus Roebling II, grandson of the designer of the Brooklyn Bridge. The mantilla which I wore had belonged to his mother, the great Emily Warren Roebling, without whom the Great Bridge would never have been built. The lace around my sleeves and hem was the lace she wore at her presentation at Queen Victoria's Court. Since Emily had neither daughter nor granddaughter, I was the only other woman to ever wear her lace.

Her husband Washington had been crippled by the bends, nitrogen narcosis, from being one atmosphere below sea level in the Brooklyn caisson fighting a fire that had been raging in for weeks. The work of digging out the river bottom, sending the sand and rocks up by buckets, while sinking the structure lower and lower as the construction of the great stone Brooklyn tower was built on top of it, was done by torch light which started the fire in the wooden structure.

It was the first time in history that such work at such depths had been undertaken and no one knew of the illness that was to attack.

It was Emily, who already had a law degree and then completed a degree in engineering, who carried her husband’s directives down to the engineers on the Bridge and back up to him. For fourteen years, Washington did not leave his brownstone. In the end, he recovered from the bends and outlived his wife, remarried and retired in Trenton.

It was Emily who who was the first person to cross the bridge, riding across it in a carriage, holding a rooster.

On the 75th anniversary of the Bridge, I was there with my family as they unveiled a plaque dedicating the bridge to Emily. I remember it mostly from the black and white photo of it, but remember my delight in the large straw hat with the ribbon down the back which had been brought to me from a family friend all the way from Italy for the occasion. I would have been ten years old.

Washington Roebling had taken over the engineering of the bridge when he 30 when his father died suddenly from tetnus.- like his father- held to the adage that he would not ask his men to do something that he was unwilling to do himself.

His father, John Augustus, had immigrated to America at an early age, bringing with him an entire village to settle in Pennsylvania. A graduate of engineering college, he was convinced that suspension bridges were the soundest form of construction but knew that the engineering establishment in Germany would not allow him to fulfill his dreams.

Once in America, he set about to fulfill them, having always in his mind the vision of a great bridge across the East River, to unite the then separate cities of New York and Brooklyn. In order to do that, he had to first design and build the steel cable which would be needed for the bridges. He set up his factory in Trenton, New Jersey, avoiding the South because of what he called "the anathema of slavery" and set about building suspension bridges of increasing length to demonstrate their strength.

No Roebling bridge has ever collapsed.

John Roebling was a believer in natural medicine and the force of human will. From his diaries, I read of his actions in Trenton when a cholera epidemic overtook Trenton. One of the doctors had already died and Roebling made the rounds with the remaining doctor. He wrote of the night when he first felt the symptoms of cholera coming on him. He would not allow himself to sleep, knowing that if he did so, the disease would take hold. Instead, he remained awake, drinking pure water all night, pacing back and forth in his room until the sun rose and felt himself free of the clutches of the illness.

I was not born to the Roeblings, being a mere niece of his second wife, my grandmother's sister, Helen Price Roebling. We were the family of his old age as they married when he was 60 and she was 40, when he had already lost two of his three sons. Uncle John had, at the time, only one grandson. My grandmother's family had ten sisters and one brother, and five were unmarried. By marrying one, Roebling got a large and adoring family who came to live in various cottages around his estate in New Jersey - complete with four more grandchildren, my two brothers, my cousin and myself.

He died when I still very young. I have only vague memories of the kind man who wore starched collars and sneakers who sent for me every afternoon to muss with my hair and give me a chocolate. My brother said that he could recite Humpty Dumpty in Chinese. He was also an engineer, designing his own homes, and, along with his son Donald, the amphibious landing craft which made the Normandy invasion possible.

He had a tradition that we would always follow, of having to recite a poem at the table between courses. I spent my summers playing in his home, under the watchful eyes which followed me from full length oil portraits of his parents - Emily in her presentation gown and Washington working at his desk, overlooking the Bridge.

I was left with their legacy as follows: 1. To carry on the Roebling name. 2. To have a dream and hold fast to it. 3. To be a greatful and faithful attender at Church and a contributing member of the community.

When I was fifty, having decided that they would be reasonably pleased with the path that I had walked, I legally added the Roebling name.

I am, on this day, most gratefully, their great-great-great niece



No comments: