By Louisa Finn, fourth generation Smiley family member
Episode #1: “Love controls all things”
When I first read one of my Great-Grandmother Effie’s letters in the Mohonk Archive, over a year ago, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of the softness and power of the language she used to communicate with her family. It was as though my ear was hypnotized by the sound of her words, making evident what seemed to be missing or lost from much of the communication of our present time. Most prominent was the difference between the use of “thee” and “thy” to express “you” and “your.” A gentle respect and love, a deference, is implicit in these terms.
We are living in a time when even the most harmonious of families find themselves challenged by the pressures that the pandemic has put upon them. The outer world is no longer easily accessible, and people everywhere have been spending a lot of time in close circumstances with a chosen few, or have been unfortunately separated from loved ones for long periods of time.
This has forced both an individual and collective reckoning of “what matters most,” and people everywhere are considering what their personal and societal legacies will be. That is perhaps most true for people in the middle years of life; a category I find myself in.
A family business such as Mohonk has always had its particular challenges and benefits. Conflict among family members is to be expected, compounded by the ever-present pressures of the changing world. This pandemic has caused many businesses to fold, or at the very least to entertain the notion that survival may not be possible.
I think of Great-Grandmother Effie as the “mother of Mohonk.” Her many thousands of letters, written daily to her children and others, exude a wide perspective on life, love, and the business of Mohonk; and truly reflect the resilience of a family, in the way that only a mother can offer.
In this letter of March 25, 1922, written almost 100 years ago (just four years removed from the 1918 global flu pandemic), a 64-year-old Effie writes from Canon Crest in California (the winter home of the Smileys), to her son Bert, age 39 who was running Mohonk with my Grandfather Francis, age 33 at the time. Clearly there had been a conflict between the two brother managers, relating to the “wireless” technology of the time, and the threat of extreme weather. (Fears relating to wireless technologies are nothing new, and as radio signals were relatively new at the time of this letter, the thought that they might attract lightning was not uncommon.) Listen to the peacemaking skills Effie applies to the situation:
“I hope and trust that the wireless matters are working out all right – I am sure that Francis is more than willing to follow thy leadership – but that he was simply excited and alarmed and perhaps a little sensitive that thee didn’t talk it over with him – as he now has the immediate care of that department. Perhaps none of you may have known that some older members of the family – not only Father but Uncle Albert have been scared on the subject of lightning – Uncle A. told me frequently that he was “confident” that some time or other there would be a dreadful accident with or from lightning. I am sure it was this fear and knowing Father’s caution about the untried scientific processes which caused the undue excitement…. But Francis too much appreciates thy and Mabel’s exceptional love and kindness and devotion, especially in these past weeks, to him and Rachel, to consciously place thee in a humiliating position or assert any such thing as it seemed to thee that he did – unless he were thoroughly fearful of Father’s feeling about it —. Don’t let the exceptional thought take root, Dear, for there’s nothing there but real love – count it as not said — I know that it was only the flame of excitement only, which never would happen again. He is now suffering over it, not realizing at all what he conveyed.”
The letter is rounded off by Effie’s strong-willed assertion of family devotion above all, and how the survival of Mohonk depended upon it. In this passage, she names all four of her children and their spouses, as she contemplates her own and her husband Daniel’s death:
“There are very few hours of my life when I am not holding all our dear children close in the hands of God – and I can truly say the same of dear Father – we none of us realize when we do hurt by words of undue zeal —
What can we all learn from the fervent but gentle power of Effie’s love for her children, her family, and the “dear house” of Mohonk? A loving mother’s wide vision, and ability to see past the passions of the moment in favor of a longer view, with the supportive faith that real love brings, seems like an essential missive for the times we find ourselves in; for our own relationships, and the very ships we find ourselves sailing on.
Louisa Finn is a fourth generation Smiley family member. She is Secretary for Mohonk Consultations, a Speech/Language Therapist, and poet. Her mother, Patricia Smiley Guralnik, directed the Festival of the Arts at Mohonk following the death of her husband, pianist Robert Guralnik. As a child, Louisa spent many days visiting her grandmother, Rachel Orcutt Smiley, who, in her later years, lived in Mohonk’s tower room 271. Currently, Louisa enjoys spending time in the Mohonk Archives, and reading the letters of her ancestors. Their words help to confirm her strong sense of the value of place, and inspire her to share the way past voices can instruct the present, and the future.