Looking for António Ferreira Couto

I have an ancestor from Santa Maria, Azores. His name is António Ferreira Couto, and he was born probably between 1660 and 1680. He married a woman named Catarina Velho, who was probably also born on the ilha de Santa Maria, but I don’t know that for sure. António and Catarina are my 7th great-grandparents. Their son Manoel Pacheco de Sousa, who was born on the island of Sao Miguel, married Catarina de Sa on December 21, 1718, in Rosario, Lagoa, São Miguel. I don’t know why António and Catarina Velho left Santa Maria for Sao Miguel, and I don’t know why they settled in Santa Maria in the first place. But since I am here in Santa Maria exploring the beautiful beaches and the green fields—green as the fields in Ireland, greener even, and it is the day after Saint Patrick’s Day as I write this—and the mountains and the contented cows that produce the delicious butter that is better than any butter I could get at home, I thought I would try to find out more about him.

The path from António Ferreira Couto to my father, Edward Couto, should be a direct one, father to son to son to son. But no, it isn’t that simple. Azorean surnames do not get passed down in that way, and in fact Antonio is the ancestor not of my paternal grandfather, João do Couto, but of my paternal grandmother, Carlota Julia Ferreira. And it gets still more complicated. Carlota’s father was a Ferreira and her mother was a Pereira. António is her ancestor not on the Ferreira line but on the Pereira line. Here’s how the descendancy goes:

António Ferreira Couto is the father of Manoel Pacheco de Sousa.
Manoel Pacheco de Sousa is the father of Maria Moniz.
Maria Moniz is the mother of Manoel Moniz Pereira.
Manoel Moniz Pereira is the father of Francisco Moniz Pereira.
Francisco Moniz Pereira is the father of Francisca Jacintha.
Francisca Jacintha if the mother of Maria de Jesus.
Maria de Jesus is the mother of Carlota Julia Ferreira.

There was a period not long ago—mostly in the 19th century, which, to anyone who does genealogy is not long ago, in fact so recent that we can almost remember it—when women did not have last names. They did not automatically take their fathers’ names. They almost certainly had a middle name, as well as a religious name that they chose later. When they married they did not take their husbands’ names. That doesn’t make Azorean genealogy any easier to sort out, but it does strike me as sensible, feminist, and modern.

So how did my paternal grandmother’s ancestor manage to get hold of my paternal grandfather’s surname? Are my grandparents cousins? Am I my own vovó? I thought the Biblioteca Municipal might hold the answer. The librarians were friendly and fluent in English. They showed me to the room where they keep the genealogy books. And in no time I found my 7th great-grandfather’s name and learned that he was born on Santa Maria and married to Catarina Velho. But I already knew that.

The church records for all the islands of the Azores are on line, thanks to the Centro de Conhecimento dos Acores, the CCA. Santa Maria, the oldest of the nine islands, has the oldest records. Some of the record books have pages that are torn. Others have been damaged by salt air, moisture, the wrong kind of ink, or mice. The volunteers from the Church of Latter Day Saints did their best to piece the pages together before filming them. The earliest records are difficult to read, and the records do not go back far enough to cover the first inhabitants of the islands. As I sit here surrounded by the beauty of this island where he once lived, I have to admit that António Ferreira Couto has escaped me.

Bohemian Pleasures: Revisiting the Labyrinth

Prague is a labyrinth. Seen from Google Maps satellite view, it is all red roofs twisting and winding into one another. There are streets and street numbers, but they are hidden under the labyrinthine turns of the red roofs, and a first-time visitor is likely to get lost. At least we did. Last October, when we arrived in Prague, we took a taxi from the train station and were left off in the center of a picturesque part of Old Town. The driver indicated that our hotel was close, but for some reason he couldn’t take us there. We had the address but couldn’t find the street. Wheeling our suitcases over cobblestones for at least an hour, we asked for directions from shop owners and restaurant waiters and tried to follow their leads, but all we did was walk in circles. Finally, someone pointed us toward a narrow alley that appeared to go nowhere, and we entered, veered left, passed some hanging flowerpots, and found our hotel’s office. To call our accommodations quirky would be an understatement; the “hotel” was an assortment of apartments located in very old buildings with creaky stairs. Our apartment was furnished in mid-last-century Hit-or-Miss, but it was roomy, with a large kitchen and sitting room, and it was located exactly in the center of Old Town. Now that we knew our way into and out of the labyrinth, we were exactly where we wanted to be.

That was last October, almost a year ago, and it was a real-life trip. We were early into a whole month’s adventure in Central Europe, having just spent some time in Berlin and Dresden. Our train pulled into Prague in the middle of the afternoon, but by the time we found our apartment, freshened up, and set out to explore the city, night had fallen. At night Prague is golden. It glows.

Last Thursday I returned to Prague, but this time I experienced the jumble of sensations virtually and with the aid of memory. I had reached the final destination on my Sagres-to-Prague virtual walking tour, having, since my last post, enjoyed the delights of Venice, Italy; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Graz and Vienna, Austria. I walked every step of the way, tracking my progress with the help of my Apple Watch and an Excel spreadsheet. I was not there and I was there, both at the same time.

What is there to do in Prague? First off, the new visitor must buy a trdelník from a street vendor and eat the spiral of roasted pastry dough while walking around the square taking in the sights. Trdelniks originated in Transylvania just like someone we all know and love, but there’s nothing vampiric about them. I wish I had taken a photo, but I was in too much of a hurry to sink my teeth into that flaky, sugary goodness. Next, the visitor must check out the Astronomical Clock, locate the statue of Franz Kafka, walk across the Charles Bridge and of course back again, sit in a heated outdoor cafe and enjoy a glass of wine or beer, and stay out of the way of the horses that clop along pulling tourist carriages. It isn’t necessary to ride in one of the carriages, but it is de rigueur to admire the horses, especially the dappled greys. On a less frivolous note, a tour of the Old Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish Quarter is a must. In a restored synagogue there is an exhibit of children’s drawings that will break any visitor’s heart.

After a few days of seeing the sights, learning the history, eating the food, and admiring the horses, and before moving on to the next stop in the incredible journey, a visitor must, of course, go shopping.  Prague is a great place to buy Bohemian garnets, which are deeper in color than garnets mined in other parts of the world, and Czech glass beads, which are very pretty and surprisingly inexpensive. I couldn’t resist.

I allowed myself some time some time to wander virtually around this charming city of twists and turns, but, because the world is large and because other destinations are calling my name, I have already started my next virtual walk. Where am I going this time? Here’s a clue: For part of my journey I will be following the route of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Survivors: A Visit to the Berlin Zoo

According to Wikipedia, during World War II the Berlin Zoo was destroyed, and “only 91 of 3,715 animals survived, including two lions, two hyenas, an Asian bull elephant, a hippo bull, ten hamadryas baboons, a chimpanzee, and a black stork.” Not having a firm grasp of World War II history, which was too recent to be taught when I was in school, I’m not sure exactly how the animals were destroyed, but I believe at least some of them were eaten by hungry Berlin residents. Most of what I know about the Berlin Zoo during the war (and to me “the war” is World War II, not Vietnam or any of the wars that  followed) I learned from reading Richard Zimler’s The Seventh Gate, a novel that mixes Jewish history with a compelling mystery story. The zoo appears and reappears several times during the Zimler novel, although one of the most important animals in the novel was not a zoo animal at all but a squirrel.

I like squirrels. When I was a child, my imaginary playmate was a squirrel named Zipper. I don’t remember why I chose that name, but, when I’m sitting on the porch off our kitchen and I see a squirrel in the cedar tree outside, I always call him or her Zipper. My original Zipper was a lighthouse keeper, and I always explained Zipper’s absence from any birthday or Christmas party I attended by saying he couldn’t leave his light. I’m proud of inventing an imaginary playmate with a solid alibi.

On our last day in Germany, Joe and I visited the Berlin Zoo in the Tiergarten and saw many of the 20,000 and some animals now present, although some were probably already hibernating or just shy or uneasy around people. The giraffes and zebras were particularly impressive, and a lone polar bear with a solid sense of self surveyed us from his habitat. We saw animals that looked like squirrels and animals that looked like house cats. We saw parakeets that resembled my old friends Tippy and Roscoe. And we saw elephants. I love elephants, although my political leanings are solidly Democratic and of course I also love donkeys.

I couldn’t help but remember a passage from The Seventh Gate about the fate of the zoo animals during the war:

Hans asks me if we can go now to the Berlin Zoo. I’ve told him about it as a bribe. “What a good idea!” Else exults, plainly trying to please my son. “We’ll walk through the Tiergarten. I think the zoo might still be closed, but we can look at ducks in the ponds on the way. A few have come back.”
          “They left?” I ask.
          “We were starving. We ate ducks, rabbits … anything we could catch or raise.”
          Hans turns up his nose.
          “Yes, it wasn’t pretty,” she tells the boy. Whispering to me, she says, “The zoo animals were slaughtered too . . .”

 We were glad they were back, and we enjoyed watching the elephants, meerkats, rhinoceroses, and oryxes in something approaching their natural habitats. We were glad to see that they were well fed. And I actually got to spend some time in a monkey house, although I felt sorry for the large gorilla sitting with his back to the crowd trying to enjoy his dinner in peace. He was a little too close to human—a loner whose sense of privacy was being violated. I’m sorry about that, about being one of the violators, although I think it’s important for children to see these animals up close and personal, accompanied by all the zoo smells they produce.

Wikipedia reminds us that human history can produce its own variety of zoo smells: “In 1938, the Berlin Zoo got rid of Jewish board members and forced Jewish shareholders to sell their stock at a loss, before re-selling the stock in an effort to ‘Aryanize’ the institution. The zoo has now commissioned a historian to identify these past shareholders and track down their descendants.”

I wrote most of this post on my iPad on the Amsterdam-to-Detroit leg of our return flight. By the time we arrived home to an empty refrigerator, it was morning in Berlin, and our bodies were still running on German time. The next day was Election Day. We voted and went grocery shopping, and then we went out for pizza, wanting to compare it to the flammkuchen we had eaten just three days earlier. Then the election returns started to come in.

On Wednesday I was depressed about the election and still jet-lagged, no longer familiar with either my habits or my wardrobe. My disorientation was so complete that I seemed to be walking around in a different kind of zoo, one run by pigs who walked upright and engaged in neverending battles. They governed themselves according to a familiar principle: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

A River Runs Through It: Vienna

The river is still the Danube, but it’s less evident than it was in Budapest, where we walked by it or across it every day. In Vienna we feel the presence of the Danube as a musical time signature, curved and sweeping, superimposed over our daily activities. Music is everywhere. In the gift shop of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Jesus and the Virgin Mary share space with Mozart and other composers; rosaries and tiny music boxes get equal billing. You can hardly eat a chocolate bon-bon without having to peel off a very attractive wrapper with Mozart’s face on it.

That’s high classical—Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—but there is also the waltz, the Waltz King, and “The Blue Danube.” On our second day in Vienna, which happened to be Halloween day, we visited the Haus der Music, a modern, high-tech museum devoted to the history and science of Viennese music. We rolled dice—Joe threw the red die and I threw the blue one—and a giant screen made aleatory music out of the results. The composition wasn’t half bad, either. Then we let Mozart write music based on the spelling of our names. He seems to have composed a brief phrase for every letter of the alphabet, and the results could be played back in their original form or orchestrated. And that was just the first floor.

The next level was devoted to the science of music, and that’s where everything got very high tech. I learned that my ability to discern musical pitch was somewhat better than a grasshopper’s and nowhere near as good as a dog’s. On to the next level, with rooms devoted to various composers with Austrian roots, including Johann Strauss, called the Waltz King, who composed “The Blue Danube.” I remembered watching Kathryn Murray demonstrate the Viennese Waltz, and I wished I had sent away for the footprints. The museum’s app, which we had downloaded to our phones, contained additional information about each composer, along with links to You Tube videos of each composer’s music. Last stop was the virtual conductor room, where a large, interactive philharmonic was playing on the big screen. Anyone could attempt to conduct, and there were choices of three or four different pieces of music. We watched a couple of children make the effort, including one who was still a toddler. They both did quite well at waving the baton, but at a certain point the musicians stopped playing and started laughing at their ineptitude. It was all good fun, but I didn’t give it a try because I didn’t want the musicians to laugh at me.

But the Danube isn’t all waltzes and music. One odd association that I brought to it comes from research I did some years ago for a series of poems that I’m still trying to turn into a book. My main character’s gentleman friend—I’ll call it that, but it was more than friendship and certainly less than love—had an uncle who was instrumental in encouraging settlement near the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. The uncle, David Parish, was born to a wealthy Scottish family in Hamburg in 1778. He was associated with an international banking firm in Antwerp that sent him to the United States, where he supervised the transfer of Mexican silver to Europe via New Orleans. In other words, he was laundering money. In upstate New York, he invested in land purchases, iron works, and sawmills and built a mansion in Ogdensburg; the mansion is now a museum housing Remington bronzes. He returned to Europe, settled in Vienna, and, in an uncertain financial climate, made some bad investments and lost all his money. He drowned himself in the Danube in 1826. 

We had been spiraling higher and higher in the Haus der Music, and by the time we took the elevator back down to the ground floor, night had fallen. Halloween night. The nice people at the ticket desk were all wearing costumes, and the large ground-floor room was filled with children, little girls dressed as witches, little boys dressed as skeletons. Time for us to waltz out the door and look for a place to have dinner. 

A River Runs Through It: Budapest

The river, of course, is the Danube, which in my mind is always associated with dance. “Take this waltz,” sings Leonard Cohen in three-quarter time, and I’m back in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, when every school dance (not that I went to that many of them) included a prize waltz as the highlight of the evening. I learned to dance by counting: “one, two, one, two” or “one, two, one.” I remember a particular prize waltz competition when the eliminations were faster and more furious than usual; instead of spotlighting a small group of the best dancers among us, the teachers who were running the shebang eliminated everyone. The dance floor was bare. We thought we were waltzing, but we were all doing the fox trot, the popular dance of the day.

We could have learned to dance by watching the Arthur Murray Party on TV, hosted by Arthur’s wife Kathryn. Those people knew what they were doing and never would have confused a waltz for a fox trot or a lindy hop or anything else. And If we had been serious about it, we could have ordered paper footprints for the various dances. I think there must have been different footprint combinations for men and for women, but I don’t really remember. I do remember that there was a class of waltz—a very classy waltz—called the Viennese waltz, but I’ll save that for another city.

Right now I am on a train leaving Budapest, where Joe and I have spent the past four days. We walked along the Danube, crossed the Chain Bridge, admired the views, both upriver and downriver. We photographed Buda from Pest, where our hotel was, and Pest from Buda, where the castle was. We saw small tour boats, those that took tourists on ninety-minute cruises, and large Viking River Cruise ships looking not quite as spiffy as the ones we used to see in donor videos (i.e., commercials) before every episode of Downton Abbey. Budapest is a beautiful city, and the Danube runs through it.

On both sides of the river the city contains memorials to Hungary’s heroes from various historical periods. Some of these examples of public art employ traditional sculptures of men on horseback, while others vary from the expected by being whimsical in design and execution. The most unexpected, most simple, and, in my opinion, most moving memorial is called Shoes on the Danube. It is on the Pest side, down from street level, close to the water, and it looks at first like a scattering of old shoes perched on the edge of the walkway. The shoes look old, musty, worn out, as if they had been in some old grandmother’s closet since the 1940s. When I searched for further information, I learned that the eighty pairs are not the real shoes but rather replicas cast in iron by the Hungarian sculptor Goulart Pauer. Pauer and his friend Can Togay created the memorial in 2005. A website about the display tells me the following: “The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the Budapest Jews who were shot by Arrow Cross militiamen between 1944 and 1945. The victims were lined up and shot into the Danube River. They had to take their shoes off, since shoes were valuable belongings at the time.”

According to Wikipedia, Arthur Murray was born in Galicia, Austria-Hungary, in 1895. His parents, Sarah and Abraham Teichman, named him Moses. They brought him to America in 1897 and raised him on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Because of anti-German sentiment after the start of World War I, Moses changed his name to Arthur Murray. He was an immigrant kid who loved to dance and made a career out of teaching others to dance. How would he feel to see the sad shoes of people who never danced again? 

Time for a Little Leitmotif

I began to notice a pattern. First there was an organ grinder in Berlin, right near the Brandenburg Gate—a real, live organ grinder, but without a real, live monkey. Instead, so that we’d get the idea, he had hung from his organ a toy monkey, useless as a collector of coins but cute and still a monkey. Then we went to Dresden and visited the Zwinger, an elegantly groomed estate with a couple of museums, one of which was devoted entirely to porcelain from the collection of Augustus the Strong. In addition to his other interests, which mostly had to do with ruling countries, Augustus was a champion of porcelain arts. His collection includes impressive pieces from Japan and China: large vases, cachepots, pieces that look like gigantic ginger jars, teapots, and figurines. Augustus was also instrumental in establishing a home-grown porcelain industry. The galleries devoted to Meissen pieces were my favorites, especially those showcasing Augustus’s porcelain menagerie. I saw lions and lambs and rhinoceroses, but what I liked best was the grouping that included a set of monkeys engaged in everyday activities like taking snuff or eating grapes.

When I was a child and lived in New Bedford, my mother would often take me to Buttonwood Park. I would play on the swings and slides, and then my mother would buy me a box of Cracker Jacks. I didn’t like the popcorn part of the Cracker Jacks, but I liked the peanuts, which were not plentiful, and the toy hidden somewhere in the box. I would find the toy, eat a few peanuts, and hand the box to my mother, who liked Cracker Jacks quite a lot. Then we would head over to the park’s zoo. There were bears inside a double-fenced enclosure that included a pool to splash around in and a cave to hide in when they got tired of being gawked at. There was a buffalo that was very careful not to step on the chickens walking around him. There were goats and geese, as well. Two or three years after my brother was born, one of the geese bit him on the finger; I guess my brother shouldn’t have been poking his finger through the wire fence and calling “Mother Goose, Mother Goose!”

There was also a monkey house. I thought the monkeys were cute, and I liked visiting them, but I never got to spend much time there because my mother was always yanking me out the door. She didn’t approve of the monkeys’ behavior, but I was a little girl and didn’t notice that they were doing anything wrong. Maybe one of them was taking snuff and setting a bad example.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate is imposing, even in the rain, even with a whole lot of other people milling about.

I was actually in Germany when reunification happened, twenty-six years ago this month. I was there to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair, staying in a hotel in Bad Homberg and commuting by train to Frankfurt. Berlin was many miles away. Since I had a full schedule of appointments the next morning at the Buchmesse, I had decided to ignore the reunification events in favor of getting a full night’s sleep. I went to bed early, but something, maybe the excitement in the air, forced me to wake up before midnight. I watched the televised ceremony, and I’m glad I did.

The next morning, my commuter train didn’t show up, and I had to wait for the next one. When I got to the Buchmesse, one of the escalators was broken, and I had to climb a lot of stairs.

Anticipation

Carly Simon’s hit song “Anticipation” was, according to the singer’s website, composed quickly while she was waiting for Cat Stevens, her date for the evening. I don’t know what sort of date she was anticipating, but the song, released in 1971, was a hit on the singles charts and appeared on several compilations. The melody is spirited, and the uncomplicated lyrics obviously resonated with listeners. Later “Anticipation” was featured in commercials for Heinz Ketchup. I guess you could say that the drawn-out, five-syllable first word of the chorus is almost onomatopoeic; the visual in the commercial was of ketchup slowly deciding to come out of its bottle.

Our multitasking minds probably spend more time looking forward to events than experiencing them, almost as though the foretaste of the ketchup is better than the eating of it. In fact, one of the big questions of travel has always been whether the anticipation of a trip is more rewarding than the trip itself. In his book The Art of Travel Alain de Botton writes, “It seems that unlike the continuous, enduring contentment that we anticipate, our actual happiness with, and in, a place must be a brief and, at least to the conscious mind, apparently haphazard phenomenon . . . . The condition rarely endures for longer than ten minutes.” Is he right?

Soon I will take off on a trip, a real journey this time rather than a virtual one (although the virtual trek will be operating in the background, as always) and I am trying to anticipate the historic landmarks I will see, the exquisitely prepared regional specialties I will sample, the colors of the façades of the buildings, the sounds of the streets at night, the expressions on the faces of people I will see. I am trying, but I seem instead to be preoccupied with packing a capsule wardrobe suitable for the weather swirling through the places I intend to visit. Will I need a raincoat? Will I have room in my suitcase for a Tilley hat? Will I need more than two sweaters? I am preparing to explore the unknown, although you could say that Central Europe isn’t exactly the unknown. When I worked in publishing I went to Germany every year at about this time to attend the Frankfurt Book Fair. In preparation I taught myself two German sentences; Sprechen Sie English? was essential, and Wo ist die Damentoilette? also proved useful. This time we are headed for Berlin, where my two German sentences will still be useful, but afterwards we will explore countries in which I will have no idea how to ask for directions to the ladies’ room.

I guess I’m obsessing rather than anticipating. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the most memorable moments of a trip are those that are impossible to anticipate, like buying a tube of red lipstick in the Marais, or eating crêpes from a food truck, or getting front-row seats to see Juliet Binoche in Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone at the Théâtre de la Ville.

The song “Anticipation” ends with a twist, a call to stop anticipating because “these are the good old days.” Of course this flash-forward to reminiscense is only another form of anticipation. There’s no getting away from it.

Greetings from the End of the World

That’s where I am, Cape Finisterre, which translates as “end of the earth” and feels like it.  This peninsula in Galicia, Spain, narrows and pokes into the ocean and into the wind so that you feel totally disconnected from what your life used to be and ready to start anew.  For a long time people believed that Finisterre (or Fisterra, as it often is called on maps) was the end of the known world, but the honor of being the westernmost point of continental Europe belongs to Cabo da Roca, Portugal, which wins by a few feet, although the two points of land look more like noses than feet.  That’s horseraces for you.  

Actually I’m in Finisterre virtually, at the end of my most recent virtual walking tour. I started in Le Puy, France, and walked through Moissac, St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and Roncesvalles before reaching Pamplona, Spain.  From there it was Burgos, León, Santiago de Compostela, and Finisterre, which is an optional extension of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James).  My itinerary was virtual, but the walking was real; I use a pedometer and chart my progress on a spreadsheet.  But I’ve been to Finisterre in real life.  A couple of years ago, Joe and I took a trip through Galicia and Portugal.  We stopped in Pontevedra, where I had the best Spanish tortilla I’ve ever had in my life, and in Santiago, where we saw more pilgrims than I would have believe existed.  There were pilgrims in Finisterre, too, like the nun in the above photo.  We were cheating, though.  We traveled in a rented car and slept in hotels rather than pilgrim houses.  This time around I did the walking, but I did it elsewhere; in fact much of the legwork for the last part of my route was done on wide Parisian sidewalks dotted with Parisian cafes.

Finisterre became a pilgrimage destination in pre-Christian times.  People believed it was the place the sun went to die.  Modern pilgrims don’t make sacrifices to the sun, but they are likely to leave something behind in that sacred place, perhaps their hiking boots or an article of clothing.  

Where do I go next?  I’ve already decided that I’ll walk down the coast of the Iberian peninsula, visiting Cabo da Roca, of course, and ending up in Sagres.  I’m still mapping out the route, but I’ll definitely stop in Porto to sample some of that 20-year-old Tawny.

Don’t Be Crewel: Erica Wilson, William the Conqueror, and Me

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when everybody was “into” crafts and needlework, Erica Wilson’s crewel embroidery kits were all over the place. I remember that they were pricey and very attractive, bordering on cute—lots of bouquets of flowers, with some fauna thrown in. The finished products, which could be framed as wall art or made into pillows, differed from the cross-stitched sampler sort of embroidery by using woolen yarns rather than silk or cotton to produce a still life that was both highly textured and highly decorative. Erica Wilson was an Englishwoman who came to the United States to teach needlework technique; she intended to stay for only a year but soon turned herself into the Julia Child of the needle arts. She owned a house on Nantucket, and I believe her Nantucket boutique is still going strong. (Wilson died in 2011.)

During the needlework renaissance, I was living in San Francisco and not making very much money. I considered the Erica Wilson kits beyond my means, and anyway my crafts of choice were spinning and weaving, although I also experimented with tie-dye—who didn’t?—and sewing. Tie-dye required boxes of Rit, but in my spinning and weaving class I was learning how to use natural dyes like saffron, madder, and cochineal. I never attempted indigo, which was much more complicated and required large amounts of urine as, I think, a fixative, although I did admire the pretty color it produced. We did our spinning on drop spindles and learned how to make frame looms from pieces of lumber and wing nuts. It was fun, and while I never became a weaver I retained an appreciation for the techniques of the great tapestry workshops of the Middle Ages and for the beauty of the work they produced.

When I read that the Bayeux Tapestry was not technically a tapestry at all but instead a large piece of crewel embroidery, I was horrified. The Bayeux Tapestry was supposed to tell a story of many chapters, and the crewel embroidery I remembered was certainly appropriate only for stories of single paragraphs, sort of like flash fiction. But I learned that crewel embroidery is at least a thousand years old and had its heyday in 17th-century England, long before Erica Wilson was born. What makes it “crewel” is the wool embroidery yarn, whether thickly plied or single strand, and the embroidery stitches in the Bayeux Tapestry are very fine so that, for example, the stitch used to fill in the color of the horses doesn’t call attention to itself. The horses look like horses, not like woolen concoctions. The natural dyes that were used—madder, weld, and woad—are still vibrant. (Indigo had not yet been imported from the East.) The tapestry contains 626 people, 202 horses, and 41 ships. It is truly a book of many chapters.

How does any of this involve me? William the Conqueror, the hero of the Bayeux Tapestry, was, I believe, one of my ancestors. That’s not a big deal. The old kings and queens were fruitful and multiplied, and most of us are descended from at least one of them. It is unlikely that I have inherited so much as a micro-smidgeon of William’s DNA, but I feel that I have a stake in the tapestry. This is my great-grandpa we’re talking about, after all. In one panel, William’s army is clearing land to use as a battlefield. A house is in the way, so they burn it down. We see a woman and child escaping the flames. In another scene, William’s army attacks the enemy soldiers by hacking off the heads of their horses. I would like to think that no animals were harmed in the making of this tapestry, and no people, either. But this is history, crewel and cruel, and we can’t go back and change it.