My friend Howard Tabor is reluctant to talk about his family, the Tennants.
But the extended Tennant clan fascinates me: their family is large and influential; comfortable, if not actually rich. Anson reflected on his high school years once: “Poor students thought I was rich; rich kids thought I was cheap,” he told me. My family, on the other hand is non-existant and inconsequential to all but me: anyone claiming to be related is mistaken; as the only child of an only child, the very idea of cousins is alien. I’m keenly aware of it at holidays.
So it surprised me to see his column in The Plantagenet the Saturday after Christmas.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past
Holidays with friends and family end the year with a mixture of emotion. Aside from family who are present, there are others we miss, who can’t be here—and others we’d like to miss, but dare not admit that we don’t.
My mother is still in her own home, living each Christmas as though it were her first. And my sister and her children are here from Vermont. But dad’s chair is empty and so is the place vacated this year by our formidable Aunt Phyllis, the family centennarian. Tonight, dangling between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I crave great-uncle Anson’s company, the man who died twice.
It’s only proper that Uncle A had two deaths, since he enjoyed two full and remarkable lives. The first involved his education and brief practice as an architect—not Agincourt’s first but perhaps its best. Knowing him made me think I should follow that example. His works from that period—1907 to 1915—are few but still largely intact. I walk past the old library at least twice a day. I live in the Wasserman Block he remodelled in 1912. And I sometimes meditate in Saint Crispin’s Chapel, his last executed design.
The family thought Uncle A had gone down with the Lusitania and mourned the loss of one so young, so promising. We didn’t know that he’d survived, however, clinging to flotsam in the North Atlantic and rescued by a Basque fishing trawler. As an Iowan landlubber, it came as a surprise that Basques of northern Spain venture as far as Greenland and the Grand Banks to catch the wily cod. What did they make of an amnesiac in striped pajamas among their catch-of-the-day?
Happily, I got to know Anson Tennant before his second death in 1968. The middle name on my birth certificate reads “Alan” but in ’68 I changed it to honor him (without having to replace all those monogrammed towels!). He had that kind of presence. Twenty-one years of his mental fog lifted in the summer of 1936, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Two telegrams preserved in the family albums cancel each other out: the first confirming his disappearance at sea; the second from our State Department announcing his return from the land beyond the Styx.
Charon rows both ways, I guess. And on this return trip the boatman also brought us Anson’s new family, wife Graxi, and my cousins Alize, Mikel and Aitor, who taught me their language with gusto—a Spanish word because I can’t recall the Basque term for infectious enthusiasm.
When the war was over in 1945—the year of my birth—he and his family became bi-continental, living six months in exotic Gipuzkoa and the other six here. I’ve written about his fractured life elsewhere. So today, I simply acknowledge the tangence of our lives; the time we shared, the linkage forged, the torches passed, the presence missed. The void unfilled.
Who’s missing from your life?