Phantom Threads of Mothers and Sons

“Dear Mother: How far are we responsible for already inherited faults? That old Sam Hill, by whom folks used to swear when they dared not take greater names in vain, brought over to Vermont at the end of the eighteenth century among his numerous children one son, Lionel, destined to surpass in dilatoriness all the other slow-going Hills of his generation. He married very tardily and begat two sons, both in due time notable procrastinators, the greater of them being the younger, named Alson, who added to more than a full measure of the family instinct for unreasoning delay an excellent skill in finding good reasons for postponing whatever was to be done. Alson Hill was my father…”.  Bert Hodge Hill (1874-1958) addressed these thoughts to his mother from Old Corinth on February 28, 1933 when he was almost 60 years old. Hill, however, never mailed the letter because she had died when he was barely four years old.

Bert Hodge Hill as a young boy and as a middle-aged man. ASCSA Archives, Bert H. Hill Papers.

We will never know what prompted Hill to compose this imaginary missive to a person he never knew. It is the only document, however, that has survived among Hill’s papers that gives us a hint of latent childhood trauma. Just google “mothers and sons” and you will get titles such as “Men and the Mother Wound”, “The Effects of an Absent Mother Figure,” and so forth, with references to a host of scientific articles about the decisive role played by mothers. Hill’s dilatoriness cost him the directorship of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) in 1926, after having served as the School’s Director for twenty years. Hill never even finished his imaginary letter to his mother. Had she been around when he was growing up, would have she corrected this family defect and taught him how to prioritize and achieve timely and consistent results? Hill must have wondered.

Hill’s letter to a “phantom mother” (read also my note at the end of the essay) and the fact that Mother’s Day is around the corner, inspired me to look for other cases of mother-and-son relationships among the people whose personal papers reside in the School’s Archives.

Carl W. Blegen (1887-1971), the excavator of Troy and Pylos, on the other hand, had a happy childhood in Minnesota with attentive parents and caring siblings. Many of his mother’s letters are preserved in the ASCSA Archives, but the contents are difficult to access because they are hand-written in Norwegian. As a result they are largely unread with only a few exceptions.  But, although Anna Blegen wrote to her son exclusively in Norwegian, he corresponded with his parents in English.

The majority of any archive (and here I am referring to our analog collections) usually consists of incoming correspondence. Letters sent out are rare and are either drafts, or, rarely, originals that relatives of the deceased (usually the “family’s historian”) have saved. In Blegen’s case, it was his nephew Robert (Bob) Blegen who preserved Carl’s correspondence to his family and then donated it to the School’s Archives in Athens. Yet, despite Bob’s care, only a handful of Carl’s letters to his parents remain.

Carl Blegen (standing, left) with his parents and siblings, 1908. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

Blegen chose to write separately to his mother and father. His letters to his father, John Blegen, a professor of Greek and Religion at Augsburg Seminary, were usually long because he would often try to explain aspects of the current political situation in Greece. On August 1, 1915, Carl wrote a lengthy letter to his father about the nature of Greek politics and the “events which led up to the resignation of Mr. Venizelos as Prime Minister of Greece.” His letters to his mother Anna are shorter; hers, however, are quite long. In one of his to her, written on Nov. 16, 1916, he described the impressive discovery of two Roman statues at Corinth, while a month later (Dec. 25, 1916) he would share with her his successes as a gardener in Athens. “Gardening is almost as much fun as archaeology” Blegen confided. He often climbed Mount Hymettus in order to collect bulbs of wild cyclamen and orchid.

It would be wrong to think, however, that Blegen’s letters to his mother were trivial or mundane. A letter from his sister Martha reveals that Carl shared with his mother a lot more than just gardening adventures. “Mother was good enough to let me read that letter about Miss Schurman as you said I might. I was rather surprised to think that such a thing should happen to you for you were always making fun of others! But I might have suspected that you were very much interested elsewhere, for you have written, so seldom this last year… and I hope that when she does make up her mind it will be as you wish…” (Martha Blegen, July 31, 1913).

Anna Blegen writing in Norwegian to her son Carl. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

I have written elsewhere about Blegen’s love affair with Catherine Munro Schurman (1886-1936), the daughter of the U.S. Minister to Greece in 1912-13, Jacob Gould Schurman. Knowing how much this affair had tormented Blegen, I was curious to find out how much more he had confided to his mother. With the help of people of Norwegian descent, I was able to read parts of two letters from his mother. In the earlier one, from July 22, 1913, she inquired whether Miss Schurman’s parents were aware of his marriage proposal: ‘What do her parents say to this? Have you spoken with her father?” She ended her letter with a little warning, no doubt, revealing a mother’s instinct: “I only wish and hope that she says ‘Yes.’ Should it go against you, it would probably become quite difficult to stay as ‘cheerful’,” his mother noted. By September 12, the not-so-good news had reached Blegen’s mother. Helen had declined Carl’s proposal. “It is all for the best” Anna Blegen wrote, further adding with a touch of motherly indignation: “it seems that her family had other expectations for their eldest daughter. She encouraged Carl “to keep up his courage” and “although nothing is good, you are that much stronger.”

Carl Blegen with Catherine Schurman and her father Jacob Schurman, 1913. ASCSA Archives, Carl W. Blegen Papers.

Ten years later he would share very little with his mother about his relationship with Elizabeth (Libbie) Pierce. It was too complicated and perhaps too progressive to explain to his mother. After an initial “yes” and engagement in February 1923, Libbie broke up with Carl, and resumed her relationship with Ida Thallon, only to agree, a year later, to a conditional marriage, involving a liaison of four. I wonder how much of this, if any, Carl ever confided in his mother. The family was almost shocked to read on July 24, 1924 that he had married Elizabeth in Lake Placid without inviting them.

“Mother doesn’t feel equal to writing you and Elizabeth today, so wants me to do so for her. The news of your marriage was certainly a very great surprise, since you had given not the slightest intimation of any such plans. You ask if she had had any suspicions – we only wish you had given occasion for them” wrote his sister Martha on July 15.

To add further that “you know she loves you so much that whatever will bring you the greatest happiness is what she wishes for you.” Martha concluded her letter by saying that their mother was looking forward to seeing him soon. He must have hurt her even more when he and Elizabeth decided to leave for England a few days after their wedding without going to Minneapolis to meet Carl’s family. In fact, his mother would die two years later without having ever met Elizabeth in person.

If Blegen, metaphorically speaking, broke his mother’s heart in 1924, a year later, he would convey the bad news of Richard Seager’s sudden and untimely death to his mother, Gertrude McCabe. Seager (1882-1925), the excavator of Mochlos and Pseira, an islet off the coast of Crete, had taken ill on ship returning from Egypt to Crete and died at sea. In the ASCSA Archives we have his mother’s response to the announcement of Richard’s death. “It’s as you know, a crushing blow to me. He was my most cherished possession and I am alone without him… The shock was too much and for 24 hours I was dumb and blind” McCabe wrote to Blegen on May 26, 1925, thanking him for taking care of Richard’s funeral on Crete. Seager was her only child. “I shall never take Richard’s body away from Crete. I’m sure he would prefer to lie there, where his best efforts were made and his heart was.”

To end this post on a lighter note I recall a conversation I had more than two decades ago with Nancy Winter, Head of the Blegen Library at the time. She had asked me whether I had read Theodore W. Heermance’s letters to his mother; she wanted to know if I had noticed the unorthodox way with which he signed them. Heermance, Director of the School for two years (1903-1905), wrote to his mother weekly. However, instead of simply signing as Theodore (or Ted), he used his full name: “Theodore Woolsey Heermance.” Why? I don’t know. One suspects a formal relationship between mother and son, which was probably not unexpected in the upper echelons of America’s East Coast, where boys were sent away to boarding schools at an early age.

On the other hand, John Gennadius (1844-1932), the founder of the Gennadius Library (one of the School’s two libraries) maintained a close relationship with his mother Artemis throughout his life despite his frequent and long absences from Greece, as the few preserved letters between the two reveal. He addressed her as Αγαπητή και πολύτιμή μου Μαμά (My dear and precious Mother) or Μανούλα (My little Mother, a very affectionate term in Greek) even as a mature man in his late 30s. And he treasured the scrapbook of dried plants (φυτολόγιο) that she compiled for his 36th birthday in January 1880.

From the plant scrapbook that Artemis Gennadius compiled for her son’s birthday in 1880. ASCSA Archives, John Gennadius Papers.

Speaking of formal and informal mother-and-son relationships, Prince Charles of Wales most recently broke protocol by publicly calling Queen Elizabeth “mummy.” The Queen’s reaction? Rather amused, she rolled her eyes!


Note: Phantom Thread, the movie, inspired the title of my essay. In it, Reynolds Woodstock (played by Daniel Day Lewis), the renowned London dressmaker of the 1950s, cherished his mother’s memory by having sewn a lock of her hair into his jacket. More than an act of remembrance, her lock acted as a talisman and guaranteed her protective omnipresence in his life long after her death.