Friday, August 27, 2010


At 10:45 yesterday morning, my cell phone rang. It was Mr. Betty asking, "Did you see that clipping I left on the kitchen counter?" I hadn't. If I had (and how did I miss it?), I would have realized there was an event starting at 11 a.m. — in fifteen minutes — at Marble House, one of the most gilded of the Gilded Aged mansions, in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women's right to vote. Alva Vanderbilt Belmont was quite the suffragette, apparently, hence the venue at her long-time (lovely) home.

Ever accommodating — and quasi-interested himself to see/hear Lisa Starr, Poet Laureate of RI, one of the speakers at the event who also happens to run a B & B on Block Island — Mr. Betty took a break from work, just a few blocks away, and came home to pick me up. I hopped on the back of his scooter (miraculous cure for parking woes) and we zipped out Bellevue (as fast as one can zip on a scooter) to Marble House, where the guard informed us that the gathering was taking place on the rear terrace. There, with a standing-room-only crowd, under marble cornices and carved balustrades and women in various poses (in bas-relief) and a perfectly-practical green awning — reminding me that it was now not then — we heard assorted speakers and introductions. RI boasts an unusual number of women in positions of political (and historical) prominence, and many of them were there: Representative Amy Rice, Former State Senator June Gibbs, Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, Senate President Teresa Paiva-Weed and Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano.

Then we heard Amber Rose Johnson. Correction: I heard Amber Rose Johnson. Mr. Betty had received a cell-phone call necessitating that he head back to the office almost as soon as we'd arrived. Poor Mr. Betty (and poor me, who now lacked a ride home).

Anyway, Amber Rose Johnson is a 16-year-old, high-school student from Providence who won this year's national "Poetry Out Loud" project. She was, well, amazing. Lisa Starr, too, was amazing — along with her friend Jim McGrath, who helped close the event with a rousing (fitting) rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, with lyrics by Julia Ward Howe, another noted suffragette. In fact, the whole scene was amazing, maybe even inspiring — not for its opulence (there's that) and stunning location on a stunningly beautiful day (all the more appreciated after several days of rain) but for its meaning. And all that associative history. And for the reminder: One line of Johnson's recitation of a poem by Margaret Walker said something about "the gone years and the now years and the maybe years." I liked that.

I also liked another speaker's take (she's a colonel stationed in Newport with the Navy) on the word "impossible." She said, whenever she hears it, she prefers to break it down into pieces and say it aloud as it appears: "i-am-possible." Yes, I know: that may sound too-cute or too rah-rah or too-perfect (or something like that), but it was perfect given the reason for yesterday's celebration ...

And, looking around me, at women (and men) of all ages sitting on gilded chairs, in assorted hats, with assorted perspectives — including the perspective of the little girl insisting that she walk through the grounds of Marble House rather than ride in her stroller, and the slightly-bigger girl with the pink-princess backpack whom I followed for a bit as I wended my way the mile-or-two back-to-town along the Cliff Walk when the festivities were over (I had no ride, remember) — I was filled with some sort of feeling about the different hats people wear and how it all (in a perfect world) makes some sort of sense in the end, as all those little girls grow up to speak up, each in her own way ...

That's Amber Rose Johnson; click here to see/hear her winning delivery.

And that's Lisa Starr, on the left. She apologized for being slightly late for the gathering at Marble House, but she had to serve breakfast at her Block Island B & B before heading to Newport (did she zip over on a speedboat?). As she said, "Right about now, my guests have run out of decaf and cream cheese ..."