Venomous Creatures and the Face that Launched a Single Ship

A Prelude to Chapter 1

My great-grandmother, the face that launched the Canopic
I've just come upon an account my grandfather, Grant, wrote in 1973 of the love story of his parents - the jovial Frank (a doctor) and gentle Helen (a schoolteacher).  I'm only part of the way through it right now, but already it's a tale filled with influenza epidemics, travel across war-torn oceans filled with torpedo boats, riotous Egyptian nationalism, and tremendous tenderness.  Every so often, Grant has left an open space in the typescript (no doubt prepared by my industrious, sometimes Bracknellian grandmother), which he has filled with hieroglyphs, phrases in Arabic, and tiny sketches of the difference between an Egyptian carriage and an American one.  It's enthralling.

Frank and Helen first came together because their siblings - his brother Paul and her sister Grace (who would herself become a great historian of the family) - were married, and Helen later describes him as "the same sweet, unselfish, gentle Frank that we all loved so well in those days when we learned to know him after Paul's death." Nonetheless, Frank's interest seems to have come as something of a shock to Helen and her family. I'll let Grant tell it:

Shortly before Christmas Frank wrote from Harvard to Helen at her home in Waverly, Ohio, proposing marriage. [...] Frank's message was a surprise, and when Helen told the household, her mother, Cora Barch Smith, in agitation threw the envelope into the flames of the living room fireplace. [...] Helen cherished this letter and once showed it to Grant in Assiut when he was about 12 years old.  He remembers being told then the explanation for its lack of an envelope.  She destroyed the letter with many other papers in 1951 in Egypt.
Helen and her childhood friends, in the same fit of riotous hilarity
that virtually any afternoon with my high school friends dissolved into...
Frank remained in Cambridge during the Christmas holidays.  To make good use of this period without classes and to keep himself from brooding too much about what Helen's response might be he asked Dr. Strong to suggest a line of study.
Strong recommended that he read works on tropical poisonous reptiles.  Frank took his advice and became intensely interested in cobras, vipers, scorpions and other venomous creatures.  This knowledge proved to be of direct use to him later in Egypt, particularly in Luxor.
Helen's reply to Frank's letter was that he should come to Waverly for a talk.  He did so, and they became engaged.  Helen's engagement ring was of a simple design, and the diamond, though modest in size, was of the finest purity with a pale blue fire.

The cherished letter, only destroyed when they finally left Egypt! The supplicant lover so much on tenterhooks about the response to his proposal that he can only soothe himself with the study of vipers and scorpions! (Family lesson: sometimes the venomous can be the best source of solace.)  This is gothic stuff, and I adore it.

But Grant has (oddly enough) left out the best part.

After a Christmas spent in the anxious study of poisonous creatures, Frank received a letter from Helen in the new year saying that he should come to Waverly to discuss the matter further with her.  When he arrived at her parents' house, she suggested a walk, and as they wandered amidst bleak wintry gardens, she accepted his proposal.  As she did so, she reached out and plucked a thorn several inches long from a bush close at hand, and they made their happy way back to break the news to her family.

Helen amidst the thorn trees in Waverly
(I find something moving in the fact that in these pictures, the people are blurred out of focus -
as if moving too quickly through a fleeting time - but the thorn trees are static and precise.)
It was 1915, and they didn't yet know that within the next year they would not only be married, but also finished with his post-graduate studies in tropical medicine and her teaching, assigned to a hospital in Egypt, and making their way towards the Mediterranean in the ghoulishly named Canopic, a British liner carrying a hold full of ammunition through the submarine-patrolled Atlantic waters.   In fact, all they knew for certain was that they'd be married soon. They had photographs taken to commemorate the happy day, and in our albums, above those pictures, a single thorn, the length of my smallest finger, pierces the album's thick, dark paper.

Frank and the family emblem
Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Washington, DC

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