Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Esther (Bassick) Whittaker and the Gettysburg Address

It was 150 years ago today that Abraham Lincoln delivered a short speech — now known simply as the Gettysburg Address — that became one of the most celebrated orations in United States history.

And it was just two days ago that I was browsing through boxes stuffed with old paper at the antique store in York New Salem (which is just 26 miles from Gettysburg, by the way) and I came across an old, stained postcard that had served as a birth notice back in 1910.

The postcard was mailed by Franklin T. and Florence Bassick of Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, to a "Mrs. C. Carley" of tiny Stockton Springs, Maine.1 It announced this birth...

And so Esther Elizabeth Bassick — the future Esther E. Whittaker — was born at 4:30 a.m. on September 4, 1910, and weighed in at 7½ pounds. William Howard Taft was the President of the United States and it had been a little less than 47 years since Lincoln's famous speech.

As I often do when I come across names on postcards and other ephemera, I tried to discover more about Esther.

One of the first things I came across was her obituary.

She died earlier this year.

I was holding a battered postcard announcing her birth in September 1910 and reading an online obituary describing how she has died "peacefully" in Massachusetts on February 06, 2013.2

At age 102.

She lived from the Taft presidency until the second term of the Obama presidency.

But how does Lincoln's speech and its anniversary tie in with all of this?

Among the things Esther loved were children, teaching art, oil painting, singing, tap dancing, bingo, trivia contests and spelling bees.3

And the Gettysburg Address.

Her son, John Whittaker, wrote a beautiful eulogy that was posted online. It describes, among many other loving details, the final time he heard his centenarian mother recite Lincoln's words. It's a wonderful piece of writing, and I hope John doesn't mind that I'm going to repost it here. I think it might just be the best thing you read today:

John Whittaker 02/13/2013
Scituate, MA USA


The year I was born, my mother was already a compassionate, caring, self assured teacher, wise it seemed well beyond her 32 years. In the 70 years that followed I was privileged to see those qualities sharpen and deepen.

The last day we were together in Milford Hospital I shared with her the news that one of her grand daughters had decided to go back to college to obtain teacher certification.

She was thrilled and shared with me at length her thoughts on her life as a teacher and what it means to truly be a teacher, parent and grandparent of young children.

She even recited for me some of the “memory gems”, short poems that she had been taught to recite in school as a young child.

Then she recited her forte the entire text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address complete with appropriate emphasis on the key phrases. It was a remarkable performance. Sadly this wonderful and in a some ways amazing afternoon lengthened and at last I had to bid goodbye.

“I'd better get going and beat the rush hour.”, I said.

“Be careful.”she answered.

'I'm always careful.” I responded, “You have nothing to worry about. I'm an expert driver.”

“I know you are.”she said,”I made sure you were before I let you get your license.”

A wise teacher and parent until the very last.

Where did all of this wisdom, caring and gift of teaching come from?

A big clue to my mother's character formation can be found in the story of the formation of her name, Esther Elizabeth Bassick.

My grandparents had agreed that their first born, a son would be named after his mother's family and their second born, a daughter after her father's.

When he was young my grandfather was raised by his aunts. His father's older sister Elizabeth and his mother's sisters Hannah and Lydia. They and their children became his surrogate family while his parents traveled for a year or more at a time on several voyages to China.

So my grandfather quickly decided on Elizabeth as the baby's middle name and then struggled with the decision to give her the name of Aunt Hannah's daughter Esther as her first name or name her Beulah after Aunt Lydia's daughter. Both Esther and Beulah had been his close lifelong friends and virtual sisters. The choice was eventually made by having my two year old uncle pick a slip from a hat filled with the words Beulah and Esther. Thus Esther Elizabeth Bassick got her name.

A year later during a summer vacation trip back to Maine my grandfather in his typical closed mouth Yankee style recorded in his daily journal ”Visited Aunt Lizzie today. Brought Esther to show her.”Aunt Lizzie who had just observed her 95th birthday held little Esther in her lap, spoke gently to her and perhaps imparted some final words of wisdom to her nephew. It was the last time he would see her. She passed away the following winter.

If like me you have had the opportunity to touch my mother's hand or sit in her lap, think for a minute about this. That hand you touched once touched the hand of a woman who was born in 1816. That was 196 yeas ago. Only one person separates you from a woman born nearly two centuries ago.

Now think about this. When Aunt Lizzie was a young child she and her parents lived with her great grandfather who was born in 1736. Only two people separate you from somebody who was born over 275 years ago. It is interesting to think about those dates and people so far back in time. But think as well about all of the painfully acquired experience and wisdom they reflect.

Then there is the Gettysburg Address and my mother's deep respect and admiration for Abraham Lincoln. Aunt Lydia's husband Dan fought at Gettysburg at Devil's Den with the 4th Maine. He helped to bury more than a few of his friends when it was over. Dan and Lydia's son Col was my grandfather's closest childhood friend.

Aunt Lizzie's great grandfather? He served as a private in the French and Indian War and as a lieutenant in the Revolution. Think of the experience and wisdom he acquired. And he lived for such a long time after to talk about it all.

Generation after generation of very old people going far far back in my mother's family, each passing on acquired wisdom and experience.

I never knew Elizabeth Page or Hannah Ellis or Lydia Carley. To my mother they were vague memories, people she only met a few times as a child and yet their influence is still with us.

So it is with my mother's influence on others.

The very first young women she taught in her first high school class in the fall of 1929 are now all well over 100 and have most likely all gone on to their eternal reward. And yet think of the impact my mother had on their lives and they in turn on the lives of others. Then think of my mother's influence on all of her other students between 1929 and her retirement in 1983. Thousands of people are who they are today in part because of the influence of my mother and those generations of people who came before my mother and helped to form her character.

A bit awesome isn't it? What we do in life for others is what endures after we are gone.

Esther Elizabeth Bassick understood that very well and that is the last lesson she taught me in the last afternoon we were together in Milford Hospital a few weeks ago.

1. The town's name, however, is misspelled as "Stockton Strings" in the address portion of the postcard.
2. If I had discovered this postcard one year earlier, I might have had a chance to get it into her hands before her death. As it is, I hope I have a chance to get it to one of her descendants in the coming months.
3. According to her obituary: "She and Ervine settled in Natick in 1941, where she created a warm and fostering home for her growing family. Faced with a lack of a public kindergarten in town, the Whittakers decided to start their own and founded the Walnut Hill Nursery School in 1948." What an astounding woman.


  1. Chris, Esther was my Grandmother and Jack is my father. I have to admit that I was a little teary-eyed seeing this as it has been just over a year since we lost her and this was our first Christmas without her. Is there a way to contact you privately? I would dearly love to get this piece back into our family, but I am extremely private. Thank you...

    1. I would love to mail this postcard to you. ... Please email me at chrisottopa (at) gmail.com

  2. I just emailed you. Thank you so much!