I have, hanging over the fireplace in my little farmhouse upstate, a portrait of a pretty girl of about eight. Her hair is short, brownish-black and parted in the middle. Her eyes are greenish-yellow, but here, the artist was guessing, for he painted the portrait at the request of the family from black and white photographs after the little girl’s death. The picture frame is rectangular, measuring about twenty inches vertically and eighteen inches horizontally.
The portrait itself is slightly oval and not more than fourteen inches at its widest dimension. The little girl is wearing a coral necklace from which hangs a small gold cross. Her shoulders are bare and fade off indistinctly a short way down her breast where the portrait ends. There is water damage visible in places on the picture for reasons that will shortly become clear.
The girl was named Alice Hodges. She lived in the central Massachusetts town of Oxford, a few miles south of Worcester. Her old sister, Katharine, was my great-grandmother. Katharine was born in l847, so Alice was probably born between l848 and
the early l850s. At the age of eight, Little Aunt Alice, as she is now known in the family, was taken to a local beach where she collected the bucket of colored pebbles, as millions of children have done. Soon afterwards she came down with a cold. As the family understands the story, she caught the cold as a result of exposure to the elements—the germ theory of disease was not widely understood at the time. Just what sort of illness Little Aunt Alice was actually struck with we cannot say, but she died of it,and in their sorrow, the family ordered the portrait painted.
In l866, her older sister Katharine married a man named William S. Slater and moved to a fairly grand house in the neighboring town of Webster. The bucket of pebbles was taken there and remained for over a hundred years. The grand house was inhabited for many years by three maiden spinsters, my great aunts and cousins to Little Aunt Alice. Also living in the house was their nephew, my uncle Fritz Brown. From time to time, Fritz would ask the last surviving maiden lady, ”Why on earth are you keeping those pebbles?” She would invariably reply, “I just can’t bring myself to throw them away.”
In time the remaining maiden lady died. Fritz stayed on in the grand house for a while, but eventually sold the house and moved to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to escape yet another New England winter. He lived there to the age of ninety-four. The pebbles went with him. Now it was my turn to say, “Uncle Fritz, why on earth are you keeping that bucket of pebbles?” and his turn to say, “I can’t bring myself to throw them away.”
However, nothing lasts forever, and in due course, Hurricane Hugo did what family sentiment would not allow. It ripped the roof off Fritz’s house and scattered the pebbles to the winds.
Like most people, I have over time lost a lot of things that I’d like to have back. One of those is that little bucket of pebbles. Nonetheless, I have the girl who collected them hanging over my fireplace; and of a cold fall evening, as I sit by the fire with my glass of wine, it pleases me to wonder what that little girl might have thought as she was collecting those pebbles had she known that she would still be remembered a hundred and fifty years later in a world she could not have imagined.