For the Fourth of July: Celebrating Our Diverse Backgrounds

Edith Seggalye, a long-serving member of the Youville Dining Staff, became a United States citizen last spring. She poses with her son Joel, in celebration.We are used to celebrating America with symbols and analogies. One such analogy is the “melting pot,” a term that has long been used to describe our cultural diversity. In the wake of our recent Fourth of July celebrations, it is worth reflecting on this diversity and the term we use to celebrate it. What is a melting pot and what does this analogy really mean?

The earliest use of this term likely referred to a crucible or blast furnace in which various metals melted together into one – also known as a “smelting pot.” 

An 1875 article by Titus Munson Coan described the American melting pot as follows: “the fusing process goes on as in a blast furnace; one generation, a single year even, transforms the English, the German, the Irish immigrant into an American . . . the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.”

For the early American (mostly European) immigrants, the mere fact of different nationalities living together as equals was astounding and exhilarating. Back in the old country, dominated by rigid social hierarchy, such multiculturalism was unheard of.

Ralph Waldo Emerson took things a step further, celebrating not only the mixing of European cultures, but also proposing the assimilation of African, Asian and other non-European immigrants into the great American melting pot. He wrote about this assimilation in a journal entry in 1812, a time when such ideas would have stirred up much controversy. But that was then, and Emerson was way ahead of his time.

Today as in Emerson’s time, the hopes and ambitions of immigrants fuel the melting pot, reshaping our culture and breathing new life into our collective notion of the American Dream.  According to David Dyssegaard Kallick, senior fellow at the Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrants are more likely than American-born citizens to own businesses and contribute to local economic growth. In an article in the New York Times this January, he described how the influx of working immigrants is essential as more older American adults reach retirement and leave the work force.

According to Ildiko Szabo, Community Life Coordinator at Youville Assisted Living (as well as a former citizen of Austria, France and Canada) one need only look to The Boston Globe’s spring valedictorian profiles to understand the important immigrant influence on American life.

“So many of these kids, when given a second chance in a free country, are motivated beyond belief. It is really inspiring,” she says.

Of the 41 local valedictorians listed in The Boston Globe this year, 19 were born outside the United States. Many are bound for top tier colleges in the fall, and many have extraordinary family stories. One of the featured students, named Fatah Adan, was born in a Kenyan refugee camp to parents fleeing civil war. He told The Globe that he credited his parents and their struggle to adjust to life in America with motivating him to become successful: “They did everything they could to come to America. I have that want to give back to them. That’s what’s driven me all throughout middle school and high school. That’s what’s going to continue to drive me.”

Melting Pot or Salad Bowl?

Although still in common usage, today many sociologists look down on the term “melting pot,” preferring alternatives like “salad bowl” or “kaleidoscope.” Their point is that diverse cultures should be simultaneously assimilated and preserved, accepted and celebrated rather than blended together and lost.

Such alternate terms also acknowledge the difficulty many immigrants face as they try to adjust to an American way of life. In a new, strange country, falling back on one’s old cultural identity can be an enormous source of support.

Part of what makes Youville such a special community is that our resident body is comprised of many immigrants with their own interesting stories. Youville residents hail from all over the world, including France, Egypt, Malaysia, Ireland, Japan, China, Germany, Britain and Argentina. Youville staff are similarly diverse, coming from Austria, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, India, Uganda, Colombia, and elsewhere. Even more of us are second generation immigrants – American by birth, but with deep family connections to other cultures, and stories to go along with those connections.

Whether you prefer to call it a “salad bowl” or a “melting pot,” the continuing influx of diverse cultures gives everyone a fresh perspective on what it means to be an American.

Geese, Farewell

The Youville Place pond: not a goose in sight!For years, Youville Place residents have grudgingly shared their front yard with a flock of Canadian geese. Territorial disputes have raged for as long as anyone can remember, with neither humans nor geese ceding any ground. Calls and honks for peace have degenerated. Making matters worse, neither side seems able to understand the demands of the other.  

To their credit, the Youville geese are relatively civil creatures. They rarely give chase and have been known to raise cute chicks, to the delight of human onlookers. But a grave problem underlies these superficial niceties. The geese have an annoying habit of gorging themselves on large swaths of lawn, and then depositing the remainder of those processed meals back on the lawn, in the form of goose waste.

Bob Salamanca, Director of Environmental Services, has led maintenance efforts at Youville Place for nine years. He confirms that the geese have been an ongoing nuisance for as long as he can remember. In addition to aesthetic concerns, the detritus left behind after their copious meals of grass – “landmines” as Salamanca calls them – pose safety issues for residents who like to walk around the pond in the spring time.

In the past, Youville has attempted a variety of methods to get rid of these unwanted guests. “There was a grid system we considered laying out over the pond to disrupt the geese’s landings, but that wasn’t a well-proven method,” says Salamanca. “We also considered a Portable Hazing Unit – a device that releases grape scented spray and a noise designed to repel the geese. But we couldn’t do that for safety reasons.”

One method that Youville temporarily adopted was the implementation of decoys – fake plastic coyotes mounted at key locations around the pond.  The coyotes soon gained notoriety among residents, family members and staff alike, all of whom were more frightened by the strikingly realistic decoys than the geese. “The reception desk actually got a few frightened calls from people saying they’d spotted coyotes out in the yard,” recalls Virginia Ellis, Director of Community Life. Meanwhile, the geese remained indifferent to the plastic predators in their midst, and their unsightly detritus continued to abound. Residents began to take matters into their own hands, carrying whistles out to the pond to attempt to drive the geese away.

“Those decoys,” Salamanca recalls with a faint shudder, “were not working. We needed to try something new.”

Meet Flag and Dan, specially-trained Border Collies and highly respected officers of the Goose Police squad. Accompanied by their human deputies, Flag and Dan are our latest allies in the struggle to rid the Youville pond of its stubborn inhabitants. They arrive multiple times a week to inspect the grounds, intimidate any geese-like creatures thereupon with scare tactics, and give chase if necessary. The two canines are highly experienced, with proven records of cleaning up goose-ridden lawns throughout New England. Their most effective techniques include a wolf-like stare and a predatory stance.

The Border Collies are also environmentally friendly – they never hurt the geese, they just scare them away. Border Collies were originally bred to herd sheep, and their natural instincts are perfectly adapted to patrolling goose-ridden lawns  They show up at Youville at unpredictable times, thereby tricking the geese into believing that there are numerous predators in the area. 

“It’s an ongoing process,” says Salamanca. “Once the dogs establish a continual presence at Youville, the geese learn to stay away.”

Due to their busy schedules, neither of our canine allies could be interviewed for this story. Perhaps one day, when the lawns of Lexington are cleaner and safer, Flag and Dan will have the time to fortify us with a few words, or yelps, of wisdom. Until then, we admire their police work from afar. Next time you’re out for a stroll, you might be lucky enough to get a glimpse of this elite team in action.

Stephen Collins Leads Poetry Seminar at Youville

Throughout the month of February, residents at Youville House and Youville Place are delving into the work of the early 20th century poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Stephen Collins, the teacher of the seminar, arrives each week with print-outs of the day’s assigned poems. After reading each poem, Collins and residents discuss their reactions, identifying weighted words, rhetorical shifts, and important themes. He urges residents to contribute their own observations, and is particularly adept at weaving together a variety of reactions and tying them back to the poem under examination.

Last Wednesday at Youville House, the group spent time on the poem “When The Year Grows Old.” Often thought to be about Millay’s mother, the poem provoked discussion about what one resident described as “the fallacy of memory.”  Collins with residents at Youville Place

She had a look about her

     That I wish I could forget –

The look of a scared thing

     Sitting in a net! 

Millay won a Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for “The Ballad of the Harp Weaver” and went on to accumulate a body of work that explored love and desire from a feminist perspective, with a frankness that was shocking for its time.

As Collins told the residents in his seminar, Millay’s sonnets, at their best, are “as good as any sonnet Shakespeare ever wrote.” And don’t think that Collins doesn’t adequately appreciate Shakespeare. He leads another seminar on The Bard himself.

 “If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one book, it would be the complete works of Shakespeare,” he says.

Collins has also run seminars on Walt Whitman, Thomas Hardy, and Robert Frost, both in schools and in senior living communities throughout New England.

The poetry seminar at Youville runs through February, Wednesdays at 3:00 PM at Youville House and Mondays at 1:30 PM at Youville Place. 

Learning To See One Another: For MLK Weekend, Youville Residents Collaborate with Art Students from Fletcher Maynard Academy

Fourth grade art students from the Fletcher Maynard Academy in Cambridge visited Youville House on Wednesday, January 7th, to collaborate with residents on an intergenerational art project to benefit the upcoming Many Helping Hands/MLK Day of Service. The students and residents spent the morning socializing, sharing snacks, and making contour drawing portraits of one another. 

A contour drawing focuses exclusively on the outlines of a subject, ignoring elements like shading, value and color. Contour drawing exercises provide art students with a useful first impression of a subject. Normally used as a means of introducing students to the skill of drawing from real life, the contour drawing exercise at Youville House served the additional purpose of introducing younger and older generations to one another.

According to Lisa Yarin, Director of Marketing at Youville House, “Many children these days do not have exposure to older adults, other than their teachers and parents. Likewise, our residents don’t often have the opportunity to meet young children in the community. Both the older and younger generations have much to gain and learn from interacting with one another in this context.”

The fourth graders were particularly impressed by some of the Youville residents’ artistic skills. Natalie Eisen, a Youville resident who has been drawing for much of her life, amazed the children with the accuracy of her depictions. Meanwhile, the Youville residents took pleasure in the energy and curiosity of the children.

The portraits produced by students and residents were later exhibited at Cambridge City Hall during the city-wide Many Helping Hands/MLK Day of Service on Monday, January 19th.  Youville resident Natalie Eisen met with students from the Fletcher Maynard Academy so they could view the exhibit and take pride in the fruits of their labor. Click here to see a gallery of photos and drawings

Painting from High Renaissance Exhibited at Youville Place

On Friday, September 26, Youville Place hosted a special exhibition of a painting dating back to the High Renaissance:  Gianfrancesco Penni’sHoly Family with St. Catherine of Alexandria and the Young St. John the Baptist.  Roger Howlett, Senior Research Fellow at Childs Gallery in Boston and the son of Youville resident Dorothy Howlett, is the current owner of this piece. He exhibited the painting for Youville residents and shared with them the remarkable story of how he came to acquire it.

The year was 1985, he explained to Youville residents in September. “Mr. Childs, the original owner and founder, had four unidentified paintings when I took over the gallery. One of them we called ‘the old Italian painting.”

Given the choice of purchasing the unidentified “old Italian painting,” or letting it go home with Mr. Childs, Mr. Howlett took a leap of faith and made an offer for it. It was a decision that he now describes as “dumb luck.”

Later attempts to track the painting’s identity were thwarted by the lack of information regarding the painting’s previous owners. “We still don’t even know how it came to Boston,” says Howlett. The verso bore the insignia of “Murray-Stewart,” a British family who had owned the painting until 1888.  Except for a framer's label that indicated that the painting had been framed in Boston somewhere between 1902 and 1942, the ensuing gap of time, up until Mr. Childs’ acquisition of the work in 1955, was a mystery.   

Roger Howlett and his mother Dorothy Howlett with the PenniThe ‘old Italian painting’ would remain an unknown variable for the next two decades; a mysterious image of the holy family assembled around various symbols of antiquity.  In the center of the picture, the Virgin Mary lifts the infant Jesus from an overturned Roman sarcophagus that doubles as his cradle. Behind Mary, on the right side of the painting, Joseph leans pensively on a cracked plinth. In the background up on a hill, above the figure of St. Catherine of Alexandria, the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla mark another allusion to antiquity.  

In 2004, Mr. Howlett gave a summer intern named Eliza Katz the challenge of determining the painting’s identity. Katz made a startling the discovery: she found that the three figures of the holy family derived from those in Raphael’s Holy Family of Francis I, a work now in the Louvre.  Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus were strikingly similar in both paintings – their orientation to one another as well as their respective positions and gestures.

The exciting hypothesis emerged that Howlett’s painting may have come from the studio of Raphael. Katz contacted a leading expert on Raphael’s circle, Professor Paul Joannides of Cambridge University. From the provided images, Professor Joannides recognized the work of Gianfrancesco Penni, Raphael’s studio assistant.  He informed Mr. Howlett that there was a nearly identical painting by Penni, dating from 1521-22, and hanging in the National Museum in Warsaw. What followed was a flurry of correspondence between Joannides and Howlett, in which Joannides estimated that both the Boston and Warsaw paintings were painted by Penni around the same time, with the possible influence of  Giulio Romano, another prominent Raphael assistant.

Mr. Howlett’s painting is now confirmed as “The Boston Version” of Penni’s Holy Family. He has since lent the painting to exhibits in multiple European cities, including 2012 exhibitions in Late Raphael at the Prado in Madrid and the Louvre in Paris, and a 2013 exhibition in which the Warsaw and Boston versions met for the first time since their production, 500 years ago.  

After 30 years of ownership, Mr. Howlett is beginning to consider putting the Penni up for sale. For Youville residents, the timing of his visit may have been perfect. It’s not every day that a painting from the High Renaissance shows up in your home. 

“Songs with Roy P” Acquires New Energy, A Spirit of Participation

Every other Monday, Youville residents gather to watch one of the most unique programs at Youville House: “Songs with Roy P.” Roy Privett, a Youville resident and the namesake of the program,established the event two years ago and continues to be the featured performer.

Recently he has added fellow resident performers to the ranks, and seen the concert grow into a full-fledged variety show. He now shares the bill with a singing partner, a comedian, an a capella soloist, a harmonica player, and occasional special guests. “It’s been great to bring more people in,” says Roy, reflecting on how the evening program has developed. “It was much more difficult when I was singing by myself, simply because I would get exhausted after 40 minutes. Now I have the chance to rest.” 

An engineer, Roy got started by providing his own instrumental accompaniment using a MIDI software package called “Band-in-a-Box.” This software enabled him to sing for residents without a physical backup band. On concert nights, he would set up the laptop in the living room and run it through an amplification system.  The laptop provided the instrumentation, and Roy provided the vocals.

“I have about 400 songs ready to go in this program,” says Roy. “And another 100 or so that I like but need to work on.”

The Origins of “Songs with Roy P”

“When I first moved in, there was a resident who played the piano on Monday evenings,” he recalls, “and a man who would sing along with her. I saw how much the residents enjoyed watching these two, and felt encouraged to join them.” 

Before Roy had a chance to participate, the pianist moved from Youville and the informal evening concerts were cancelled. He began thinking of ways to perform by himself, and found the solution with “Band-in-a-Box.” After a successful trial concert, “Songs with Roy P” was included on the monthly calendar at Youville House.

The Expansion

As a solo performer, Roy’s concerts soon drew crowds that could compete with Youville’s most popular paid performers. More often than not, the living room would reach full capacity before Roy sang the first lines from his evening opener (usually a smooth rendition of “Nice & Easy”).

With so much enthusiasm among residents, it was only a matter of time before Judi, his first willingcollaborator, appeared on stage. “Judi would often harmonize with me from her seat,” Roy recalls. “One day someone in the audience said, ‘why don’t you get up there and join him?’ From there we started doing duets together.”

This paved the way for additional performers. One by one, people approached Roy and suggested lending their talents to his program. Here is a list of the current regular performers on “Songs with Roy P”:

Roy, sound technician, singer, producer–– Opens and closes the evening

Judi, singer–– Provides harmony and duets during Roy’s sets.

Al, sit-down comedian––  Known for his mellifluous baritone and past experience as an MC, Al’s comic routines delivered from the comfort of an armchair, have become a standard part of the evening. Al’s jokes cover a wide variety of topics.

Paul, singer–– Paul’s stripped-down, a capella versions  of old Irish ballads are intimate and intense. They provide a contrast to Roy and Judi’s more casual, light-hearted repertoire.

Willie, harmonica player–– Armed with a chromatic harmonica, Willie began as an accompanying musician for Roy. He now has a slot all to himself. His medleys often lead to spontaneous vocal accompaniment from the audience as each new melody emerges.

The changing lineup of “Songs with Roy P” has come to reflect the diverse tastes of the Youville community in a setting made coherent by music. What began as one man’s hobby has turned into a cultural event unique to Youville House. 

“Songs w/ Roy P” takes place every other Monday evening at Youville House at 7:00 PM.