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Tue August 19, 2014
"The Angel In My Pocket": Sukey Forbes On Healing After Her Daughter's Death
Sukey Forbes knew her young daughter Charlotte had a rare genetic disorder. She knew she had to closely monitor Charlotte's health because a fever could prove fatal.
But despite all her best efforts, and despite racing Charlotte to Newton-Wellesley Hospital, her 6-year-old daughter died suddenly 10 years ago Monday.
In her new book, “The Angel In My Pocket,” Forbes writes about her difficulty grieving, how her famous ancestry proved insightful, and how she found solace in a psychic.
Read an excerpt of the book:
Just across the meadow from Mansion House on Naushon Island, there’s a barn devoted entirely to genealogy. This newly renovated space, bright and spare as a Chelsea art gallery, serves as an archive for the eight generations of Forbes who have summered here. Ancient maps depict the Elizabeth Islands, the tiny archipelago to which Naushon belongs, and which juts southwest from the underbelly of Cape Cod. Alongside the maps hang old sepia photographs and, as if we family members were racehorses, color-coded bloodlines. Each of us has his or her own card, and the cards are connected by differently colored ribbons. Each color represents a separate line of descent from John Murray Forbes, the young merchant in the China trade who in 1842 bought the entire seven-thousand-acre preserve. Nine years earlier he had married Sarah Hathaway, with whom he had seven children. My particular line, marked by a blue ribbon, descends from William Hathaway Forbes, the eldest son, who shifted the family’s enterprises from tea and opium and railroads to telephones. It proved to be a good decision.
From the time my own children could walk I’ve taken them to the barn at least once each year because I’ve always wanted to make them feel a part of this tradition. As they grew older, I tried to explain to them exactly what a “cousin” was, and what having an “uncle” meant, and how far back a “great-great-grandmother” reached in time, and what it meant to have a relative “once removed.” I thought it was important for them to understand this larger backdrop to their lives, and for me to be able to say, “See. There you are. You belong. You’re part of the clan.”
I have three children, though only two of them are still with me physically. The card on the wall representing Charlotte, my middle child, has a red dot in the corner, and the dates 12/23/97–8/18/04.
Whenever I visit the barn now I can still feel six-year-old Charlotte tugging on my shirt, trying to hurry me along, saying, “Come on, Mummy. I want to see my tag.”
Charlotte’s hair was a soft corn silk blond with red highlights, very straight and very shiny, and every time I was with her I wanted to touch it. She had freckles across the bridge of her nose, and a crooked little grin, and her eyes were large and green like her father’s, with exceptionally long lashes. When I think of those eyes I remember how they were always opened wide and absorbing everything, almost as if she knew she did not have much time and she wanted to make the most of it.
I can still hear her commentary on what our ancestors wore in those old photographs, and how it was different from what she was wearing. Charlotte’s fashion sense seemed to have emerged with her from the womb. Once, when I was still nursing her, I was in a meeting choosing fabrics for a project and this infant attached to my breast reached out a tiny hand and started stroking one of the bolts of cloth. Typically, the fabric that attracted Charlotte’s attention was the one we ultimately went with for the sofa.
Charlotte was a girl’s girl who loved to twirl and dance in fabulous fabrics, and after she began to dress herself she was known to wear one pink loafer and one blue one, which usually inspired me to do the same. Whenever she stole into my closet for dress‐up, invariably she pulled out only the best cashmere sweaters. She also went straight for the Manolo Blahnik heels. When I hid them she’d come find me, tug on my sleeve, and say “Manolo.” It was one of her first words.
And yet Charlotte was just as much a nature child, someone who fundamentally “got” Naushon. She loved to run through the fields and see shapes in the clouds and catch snakes and turtles out by the lake. But she also loved princesses, and as she began to learn to read and write, most of the stories she composed were about her own variations on Snow White and Cinderella. I remember her, just days before she died, dancing through a neighbor’s garden, hopping about to taste each and every variety of arugula. I also remember her during berry-picking season. She’d just come back from a birthday party and was purple all over from making jam in the kitchen, but on top of the berry stains her face was painted like a tiger’s.
A fairy princess and a critter catcher. A tiger who made jam. A middle child who nonetheless ruled the roost. The mystery that haunted me during my first months without her was: What happened to all these contradictions? All this exuberance? What about all this joy? They say my daughter died, but where exactly did my daughter go?
For me, the place for probing such questions has never been a grand cathedral, or an ashram, or even one of those stark white buildings beneath the steeple in the center of a New England village. The woods and meadows of Naushon have always been my church. And long before I knew anything about my great-great-great-grandfather, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, and how he helped develop such ideas into the school of thought called Transcendentalism, my approach to finding God was through the direct experience of nature.
I loved Naushon’s forests and meadows because this was the one setting in which Forbes children were allowed to be rambunctious and expressive, even rapturous. For as long as I can remember we rode horses there and we sheared sheep. We drove pony carts, cleared trails with chain saws, put on plays in the forests, skinny-dipped on the beaches, rolled down the hills, and sang at the top of our lungs while tramping along the dirt roads. It was—and remains—a matter of pride among us to never use a flashlight when out walking at night, not even in the woods. If you’re a Forbes, you’re supposed to know the trails well enough that you can sense where you are.
From THE ANGEL IN MY POCKET by Sukey Forbes. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Sukey Forbes, 2014.