Post Magazine: A Mom-umental Failure

(Library of Congress)
John Kelly, Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 12, 2008; 12:00 PM

Mom deserves a monument, doesn't she? Well, once upon a time there was an effort to build a memorial to mothers in the Nation's Capital -- but it didn't end well.

Post columnist John Kelly was online Monday, May 12 to discuss his Washington Post Magazine cover story, "A Mom-umental Failure."

John Kelly's Washington is currently on hiatus while John Kelly himself is at the University of Oxford in England. Check out his blog to see what he's been up to over there!

A transcript follows.


John Kelly: A couple of years ago I was casting around for ideas for a Mother's Day column. Such is the lot of the daily columnist, a constant hunger for topics. I'd put "mother's day" into the search field of ProQuest, a database that includes articles from the very start of The Post, back in 1879. Starting around 1921 I kept seeing references to a Mothers' Memorial. I know a lot about Washington history. Had I somehow missed that? Was it ever built? Was it in someone's backyard?
I wrote in the Magazine yesterday about what I found: no physical memorial, just traces in archives, libraries and morgues of What Might Have Been. And probably What Shouldn't Have Been. (The memorial design was pretty hideous.) But what characters: A flaky debutante! A boxing art student! I got kind of fond of Daisy Calhoun and W. Clark Noble.
I'm happy to chat today about the story--or about anything else, frankly. But remember that I've been living in England for the last nine months so have no idea what's going on in the US of A. Is there some kind of election going on? Are the Nats winning?
Oh, I posted a few photos of some of the people mentioned in the Mothers' Memorial story on my blog: John Kelly's Voxford .


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Do the Brits celebrate Mum's Day in jolly Old England?

If so, what do they do? Take her out for a pint and a pork pie?

Thanks much. HLB

John Kelly: They do, but they call it "Mothering Sunday" and celebrate it on the fourth Sunday of Lent. It has its origins in the church, where congregants would walk from their tiny village churches to the larger "mother" churches from which they sprang. It sort of morphed into something honoring mothers.
No, no pork pies. Here's something I jotted down from an 1827 book:
"All who consider themselves dutiful children, or who wish to be considered so by others, on this day make presents to their Mother; and if the day prove fine, proceed after Church to the neighbouring village to eat furmety. The higher classes partake of it at their own houses; and in the evening come the cake and wine."
Furmety is some kind of "ground wheat combined with fresh broth, and milk of almonds, or sweet milk of kine, and temper it all, and take yolks of eggs, boil it a little, and mess it forth with fat venison, or fresh mutton."
I don't think they do furmety much anymore, but they do something called simnel cakes, which, according to another book "belong to the class of sacred cakes which includes Yule-doughs, bannocks, cop-a-loaves, mince pies, pan cakes, tansy cakes, Pope-ladies, Soul-mass cakes, and a host of other survivals from ancient antiquity."
Want to make your own simnel cake? Here's one recipe:
Half a pound of butter, a pound of flour, three-quarters of a pound of currants, half a pound of candied peel, a quarter of a pound of almonds, half a pound of sugar, a quarter of a pound of mixed spice, a pinch of saffron.
Cream the butter and sugar together, and add the eggs [note: it didn't mention eggs in the ingredients, but they pop up in the directions!], beating them in thoroughly, one by one. Sieve the flour, and add it with the rest of the ingredients, the saffron should only just be enough to give the cake a rich colour. Too much would spoil the flavour. Put the cake mixture into a well greased tin, tie over with a floured cloth, and boil for three and a half hours. Then turn the cake out of the tin, and work the edge of the top till a ridge is formed all round, and bake in a sharp oven till crisp. Put a thick layer of almond paste in the hollow which the ridge surrounds, and decorate with dried fruit.
Don't blame me if it's inedible.


John Kelly: I mentioned in the article that the gatehouse from the Scottish-style castle Daisy built is the only thing left. It's on Woodbine Street in Chevy Chase. Here's the website of the guy who owns the house now. There are some great pictures.
I asked him if he ever found any trace of the limestone pyramid that was erected with great fanfare. Nope.


Josh Braun, Ithaca, N.Y.: Did Noble have any notable students? Has he had any lasting influence on American sculpture?

John Kelly: Hey Josh. I didn't find any reference to him having any notable students. To be honest, I think he was a pretty workmanlike sculptor, one who was good at the PR game (up to a point) but wasn't among the true geniuses of American art. I'm not an art critic but the stuff of Noble's that I've seen strikes me as somewhat stiff and formal. Here's his statue of Gen. Josiah Porter in New York's Van Cortland Park.


Bowie, Md.: Very interesting article. Glad the monster never got built. Mother's day celebrations should be personal.

Please clarify about Mr Noble's orphan status. In checking out the Maine government site to view the statue he made for the capitol building there, it states that Mr. Noble's father and mother were lost at sea. Just curious. Thanks, Joyce

John Kelly: Thanks, Joyce. Yes, there is some confusion about that but I'm certain I'm right. How often would a wife go with her sea captain husband? I mean, unless it was Take Your Wife to Work Day? Especially if she had a baby. But the real clincher is the 1870 Census. Records show young Clark Noble living with his mother, Emma, on her father's farm. To lose your father at such a young age is a terrible thing. You might even be orphaned in the eyes of those patriarchal times. But his mother was alive. I was just surprised she was never mentioned in any of the articles I read about him. He was never quoted as talking about HIS mother and what SHE meant to him.


Washington, D.C.: Thank you for declaring your opinion on the World War II memorial - that thing is awful. The Vietnam memorial was supposed to pave the way for the future of what a memorial should be, but it looks like we are heading backwards. What do you think about the federal commission and veterans' groups destroying the integrity of the Vietnam memorial with an unnecessary/redundant visitor's center? Don't you think that we are going a little too far with the memorials?

John Kelly: What's that expression? Gilding the lily? Overegg the pudding? I agree that some of the most moving monuments are the simplest. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one. The Saint Gaudens sculpture on Clover Adams's grave is another. We seem to be losing the capacity to allow reactions and emotions to bubble up from within ourselves. Instead, we have to be hit over the head: This is what this MEANS. This is what this SAYS.


Upper Marlboro, Md.: What is this hatred of parents or rather, a desperate need to be hip, that the Post shows every mother's and father's day in the Post magazine? Why did they think it appropriate to print this article on this day? For the past several years, every Mother and Father's Day, one can depend on the magazine running articles on how horrible someone's parent, or step-parent was, how they abused, or misused, or ignored, or otherwise screwed up their childhood, and how the author felt ambivalent about the person at separation or death. The contrivance has been used enough! Let it go! It's okay to have a well-researched story about a pretty freaking good parent for a change!!!

John Kelly: I don't think my story was anti-Mother. I love my mother. I just thought it was such an interesting tale, and one I hadn't seen before. Yes, the characters weren't exactly the best parents. But not all parents are. And I think that maybe explains why this thing imploded. Did they REALLY want to honor mothers? Or were they trying to do something else?
What did Tolstoy say? Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I also believe that sentiment I ended the story with (if you got that far): We don't need memorials to remember our mothers. Or we shouldn't, anyway. As for why it ran on Mother's Day, well, that's the whole point.


Arlington, Va.: Hi John, nice to see your byline. This article was hilarious, but it does raise a rather serious point: We really need people who know what they're talking about to make aesthetic decisions about what gets memorialized in D.C., and how. Erring on the side of understatement is not a bad thing.

John Kelly: Exactly. And now what's this I hear about the Dr. King memorial? Stalinist sculpture? Made in China? Sheesh.


Rockville, Maryland: I was also interested that your fine article appears just as the Chinese design for an MLK memorial has been rejected. Unhappy With 'Confrontational' Image, U.S. Panel Wants King Statue Reworked (Washington Post, May 9)

John Kelly: Speak of the devil. Yes, a total coincidence. I think D.C. goes through these periodic fits of artistic crisis. One the one hand there's the worry that we'll have too many monuments (everyone wants their own). On the other, there's the question of what the things look like.
I guess maybe those are on the same hand.


Alexandria, Va.: I can certainly never repay my mother for giving me the greatest name in the world.

-- John Kelly

John Kelly: Agreed. But shouldn't you thank your father for that?
(And tell me: Do you get stopped re-entering the US, as I do? "John Kelly" seems to be on some kind of no-fly list.)


John Kelly: I'd really love to know more about Daisy. For example, I found a reference to a convoluted 1930 case where she was ordered to pay $1,000 to a Rockville man named Joseph R. Harris. A man named George A. Gormley owed that amount to Harris. Gormley gave Harris a check that Daisy Calhoun had made out to him. But she stopped payment and Harris couldn't cash it, so he sued. Daisy said Gormley had stolen it from her house.
So far so good. But three years later Gormley shows up in the news again. He is arrested, along with the Countess Grace DeBenque, and accused of running an extortion ring. Gormley had somehow finagled a date with Miss Louise Maret, the spinster proprietor of the exclusive Maret School. The two were driving up Brookville Road when Gormley stopped the car suddenly and switched off the lights. Just then a police officer with a flashlight approached and asked what was going on. The officer said he would have to charge them (what DID he think they were doing?) unless she paid him off. Maret ended up forking over $5,000 to avoid arrest and the attendant bad publicity.
Except the man with a flashlight wasn't a cop. He was an associate of Gormley and the Countess. The whole thing was a set up. Gormley and the Countess were found guilty. It was revealed that they had pulled the same swindle on seven other Washington women.
I wonder if Daisy was one of them?


Alexandria: Hi John,

How's spring in Oxford? Been to any champagne and strawberry college plays yet?

An Oxford alum

John Kelly: I haven't, though I've have drunk deeply in other ways. Most afternoon seminars or lectures end with a reception, where there's wine and nibblies. And I'm trying to go to dinner at as many colleges as I can. So far, I've knocked off Green, St. Anne's, Harris Manchester, Nuffield and Wadham. It's all so frightfully civilized, er, civilised.
I think I have some strawberries and champagne on my calendar, though, perhaps when we go punting. The weather has finally turned for the better. And when it stops raining, springtime in England is about as good as it gets.


Where is your blog these days...: John, it was so great to see your name on the article. What's your current blog address? And when are you returning to the Post on a regular basis? Your loyal fans still miss you. Voila: John Kelly's Voxford

John Kelly: Thank you. My time here is up at the end of June. We have to move back to the US (wife, daughters, dog!) and move back into our house. Then promptly go on vacation. I imagine I'll be back in the paper in early August. There will be a paper for me to go back into, I trust.


How often would a wife go with her sea captain husband?: Not that uncommon. The wife was cook.

John Kelly: Ah. Yeah, I guess that makes sense. But even if there were two kids, as in Noble's case? And would the kids go too?


Richmond, Va.: During the 19th century, women often accompanied their sea-captain husbands or fathers on oceangoing merchant ships.

John Kelly: I'd like to have learned more about Noble's father and what exactly it was he captained. Noble used to say that his people came "from the sea" and that his family wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps. (Hey! Great idea! Oh, his footsteps end right here at a deep, deep watery grave.) But I couldn't find any reference to his dad's demise. Of course, that might have been pretty common back then.


Ithaca, N.Y.: I know you're studying citizen journalism - I'd be interested to know if you've read Clay Shirky's new book, "Here Comes Everybody." I think it oversteps quite plainly in suggesting that traditional journalists need to come to terms with their "obsolescence." But at the same time, I thought it did a good job of detailing some less obvious reasons for the economic woes newspapers are experiencing at the moment.

John Kelly: I haven't read Shirky's new book, though he is one of the founding figures in this whole debate. It sounds like I should read it. I don't think that citizen journalism (which includes stuff like blogs and amateur-created web sites) will either save journalism or kill journalism. Newspapers have been much more affected by things like the demise of department stores and changes in commuting and work patterns. But I think it's inevitable, and understandable, that consumers will want the freedom to have more choice in how they get their news and in how they interact with the things (increasingly websites) that bring them the news.


Oxford!: How are you enjoying high-falutin' Oxford? I hope you found all of Bill Clinton's old hangouts. Just remember not to inhale.

John Kelly: Bill Clinton's old, non-inhaling haunt is one of my favorites too. It's called the Turf Tavern and it's a great pub, down some twisty alleys, nice and snug inside, with tables and umbrellas outside. It's amazing to be able to actually TASTE beer. I could get used to this. And since I don't have a car I don't have to worry about driving home. I just ride my bike. It's amazing how riding your bike can sober you up.


Westcliffe Colo.: Where's Friar Tuck's recipe for oatmeal stout? To wash down the bourbon cakes and Welsh rarebit.

After all, next month is Father's Day. So I'm told.

Rufus in the Sangres

John Kelly: I wanted to make My Lovely Wife a simnel cake, but she begged me not to. Apparently there are three types of simnel cakes: Shrewsbury, Bury and Devizes. Here is what a contemporary author wrote about the Shrewsbury:
"Shrewsbury are very stiff, crust of deep yellow , interior filled with materials of a very rich plum cake. When ready for sale the crust is indeed, 'too hard to break,' and many are the stories told of the uses to which the cakes have been put by persons who did not understand that the hard crust was the hall-mark of excellence. One old gentleman found that Simnel made a very good footstool! And another recipient of a similar gift ordered it to be boiled in the hopes of softening it!"
So, it sounds like a fruit cake on steroids, left in the attic for a few months.


John Kelly: How did you YOU guys (and gals) celebrate Mother's Day? What did you do for your mother? And if you ARE a mother, what was done for you?


Anchorage, Alaska: When you moved in at Oxford (which college, by the way?), did they assign you a..




Pip pip, stiff upper lip, what ho?

John Kelly: I'm assigned to Green College, which is a very new one. It's a graduate college that was founded in 1979, primarily for medical students. The nice thing about it is it has this 18th century observatory in the center of the campus. That's where meals are.
But I'm really sort of a hanger-on. Since I'm not in a degree-granting program, I don't get all the foppish accouterments.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Have you learnt how to pronounce Magdalene?

Trivial Pursuit: One college has it ending it "n," the other with "e". To which university does each belong?

I know the answer but I don't want to appear as a toff, or swell, or git, or Nancy Boy, or whatever they call it.

Thanks much. HLB

John Kelly: We pronounce it "maudlin." As for how it's pronounced in The Other Place, well, we don't really care.


Richmond: Despite ships often being depicted as the bulwark of men, in reality they were often home to both wives and children. Both captains' kids and cabin boys spent childhoods and their teenage years aboard ships.

John Kelly: Interesting. Of course, in the lack of specific information about Noble's father, I start to speculate. Was he really killed in a storm? It must have been so much harder for journalists to check such things back then. Today we'd just Google it.


The Bosun's wife..: ..would be aboard to wipe the sniffles of the midshipmen long before they became sniveling admirals.

Midshipmen who misbehaved would kiss the gunner's daughter, but she wasn't anyone you'd want to meet. Unless you're into punishment.

John Kelly: "Kissing the gunner's daughter"? That's not some euphemism that's going to get me in trouble, is it?
Sounds like Davy Jones's locker must be full of the fairer sex. (Funnily enough, in the 1960s, a lot of the fairer sex's locker was filled with Davy Jones --pictures of the Monkee.)


Oakton, Virginia: My family has one of William Clark Noble's plaster models -- a curved segment with garlands and cherubs. We aren't quite sure what to do with it -- in your research, did you come across any museums that might accept it as a donation?

John Kelly: It's possible that some museum in Maine might be interested, either in the capital or his hometown. If you send me an e-mail (john [at] I can put you in touch. Perhaps the Washington Historical Society or Washingtoniana Room, but since it was never built they might not really care.
Please don't get rid of it till after I get back. I'd love to see it. Wherever did you get it?


Logan North, D.C.: Congratulations on an interesting article that was quite enjoyable to read. I hope you will be back writing for the Post full-time soon. Would Mr. Noble, if he were alive today, be impressed by his apparent influence on the design of that awful WW II Memorial on the Mall? As I believe you briefly observe in the article, there seems to be more than a passing resemblance between the overwrought design for the Mothers' Memorial and the grandiose WW II Memorial.

John Kelly: I think he'd probably like it. He was definitely a "more is more" kind of guy. He must have been successful because he didn't really push the boundaries. He was a competent craftsman who would give a client a statue that looked like the client thought a statue was supposed to look.
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by that. Perhaps that's what the majority of Americans would want, and those of us who long for stuff that's not quite so overbaked are in the minority.


Herndon, Va.: Hi John: I really struggle with Mother's Day. Not to bring everyone down, but my mother is a pretty awful person... mean, manipulative, pathological liar. Really not a nice person and not someone who should be celebrated. She regretted having children and let me and my brother know that pretty much every day of our childhood. So, while I'm happy for all of you who have great mothers, just realize that this day isn't really a party for everyone.

John Kelly: Ah.
But it sounds like you turned out all right.


Washington, D.C.: Great article. I, for one, always look forward to these tales around the holidays.

To change the topic: What will you miss most about merry old England? What do you currently miss most about the U.S.?

John Kelly: I will miss the beer and the pubs, specifically a tasty concoction called Old Hooky which is brewed not far from here, and the Rose and Crown pub. I'll also miss the newspapers: nine (!) daily newspapers. And though they are sometimes irresponsible, they are usually a hoot to read. The writing's great--especially the columnists--and they scrap and struggle to keep a reader's attention.
And I like not having a car. It's wonderful biking or walking everywhere.


Alexandria, Va.: To answer your question about traveling, no problems flying so far. I'm actually a John Kelly who wrote you all those months ago in response to your article about being stopped at an airport. I claimed innocence for getting you in that mess.

John Kelly: I'm glad to hear that. Perhaps the evil John Kelly has redeemed himself, making air travel safe for those namesakes who fit his biometric profile.


Washington, DC 20005: England in the Spring? That's so overrated, John. Wouldn't you rather come back to DC early, this way you can experience and write for my amusement about the heavy rains, the high pollen, weekend delays on the Metro, and of course the hilarity of these 2008 primaries? Come on, Friday afternoons haven't been the same since you left your chat.

John Kelly: Doesn't the heavy rain wash away the pollen? And aren't those primaries over yet?
Not that that doesn't sound lovely.


I'll also miss the newspapers: nine (!) daily newspapers. : I imagine you'll miss having the TIME to read 9 newspapers daily! oh, the life of Reilly.

John Kelly: Yeah, there's that. And spending a lot of time with my family. I'm not sure how my family feels about that, actually....


"Mess it forth!": I do love that expression in old recipes. They also say things like "cast in the currants" which conjures up the image of an old kitchen being like the food-fight scene in "Animal House."

John Kelly: What they don't say is "pick out bits of broken teeth after shattering your incisors on the rock hard simnel cake."
Thanks for joining me this afternoon. I hear a pint glass calling my name. As I said, I'll be back this summer and once again I'll be constantly on the prowl for story ideas. Please keep me in mind when you encounter the odd or the interesting or the just plain noteworthy. And for reports from the front line of Oxford, visit my humble blog. I've even got a special channel on YouTube if you want to see how crazy the Brits are.


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