‘Sisterhoods of Space’

Across a century and a half, the progeny of two presidents — Mary Sheldon Barnes 1868, daughter of Oswego’s Founder Edward Austin Sheldon, and Paige Stanley, daughter of current President Deborah F. Stanley — connected in their love for Shady Shore and their homesickness for the old homestead.

Mary wrote in Sheldon’s autobiography about times the children would accompany their parents out to work on the family farm in Perry, N.Y. “Yet we were always glad to get back to our ‘dear old Lake’ Ontario, with its murmurs and its thunders — last sound at night and first sound in the morning — with its world of changing color and its glorious sunsets. That lake and sky have often seemed to bear us up, away from the common world into realms of purest aspiration. Some of us, when away from home, have been stricken with actual, serious homesickness for them,” Mary wrote.

In law school in Washington, D.C., Paige felt that same homesickness. While searching the Internet for information about her home, she came across a piece Mary had written and felt compelled to answer her. “I wrote the letter to Mary in a bout of homesickness for the house and the lake to remind myself that the goal isn’t to remain in the same moment that first ignited in me a desire for learning and knowing more about the world, but it’s to take that desire out with me into the world to be that spark for others,” Paige wrote.

“Knowing how Mary felt about the house and about Oswego, and also knowing that she did most of her life’s work far from home helps to remind me that though my roots are planted firmly on the shore of Lake Ontario, I have a responsibility to take what I’ve learned here with me out into the world and contribute my voice to the marketplace of ideas.”

Here are the letters of the two presidential daughters.

Mary Sheldon wrote:

“I can remember just the hour when the endless wish to know awoke — that divine energy which urges us to mingle with the greater world without.

Mary Sheldon BarnesJust a child, with mother’s arm about me, I stood in the little dormer window of my room, looking up and out at the clear dome of stars, that rose from Lake Ontario to the zenith.

There glimmered the softly sparkling milky way, single stars, splendid and intense, drew the space from point to point — but best of all, I loved groups of stars, the sisterhoods of space, and best of these, again, the three strong stars of Orion’s belt.

The stars are all worlds, are all suns — like our world, like our sun, said my mother softly.

All those stars? All worlds?

And through the infinite spaces swept an infinite life that swept my soul upward and outward with it, in an infinite longing to know the bright worlds, every one.

So in a moment, the mind awoke to its energy and joy.”

Paige Stanley’s reply:

Dear Mary,

Paige StanleyGenerations after you awoke to yourself while gazing out into the expanse and loveliness of a Lake Ontario night sky, I started on my own journey to myself in the same place. My bedroom window in Shady Shore looks out to the lake as yours did. It is, perhaps, the same room and the same window. Much has changed in our house over the years not least of which, I imagine, is the view. A vast maple tree now stands insistent outside my window. It might be just old enough to have been the sapling that you could once peer down at from this perch. In the winter, when its branches are sparse, I look straight out to the lake, and each night I am lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves as you must have been. Though the lake is expansive and ever-present here, I have always considered it a companion to only me; a relationship born of sustained and mutual contemplation over the years.

Is it strange to think of your words as a private letter to me across decades? Is it stranger still to think that your journey, your self, and your story have influenced my journey, self, and story? Our unity of place, even though not of time, still links us. We are both daughters of this lake, this school, this house, and perhaps this room. This place sparked in you a desire for learning that you cultivated and carried out into the world. That same spark took root in me here. And from this place I carry it upward and outward in an effort to do that which you have done for me and countless others. Pass it on. “Through the infinite spaces swept an infinite life that swept my soul upward and outward with it, in an infinite longing to know the bright worlds, every one.” It is an endless wish to know. Endless, I think, in that not only does it spur each of us onward, it is continually passed from soul to soul as a gift.

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