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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sylvia Plath, Winthrop, MA

          It all began in Feb. 1963 when the news broadcast the death of Sylvia Plath. I had never heard of her and was surprised to learn, that she had lived in Winthrop MA when she was in grade school. Since she was the same age as my oldest sister, I mentioned Sylvia Plath to her. Not only did she remember her, but she remembered walking to school with her and some other kids that lived nearby. What? She lived near us? Yes she did. She lived in one of the houses on Johnson Ave. that backs right up to the harbor. Now, truth be known, the family had moved from Winthrop before I began my warp speed bicycle rides down Johnson Ave., yet somehow I now felt a connection to this person I had never known. I must have passed her house hundreds of times as my bike took me to nearly every nook and cranny on the peninsula.

          My sister bought about every book of Plath’s, even those published after her death. I don’t know if she ever read any of them. It may have been a tribute to a long lost childhood friend. I took a less aggressive path and checked her books out of the library. Truly, I don’t know what I thought I would find, but I was astounded to see myself in the mind of such a troubled person. Her father died when she was eight. Who’s to say if this was the catalyst that pushed an overly sensitive child over the edge, or whether it would have happened anyway given any other set of circumstances. Yet this very capable, brilliant and creative child grew into a woman with insurmountable demons. Her mother Aurelia Schober, grew up in Winthrop, on Shirely St., at Point Shirley. Sylvia spent a great deal of time there with her grandparents. Many of her poems that deal with the ocean are from those memories. Little did I know while growing up, that her grandparents lived a short distance from Yirrell Beach, a place where I spent a great deal of time.  There was a store just a couple of blocks from the beach where we would go for a cold drink or a snack. Again, not knowing, I passed her grandparents house going and
coming, each time we all trekked to the store.

          Her grandparents were both born in Austria and her father was born in East Prussia, or Poland, depending on where the boundary lines were at the time of his birth. This was a second marriage for him. Aurelia was one of his students and was 21 years younger. In the 1940 census it says that she had completed 5 years of college and that Otto was a professor at a university. He was an entomologist and worked at Boston University.  It’s been revealed that Otto had come under the scrutiny of the FBI during WWI for suspected pro-German allegiance. He had trouble finding jobs, was considered to have a ‘morbid disposition’ and there seemed to be no one who really knew him. Perhaps this was a description of what might have been a disorder leading to depression and it may have been genetic, which could explain a great deal about Sylvia. But then he died. He had a type of diabetes that was treatable in the 1930’s but he thought he had cancer. When he was finally forced to go to the Dr. it was too late for them to help him. After his death, Sylvia’s mother taught junior high school in Winthrop for a couple of years, until she moved her family to Wellesley, where Sylvia completed her growing up years.         
          While at Smith, Sylvia attempted suicide with pills, hiding out in a crawl space under a porch. She entered a sanitarium where she received 6 months of treatment. She finally returned to and graduated from Smith, then having won a Fulbright Scholarship, she went to England to study. There she met and married her husband, Ted Hughes and they had two children. During his marriage, Ted had an affair with Assia Wevill. Mr. Hughes was well known for womanizing, which caused the marriage to disintegrate. During the coldest winter in 100 years in England, Sylvia, alone with her two children in an apartment, left food beside the children’s beds, closed herself off in the kitchen by sealing all the cracks with wet towels, stuck her head deep inside the oven, turned the gas on and lost the battle with her demons.

          The saga should end there but it doesn’t. Assia Wevill gave birth to a child, which Mr. Hughes admitted could be his. Six years after Sylvia’s death, Assia did the same thing, except she turned the gas on and curled up beside her child and they both died together.

          Then on March 16 2009, Frieda Hughes, Sylvia’s daughter, announced the death of her brother, Nicholas, at age 47, by his own hand. He had hung himself at his home in Fairbanks, Alaska. His sister stated that he had been battling depression for some time. He had been a fisheries scientist at the University of Alaska, where he had earned his Doctorate. Perhaps the descent of insanity ended here with him.

          To read The Bell Jar, her autobiography, or any of her poetry is an exercise in  absorbing her vivid imagery. It’s often difficult to follow her convoluted thoughts and to withstand the intensity of her anger, which sometimes leaps off the pages. She was a complex person loving her father immensely and hating him just as intensely for leaving her. Her love/hate relationship with her mother eventually led to estrangement.

          In Electra on Azalea Path, she describes the cemetery her father is buried in as similar to a charity ward, crowded and poor. This may have been the way her tortured mind saw his grave, but, in fact, this cemetery is quite nice. It does have an iron spike fence around it and it is full, densely shaded and peaceful. My grandparents, gt. grandmother, my mother and my sister all share this space with Otto Plath. An aunt and uncle, a cousin, many friends of my parents, dear sister of my best friend and her parents, all have addresses near to Azalea Path. It really isn’t what she described. But, once again, I have walked by Azalea Path hundreds of times, not knowing I was so close to where Sylvia and Ted Hughes stood or knowing that Otto Plath rested there.
          To the best of my knowledge there is no memorial anywhere in Winthrop to Sylvia Plath. She lived there just a few years, during a time when she wasn’t very noteworthy. Winthrop is not an aloof town as I’ve heard it described, but it once was a resort town, a place where ‘summer folk’ come for the wind and the waves. I don’t suppose the town should be required to memorialize every famous person who has spent a bit of time there. Yet, it might be nice to have something, maybe near the library, to let people know that a famous, if tragic, poet once lived there.





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