Remarks about Rosalind Denny Lewis

By Rosalind H. Williams, grandaughter of Rosalind Denny Lewis
Remarks at the Music Library Dedication
December 4, 1996

 

My purpose here today is to tell you something about my grandmother, but I have to begin by acknowledging that it feels odd to be speaking so publicly about such a private person. My grandmother was intensely interested in individuals, but she shied away from society, in the sense that Jane Austen would have used the term. She herself would not have looked forward to this event.

Nevertheless, we are justified, even obligated, to gather today in this very public setting. We are celebrating not so much Rosalind Denny Kenway Lewis, but even more the power of love and of memory. Only a few of us here knew her as Grandma Lewis, as Aunt Ros, as Mom; but all of us here are deeply shaped by similar relationships, so that at some point it is impossible to know where individuality ends and family begins. I once told my mother that when I found myself getting stressed and cranky, I would think of Grandma Lewis and try to assume some of her sweetness and gentleness. My mother replied, “I do just the same thing. I try to become my mother.”

On her mother’s side, Rosalind Lewis was descended from an old and respectable, though not especially wealthy, Boston family. Rosalind’s mother grew up on Beacon Hill, where she coasted down Chestnut Street in the winter, and in the summer built nests in the hay on the Common. Her father was an immigrant from Wales, an architect who collected the works of John Ruskin and developed a thriving practice in the Boston area. He died young, however, leaving five small children, one of whom died of diphtheria shortly after. To make ends meet, my grandmother’s mother took boarders into her home in Newton. One of them was a high school friend of her oldest son, a kid off the farm who had come to Newton High to get a better education than he could in the one-room schoolhouse in Laurel, Delaware. The boarder was Warren Lewis, and the rest, as they say, is history, the history of the heart that resulted in an exceptionally long and happy marriage.

Before marrying, however, they both went to college — Warren to MIT, and Rosalind to Radcliffe, at a time when college education for women was by no means commonplace (there were only 27 in her graduating class). My grandmother never forgot that Radcliffe made college possible for her by giving her a scholarship. She graduated in 1908, cum laude, a classics major.

In her married life, Rosalind Lewis kept her fine intelligence sharp through lifelong habits of reading and writing. As a member of the Social Science Club of Newton, she wrote and presented impressively researched, thoughtful papers on such diverse topics as Nobel Prize winners in literature, mental illness, and race relations in the United States. But you mainly noticed her intelligence in much more informal ways, in her powers of observation and her sometimes cutting wit. She was an avid people-watcher, for example; one time, when we were walking down a London street together, she leaned over and whispered, “And some people say that Dickens exaggerates!” A Radcliffe classmate of hers once complimented her on the fact that her namesake daughter — my mother — had done so well at Newton High, my grandmother responded, “I wonder if she is much brighter than I, or maybe the school is slipping?”

In the Newton world of my grandmother, music, like reading and writing, was an ordinary part of ordinary life. Her children all took piano lessons, starting in the third grade. She spent months searching for an affordable instrument, enlisting the aid of the children’s piano teacher, Mrs. Hadden, before settling on the Chickering upright that now rests in my living room. When the children grew older, they took their music lessons from Virginia, the most musically talented of the Kenway cousins. In a small packet of special papers, my grandmother saved a recital program of Mrs. Hadden’s students in 1926 — three of the thirteen performers were Lewis children — and another program from one of Virginia’s recitals in 1936, featuring Mary Lewis and concluding with a rondo by the “Kenway trio.”

What was most remarkable about Rosalind Lewis, however, was the greater harmony of her soul. She loved people. This love expressed itself in charitable activities, especially ones involving local children’s hospitals, but mostly it was expressed in daily interactions with individuals. During World War II, she and Doc Lewis parented two English children sent across the Atlantic to escape the Blitz. Much later, when she was well into her seventies, she would take “the old ladies of the church” [her words!] out for drives to view the autumn foliage. While she rarely if ever entertained her husband’s faculty colleagues, she often welcomed his students, especially ones from abroad. They would often be asked to share the bountiful Sunday dinners, which featured enormous roasts and ended with quarts of ice cream from the Brigham’s in Newtonville slowly melting on large platters during after-dinner conversation.

Most of all, Rosalind Lewis lavished love on her own family. She was the perfect grandmother. She cared for you as a unique individual. She listened to you. She wrote you letters. She spoiled you. She took you to Brigham’s to get your favorite flavor of ice cream. She knew my weakness for cashews and would regularly send me boxes of them from Bailey’s. When I was in college, she would still take me shopping at Chestnut Hill. She would call me by an affectionate childhood nickname, which I won’t reveal here.

Being spoiled is the antithesis of MIT culture. This is a place of unrelenting demands, of rigor, discipline, and long, long-deferred gratification. MIT never will and never should lose these qualities, but it should also never lose sight of the fact that achievement untimately depends on more. The rudder of discipline is useless unless the winds of energy and enthusiasm fill the sails. Everyone at MIT has a soul as well as a mind, passions as well as ideas, a past as well as a future, a family as well as individuality. Intellectual excellence requires courage and confidence, and these usually come from knowing that someone believes in you, cares for you, loves you.

According to a recent article in The Tech, some MIT students come to the Lewis Music Library even if they have no music classes or assignments, simply because they like being there. This doesn’t surprise me. There are few places on this campus that are so welcoming, nurturing, embracing.

At the conclusion of his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln appealed to “the mystic chords of memory” that bind the dead with the living. That is chords spelled with an h: not shackles that tie, but vibrations that resonate. This is what we celebrate today: the harmony of this place, of music, of a life well lived. My grandmother’s spirit dwells here.