“A Gesture, A Face, A Life”: A Faculty Feature from Natalie Dykstra

I am terrible with good-byes.  When I used to spend the summer on my uncle’s Iowa farm, feeding calves, mowing the large swaths of grass, driving tractor for the hay balers, I would hide in the barn when it was time to return with my parents to a Chicago suburb.  I didn’t want to say goodbye – to my cousins, to the barn cats, to my favorite maple tree near the horse pasture.  I so dreaded leaving my third-grade classroom, I fake-fell off the playground equipment and “sprained” my right arm.  Anything not to have to say good-bye to my teacher.  Fourth grade could NEVER be as good as third grade – no way.

Similar feelings stir in me while I prepare to travel back to Boston in a few days, where I live with my dear husband, Mike.  I’m used to this end-of-the-year transition, having taught at Hope College only in the fall semester for the last five years.  And, make no mistake, I’m eager to be home again.

Yet this transition feels different than the others, because I won’t be back to teaching until Fall 2020.  I have received a year-long National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award, allowing me to work full-time on my next project.  I’m writing another biography, this time of the art collector and museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner, a woman of the same generation and social circle as Clover Adams, the subject of my first book.  Clover and Isabella – they were very different women, but they were both passionate about looking at art and making beauty.

Author photograph of the third-floor chapel at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA.

On a cold Christmas Eve in 1901, Isabella held a midnight service in the third-floor chapel of her Venetian-style house museum, which she’d filled with her art collection. A large 13th-century French glass window (left) glows as its centerpiece.  The Boston Globe reported that “shortly before midnight the altar of the little chapel was lighted most brilliantly, and the services were begun at the midnight hour. … The chapel is quite small … and is similar in character to the chapels which were a feature of the Italian palaces of the 15th and 16th centuries.”  Isabella loved the holiday season, its drama and spectacle.  Five years later, she wrote that the service “in my little chapel here was beautiful and emotioning!”  One of her neighbors near the museum would later remember lifting the apartment windows at the midnight hour, with holiday music coming in along with the whoosh of cold air.


Author photograph of her office in Lubbers Hall.

My favorite space on campus is also the one where I spend the most time – my office in Lubbers Hall.  Henry Bosch, the campus carpenter for many years, designed and built its wooden shelves that line the walls, floor to ceiling.  His precise handiwork reminds me to pay attention to details.  I will miss opening the door to my office.  I will miss my dear Michigan friends and colleagues.  I will surely miss my wonderful students.  But I’ll also get to do what I love – write about people in the past, finding narrative lines that sketch the contours of a gesture, a face, a life.

I have a home to go home to.  I have more art to look at, primary sources to understand, and many, many stories to tell.  Goodbyes are so emotioning.  Better get going.

A blessed holiday season to all!

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