I hope to satisfy your gracious inquiries about my Uncle Isaac. Of course, all the world is coming to know him in a sense, well beyond the shores of our Great Britain, but I do perhaps have the unique perspective of being the only such person to sit upon his lap, look through his scope, listen to his debates with great men in Woolsthorpe Manor, and perhaps even contribute to his lore. He is rapidly ascending into the clouds like Elijah, and few are left who can tell the real biography. Whether or not that’s what I sincerely do, you will have to wonder!
My oldest memory, when I was perhaps four or five, is from an Easter Sunday at St. John Church in Colsterworth, where his parents are buried. We went to service, and I remember little except how unaccommodating a hardwood pew is to a little girl’s spine, as if it were carved by an Inquisitor, and she was withholding information. I remember I stood upon it to stare out the window, and perhaps only received sympathetic forgiveness for such behavior because of my age and my curls. Mother went to pull me back to my seat, and placed me to her left, further away from the window, between her and Uncle. I remember him grinning at me rather than shushing. I pointed at the glass, at a thin crack like a captured lightning bolt, and asked him why a rainbow shone through the crack. “Yes!” he whispered loudly. He was suddenly as fascinated as I and stared at it, hardly hearing another word from the droning priest, at least until the priest slipped and spilled the chalice. It was a sacrilegious horror, what with the Lord’s blood pooling around his shoes and his own pooling in his cheeks. Only the audible gasping in the room masked what Uncle Isaac leaned over and whispered to me, grinning again: “That must be a good omen. The grapes will be juicy this year.”
Don’t misunderstand; he loved the God of Abraham. The church…not so much.
Afterwards we went to the graveside, and his demeanor became more somber and sad. His mother had passed the year I was born. I plopped down in the dirt to play, unconscious of how ill-suited a context it was for such behavior. For children, death is a far-away city, a name with no memories attached to it.
I traced in the dirt an outline of the shadow of St. John’s steeple cross, right where the sun painted it. Uncle Isaac talked a long time to Mum, so in a while, I noticed that the shadow had moved a bit to the left. I traced it again right next to the first, and then called to him, “Uncle! I made a clock!” I had crafted a haphazard sundial.
There is a gleam that at rare moments appears in an adult’s eye which can make a child feel something deep and inarticulable, a resounding validation and affection. That day, I saw him seeing me.
I also remember what he said. “If only you knew the wheels that turned your clock.”
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It was perhaps two years later that I remember him sitting in his favorite reading chair in the large room of the manor. His furniture was more ornate than that of our own house, and the back of the chair was made of such interlaced woodwork that I thought King George might sit on it himself. I signaled him to pick me up, which he did, placing me upright on his lap, facing him. I stood on his thighs, one foot upon each, like skis.
Now that I could see clearly the top of his head, I told him, “Confidentially, Uncle,” a word far too large for such a small mouth, “you have one gray hair.”
He laughed like a bear, something, I suspect you’ve heard, he rarely did. “Well, confidentially, Catherine dear, I hope they all turn gray one day!”
“In that case,” I continued matter-of-factly, a pint-sized professor, “you have more than one.”
To the very end of his life, he repeated that story at every family gathering as if no one had ever heard it before.
The laughter then brought Mum into the room, who told me it was time for bed. She started to collect me, but Uncle, who knew less of the manners of British society than mechanics of the solar system, yelled, “Stop!”
“I want her to see something after dark.”
There was a mild contest, but she surrendered to him, and I was elated to stay up for some mystery adventure. A bit later he went to the sleeping quarters and came back with his telescope, the one he had built, the first of its kind. Of course you know this, as did the whole Royal Society by that time. We went outside into the chilly night and he perched it on the center beam of a pull plow. Uncle owned over fifteen acres, and the moon, nearly full, illuminated furlongs in every direction, like it had thrown open the roof on a birdhouse and surprised the inhabitants of the dark nest.
M. Francois-Marie, I know the significance of my next sentence. I have looked through the telescope of Isaac Newton. In doing so, I looked through his eyes.
I touched my cheek to the chilly eyepiece. The moon showed us its pimples and spots, and I imagined it a bare planet, like ours, but small and covered in snow that made it white and cold.
He said something you would think to be too much for a girl, but which, in fact, landed just right, because a child has not yet been notified of their contractual obligation to normalcy. I still believed in magic, as did he.
“The heavens are in reach,” he whispered to me.
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In the next memory, I recall him fighting about his magic. Unlike the previous two events, which I remember for their charm, this one stuck with me because it frightened me. I don’t think I had yet reached my tenth birthday, and while everyone knew Uncle to be distant and aloof, I had not yet realized as much, from my seat in the prized office of favored niece. I had only fond thoughts of him. His science always seemed to me a form of play. However, he had attracted crowds, which he didn’t particularly like. The Principia had appeared in print, and students would sometimes run alongside his carriage in the street just to stare at him. A painter once set up an easel smack in front of the house and began to paint us, if you can imagine. So because I had always felt that warm hospitality from him, I had no sense for how it felt to be everyone else around him. And I had never heard him yell before.
He slammed his fist down on the table so hard that the snuff box popped up like a startled rabbit, flipped, and dumped its brown contents in a brief rainshower on the floor. I was upstairs, but I ran to the bedroom doorway. Downstairs, he and a German man sat beside one another at the corner of the long table. That corner seemed to be the only thing keeping them from a physical brawl. The German’s English was perfect, save for the distinct accent, but he had an odd look to him. His nose sat too large on his face, and his head sat too large on his body. It was as if he was always coming at you longways, nose first!
When I had gone to bed, they were discussing mathematics, but they awakened me in a fight over other matters.
“Eet’s absurd!” the German balked. “You can’t have zee planets pulling on each other from far away. Is zere some wizard out zere casting spells?”
“I’m telling you that’s what is happening!” Uncle answered.
“Maybe zee billiard balls can stop bumping into one another and zey can just pull one another across zee table!”
“Everything is drawn at a constant force, and it can be measured, Gottfried. I’m not wrong.”
“You’d better read Aristotle and zee Scriptures togezer and sink about how Galileo stood against zem both,” the German humphed at him.
My young mind couldn’t follow and capture that important talk. Those conversations have been lost like dandelion seeds in the wind, though not the crops they’ve planted.
I must have lingered too long, because Uncle turned in my direction, and immediately stopped talking. They both converted to a seemly posture so quickly that you would think I were a nun.
“Vell, child,” the guest said in a much gentler tone, “your Uncle has zee strangest ideas.”
Here, I had the upper hand, because I had enjoyed his tutelage and knew the basics. “He only thinks the planets attract things because he was sitting under the apple tree outside and a big one fell on his head.”
It was, of course, a lie, one that I made up on the spot. The memory of that moment is so firmly implanted in my mind now because the giddiness that came from being able to make two grown men laugh was like a first taste of honey. Furthermore, I saw how quickly it calmed their demeanors, and I felt I had brokered some peace accord.
I told you they were arguing about magic. That’s certainly the accusation Leibniz leveled against my Uncle. But for Uncle Isaac, it was no point of shame. Science is not the end of magic, so much as magic is the beginning of science. The latter doesn’t negate the former any more than a new birth negates a mother. As a man you may not understand this, but the shift from being a childless young woman to becoming a parent does not make one mourn the loss of former life, though certain things are forever left behind. In the same way, the magic that still sees spirits in trees and finds morals in holy books has every reason to be proud of the scientific curiosity to which it has given birth. I would watch Uncle go from memorizing catechism to mathematical calculations without inconsistency. It’s when we refuse to explore new worlds that magic dies.
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Perhaps four years later, when I was thirteen, Uncle went through his dark year. Mum brought us for a visit, but she was bothered the whole way. I asked her to sing with me in the carriage and she shook her head.
The manor was disheveled. Nothing had been dusted and all the curtains were pulled closed. Whereas before there were thoughtfully organized shelves, most everything - chair seats, tables, even piles of books - was a surface for piling up stillborn projects and half-written notes. He now wrote in a secret code. The table was scalded with burns from failed mixtures of chemicals and candles, where he had tried to make gold.
Uncle’s eyes were sunken and encircled with dark rings. I won’t recount to you the specifics of what things he said, because I’d just assume the history books not remember, but everything was prophecy and alchemy. He had gone from fascination with the orbs revolving over our heads to the smallest ones he believed circled inside of every physical thing. He suspected that if he separated and mixed them in the right ways, he might produce gold. Mother scolded him, that alchemy was frowned upon by the church, but he no longer attended church. His study of the Scriptures, though, had intensified, and he was talking about the end of the world.
One cannot imagine what the growing storm clouds of old age do to the green heart of an adolescent, akin to that moment in between the one in which a glass slips from your hand and the one in which it hits the floor. I feared a coming erosion of the man that I had adored.
Though he would apparently rebound without explanation the following year, it wasn’t long before Mum suggested I move in with him. In my nineteenth year, I did.
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I’ll tell you one more, and you can reply with further questions if my storytelling is anything more than meanderings. You may be looking for something more substantial than these familial recollections.
It was another conversation at that dinner table in Woolsthorpe. This time, the chairs were full of bodies and the plates were full of smokey partridge, snipes, and roast beef, plump artichokes and crisp French beans that had been rolled in flour and fried, ripe fruit in the center of the table and fermented fruit in every glass. The cows had blessed us with butter that ran down the potatoes and blocks of cheese. Soon the plates would be empty and the bodies would be full.
It was mother and me, Uncle Isaac, of course, Sir Godfrey Copley, a statesman, several men from the Royal Society, and two very quiet and out of place students from Cambridge whom Uncle had selected and then regretted inviting.
Conversation covered tensions between Russia and Sweden, the boiling controversy about whether Uncle or Leibniz first developed the new calculus, and Uncle’s new job at the Royal Mint.
It was well into dinner, when the Mint came up, that I decided to share news of my own. I realize now how audacious it must have seemed for a young woman to interject in such esteemed company, but I lived under the umbrella of Isaac’s prominence.
“I have news as well,” I told them. Everyone turned to me. “I’ve been asked to go to work as the housekeeper for Earl Charles Montagu.” They all knew him as a member of the House of Commons, but I had read his poetry, and saw something of the gentle man behind the weighty status, just like I had with Uncle Isaac.
At this, Isaac grimaced and dropped his silverware.
“No!” he insisted.
I was flabbergasted. He declared it in front of everyone, without any recognition of what the offer meant. “You’re well provided for here, you don’t need to work, and there’s no reason….”
“Uncle,” I said, extending courtesy in ways that he was not, “it’s a good job, and I’m not married. I should keep myself busy serving in the house of an honorable man.”
He smacked his knuckles down on the table repeatedly as he spoke, like it was a front door and no one was answering. “A young woman alone in another man’s house! Drawing attention to herself in such a public forum! No!”
I didn’t dare to respond. Nor did anyone else. Until one of the men from the Society tenderly shifted the conversation, asking, “Montagu was appointed to the Commission of the Treasury, wasn’t he?” And then, in the way that the nobility, who have disciplined themselves away from the passions, do, they carried on as if nothing had happened.
It lasted only a second, and then it was over, and I later took the position anyway. I remember this scene because, as you might imagine, it was the moment that a creeping disappointment took root in me, disappointment with Uncle Isaac, which thereafter would never quite leave. I remember this as the moment that the milk started to sour.
Uncle Isaac spent his life exploring the heavens, calculating the hidden formulas that God has encoded in the universe, and seeking to rework subterranean chemical compounds in search of powers about which men have only fantasized. He was, in every way, a magician. But I told you, magic dies when we refuse to explore new worlds. Isaac was so enamored with the heavens above him that he forgot the most important element of the world in front of him - the people that crossed his path. He saw nothing so interesting in his fellow man to be worth his curiosity. That was a world he never bothered to explore, and so that was the place that the magic for him died. Not only did he never marry, he never loved.
There are stories about myself and Montagu that have reached the papers. Let them wonder. I married. I’m a mother. Isaac never wrote a poem; I have inspired a poet. Isaac has left formulas that students will be made to learn; I have learned time and again to make rooms of older, wiser, and more dignified people laugh out loud, enjoy my stories, and calm down. Isaac could have told you how the world is and told you that he was not wrong. But Isaac could not have told you what makes a child proud or a woman blush.
I was with him until the very end. He went quietly, reading the Bible one night and then falling asleep. Aside from me, he was alone.
As I said, this isn’t what you were asking for, and I am senselessly mailing you wasted ink. If anyone in the future should read this letter, they’re unlikely to have any knowledge of the events I’m recalling, and while I suspect they will know my Uncle’s name, they are unlikely to know mine. And just as well. I have contributed little other than some small stories and faithful support to the life of a man who was one of a kind. I was an enamored niece who lived to witness the changing of the history of the world. But as close as we were to one another, I know that in the end, we were worlds apart.