Temple's Diary Temple's Diary
Episode 1. Who Am I?

The Electric Franklin

May 4, 1775

If all goes well, we should reach Philadelphia tomorrow. Grandfather is very excited. He talks and talks. Mostly about his house, a house he started to build eleven years ago, but never saw when it was finished. If I remember correctly, he decided to build it upon his return from England after the first of his two missions there.

— "When did you come back from England after your first political mission, Grandfather?"

— "In 1762" he replied.

American Philosophical Society
Franklin's wife Deborah. Oil by Benjamin Wilson, ca. 1759.

So I was two years old when he and my father left me behind in London, to be taken care of by ... someone. I see the picture now. Father fell in love with a proper English woman, the kind one does marry, and they sailed off to their glamorous life in New Jersey, unencumbered by this unwanted baby. Like the late Deborah, my father's very proper bride may not even have been told of my existence. Father and Elizabeth would raise a proper family of their own on the other side of the Ocean, with proper little American children.

But then no child ever appeared, and the only chance to carry on the famous name was to import the little Londoner, me.

penstoveFranklin's "Pennsylvania Fireplace."

As I was figuring this out, Grandfather, ever so talkative, had been going on: "I wanted a modern house, Billy, a good house 'contrived to my mind,' as I used to say. It was going to be protected by the lightning rod that I had devised. It was going to be heated by my other brainchild, the Pennsylvania fireplace that would keep us warm during our glacial winters. For the kitchen I thought up a clever way to dispose of steam, smoke, and odors. Deborah, who had worked so hard during our years of poverty, would now have the best kitchen in Philadelphia to bake her cakes and muffins, such a good baker she is — was, my Deborah."

— "And her energy, Billy! She ran the shop where we sold every kind of dry goods you can imagine, plus our own Crown Soap, made from a recipe kept secret in the Franklin family. With her mother, Debbie concocted an ointment against the itch. Don't ask me how it worked, but it sold well. She kept the accounts, she bought old rags from which to make new paper, she stitched sheets of paper together to make notebooks, she wove and knitted all our clothes.

"The word helpmate could have been invented for her. She wanted so much for us to go up in the world that for my birthday, once, she bought me a far too expensive silver spoon to eat my porridge. I had been quite satisfied with my old wooden spoon — but no! She did not want to see her husband inferior to the neighbors..."

"And so it went on for eighteen years, Billy, us two working hard hand in hand, raising William, then little Frankie whom we lost to smallpox when he was four, and then Sally."

It seemed to me that Grandfather was dreaming as he spoke. "By our early forties, thanks to the general store, my printing shop, the newspaper and my Poor Richard's Almanack, we had plenty to live on and I decided to quit business and spend time doing what I had wanted to do all along: find out more about nature's secrets and become more involved in public life."

— "I did not think about it at the time," he sighed, "but that must have been hard on Debbie. All at once she lost her big role in my life as well as our constant companionship. She started pining for a real house, not the lodgings we had occupied here and there, and I kept promising to build her a house in which to live out our old age in contentment. She got her house, finally, but we never lived together in it, not a day ... I had to leave for London once again before it was finished."

He looked sad, he looked old. I wonder whether Mrs. Stevenson ever heard him warmly praising his Debbie who had once been so vibrant and so young. The maids in the London kitchen used to whisper that Mrs. Stevenson was patiently waiting for Debbie to die before she made a play for the Doctor. Who knows? Mrs. Stevenson asked him once, while I was in the room, what he had heard in Debbie's last letter. He sighed and said that it was full of the same old complaints and that Deborah was becoming confused. Mrs. Stevenson said nothing, she just patted his hand.

Is that the way in families, I wonder. Do they all go from being so close to being almost total strangers? I know some Latin, some French, some history, but what do I know about families, about real life? Nothing. Not a thing.

When I looked up, Grandfather had recovered his spirits in that quick, deliberate way he uses to recompose himself. "I can't wait to show you our house, Billy. It even has a music room papered in blue with an elegant flowered border. From London I explained to Deborah exactly the way I wanted it done, and of course, that's just what she did. You'll never guess all the things you'll see in that music room: a glass armonica — my favorite instrument — a spinet, a harpsichord, a glassichord, and a viola da gamba with bells. Between your aunt Sally and her husband, they can play all these instruments and I'm not bad with some. We'll have family trios, and quartets after you join us."

He does not notice, does he, that I'm not answering. I have been nervous all day, my heart is heavy. All I can do is rehearse my relatives' names, so as not to look stupid when I meet them. My future family ... how will they behave? Will they look at me in amazement and ask me who I am? Will they hug me? Will they snub me? How should I address my stepmother Elizabeth? Madam? Not mother, surely. My real mother may have died of poverty or coughed herself to death but I won't give her title to anybody else. I will not.

The truth is, I am scared. But I have no choice. London is over for me. Now comes America.

No choice.

Episode 2: I Have a Name!