I love the crap out of my hometown, Boston MA. It’s a terrific place for history nerds—The Boston Tea Party, the cradle of the Revolutionary War, the Boston marathon, which is the oldest annual race in the country, Fenway Park, one of America’s historic ballparks, and the Wahlberg brothers; it really doesn’t get any better or bettahhhh as we say in frickin Bahhhston. Everyone should become a smitten kitten for their city, town, village, or harbor they call home. Know its legacy, its faces; know the people responsible for bleeding, sweating, toiling, and spending so that you can play soccer in the park, attend church over on Main St., and ride that crappy, outdated death-on-wheels called public transportation.
George White was someone who also loved the crap out Boston, though he might not have put it in such inelegant terms. George was born in 1847 (that’s, like, way before Twitter) and lived most of his life in the city. As a young boy, he worked for the Weeks and Potter Drug Company, which he eventually owned and presided over as president. He later changed the name to the snappier Potter Drug and Chemical Company and helped to usher in their most successful product, an antibacterial soap named Cuticura. If television ads (or television) existed in 1910 you can bet there would have been commercials for “Cuticura, the cuti-CURE ALL of germs!” running non-stop (You’re welcome Don Draper. See? Your job is not that hard).
Bottom line: George White was loaded.
As a faithful Bostonian and a non-douchebag, George was active in many charities and philanthropic efforts. When he died in 1922, he bequeathed the city five million dollars in a trust fund to be used to bankroll projects of “public beauty or utility” for Boston residents. Pretty sweet. And just to make sure folks remembered who was writing the checks beyond the grave, George set aside $50,000 of that trust to be used toward erecting some kind of pubic memorial in his honor. Boss.
The result is one of my favorite works of art: The Angel of the Waters. The statue was built by the legendary sculptor Daniel Chester French, who also created the famous Minute Man statue commemorating the start of the Revolutionary War in Concord MA. French got around. The Angel of the Waters is tucked back into an obscured corner of the Boston Public Gardens, a really beautiful green space with flowerbeds, statues and fountains, and a large, man-made pond home to our (also) historic fleet of paddle boats trussed up like giant swans. Historic is a big thing in Boston.
If you’re not looking for George’s statue, or a place to duck out of site and toke up quickly, you will never find this beautiful piece of art. For fifty grand, it might have been smart for George to add in a few sentences about securing himself a prime location for his memorial: “I am not a proud man, any place where people may enjoy this fine work of public art will do. Outside the state house, for example, or at the entrance to Boston harbor or on the mayor’s front lawn. But really, I’m not picky.”
The statue depicts an angel in mid-stride, carrying a basket in the crook of her arm. Her giant wings stream majestically behind her. Her other arm is outstretched as if flinging something from her hands. The base of the statue is engraved with a Biblical quote from Ecclesiastes 11:1: “Cast your bread on the waters; for you shall find it after many days.” A line carved into the step below the fountain, which never seems to be running, thanks budget cuts, describes George as a philanthropist who gave generously to the city.
Even softened by the gesture scattering crumbs to pigeons, this angel is equal parts terrifying and awesome, which is why I make a point to visit her whenever I’m tromping through the Public Gardens. Sorry, George. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful you parted with mad bank to give a city-lover like me more public benches and tree-lined neighborhoods, but it’s your memorial that I’m hot for.
I’ve always had a thing for what I view as these badass spiritual warriors, and that’s how I’ve always seen them: less pastoral Roma Downy or chummy Michael Landon and more ass-kicking Lucy Lawless with wings. They show up whenever and wherever we need them if our minds are cracked open wide enough to believe and they never seem to tire of our bullshit or inability to figure things out and get the lesson. They just keep planting themselves in our paths ready to catch us, nudge us, or march us to where we need to be. Angels are the tireless hands that constantly shape our lives.
I stand before the Angel of the Waters and study her fierce wings and the way French has called attention to the confident, fluid glide of her foot, but it’s her outstretched hand that always draws me in, that makes my mouth hang open a little and the hairs on my arms twitch. To me she’s not scattering bread or seeds, but inviting us to join her on her mission of mercy, compassion, and benevolent intervention. It’s a call to “come with” and do your part to take up arms against suffering both great and small.
It’s a beckoning to wake up and realize we’re all angels–to people, to causes, or even to cities.