E. Atwater Byers – Nunnie Byers

E. Atwater Byers – Nunnie Byers

1927 – 2017

Nunnie Byers. Portrait by Serena Parente Charlebois of Serena’s Studio.

Life through Nunnie’s Lens

Nunnie loved what she loved.   Passionately, fiercely, quietly, privately.  And if you want to know what she loved, tour her studio – a place she rarely allowed others to enter but in which she spent much of her waking time.

Here you will find not only everything she loved, but also her extraordinary, unique, full of humor and wit view of the world – life, as she saw it,  through her camera’s lens..  She spent countless hours combing beaches, woods, and fields, gathering and then either photographing or meticulously cataloguing, organizing and displaying treasures in her studio.  And each item has been thoughtfully and strategically placed on quartz, wood, plexiglass, miniature easels and plate holders; nestled in baskets, glass containers; or framed behind glass, hanging on the wall or from the ceiling.  Her studio is a museum and is her life’s story.

Here’s only a small sample of what you’ll find there: 

Nature & animals:  Birds’ nests, some with tiny stones resembling eggs, whole as well as carved out gourds, dried pressed leaves – some in books, others collaged and framed behind glass, 100’s of petrified sharks teeth with 12 paint brushes standing in them, fossil bones including a petrified frog.

And this essay from 1942 (age 14): 

            “Dusk was just starting to fall, as I wearily crept into my faithful sleeping bag. Shadows lay across the forest, but their shade was not cool.  It was only the middle of August, and the forest was still in full bloom.  The gnats, who had been annoying us throughout the day, went tirelessly to their beds of moss. Beetles buzzed about industriously and moths gathered around our slow burning campfire.  The birds were silent except for the occasional screeching of the jay calling for “quiet.”  From the grass came the chirping of       the crickets.  A squirrel could be seen, leaping from bough to bough with its mate.  Last of all came the cries of the owl, the only creature that kept the forest awake during the night.  The next morning was a pale gray, for the sun had not yet painted the sky.  All the creatures in the forest were awake.  The woodpecker hammered away, occasionally stopping to greet the new day.  The magpies were gossiping with each other.  The finches’ beautiful             notes were repeated over and over.  Titmice snapped at butterflies, as a flock of crows flew over head.  The jay screeched after them in his unpleasant tone of voice.  There was a soft rustling in the bushes as a timid fawn frolicked with its doe.  Again the owl whimpered, and the new day was under way.”

Water:  fishing lures, tackle boxes, a large bubble trapped in ice, a mini Yacht Club flag, newspaper clipping headline “Redhead, sailed by Eleanor Atwater, best of 11 Sakonnet one-design boats in the SYC races yesterday”. 

Another essay from 1942:

            “Our attic is dark and cold, as I enter in search of my fishing box.  I feel up          and down the wall for quite some time, before I am able to switch the light   on.  There it is, right on top of that stuffed alligator.  The fishing box that is        three generations old.  I pick up the metal box carefully, because it has been          on many breath taking expeditions.  It is bruised with experience.  That beg   dent in the middle is where Betsy stepped on it, trying to wade across a             stream without getting her feet wet.  Here are more scratches and dents,   mixed in with fish scales left over from last season.  Upon opening it, an         unpleasant fume of dry-fly oil, silk like, and fly dope, fill the room.  Hooks        and other gadgets of all sizes, wait in their own room suites for spring to come.  Everything buy my best dry-fly is here.  It, together with a five pound       rainbow trout, is wedged between a couple of rocks on the bottom of Big          alder Stream.  I tried to learn to cast on the shore in front of the camp at Big      alder.  My first cast was very successful, but my second caught in a     blueberry bush.  I caught the next in a fishing basket, and the next in          daddy’s straw hat.  I am a little better at it now, I must say.  Our guide was a      cheery camper who always told stories.  I should like to tell his story of Mr.       Jenks and the skunk.  ‘One night Mr. Jenks smelt a skunk and decided to kill           it.  He lay in his cot getting braver and braver, as the smell got stronger and         stronger.  He finally got up, and softly crept out of the tent.  He couldn’t see             any skunk for a minute.  But there, was a round black shape down on the           shore where the boats were beached.  He crept along in the shadows of the      trees with visions of a dead skunk.  The skunk didn’t stir.  Mr. Jenks got          closer and closer, and then down came his canoe paddle with a terrific blow.           There was a crash of tin ware.  He had killed it – our one and only frying       pan’.  I must stop now, a voice is calling me from downstairs.  ‘Nunna, I can’t       go fishing with you after all.  I have to be at the draft board in fifteen             minutes!’
           

Artifacts:  arrowheads, pottery scraps dug up in Mexico, smoky beach glass, baskets, pitchers and martini glasses of antique marbles, old tools and “what’s its”, sand dollars, buttons, tobacco spit glasses and a can of “Three Nun’s Tobacco”

Travel:  maps and such from Iceland, the Azores, Guatemala, Haiti, Ireland, Mexico, Greece, Turkey, Bermuda,  Italy,  England, and the rivers of Europe, brightly woven cloths and bags, a peace flag, foreign currency

And of course Photography:  A goose wandering down a country road, a coral and sand dollar abstract,  3 year old brother Nate “Breaking Away” on his tricycle down a Providence street, Nunnie and her daughters wearing pointy sunglasses, 5 year old Bart sitting in a 1950’s Isetta, Nunnie beaming down at and partying with her beloved Randy, her mother and sister sitting beneath a tree in “the shadow of death” with long faces having just sent a son/brother off to war, naked women skinny dipping at the class of ‘47’s picnic.  Calendars incorporating photos of people and places, tons and tons of post cards from the 1940’s through the new millennium sold at Wilbur’s Store.

Nunnie’s Professional Legacy: Her Photography

Nunnie’s 4th grade report card:

She got “E’s” for “Excellent” in Effort, Music, Physical Training, and Nature Study, and, in later grades, received straight A’s for Art. 

Already signs of her talent for photography (along with athleticism and love of nature) were emerging.  Nunnie picked up her first camera at age 12, a 49 cent Brownie Box, to snap a photo of her best friend and from then on, took hundreds and hundreds of photo’s.

15 years later, her Bradford friends scribed in her yearbook:

            “Things won’t be the same without having you popping in and out of the     room – camera in hand, looking for a turtle or just looking!”

And

                 “You’ve really made the camera club sing Nun – I don’t think I’ve ever met a gal that can be so completely crazy and then so serious…”

In 1950, after college, she was the official photographer for the American Friends Service Committee on a pilot project with UNESCO in Mexico.  In a letter home dated March 12, 1950, she writes: 

“My black and white pictures of Guadalajara came out very well even if I do say so myself! … Still haven’t had post cards made but will soon.  Got a colored movie of the markets showing all the pottery for sale.  Someday I’m going to put my telephoto lens on and take movies of (birds) to prove to you how gorgeous they are!” 

And even then people were clamoring for copies of her work: 

                 “Sitting at the dining room table with all my photographs before me – everyone is pawing over them and ordering them…”

When she broke her back in her early 20’s while skiing with friends and had to wear a body cast for a year, she mourned the loss of her physical strength and stamina but found great solace and comfort in her art.  And while giving birth to and raising four children took precedence over her art, she returned to it when the nest was empty, first by receiving formal training.  She applied what she learned about

“aperture, exposure, ISO, shutter speed”

all terms concerned with light.  In her journal labeled “light” is written: 

            “Just as long as I’m in this world I am the LIGHT of this world.” 

            “Praise to Brother Sun who brings us the day and gives us his LIGHT.” 

            “…the shadow in Ireland will mingle with the LIGHT.” 

Nunnie worked hard on her photography. And, being a person of rules, she had definite rules about her photography: 

“No cropping, use the whole frame.” “Know how to see in black and white.”             “Pre-frame your shot with your hand cupped as a lens.” “Use existing, 100%        natural light.” 

By the way, she also had two rules she always communicated to her house guests:

“No barfing in the house.”

And

            “If you can’t find it, ask for it.”

“Seeing” was also a very important value to Nunnie in her work.  Her favorite Georgia O’Keefe quote;

            Still – anyway – nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time. Like to have a friend takes time.

And she taught others how to see.  As a talented landscaper who did work for Nunnie recently expressed:  

            “Nunnie (was) a big influence in my decisions… when I go to the nursery now I no longer look for a perfect shaped tree, I look for one that’s more unique. And stones I’m putting into a stone wall I’m not  looking for that perfect edge to put  facing outwards, I’m looking for the one that’s got  the most character.  It really has changed a lot the work that I do and I think it’s made me just that much better …”

A week before she died, Nunnie told this story about her trip to Guatemala with Randy in 1980:

“One morning, very early, we were flown by prop plane to the great pyramid at Tikal.  We flew over mile after mile of jungle, so low to the tree topped canopy, you could have reached out and just touched it.  I remember going into the jungle that day and arriving in a village with a table as long as the length of this house covered with the most delicious food.  One of the tourists announced to us all:  “This morning, Jean Harris shot Dr. Herman Tarnawer.”  I’ll never forget it.  I can see the whole scene like it was just yesterday.  After lunch, we went for a walk deep into the jungle where we came into a clearing where there stood, well, you’ll just never believe what was there.  There were four huge stone carvings of….well, you just won’t believe it….pensises!  Yup, four penises right in the middle of nowhere!  ….of course I took photos of them.  When I went home, I took the negatives to the Photographic Workshop in New Canaan to develop them in the dark room.  I showed them to my teacher, Tom Hammang who was Mr. Serious about everything.  And I asked him:  Why four tall pensises in the middle of the jungle?  To which he said:  “Everyone has something they worship to.”  I’ll never forget it…..”Everyone has something they worship to.”  Nobody wanted anything to do with those penis photo’s I took – or the ones I brought back on postcards from Italy.  I was told to be careful, to not show them to just anyone.  I ended up throwing them all away.  I was too ahead of the times.” 

From that same journal on light is the following letter from Anthony Nobile, a photographer and Professor of Photography:

            “You are a good photographer.  Why is it so necessary to have to say            everything one has to say photographically?  Isn’t it enough just to be able    to say what one can?  Take it easy.    Stay on course and keep doing your     work.  You are talented. …. Just do you!  Do it in your           pace.  There’s no   rush.” 

A big fan of Nunnie’s work was her brother in law, Bob Wood, who, in 1983 was a sociology Professor at Wesleyan University.  He wrote to her:


“Your concern with human beings is alive, vital and engaged.  Your photo’s speak to the capacity of the human being to do more than to survive… What emerges …is a sense of rebellious purpose….Young, conventional stereotyped women are exhibiting a declaration of freedom that all of their upbringing would have protested.  In almost every case of people, you manage to make the same declaration, including the choir boys. So I hope you will go on with your human subjects so well chosen.”

Not at all afraid of receiving (or giving – “If you don’t want my opinion, then don’t ask for it!”) criticism, she took both men’s words to heart, took her time, didn’t try to jam everything into a photo, and continued with her human subjects, concerning herself with “the human condition”, an issue she felt had a strong “message” value.

Sadly, Nunnie had to put the camera down in her mid-80’s due to the loss of her vision.  This did not keep her, however, from spending her last few years carefully selecting photographic images and custom making birthday and Christmas cards for her children, their spouses and her grandchildren including meticulously tracking who she had given what images to. 

As beautifully articulated in a condolence card: 

“It is through (Nunnie’s) photographs that her artistic spirit will live on.”

Nunnie’s personal legacy:  Her character in relationships

Part of a poem found in Nunnie’s mother’s bedroom:

….if from life you take the best,

If into life you put a jest –

If love you hold –

No matter how the years go by,

No matter how the birthdays fly,

You are not old.

A couple of Nunnie’s favorite expressions when talking about someone else were:

                        “What a character!”

And

                        “They’re a piece of work!”

Now that was calling the kettle black because Nunnie was a true character in her own right.

Among the dozens and dozens of condolence notes Randy has received in recent weeks, we find:  

                        “I have great memories of spending time with her when I was little. …so        many adventures – canoeing on the marsh, walking on the beach…collecting    interesting shells             and driftwood – which we later turned into works of art –        all because of Nunnie’s ability to inspire us!  It was always fun to be with her          … her great sense of humor – and I know she had a big impact on my            interest in art.”

Another:

                        “Nunnie talked to me like a grown up when I was 15 and like a teenager when I was 50.  And isn’t that what we all want?  She was the mom who was always cool with whoever we were as teenagers and the friend we could always laugh and reminisce with all these years later.  It is so easy to picture Nunnie as we all will forever.  A voice out of Central Casting, clucking out of the corner of her mouth with spot on sarcasm.  Always clever, never caustic.

Another:

                        “…a truly wonderful free spirit who always marched to her own drummer!”

And another:

            “Her voice.  Her Atwater smirk.  The way her hair always fell into place just          right.  The    most interesting way she used to dust objects in the house. That   was true entertainment to me and I believe that SNL would have made this       one into a perfect skit!  That Corvette… Her arrowhead collection.  The kind     of quirky things most natural and man-made she liked to find and how she put them together. …And my very first business experience selling      lemonade with Mary and my brother.  Aunt Nunnie set us up with all the   fixings and we paid her back and split the    profits among the three of us.”

And finally:


                        “Nunnie was unique… such a ‘breath of fresh air’ in our rather                                   conservative Wilton.”

Nunnie was definitely someone who “into life…put a jest:  Her wit and humor were her trademark spanning the whole of her life.  Her classmates at Bradford reminisced in her yearbook: 

                        “What will we do without the clown of the senior class?”

A second

                         “Well, Spatwater, ole girl –bright eyes – you’ve been the sparkling of                        the corridor.”

Third

                        “Funny Nunnie hunney!  It’s been grins!”

And fourth:

                        “….the cute red headed devil…your bright cheery face and merry                           cackle…”

Oh, my gosh, Mary, do you remember how Mom used to dress up every Halloween as a witch with the cape and the fake nose and glasses  and cackle at all of the kids and run around on the flat roof of the garage?  How she loved to express her humor at the holidays!!!

Plus her wit was in her quip: Like the time we were both squatting down and hanging on for dear life to the edge of a counter while I fixed her hotel room’s baby refrigerator for her.  When we both realized at the same time we couldn’t stand back up, she turned to me and quipped “Well, here we are!”

In a photo album of her first year in college, Nunnie has photos of her pals doing their acts for the annual freshman talent show.  There are photos of women singing, dancing, acting, reciting – all very “appropriate” for the 1940’s time period concerning female decorum.   And then there’s a photo of Nunnie doing her act: 

Turn around and do the making out imitation.  While Mary does this, Ellie reads: 

“I’ll be back to see you next year at the Senior show and I expect to see you making love to yourself again….” wrote a graduating senior in that year’s yearbook.  That act became legendary at Bradford.

This tremendous sense of fun was a big theme in her marriage to Randy.  What fun they had!  Randy is loaded with funny stories of life with Nunnie:

            Nunnie and I were visiting my sister Franny and husband Sidney in their       Manhattan apartment. I was running out of time to make my marriage           proposal to Nunnie because of my looming Army enlistment.  So I finally   got the courage, got down on bended knee and asked “Nunnie, my dear,     will     you marry me?”  And she looked up and said “Are you kidding?”        [Fortunately a little bit  later she did say “Of course!”]

A second one:

            One time we went to the Van Wyck’s house for dinner.  Nunnie had on the   tightest, form fitting, sexiest chemise gown you’ve ever seen.   Well, it was            so tight, she couldn’t get up the front door steps.  I had to push her from behind on both cheeks to get into the house all the while laughing our heads        off.

And another:

            It’s 1964.  Nunnie and I drove to  Florida and made a visit to Sanibel. We             rented a little boat and went fishing.  It was quite hot, so Nunnie took off her       shirt and continued to cast.  “Oh, my god, I’ve got one!”  Turned out she    hadn’t snagged a fish but a log.  As we tried to free the line, and without     realizing it,  we had drifted into a cove where a bridge was lined with  a ton of people fishing.  They were gauking at  Nunnie fishing in her Maidenform        bra.  She was laughing so hard, she fell down in the boat.  “I dreamt I went             fishing in my Maidenform bra!” became an inside joke for us which            mimicked a popular ad campaign.

In her fifties, still craving adventure, Nunnie was known for purchasing and driving a gold corvette.  Her speeding ticket stories (or how she got out of them!) are legendary and this was one of her “go to’s”:

            One afternoon, Mom and I got caught in a speed trap on Belden Hill Road in             Wilton.  The officer walked up to the car and said:  “Ma’am do you have any            idea how fast you were driving?” And she said, “Officer have you ever had it         where the music on the radio goes ‘Da da da da da da da da da’ and you just      get carried             away?” ….. it worked every time!

In 1999, Nunnie and Randy attended the Tony Awards where Nunnie had the opportunity to meet Carol Burnett, a comedian who Nunnie greatly admired and was frequently compared.  From that day forward for the rest of her life, whenever grandkids would come for a visit, Nunnie would suggest:

            “Want to watch some Carol Burnett tapes with me?!?!”

Her humor was her light and it masked – along with her deep grace and privacy – the chronic physical pain she lived with.    The pain was her dark but it had a purpose:  it gave her pathos.

Reference to this is echoed in the condolence cards:

            “She was always kind.  When our son got married, she helped us with all of          the plans and I never could have done it on my own!”

A second:

            “Warming, twinkling, encouraging…like the embracing branches of the wild       rose..”

And a third:

            “I have always been grateful for the way she helped me through my      husband’s    interment.  She brought lovely lilies and queen Anne’s lace blossoms to the grave site and placed them artfully around the hole.  And she kept me from falling in when I placed the urn!”

Nunnie was fierce in her love and loyalty to her husband, children, extended family and friends.  She may have been quick to point out where one could improve upon something, but she also was equally quick to defend and protect that same person.   She was forthright and present in her interactions with people. She valued the truth and would speak her mind, sometimes being misunderstood in the process but never backing down.  In an oral book report she gave in 6th grade, Nunnie wrote: 

“I guess you know my opinion of this book from what I said in class the other day.  I finished the book thinking of your view of the author, but somehow I couldn’t change my mind.  Many of the examples of Chinese life and customs were interesting and new to me, but I do not like the way they were written.  I don’t believe he wrote about the people he was so familiar with as if they were his own people.”

The teacher wrote at the top of Nunnie’s notes: 

                 “Maybe I should read the book again!”

This is where at times Nunnie probably found herself in a bit of a con-Nunnie-drum when it came to honesty:  Because as much of a rule follower she was, she was also a rule breaker, a bit of a rebel, balancing respect for rules with her own principles and desire to be her own person.

A local paper reported when Nunnie was 18:

  “The usually peaceful lanes and windswept green of …  Little Compton are the scenes currently of a conflict between one group of townspeople to limit the construction of billboards along the village’s green and the counter-effort of a group of business people to advertise their places of business…A moment of violence flared up last month (when) a group of youthful vandals tossed red paint on a West Main Road sign advertising Harold’s Place, a restaurant-tavern … The youths were apprehended by Chief Pettey of the village police force…arraigned in District Court, Newport, and placed on six months’ probation after being ordered to pay $125 to replace the sign.” 

Now apparently a little bit of that red paint spilled on one of the cars which is what tipped Chief Pettey…. And whether they were really charged is not known and the sign was never replaced.  Next to the article, Nunnie wrote: 

            “And where were you on that fateful night?” 

We knew where she was!

A couple of other of her favorite quoted quips:

            People who think they know everything are particularly aggravating to       those of us who do.

And another:

            Insanity is hereditary- you get it from your kids.

Speaking of kids….Nunnie loved her four children and 7 grandchildren sometimes with brutal honesty, always with humor and spirit.  She passed on to them her love of nature and the environment, her photography and creative talent, her pathos and care for others, her smarts, her love of getting out into the bigger world, her love of dogs (dachshunds and labs in particular), her fierce independence in thought and in action, and her sensitivity. 

Nunnie’s final adventure:

Sunday, March 19, 2017

2 a.m.  I sit bolt upright.  The wind is wild outside, whipping around and above the house.  I can feel the bevy of spirits who have come for Mom.  Her parents, Tiny, Dicie, Liz, George, Maarten – to name just a few.  I lay quietly for over an hour so as not to wake Mary.  I make a sound and in the dark comes a loud whisper from the other bed:

“Are you awake?” 

            “Yes.  I’ve been awake since 2 a.m.” 

“Me, too!”  

            “Can you feel them, the spirits?  They are here to take Nunnie.” 

“Yes, definitely!”

Monday, March 20th

The wind continues to blow very hard and the spirits’ strength hasn’t lessened any.  Mary and I go in to Mom’s room.  

“Good morning, Mom.  It’s Mary and Ellie.” 

To which Mom says sharply and clearly

“Good morning.” 

This is to be her last utterance to us. 

Aubrey and Elwood arrive and sing “Bright Morning Star” to mom.  Mom is sleeping comfortably and peacefully. Around 4 p.m., mom’s breathing changes and becomes more labored. The wind is still howling.  At 6:15 p.m., Mom takes her last breath.  And the wind stops.  It becomes completely still.  The spirits have taken her – simple, peaceful, quick.

We three daughters decide that rather than wait for the funeral people to arrive, we will dress and ready Nunnie for her departure.  We bathe her, comb her hair, put on her lipstick. We dress her in a radiant gold fleecy top, black pants, matching Merrills.  We tuck a photo of her beloved Toby under her right arm.  We comment how great she looks, how much she looks like the mom we’ve always known and loved.  She lets us touch her, hold her, love her.  Dad and the men join us and for the next hour, we have our own spontaneous, private family wake.  Part way through, dad says from his perch across from his wife of 65 years: 

“This is so beautiful and peaceful.”

And it was.  The funeral people arrive and take her. It is over.  She is released from her chronic pain.  Nunnie’s final act of beauty. 

Actually, it wasn’t her final act of beauty.  For the next week, every morning, Little Compton witnessed the most beautiful sunrises EVER.  “Good Morning” from Nunnie!

So thank you, Nunnie, from all of us who have been so profoundly touched and changed by your beautiful talent and humor and love and spirit.  As a nephew so succinctly put it: 

We have lost a lot of wit and beauty. 

Wait a minute, Ellie.  Mom wouldn’t want us to end on such a somber note.  I think we have one more thing to say to Nunnie from all of us here. …..

Mary and I turn our backs to the congregation, don our witches capes and glasses and noses and sing

            I’m so glad we had this time together.

            Just to laugh or sing a song.

            Seems we just get started and before you know it,

            Comes the time we have to say so long 

                                    ‘night, Nunnie! (tug on our right ear)     

Eulogy by Nunnie’s daughters Mary Byers Truslow and Ellie Byers

Written 2017, added to the Little Compton Women’s History Project January, 2020.

From the Little Compton Historical Society’s 2017 special exhibition – Little Compton’s 20th-Century Artists

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