Out of the Blue


The Sailing Emporium, Rock Hall, Maryland—Don’t you love how things fly into you out of the blue?

Only the good things, of course.

Last week’s letter, Who Says You’re Reading Less?, tickled the memory of an old university friend, who in turn set me remembering another life.

“Loved your essay on books and reading choices,” wrote John Knoll. “Walter Ong is smiling.”

This week’s letter should keep Father Ong smiling down from the heaven in which he so confidently believed.

Knoll and I are among thousands of students at St. Louis University whose minds the generous Jesuit shaped. Ong titillated our young brains by suggesting that the medium is the message, in the phrase popularized by his colleague in scholarship Marshall McLuhan.

Best as I ever figured out, the gnomic phrase (that’s another word I learned in Ong’s classes) means that a book isn’t just a book (or a television a television). It’s a whole culture, which goes far beyond the way we think and learn and communicate to shape the whole world. Easy to understand if for book or television, you substitute cell phone.

Until Knoll’s reminder (sent by email, speaking of media and messages), I’d almost forgotten learning to think that way. 

Thank you, Father Ong, for shaping our minds so gently and deeply.

Here’s another way the medium shapes the message. 

Staff writer Margaret Tearman told me how she learned that a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., was her cousin something-removed. The two women looked alike. So much that it got them thinking and digging, until Margaret’s friend discovered that she did indeed have the Koehler nose (bequeathed to Margaret by her father), thanks, a couple of generations back, to a Koehler ancestor.

In medium-message terms, that’s a small-world kind of confluence right out of the long era of the spoken word. People meet people, ask questions, hear stories, make connections. Though this discovery of kinship was probably aided by photographs, which are artifacts of the not-so-long era of print.

In the era of print, each of us could hope for a small handful of such connections in a lifetime. The reconstruction of my Italian family was my handful. It happened like this.

My mother, Elsa Olivetti, was born soon after her parents’ emigration from Italy in 1920. In her mother’s lifetime, letters and photos were exchanged with the family back home. But with Catherine Bergamino-Olivetti-Cioni’s death in 1941, the connection was lost.

In 1983, Mother and I decided to track down the people in the photos. We saw the sights in Italy, then took an electric train from Turin up into the Alps. We got off close enough that, with village and family names and photos to show around and the kindness of compatrioti, we were driven right to our cousin’s home.

A few years later, a cousin of the cousin, an Alitalia pilot who lived outside of Rome, showed up on my doorstep in Springfield, Illinois. 

Twenty years later, my Italian New York cousin Sonny Kelly tracked me down in Chesapeake Country. A retired UPS deliveryman for the Empire State Building, Sonny and I are related on the Bergamino side, his grandfather being my grandmother’s oldest brother.

Those connections were remade because of memories, letters and photos, telephone and airmail.

In the age of the Internet and cheap phone calls, convergences come more conveniently. I heard just last month from a long-lost cousin on my other grandmother’s side, Kermit Bell. The key word was Batchtown, the Illinois village from which we trace a common ancestor. 

We think my great grandmother, Rue Nairn Bunting, and his great grandfather were brother and sister. We haven’t figured out what that makes us.

On vacation on the Chesapeake, with summer’s sky encompassing me in an infinite bowl, I’ve had a lot of blue to set my mind wandering through connections.

—via email


Sandra Olivetti Martin 

editor and publisher; [email protected]


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