“A Wounded Heart”

Remember Mr. Forbes? Founder of Northampton’s Forbes Library? Regular visitors to Touch2Touch will remember many posts (here and here, among others) about the library and about him, especially about his whimsical seasonal changes of wardrobe. But there is a great deal more to say about Charles Edward Forbes, lawyer, judge, philanthropist; and an eloquent voice — not mine — has come to do so. 

This is where I was on Saturday, August 25th:

And this communication from Elise Bernier-Feeley, Genealogist and Local History & Geneaology Librarian at Northampton’s Forbes Library, tells you why:

Generally, patrons of the Forbes Library have no idea about the real Mr. Forbes
–a man of elegant bearing who perpetually toted his umbrella rain or shine,
waxed poetic in the courtroom, and spent his life in that lonely suite of rooms
above the old bank building. He is, however, universally celebrated for his vision
in giving a great library to Northampton.

Perhaps he even anticipated those future technocrats who populate the reference
room’s computers and are yet “disposed to learn”, albeit in a way even his scientific
mind could only have vaguely imagined. Knowing his New England roots, I am not sure if he looks down from those airy, peaceful heights, and wears a confused look at all the doings done to him every season.

He was, indeed, proper– “no nonsense New England” at its finest, but he was not without humor or empathy. After all, unrequited love made this library possible. The lady who got away, whoever she may have been, kept his heart to the grave. He could not even bear to go to a wedding, but sent polite cards instead with a “stipend” for the bride. If only the public knew Mr. Forbes’ wounded heart, they might think him wanting to be merry instead of overbearing about the “get-ups” he wears in the vestibule of the library.

I for one, yearly lay a rose on his marvelous obelisk in Bridge Street Cemetery,
and thank him for his gift which has all these years claimed my own heart. The anniversary of his birth, August 25th, makes me smile in amazement at
one man’s heartfelt philanthropy. No doubt he is smiling too.

Happy Birthday Charles! I can’t bring myself to call you Charlie.


P.S. I am not responsible for Mr. Forbes’ “modern” wardrobe. That remains a well-kept secret.


Charles Forbes may have died in 1881, but his presence is very much felt to this day. Indeed, part of the enjoyment for patrons of  what once was called, half-mockingly, “The Castle on the Hill”,  is checking out what  Mr. Forbes is wearing today. Elise Bernier-Feeley, a Northampton native and life-long historian, admits to a certain amount of shock when the “dressing-up” process began. But now she recognizes that it represents affection for Mr. Forbes. And in its way, keeps the donor and founder of this massively impressive building and library still alive and contemporary to the town that he loved, rather than being simply a name on a facade. 

For Elise, Mr. Forbes is very much a vivid presence. This year, when she brought Mr. Forbes’ birthday rose to his obelisk, I was with her. “The rose has to be yellow,” she says, “for remembrance. And it has to have thorns — for unrequited love.” 

She pauses and adds thoughtfully, “We all have those thorns in our lives, don’t we? They may not represent unrequited romantic love, but there is always something…. We all have, one way or another, a wounded heart.”  After a short silent interval, Elise and I move on. The token of her birthday greetings and affection remains behind. I have no doubt that, somewhere, Charles Edward Forbes is pleased.

This entry was posted in Etcetera, Flowers, Friendship, Memory, Personal Essay, Pioneer Valley and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to “A Wounded Heart”

  1. Claudia Shuster says:

    Wonderful to celebrate a man of such commitment and community spirit! His contributions live after him and will be appreciated for so many generations!


    • Touch2Touch says:

      It’s particularly nice because he never married, and left no blood descendants, but nonetheless has so many descendants of the spirit until this very day!
      Thanks for your comment, Claudia!


  2. What a wonderful tribute to Charles.


  3. This is a marvelous piece of journalism. And an appropriate written piece of which Mr. Forbes would certainly approve. Nice work!


  4. It seems Mr Forbes had a lot to give; it’s sad that he was unable to do so to anyone close to him, yet generations of people in Northampton have benefited instead. A touching story, and now I understand more about the affection involved in dressing up his statue!


  5. what a wonderful, gracious story. I like to think he has a little smile to share for Elise.


  6. barb19 says:

    Your touching tribute to a very special and unique man was a pleasure to read. Bless Elise for keeping him “alive”. He will always be a part of Northampton.


  7. pauline says:

    We all have a story – and you told Forbes’ with such grace. I imagine if he was capable of being in love, he doesn’t mind the current whimsy. Perhaps you and the Bean and I can visit the library when I’m in your domain.


  8. 2e0mca says:

    A fascinating mix of history and romance – thanks for telling 🙂


  9. Thank you for your lovely comments, all. You are very gracious.

    Sincere and special thanks to Judith for her sensitive, insightful commentary as well.

    It was a joy to be with you, Judith, and to have shared what usually is a solitary celebration of Mr. Forbes’ birthday with a new friend of my favorite library icon. I’m sure he was happy to “meet” you.

    Perhaps next year, others would like to join me/us, as this (August 25th) is an annual pilgrimage.

    It used to be a tradition in Northampton to bring a picnic basket to the Old Burial Ground whilst visiting those who have “gone before” and to have a repast with one’s departed. However, I think the Bridge Street Cemetery rules forbid such things these days. Perhaps we could recite a poem or two, and read something meaningful on the gift of libraries as one of our most precious freedoms.

    Here is one of my favorite quotes on libraries from Norman Cousins, longtime editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, and former Librarian of Congress:

    “A library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas.”

    And, once again…thank you, Mr. Forbes, for making Northampton’s great library possible for all of us who are “disposed to learn.”

    Most sincerely,



    • Touch2Touch says:

      Thanks to Elise for making such a wonderful event happen yearly. Next August 25th: it will go into my calendar. Elise also invites anyone who is in Northampton and environs to a powerpoint talk she is giving on September 26th at 7 pm in the Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum at the Forbes. She will be speaking on “Early Northampton, 1654-1710”.


  10. Patti Kuche says:

    What an outstanding legacy and with such a touching tribute. Judith, your kind and sincere words have us there with you and Elise, thank you!


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