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Guestwords: Dear Prudence

Wed, 02/10/2021 - 18:37

When I was 27 years old I gave birth to my daughter. It was a difficult pregnancy. During the last three months I was bedridden, and in the end needed to have an emergency C-section with the delivery of my little girl, who was seven weeks premature. It was at that time that my then-husband agreed to house-sit for a traveling musician on tour. I was hesitant but I agreed.

I didn’t pay attention to the name of the house’s owner; I thought recuperating in a wonderful house next to a state park would be just the thing for our small family. It was a beautiful home with an organic vegetable garden. I thought it was perfect. And for the first few weeks, it was.

My little girl was about 12 weeks old when I picked her up from her cradle and she was burning hot. I took her temperature and it was 106. We raced to the emergency room and the tests that followed determined that she had a kidney infection and underlying kidney issues. We were sent home with antibiotics and a checklist for new parents.

My daughter didn’t seem to be doing well on the antibiotics, and she had stopped nursing. One afternoon, home alone with my baby, I walked into the living room. It was filled with albums and an extensive stereo system. I fingered through a few of the albums and came across the Beatles’ White Album. My baby fussed in my arms but I carefully took out the album and laid the stylus on the track “Dear Prudence.” There was a slight crackle and then it was magic. Within moments, my daughter stopped fussing and began to nurse. I played that song so often, it almost became my mantra and hers.

I wasn’t surprised when I was drawn to a story of an artist with the first name of Prudence.

My introduction to the art of Prudence Punderson came in 1976. It was the bicentennial year, and colonial crafts were all the rage. I took up embroidery. I made my way to the Stamford Public Library and checked out a book on the subject. I came across an example of Connecticut colonial embroidery by a young woman, Prudence Punderson. She had embroidered a work titled “The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality.”

In her silk-stitched work, she portrayed all the wealthy, fine elements of her young life. A beautiful room with drapery and woven checkerboard rugs. Chippendale furniture and mirror, draped in mourning cloth, near a coffin — her coffin, with her initials “PP” in nail heads on the lid. The mortality theme seemed a serious subject for a woman so young.

At 13, I thought this was an amazing type of art and an interesting slice of life, but I didn’t think much more of the content, only the execution of the art and the quality of the stitches.

It was years later, while doing research for the East Hampton Historical Society, that I encountered Prudence again, this time with a connection to the Rev. Samuel Buell of East Hampton. In the excerpts from the diary of Prudence Punderson, our heroine, Reverend Buell was a rescuer, with East Hampton as a historical backdrop during the American Revolution.

She was the same artist who had stitched that scene I was introduced to in 1976. The reference began with Prudence having to flee her home in Preston, Conn., because of her father’s loyalist leanings. He escaped a threat from the Sons of Liberty, who had vowed to tar and feather him. Ebenezer Punderson made his way one dark night to the shoreline to be escorted onto the H.M.S. Rose. Once aboard the British ship, he made his way across Long Island Sound to safety behind the king’s line.

After years of exile, he called for his family to join him, which was no small matter. There was hesitancy over who would join him and who would stay and protect the family home. There was concern in their small community and also the delicate matter of petitioning the governor for permission to leave. So much had to be arranged and agreed upon. Prudence’s grandmother would stay behind with Jenny, an enslaved servant, to keep the house from being plundered and sold by the Sons of Liberty, the very group of patriots who had driven Ebenezer Punderson away three years earlier.

The day came: The family gathered as many belongings as they were allowed to take and made their tearful way across Long Island Sound to Sag Harbor.

Upon their arrival, they were hoping for a reunion with their father, but he was nowhere to be found. Examining the devastation that the British occupation had wreaked there, they began to despair. Exhausted from their trip, without any assistance for lodging, they sought help from their friend Reverend Buell.

The minister was quick to respond, making his way to Sag Harbor in his sedan chair, carried by burly “chair-men” from East Hampton to Sag Harbor and back. He was committed to assisting this family so loyal to the king. He made arrangements in East Hampton and had part of a house ready for the beleaguered travelers.

Prudence was 20 years old. Yale scholars believe this was the point when she created her most notable piece of art, “The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality.” That she created this while exiled in East Hampton provides us a window into the past.

I am not aware of any other piece of art that depicts the interior of an East Hampton home while under British occupation. That is to say, with “Mortality” we have a snapshot of 18th-century life in East Hampton, including a very rare depiction of an enslaved person tending to an infant.

This astonishing connection to East Hampton brings up so many questions about the piece. I wonder about the emotional state of Prudence, as she was a refugee, and how it influenced her art. Her depiction of the painting of Mary Queen of Scots on her way to be executed seems to echo an ominous tone.

The beautiful interior of the home speaks to the favor of protection from British plunder, earned in no small part from the cloying allegiance of Reverend Buell. The Chippendale mirror, covered in mourning cloth, gives insight into funerary traditions of the 18th century as practiced in East Hampton.

The interior raises the question, which home in East Hampton? Is the house still standing and can we find a possible link? We know Reverend Buell was good friends with the Mulfords and even married a Mulford. Could the room portrayed be one at Mulford Farm? Could it be one of the rooms in the Payne Cottage? The enslaved girl tending to the infant: Who was she? Was she a family servant? So many questions from a piece of embroidery.

While the war was winding down in 1783, Timothy Rossiter, a family friend from Preston, Conn., traveled across Long Island Sound and proposed to Prudence. They were married shortly after, with Reverend Buell presiding over the celebration. Prudence wore the most beautiful pink lute-string silk wedding dress. How do I know? It’s in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.

She was 27 when she gave birth to her daughter. Prudence died a few weeks after. It seems to many that her artwork on mortality was prophetic. The lady, the baby, and the coffin. The enslaved servant bearing silent witness to all of it and hidden in plain sight.

When I think of her and close my eyes, the lyrics come back to me, the times I held my own baby. “Dear Prudence . . . the wind is low, the birds will sing that you are part of everything.” I wish to extend my personal thanks to John Simon, the musician, composer, and producer. Thank you for the memories and the use of the White Album.


Colette Gilbert, a former curator of education at the East Hampton Historical Society, is a costume designer, folk herbalist, and storyteller. She lives in North Sea.


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