The Only Snow in Havana – Excerpt

In the small Connecticut museum the smell of musty books is as strong as the heat outside. Hannah’s things are in a blue cardboard box, loose and in no particular order.

She has a beautiful hand. I find some of her letters, an account book with a few entries, a sample of her tatting, a photograph of Punney in an elaborate tasselled chair.

Hannah in the same chair — her hair in braided loops, a small flowered bonnet on her head, and those intelligent eyes looking out.

Joseph in the same chair, looking vague.

Browned envelopes addressed to “Esquimaux Joe and Hannah.” Clippings from the Groton Standard. “They toured Great Britain attracting great crowds … in the hot crowded rooms Hannah caught cold and Johnny contracted pneumonia.” I keep looking for the diary. I ask, and to my enormous disappointment it turns out to be the nearly empty account book.

Punnia 3 Dollars.
Hannah 4 Dollars.
punna boots 2 Dollar 70 Cents
8 socks 1 D. 20
July 23 1873 — Old Man give me 9 Dollars.
From Joe 5 Dollars.

She left so little evidence behind, unlike the men whose fate she helped discover. The members of the Franklin Expedition dragged boats behind them as they stumbled overland into cannibalism and death. They left behind a kid glove, a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield, a grass-weave cigar case, a pair of blue sunglasses in a tin case, a pair of calf-lined bedroom slippers, blue and white delftware teacups, a sixpence, dated 1831. On Route 12 outside Groton, Connecticut, the Starr Cemetery lies under a blazing sun. (“Hot not hurt me now,” she wrote in one of her letters.) Circles of green lichen cover the tombstone.

Joseph Eberbing [sic]
Hannah, His Wife, Died Dec. 31, 1876
Aged 38 years.

I look for Johnny’s grave and can’t find it. Nearby, a small weathered tablet, some of its words illegible, indicates where Punney was buried.

adopted daughter
Born Igloolik, July 1866
Survivor of the Polaris
real snow
arctic Canada
Chas. Francis Hall
with nineteen others
ice floe, April 30
adrift on the
of 190 days
over 1200 miles

Born as Tookoolito, buried as Hannah, she learned English, dined with Queen Victoria, shook hands with Ulysses Grant. Survived nearly seven months on an ice floe only to die three years later in Groton at the age of thirty-eight.

There was the child who died in New York. Another in the Arctic. The last in Groton.

The lecture tour through New England.

And that image of her final days — alone, surrounded by furs, sewing for the women of Connecticut.