I was with Joyce the day she discovered the Rosetta stone. Oh, I know Napoleon's troops discovered it first, in Egypt, in the sands of Rashid in 1799.
I'm talking about who discovered it best , and I was with her when it happened.
We were in the British Museum. One moment my wife was walking along, reading wall plaques, and the next she was standing wide-eyed, almost in shock, staring at it.
"Good Lord! Do you know what this is?" she asked, pointing. "I mean, do you really know?"
Before I could answer, she told me and several other people standing nearby. "This is the Rosetta stone. This is it, in person! This carved stone is what opened up the ancient world.
"This engraving right here made it possible for us . . . I mean, the scientists and historians . . . to read hieroglyphics, to learn the mysteries of ancient Egypt. See, carved here in three languages is the same message."
As she went on, a few people gathered around. One of the museum guards, an East Indian woman who had been sitting on a chair against the wall, approached to listen, realizing belatedly that Joyce was touching the black basalt slab as she talked.
The woman's frantic, "Oh, well, here, now, oh my goodness, missus!" brought my wife up short.
Not a Bit Sorry
Joyce's apology was accepted immediately and she took a minor scolding with good grace and a look of sincere repentance, but she confided later that she wasn't really the least bit sorry.
She said she was glad to have touched the Rosetta stone, and that it had a warmth to it she had not expected, as if it and its message were alive.
Ever since Joyce and I got our offspring educated and discovered that there could be such a thing as extra money, we've traveled. Since that time neither of us ever knowingly bypassed a museum. We tend to take some of the exhibits seriously.
Star of Africa
The same week we saw the Rosetta stone we visited the Tower of London, where Joyce took my arm and led me away from the Star of Africa, one of the crown jewels that seems to give back more light than it takes in. She said my continuing presence in front of the case, with my chin-on-the-chest look, was making the Beefeater guards nervous.
Pulling Joyce away from Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum was like trying to get a child past a candy store.
And it was only the city guide's threat to leave us in East Berlin that got the two of us out of the Pergamon and away from the reassembled walls of ancient Babylon.
Strangely enough, though, one of the most memorable museum experiences either of us has had came about because of something we knew should have been in the museum, but which we just couldn't find.
On a sunny afternoon we went to the Sir John Soanes Museum in London. Like every one else who visits the Soanes, we were met at the door and welcomed by the curator.
Then we stepped into what felt like a different world, and definitely a different century--the house had been the home of Sir John Soanes, one of England's foremost architects of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
We were told that except for a few decorative ropes restricting certain areas, nothing was different from the time when the family was in residence.
Portrait of Old Man
We saw a picture of Sir John over the mantelpiece, painted when he was 75. We saw the William Hogarth paintings, plus the ornately carved white alabaster Sarcophagus of Seti I and dozens of other exhibits.
But the longer we stayed and the more we saw, the more aware we became that though it was indeed a remarkable museum, as a house something was missing. We were in a home in which a man had, reportedly, lived most of his life, but there seemed little or nothing of him in it.
Joyce mentioned this to one of the elderly guards in the basement.
"The man himself you mean, mum?" he asked. "I don't know as I can help you. It's 150 years since his passing, you know."
"We saw the picture in the dining room," Joyce said.
"Well, mum," he said, leading us toward the museum's picture room, "that's an oil painting, but still much like a photograph, as you might say. Such pictures are only a few moments of posing out of a man's life--in that case, a very old man's life. Older even than meself.
"Sir John was born the son of a bricklayer, but because of his talent, was knighted. He designed the Bank of England, Holy Trinity in Marylebone and so many of England's finest buildings.
"Historically, he was the leader of the classic revival of English architecture. A vital person was Sir John, not just an old man posing in a chair."
When we arrived at the main picture room the guard began turning panels, displaying renderings of building after building, each seemingly more beautiful than the one before.
Some Structures Unbuilt
"This is some of Sir John, some of his works. They're all over the country. But many of these you see here were never built. Too dear for the London of his day, but if they had been built, oh what a London this would be!"