Ellis Island and Liberty Island

I am sure we are not alone in having itchy feet 16 months into the pandemic. Although we are not quite ready to return to proper travel, now that our whole family is fully vaccinated, we are eager to return to some of our travel behaviours, such as day trips. Contemplating a destination that would be largely outdoors, we decided to take a trip to Ellis Island and Liberty Island.

We did not want to get caught up in New York City traffic so we set off from the New Jersey side. Liberty Park is only 1 hour and 20 minutes from our home so it was a pretty easy drive for a day trip. We had prebooked our tickets which made things much more efficient but was a wee bit of a pity because the ticket office was housed within the old train station from where newly arrived immigrants would set off across the country. Once we had gone through security, we lined up on the jetty, boarded a ferry, and set off on our first short jaunt on the Hudson.

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Our first stop was Ellis Island. Mr Pict and I had visited Ellis Island in August 2001 but this was the first time the boys had visited. A lot has changed in the intervening 20 years. The guided tours have been replaced by audio tours (which we did not do) and the exhibition spaces are much more engaging and visually interesting. While the focus is obviously on the experience of the people who passed through or worked at Ellis Island, there was also a bigger story of immigration being told so there were also exhibits about forced immigration and immigration that predated Ellis Island. I was pleased to see that they no longer shied away from those darker subjects of slavery, colonization, xenophobia and racism.

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As recent immigrants, it was interesting to consider the way the system and experience has changed and the ways in which it has stayed the same. Sidebar but I don’t think I ever mentioned that a couple of years ago my oldest son was set a school project where he had to research his most recent immigrant ancestor. He pointed out that he was the most recent immigrant. The teacher then had to scramble for an alternative project. As a family historian, I find immigration stories, the push and pull factors, interesting. Between us, however, we have zero connection to Ellis Island. My great-grandparents actually emigrated to the US through New Jersey but two years after the closure of Ellis Island. My Great-Gran only stayed for a couple of years before returning to Shetland, pregnant and with a toddler and baby – my Gran – in tow. My Great-Grandfather stayed, which is why I was able to visit his grave on Long Island. Meanwhile Mr Picts American ancestors literally arrived on The Mayflower and the ships that followed and his Mennonite ancestors arrived from Switzerland in the 1700s.

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You may note that I am relating the ways in which I engaged with the history of Ellis Island. My kids were not really into it at all. Our youngest son paid attention to parts of it but they were all pretty checked out. At such times, I just sigh and hope that they are still absorbing something from the experiences we give them. They did enjoy acting out being the officials who determined who was being permitted to enter the US and who was being denied. Any opportunity to be authoritative and bossy.

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From Ellis Island, a very brief boat ride took us onward to Liberty Island. Weirdly, I am the only member of the family who has visited this site before. Despite spending his teenage years in America, my husband had never been to see the Statue of Liberty. We did not have tickets to enter the statue – and frankly that is something I have zero interest in ever doing – so we had a leisurely stroll around the exterior so we could appreciate the statue from various angles. It’s definitely an impressive sculpture. Even my cynical, “this is so boring” boys actually enjoyed seeing Liberty up close.

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Inside the museum, we watched a good quality video about the history of the Statue of Liberty, Bartholdi’s process, and the continued significance and ironies of her symbolism. I enjoyed the exhibits about the sculpting process because seeing the plaster casts and the moulds again helped me appreciate not just the scale of Liberty but also how arduous the process was and how the smallest error could have made the whole project go utterly pear-shaped. Imagine transporting all of those pieces of precisely beaten copper, the labour of several years, across the Atlantic only to find that slight measurement errors mean it doesn’t all click together like a jigsaw puzzle?

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The roof terrace of the museum provided us with great views over the Hudson towards Manhattan’s Battery and of the statue in that context.

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A final speedy boat trip took us back to New Jersey and our car. After a delicious meal in Jersey City, we took the turnpike home and were back by late afternoon. Not bad at all for a day trip. The boys did not properly gripe once and two even said they enjoyed the excursion and thought it was really cool to see the Statue of Liberty up close. I call that a successful day out.

Season of Masks and Mellow Fruitfulness

Apologies to Keats for the lame pun.  Maybe it is not the best idea – during a deadly pandemic –  to reference a text in which the poet uses Autumn to reflect on his own imminent mortality but I couldn’t resist.  It has been some time since I last hit “post” on this blog because, for obvious reasons, I don’t have much to report but I thought I could write something about what we have been up to this Autumn.

We started October with a birthday: our second oldest son turned 15.  He is my movie geek so normally his celebration would involve a cinema trip and a restaurant dinner with us and some of his friends.  While that was not possible this year, his birthday still revolved around movies, especially some of his favourites.  Our 13 year old, for instance, drew his brother’s favourite Director – Martin Scorsese – as a gift and the decorations for his cake were all cinema inspired.

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My 15 year old’s favourite movie of recent years is ‘The Lighthouse’ and his favourite actor is Willem Dafoe.  It was, therefore, not a surprise when he chose to dress up as Dafoe’s character in ‘The Lighthouse’ for Halloween.  Our youngest son went trick or treating as a cat. Our neighbourhood did a safe, socially-distanced trick or treat event.  Candy had to be bagged up in advance and left down by the sidewalk so that nobody had to approach houses and everyone had to walk in the direction of traffic to avoid passing.  It worked really well as a zero contact event and I was glad we could do something approaching “normal” for the youngest members of the community.  Honestly, I rather hope this becomes the new tradition.  It was much easier and the kids were able to gather so much more candy in a shorter period of time because they were not having to leave the sidewalks or wait for people to answer the door.  I am adding that to the list of things I hope don’t return to normal after the pandemic.

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My own personal Halloween horror story was surviving without a fridge-freezer for almost the whole of October.  In addition to being an unexpected expense, we had a whole lot of stress trying to problem-solve a replacement.  When we bought our house, it had not been remotely updated since it was built in 1968 with the exception of the kitchen which dates from about 1990.  It was not, therefore, wholly surprising when the fridge-freezer went kaput.  Unfortunately, dimensions of appliances have changed over the past 30 years and we could not find a replacement fridge-freezer that would fit into the space.  Aside from the fact that we cannot afford to replace the entire kitchen right now, the units are actually in excellent condition.  The only solution we could come up with that maintained the integrity of the surrounding cabinets was to remove the doors from the cabinets above the fridge-freezer space, cut down the interior box, and create an open shelving situation.  It is not ideal but it will do for now and until we do renovate the entire kitchen.  The plumbing for the fridge-freezer was not in line with current code so that was another hiccup along the way.  Needless to say, after a month without a functioning fridge-freezer, I am so happy and grateful to have a new one.

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My birthday fell in election week so the election and the stressful wait for the results dominated the week.  It did, however, make for a very memorable birthday.  I cannot imagine I will ever forget it.  My husband’s birthday fell just two days after we went into lockdown in the Spring and I have the last birthday of the year in our household so we have all had this weird birthday experience now.

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My birthday tradition is to have a trip somewhere that everyone has to agree to and not complain (too much) about.  A lot of things are off limits right now and then there are things we assess as being too high risk.  Luckily, however, one of my favourite pastimes is visiting cemeteries and that is a safe thing to do in the current context.  We, therefore, took a trip to Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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It is always useful to have a focus to our cemetery visits so I went armed with research into some graves we could try to locate.  Mr Pict actually has some distant relatives buried in the cemetery but we had no success in finding them.  Our focus, therefore, was on famous graves.

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The first grave I really wanted to find was that of Mary Grew.  She was an abolitionist and suffragist and, given 2020 is the centenary of women being enfranchised in America and Americans have just elected the nation’s first female VP, it seemed apt to go visit her grave.

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Just a hop, skip, and a jump away, we located the grave of the artist Thomas Eakins.  I confess I had not heard of Eakins until we emigrated and settled in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  One of Eakins’ most famous paintings is The Gross Clinic and the subject of that painting, Dr Samuel Gross, is buried elsewhere in the cemetery.  One of my nerdy interests – an offshoot of my fascination with disease and pandemics – is the history of medicine and the painting of Gross provides some insight into the practices in surgical theatres at that time – not a lot of hygiene, for instance.  That same interest is what drew me to find the resting place of John Conrad Otto.  He identified the pattern of hereditary that caused the transmission of hemophilia.

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As you may recall, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so we, of course, had to visit at least a couple of the graves of notable Civil War veterans: Naval Commodore William David Porter and David Bell Birney.

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My kids have remained 100% virtual for education but, just last week, those students who wished to were able to return to brick and mortar schools on a hybrid model.  By the end of the week, the county public health department ordered that all schools had to pivot back to 100% online for all students for a period of two weeks.  Apart from the fact I returned to work, we have continued to live in a “lockdown” mode so nothing much alters for us.  It may, however, indicate that a strict lockdown is on the horizon.  Apart from not wishing to be furloughed again, we are prepared for it.  We will just continue to watch movies, play board games, and bake.  

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Longwood Gardens and The Last Days of Pandemic Summer

And so our summer has officially drawn to a close with the return to work (me) and school (my sons).  It has been a very peculiar summer, of course.  I am sure most people reading this have had a very different summer from the one they anticipated and planned for.  We, for example, were supposed to fly back to the UK for a few weeks to spend time with our families and attend my youngest brother’s wedding.  Instead, my brother contracted Covid 19, his wedding was postponed and we obviously did not travel to Britain.  We have tried to make the most of our family time, being stuck together pretty much 24/7, but – again, I am sure in common with everyone else – it has been fatiguing and dispiriting.  I think, however, that the transition back to work and (distance learning) school is going to be far tougher than anything we have experienced so far.

We decided to have one last family adventure of the Summer.  Having spent six months avoiding being anywhere peopley, we thought we would brave going somewhere a bit busier but which would still afford us the opportunity to social distance and be safe.  After considering at least a dozen options and discarding them as not having robust enough safety measures, we hit upon the idea of Longwood Gardens.  Not too far from home, largely outdoors, and lots of procedures to mitigate the risk factors.  Mr Pict and I had visited Longwood two years ago but a) I was suffering with some post-op complications and b) the kids had never visited.  We spent a lovely few hours there, felt completely safe throughout our visit, and were glad we went.

In case you were wondering, one of my sons decided when we went into lockdown that he would not cut his hair for that whole period; now he has decided he won’t cut it for the duration of the pandemic.  I suspect his hair is going to get very long.  And my oldest son is not dressed appropriately for the climate because he prefers to wear a “uniform”.  It is slightly crazy making but, as the parent of two autistic children, I have to choose which battles I am going to go full Viking on and which I am just going to wave the white flag at.

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We continued to return to trails we had not visited in years.  Some of these walks were more successful than others.  For instance, we made the poor decision to revisit French Creek State Park in the aftermath of a very nasty storm.  The ground was hard going, sticky and slick, which combined with the steep terrain at points made it very exhausting to walk and I found I was having to concentrate so much on my footing that I was not remotely enjoying my surroundings.  It was also disgustingly humid.  I felt like I was breathing in water.  I just felt muddy and gross and mosquitoes the size of zeppelins were devouring me and making me swell up.  I completed the walk, about 5 miles because we abandoned our intended trail for a shortcut, looking like a parboiled lobster cosplaying as Rambo.  So gross.  We did encounter a lot of frogs on our trek though.

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We have also been playing a lot of board games.  I really like board games but my husband is really fanatical about board games and has amassed quite a massive collection over the years so we always have lots to choose from.  One of the games we have been playing is Pandemic, thematically apt, a co-operative game we don’t often win.  We, however, had a stonking win one afternoon and defeated all of the diseases.  Let’s hope that is a portent of things to come in real life.

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One of my big summer projects was to tame the chaos of our converted garage space and turn it into an organized storage space, including a space for my teaching materials and a larder for all the things I tend to buy in bulk.  I should have thought to take a before photo because it really was a mess.  Things had been hurriedly and thoughtlessly dumped in that room first when we had our basement flood and then when we had to reorganize household spaces with everyone learning and working from home.  Since shelves had become inaccessible during that period, things that actually permanently belonged in that room had not been put in their correct place.  Necessary changes at work due to pandemic mitigation mean I also have to store all of my teaching resources at home and, of course, the only place I had to store them was also the garage.  You will just have to take my word from it that it was an overwhelming mess.  I have spent this summer working on it bit by bit because it was a time consuming project.  It does not look like much and certainly is not going to win any awards for being aesthetically pleasing but the chaos is no more, everything now has a place, and everything is so organized that I can put my hands on any item in that room in an instant.  The shelving unit of square cubbies contain my lesson plans, teaching materials, toys, and books.  It still needs a fair bit of finessing with better storage solutions for some items but it is a functional and much more efficient system.

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On the subject of work, I have also been spending time going into my classroom and getting it ready for a new batch of students and, of course, a new way of operating.  I have had to strip out so much fun stuff from my classroom and my lesson planning because of teaching in the context of a pandemic so it is a bit deflating and dispiriting but I am excited to meet my new students and create fun learning experiences for them.

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I continued to bake my way through the stress of this situation.  I will never be an applicant for a baking show but I have definitely improved my skill level and confidence when it comes to baking.  I have had the odd failure – such as a sunken chocolate cherry cake – but my successes have outnumbered the failures and even the failures were tasty enough.  Like Pavlov’s dogs, however, my boys have become way too accustomed to having a sweet treat available on an almost daily basis.  Since I will not have time for daily baking when I am back at work, it is going to be an adjustment for them and may involve some sugar withdrawal.  Incidentally, that cake in the photo is supposed to have a crack in it as it is an orange Madeira cake.

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All of these summer blog posts have ended with portraits of the cats so here are some portraits of Peanut (ginger) and Satchi (grey) doing their feline thing.

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And here is one of our “bonus” pets.  When our basement window wells flood, frogs move in.  Here is a photo of one who brought his packed lunch slug with him.

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July Projects

A lot of my time and emotional energy this month has been dedicated to the question of what school was going to look like for my boys in September.  It generated a whole lot of stress, to a pretty debilitating degree, as there was all sorts of information, thoughts, and feelings to navigate on the route to arriving at a decision.  It was one of those textbook rock and a hard place things where no matter what we decided we knew there was no completely right decision and we felt that as parents we would be failing our kids in some way.  We arrived at the decision to opt for distance learning, which we could make work for our personal family dynamic.  I then spent time making peace with that decision and figuring out the logistics of making it as successful as possible.  And then, just a few days ago, the school district announced that school would be virtual only for the first marking period at least.  So it turned out all those sleepless nights going back and forth on what to do were pointless.  I am still busy with yet more Zoom meetings about school but at least I know for sure what is happening now (no small thing for a control freak like me) so the only uncertainty remaining now is whether I will be working or furloughed come September.

Anyway, in much more positive news, we have continued to keep ourselves busy and occupied in the Pict household.  My husband continues to work from home full-time and the boys and I are filling our days with projects and fun.  Some of what we have to do might be boring (chores) but we are never bored.  We always have To Do lists longer than time permits and I don’t think that is a bad way to live so long as we can appropriately prioritize those listed items.  We have not done a lot that generates blog fodder this month but this post contains some snippets of some of the things we have been up to.

Despite being together 24/7 – which has the potential to be a powder keg of emotions and frustrations – the four boys are getting along really well together.  They are finding the right balance between time together and time apart.  The only arguments that have broken out are completely daft.  One argument was about whether the Turkish city was best when it was Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul, and another debate was about whether the best siege weapon was a canon, ballista, or trebuchet.  They managed to unite on catapults being the worst.  The boys also continue to make progress with their chosen summer projects.  The oldest is making a computer game on a Greek mythology theme, the 13 year old is learning Latin, and the 14 year has actually completed the online course he was enrolled in about the history of movies.  Incidentally, he (sporadically) writes a movie review blog which you should check out if you are a cinephile.

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My youngest son doesn’t have one big project he is working on as that would not be appropriate for him.  Instead he has been working on all sorts of smaller scale things, some with me and some independently.  One thing he did was complete that jigsaw puzzle that also appeared in last month’s blog post.  He also disassembled an old busted chromebook, made pizza from scratch, and painted a birdhouse he had previously made.  And then I remembered why we had never completed the birdhouse project before: because we don’t have a low enough tree branch to hang it from.  So now I need to problem-solve a way of attaching the birdhouse to a tree that does no harm to the tree.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Our oldest son passed his driving test!  That’s a milestone for him and also for us as parents.  He is actually not very enthused about the prospect of driving but we felt it was important for him to get his license and we preferred for him to be a new driver under our auspices.  We let him put it off for a year and then persuaded him to just get on with it.  Taking the test with Covid mitigation measures involved some peculiarities but maybe that made him less rather than more nervous.  He did great and we now have three drivers in the house.

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We have been tackling some overdue household projects.  It was not so much that we had procrastinated over them as that other projects had queue jumped because of something suddenly needing to be replaced or a household emergency.  One of those neglected projects was giving the kitchen a makeover.  It was not in the budget to overhaul the entire kitchen (which was installed in the early 1990s) and honestly it was not necessary as the cabinets are all still in really good condition and completely functional.  The microwave was, however, literally falling apart so Mr Pict installed a new one and then it was just a case of freshening up the walls with a lick of paint.  The dual aspect windows at the far end of the kitchen means I could not hang any art work on that large blank wall without it rapidly bleaching and the space is too narrow for hanging anything that might get bumped into.  I, therefore, had the idea to put up a large pinboard.  That way I can pin up all of the letters and notices and appointment cards the six of us generate and which usually get piled on the fridge doors.  Now the fridge doors can just be a gallery of the boys’ artwork and my weekly meal plan.

This was what the kitchen looked like just before we embarked on the project.

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And this is what it looks like now, the walls switched from magnolia to a silver grey.  It is a subtle difference but it is so much cleaner looking and so much lighter.

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My art space is the kitchen table at the other end of the kitchen.  We have a dining room so we don’t need that table for eating and, therefore, I can leave it set up so I can grab art time in little gobbets.  The problem with that permanent set up is that I sometimes accumulate a lot of clutter on my art table (which I share with the cats) and it gets a bit chaotic.  I, therefore, used this opportunity to streamline and simplify my art table set up.  I kept out only the things I use frequently and stored the rest away elsewhere.  Three of the four chairs were also too broken to be safely sat on so we got rid of those and got new ones.  I neglected to take a photo of the before scenario but you get a glimpse of it in this photo of one of my cats “sharing” my art space.

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This is what it looks like now.  Much less cluttered and more efficient.  Still shared with the cats.

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Another household reorganization project I had not gotten around to for ages was sorting through all of the bedlinen and making the linen closet more organized.  I forgot to take a before photo so you will just have to trust me that this closet was a complete and utter mess with far too much crammed in and no ability to tell from a glance what sheets were for which bed.  After the flood and the consequent reassignment of bedrooms and new beds, we also had some bedding that was surplus to requirement.  It proved to be a bit of a Twilight Zone project, however.  I pulled out all of the bedlinen and sorted it into piles: keep, donate, recycle.  I generated two large boxes for donation and six garbage bags for recycling.  You would think that would free up so much space in that closet but no.  Once I started to put the linens we were keeping back in, I was still struggling to fit it onto the shelves.  It is a shallow closet but that still makes no sense to me.  The boxes contain the sheets and pillowcases organized by bed size.  I need to come up with a neater way to store all of those bulky comforters and spare pillows.  Again: suggestions welcome.

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We have been so busy that we have mostly just been walking around our own neighbourhood.  We did, however, venture slightly further afield by going for a wander around Ridley Creek State Park.  Last time we went there it was Winter and we did not see another soul; this day, by contrast, the temperatures were in the 90s and it was swarming with people.  The parking lot was so packed that we almost decided to jettison the plan, since we are taking social distancing very seriously.  We walked a couple of the trails before we capitulated to the kids’ complaints about being sweaty and itchy.  Incidentally, just in case you were wondering, our 13 year old has decided he is not cutting his hair for however long quarantine social distancing lasts.  Brace yourselves for Cousin Itt appearing in my blog at some future point.

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On a whim (and inspired by several of Claudia McGill’s blog posts) we had an explore of Norristown Farm Park.  It was another baking hot afternoon so we stuck to one circuit without veering off to explore side paths or a bigger loop but we were still there for a few hours.  It was great to have points of interest along the way to keep the boys engaged and create natural breaks in which we could rest in the shade.

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I, of course, enjoyed seeing all of the decaying farm buildings.  While the kids were paddling in a stream, I went for a donder around a ramshackle building where I encountered a fox (who was too speedy for a decent photo) and lots of my national flower.  There was also a field full of sunflowers.  It has been many years since I saw so many sunflowers gathered together.  One of my brothers has a phobia of them so obviously I had to take plenty of photos to send to him.

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We will definitely go back and wander there again and poke around in some of the areas we never made it to – but when he air temperature is cooler and we are better prepared.

And, of course, we are still baking like crazy.  Despite the “pandemic pounds”, I cannot seem to stop baking.  I justify it was being an activity to engage my youngest son in but really it is just comfort food for the soul.  When we first went into lockdown, I had intended to learn how to make decent quality bread.  I used to bake bread with my Granddad but have never had huge success independently.  I have not actually embarked on that self-improvement project, however, partly because I have not had the time and partly because we have not been eating much bread so I don’t have the same inclination.  If we are still social distancing when the days get chillier, then I might be motivated to dig into that project.  Until then we will just keep churning out desserts.

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Since it is now a tradition to include the cats in these “Pict pandemic posts”, here are Peanut and Satchi “assisting” me with the reorganization of the linen closet.

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1916 Shark Attacks Trip

Our 12 year old has an obsession with sharks.  This is partly because he fears them and partly because he thinks they are fantastic creatures.  This obsession has led him to becoming a bit of a mini-expert on the (in)famous 1916 shark attacks.  I appreciate that some readers might think this is a bit of a tasteless topic to allow a tween boy to become obsessed with but a) we are nerds rearing other nerds and b) we encourage our sons’ curiosity and support their interests.  After all, our kids are being raised by parents who are – among other things – interested in the American Civil War, zombies, pandemics, the history of sideshows, and true crime.  It’s how we roll.  Anyway, at the (shark) tail end of Shark Week, we decided to facilitate our little shark nerd by taking a trip to the Jersey Shore to visit sites relevant to the attacks that occurred in 1916.

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While it would have been neater to visit the sites in chronological order, other factors dictated that we actually undertake the trip in reverse order.  We, therefore, started our trip in the town of Matawan.  The final attack actually occurred at Cliffwood when 12 year old Joseph Dunn was attacked as he was clambering out of the water.  Thankfully he survived.  Matawan was the site, therefore, not of the final attack but of the final fatal attack.  One of the reasons the 1916 shark attacks are so notorious is because of the bizarre fact that the final attacks occurred in an inland creek and not in saltwater.  It was 12 July and some boys had just gotten off work from the factory where they were employed and headed to the creek to swim.  Obviously there was no way these poor kids could possibly anticipate that a shark would be present in the water and unfortunately one little boy, Lester Stillwell, was killed.  The other boys alerted the folks of Matawan and tailor Stanley Fisher leapt to action.  He dived into the creek to recover little Lester and was himself attacked.  Heroic Stanley was quickly lifted from the water, placed onto a train to get him to hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries.  My research had made it apparent that there was no way for us to access the swimming hole without committing an act of trespass and probably doing battle with poisonous plants.  Our 12 year old, therefore, made do with visiting a part of Matawan Creek that had safe public access.

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We then visited Rose Hill Cemetery, a lovely, peaceful, shady spot where both Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher are buried.  Little Lester’s grave is sited near a pond that was absolutely covered in blooming lily pads.  It was a pretty and serene spot.  Previous visitors had left little toys and trinkets for Lester so evidently we were not the only people who had undertaken this trip.  On a little grassy promontory, we located the grave of Stanley Fisher.  It seemed apt that his grave overlooked that of Lester just as, in life, he had been looking out for the boy.  We also stopped by to see a memorial that was placed in a park to commemorate the centenary of the tragedy.

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After Matawan, we went slightly off-theme.  It would be entirely off-theme except that the location is on Raritan Bay and it was in that body of water that the alleged man-eater shark was caught.  I write alleged because we cannot know for sure that they captured the correct shark or indeed that only one shark was responsible for all of the attacks that happened over the course of those 12 days in July 1916.  Anyway, since we were in the vicinity, we thought we would go and check out the National Park at Sandy Hook to see if it was worth making that the focus of a day trip at some point in the future.  The answer is “Yes” so I won’t go into too much detail in this blog post since we plan to return and visit properly at some point.  I love lighthouses so it has one of those for me and it has Fort Hancock so has some military history for Mr Pict.  For the kids, it has wide open space for them to be feral and access to beaches.

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Back on topic, our next location was in Spring Lake.  This was where, on 6 July 1916, Charles Bruder was attacked.  The poor man was so severely injured that he died on the lifeboat as it made its way back to shore.  Bruder had been employed as a bellhop at the Essex & Sussex Hotel.  The building is still standing, though it is now a condominium block, so our 12 year old was able to see where Bruder lived and worked as well as the section of shoreline where the tragedy occurred.

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Our final location for the day was Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island.  We had been to Long Beach Island previously – and even found a dead shark on the beach – but that was before our son had researched the 1916 attacks and knew of its relevance.  Beach Haven was the site of the first attack, on 1 July, when a young man from Philadelphia named Charles Vansant was attacked.  His rescuers pulled him from the water and carried him into the hotel where he was a guest but tragically he died.  The Engleside Hotel was demolished in the 1940s but we could visit the place where it once stood as it became a Veterans Memorial Park.  We then headed down to the beach.  It being the conclusion of our trip and getting near the end of the day, we opted to spend some time relaxing and having fun there.  Amazingly  – given the theme of the day – the 12 year old with the mild phobia of water went swimming in the sea and had a wonderful time.

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Next time we go to the Shore, we will commit to doing what more regular folks do.

Canada Trip #16 – Fort Henry and Kingston

Our only “big” trip out during our week staying at the lake house was to Kingston.  Kingston is a historic city, since it was united Canada’s first capital.  For three years.  Still, its historic significance means it has lots of quaint streets and interesting architecture.  The focus of our trip, however, was a visit to Fort Henry.

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Fort Henry was built during the War of 1812 and the site was important because it was at the head of the St Lawrence River.  I don’t get defensive  strategy but I’ve had enough exposure to military history to know that ports, major waterways, and railway intersections are important.  And also peach orchards if it’s the Civil War.  It didn’t last long as an actual fort in the whole scheme of things, however, as it has been a tourist attraction since the 1930s.

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The upper fort comprises what I guess were once storage warehouses that have been turned into shops and cafes.  We, therefore, headed down to the lower fort  – which was the “museum” bit of the Fort – and into a couple of rooms built into the gateway wall.  One contained an array of uniforms for the kids – and adults – to try on.  I preferred the opposite room which contained a cabinet filled with chunky vintage keys.  We also visited the cells – and, man, they had a lot of cells so those soldiers either must have been up no good a lot of the time or else they had too many petty offences on the books such as loudly burping in public or shoes being adequately shiny.  The cells, however, might have been preferable to the privies.  I personally would have preferred a stint in the cells than having to go about my business in a row of other people doing the same.

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We were also able to visit a few kitchens, some more rustic and some more formal, and we even saw some women baking pretzels in the original ovens.  They made the whole place smell delicious.  They were not the only staff in costume either.  Indeed, the whole fort was manned by folks dressed up in period clothing.  One of these was a teacher and we sat in her classroom for a mathematics lesson.  The experience taught the kids in the room about the differences between the ways in which each gender was educated, what some of the expectations of classroom behaviour were, and what some of the punishments were for disobeying those rules.

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Along the length of one corridor, we could view the finely decorated rooms in the officers’ quarters.  We had also seen a furnished barrack room for the non-commissioned men and the differences were pretty stark.  We passed through a room full of barrels – lots of alcohol consumption in the military, of course, and that led us into a room where we could choose to stay on the same level or take a detour down to the cellar level.  We love exploring dank, dark, and potentially spooky places so it was a no-brainer plus a warning sign about bats was read by us as a promise.  We all love bats.  Alas, and much to the chagrin of the Pictlings, we did not encounter a single bat nor did I see or smell any signs of them.  False advertising.

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Up on the ramparts, we could poke among the canons and gain a better appreciation of the shape of the fort.  We could also watch a troop of faux soldiers rehearsing their drill.  We didn’t want to catch too much of what they were up to, however, because we did not want a spoiler of the actual performance so we skedaddled.

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It was definitely time to eat by this point in the day, our schedule meaning we were having to combine lunch and dinner (dunch? linner?), so we headed into the centre of Kingston.  Mr Pict had been up to some googling so we ended up at a German restaurant.  I don’t eat meat which often completely rules out German cuisine and, as such, I don’t think the boys have ever eaten German food.  What better time to introduce them to new foods than when they are hangry and have been dragged around a fort in the searing heat against their will?  It actually proved to be an unexpected success – especially for our 16 year old who, like his father, is an enthusiastic carnivore.  Filled up and refreshed from some time spent with air conditioning, we had a bit of an explore of central Kingston.  Our youngest son – the one obsessed with cats – was delighted to pass many window displays with a feline theme.  For my part, I enjoyed seeing Kingston Penitentiary.  I would have liked to have visit but time did not permit.  Among the (in)famous prisoners who served their sentences within its walls was Grace Marks, the protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s novel ‘Alias Grace’.

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After wandering around Kingston for a bit, we still had some time to “waste” so we headed over to Kingston’s section of the Rideau Canal.  The Rideau Canal stretches all the way from Ottawa to the St Lawrence.  Having visited one end of the canal when I was in Ottawa back in 2001, it was apt that I visit its other end in Kingston, where the canal system meets the Cataraqui River.  Just as with Fort Henry, the catalyst for construction was the War of 1812 (a conflict I know a woeful amount about while having little intention of deliberately learning more) because the British wanted to ensure a supply route.  It’s possible that as many as a thousand people died while building the canal, often from malaria.  This was a factoid I learned while, yet again, being bitten by swarms of flying insects.

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After whiling away some time around the canal locks, it was time to return to Fort Henry.  We had tickets for the Sunset Ceremony so we headed back into the lower fort, clambered up onto some bleachers, and gobbled up some beaver tails while waiting for the evening’s entertainment to start.  The ceremony was a demonstration of military drills, music, artillery, and fireworks – and a walk on part by the goat mascot.  The whole performance was very polished, with lots of precise movements, great visuals, and an informative narration.  The kids had been very skeptical about the value of returning to the fort but they all thoroughly enjoyed the show.

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Canada Trip #15 – Gananoque

Gananoque is the main town in the proximity of Lake Charleston.  We needed to grab a few provisions so we headed into town and thought we would take some time to explore as well as do the practical job of grocery shopping.  I had thought we would visit the local museum in order to learn something of the history of the Thousand Islands – Gananoque being the launching point for day cruises around and to the islands – but the kids did their peasant revolt thing and Mr Pict was not feeling it either.  They had all really got into the vibe of an inactive vacation whereas I was still in the mindset of needing to fill time with activity.

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Gananoque’s main street – King Street – looked like a pleasant place for a wander so we decided to park up the car and get out for a stroll.  We had a nose around a few of the stores.  The one we spent a lot of time in was a book store.  It sold a mixture of new and second hand books and all were arranged on shelves by genre.  The usual methods of categorisation were present – such as classics and crime fiction – but there were also fun ways of organising the books such as books that are much better to read than their movie adaptation might suggest.  I have a slight addiction to buying second hand books – often leaving our local library with a bargain from their discard shelves – but I managed to resist temptation.  Mr Pict bought a couple of history books.

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We bought some drinks and ice creams from a lovely little cafe and were super-excited to see that, among the baked goods it had for sale, they had millionaires shortbread.  This is just blocks of shortbread with a topping of thick, oozy caramel, and a slab of chocolate as its lid.  What we were excited about was the fact they called it millionaires shortbread which is a label we have not seen since we left Scotland.  A little taste of home does the soul good so we bought some to have for dessert that night.

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Last stop in Gananoque was to see a statue of a fish that sits in the grounds of a motel complex.  It celebrates the world’s largest muskie (which I did not even know was a type of fish) that was caught locally.  The fish weighed something like 70lbs, which I guess is quite a lot of fish.  I don’t fish, have no interest in ever doing so, and clearly know nothing about it since I did not even know a muskie was a thing.  I do, however, love random roadside monuments, especially anything carrying the label of “world’s largest”, so I had to go check it out.  It was just a massive concrete sculpture of a leaping fish but I was happy to achieve something touristy.

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Canada Trip #14 – Charleston Lake

We felt we could not stay on Lake Charleston for a week without actually exploring Lake Charleston beyond our own little sliver of shoreline.  We, therefore, entered the provincial park, plumped for the shoreline trail, and set off on a trek.  An information at the trailhead provided us with some information on what we might encounter on our trek.  Consequently, the younger boys had high expectations of seeing wildlife.  This was despite the fact that we were encountering significantly fewer critters in our borrowed woodland house than we encounter on a daily basis in our suburban home.  We saw some squirrels, a punk caterpillar, and a solitary deer, and that – apart from the fish – was the sum total of our wildlife encounters during our week at the lake house.  This was not what we anticipated.  My youngest son has a trail camera set up in our backyard so he can capture images of deer and foxes and the chupacabra (a mangy fox that malingers in our neighbourhood) and he brought his camera with him to the lake house.  It captured nothing.  Nothing.  A whole week living in the woods and it captured not one single image of a beast of any kind.  But I digress.

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The shoreline trail was an easy going loop.  It was a baking hot day so the shade of the trees provided welcome respite from the heat and also created lovely dappled light on the woodland floor.  Shoreline was a bit of a misnomer as the path barely took us near the coast of the lake.  There was one point where we popped out of the trees at the water’s edge but a couple of kayakers were trying to have what looked to be a romantic picnic right at that spot so we did the diplomatic thing and kept moving.  The only other body of water we passed was some kind of pond – probably a tributary of the actual lake.  It was so still, however, that it was practically stagnant and, of course, that meant biting insects galore were having some kind of convention there.  We were instantly being devoured.  The mosquitos were so big that when we swatted them, they left crime scene style spatters of blood on our arms and legs.  So gross.  Even my husband, who is normally immune from being bitten, was getting eaten alive by these vicious insects.  That was the day when I was bitten so many times that I had a particularly nasty reaction in the evening.

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Mercifully, to make the trek worthwhile, we did encounter one (non-biting) animal – a gorgeous little frog.  Or maybe a toad.  I have not identified what specific species of amphibian it was.  The kids were thrilled to have an actual animal encounter.

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Canada Trip #13 – Fun on the Lake

I won’t keep you in suspense about what our experience of staying in one place for an entire week was.  This post, therefore, is about the way in which we used our lakeside setting and relaxed in the house spanning that entire week.  Future posts will cover specific things that we did.

The house was sited on a steep hill and it was built part way down the slope.  We, therefore, had to take a flight of stairs from the driveway down to the house, the house itself was single storey, then there was a flight of stairs down to a patch of land, and there was a further flight of stairs that took us down to a small jetty right on Lake Charleston.  This meant the house was snuggled into a space that was very secluded and private and, therefore, very quiet and peaceful.  The elevation also provided us with lovely views and we got to see some lovely sunrises and sunsets during our time there.  Mr Pict, space nerd that he is, also enjoyed being able to go out onto the deck in the absolute pitch dark to study the constellations and show the boys the Milky Way free of light pollution.

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The big hit, of course, was having access to the water.  The boys loved jumping off of the lakeside deck and splashing into the water.  The water was really clear so we regretted not bringing goggles and a snorkel.  We were swimming among many fish and Mr Pict and two of the kids saw a swimming turtle at one point.  The kids also encountered a critter that was biting their toes.  They were initially concerned that this was a snapping turtle but I pointed out they would definitely know had they been bitten by one of those.  It turned out to be a really territorial fish who was biting at them any time they got near her particular rock – which was very close to the jetty stairs.  The boys nicknamed her Trish the Foot Fetish Fish.  I think they grew rather fond of her.

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The house also came with a canoe so we spent quite a lot of time going for brief excursions along the perimeter of the lake.  We could not risk crossing the lake or indeed venturing too far from the shore because there were speed boats bursting up and down the length of the lake pretty much constantly.  The kids have limited experience with paddling but got really pretty good at it towards the end of the trip.

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We also utilised the fire pit to make s’mores for dessert on a couple of evenings.  My kids are equally as drawn to fire as they are to water so I am pretty sure the thing they enjoy most about making s’mores is having the opportunity to poke things into flames.  We got into a totally sticky mess.  I also managed to get eaten alive by biting insects.  Insects find me insatiable.  My blood must taste like finest champagne to them.  Unfortunately, I have a terrible reaction to insect bites.  Most of the time, it just leads to discomfort but otherwise is not too problematic.  Sometimes, however, it results in me feeling very sick.  Unfortunately on one of the evenings at the lake house, I was covered in so many nasty bug bites that I developed an excruciating headache and a mild fever.  That was, however, the only downside to the location.

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We had one day of non-stop, torrential rain during our week there.  We, therefore, just hunkered down and used the time for relaxing on our own or playing games together.  Our evening habit was to play games and there was one in particular that we got a bit obsessed with.  We must have played scores of games of ‘One Night Ultimate Werewolf’.  I used my flumping around time to read a couple of books and draw while listening to podcasts.

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Overall, I think we all enjoyed our time at the lake house and benefited from the fact it forced us to slow down.  Given the stressful situation we had left behind, removing us from the chaos and forcing us to relax after a period of such intense activity, it was probably good therapy to experience a week of this style of vacation.  I cannot deny, however, that I did have the nagging feeling that we should be packing more experiences into each day in order for our vacation to offer better value for money.  I think what we probably need to do in future is find a happy balance between really pushing ourselves to the limit when it comes to travel and making time in which to relax.

Canada Trip #12 – Brockville

An early check out from the apartment in Montreal and a late check in for our next accommodation meant we had time to spare.  For various, mostly pragmatic reasons, we elected to spend that spare time in Brockville, Ontario.

One of the non-pragmatic reasons we selected Brockville was that it has a disused railway tunnel we could visit.  I confess to only being very vaguely interested in the prospect of visiting a piece of infrastructure heritage because industrial history isn’t my thing.  Just as with being a perpetual pessimist, the joy of having low expectations is that its wonderful when they are exceeded.  Such was the case with the Brockville Railway Tunnel.  I was expecting bare brick, chilly walls, and dripping water and really not a lot else.  It was a grossly hot and humid day, however, so the idea of taking a stroll through intense shade certainly appealed.  What we found, however, was a railway tunnel that volunteers have transformed into an installation that tells the story of the local railway heritage while also being a sort of sensory exhibition.  There was indeed bare brick, chilly walls, and dripping water, but there were also colour changing lights and music and sounds.  I liked the effect of the changing colours a lot.  Ever so often, the sounds of a whizzing train would be pumped in and the lights would go sharp white except for a red section that moved at high speed to replicate the movement of the train through the tunnel.  It was like a disco ghost train.  I mean, there is really only so much you can do to enliven a railway tunnel but I really think the team of volunteers of doing a sterling job of doing so.  It really did make for a pleasant stroll.

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We later spoke to one of the volunteers and he explained that the idea of gussying up the tunnel was for it to act as an enticement to bring people to the town and give it an economic boost.  That ploy certainly worked on us as we popped out the other end of the tunnel and found a pleasant, compact little town on the waterfront and decided to spend some time milling around there.  The boys skipped stones in the water while Mr Pict watched commercial ships charging through the water.  I also found that the town had once been the site of a hospital island where emigrants stricken with cholera had been housed during an 1832 epidemic.  I have a keen interest in the history of pandemics and some epidemics so I found this to be of interest.  A sign also informed me that a fellow Scot had expired there when, in his role as doctor, he had contracted cholera when attending to the sick.  We rounded up our time in Brockville by stopping in at a local pub for a tasty meal.

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Replete, we next headed to a local supermarket to stock up on groceries.  Our next destination was remote and we had been told that access to groceries would be limited.  We, therefore, decided to stock up on food for the week in Brockville since we knew they had a big supermarket and we had time to burn.  I am big on meal planning and buying only items that are on the shopping list.  However, we definitely added extra items to the shopping trolley because we discovered that Canadian supermarkets stock lots of items we used to buy in Britain but cannot get – or cannot affordably purchase – in America.  We went a bit crazy with breakfast cereal and chocolate and candy.  We actually bought enough that some of the cereal eventually came home with us.  The chocolate, of course, had a much shorter life expectancy.

We arrived at our final destination in the late afternoon.  Long time followers of this blog will know that our road trips usually involve us moving frequently from location to location, and never staying any one place for more than a few days.  For this vacation, however, we decided to treat – or challenge – ourselves to a change of pace.  We were going to be staying in the same location for an entire week.  Adding another layer to the change of pace was the fact that the house we were renting was situation on Lake Charleston and was fairly remote and quiet.  We were going to have lots of downtime in which to relax.

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