Eisenhower’s Farm

This Memorial Day, Mr Pict and I decided to go out for the day without the kids. They were invited to join us but declined so we thought we would take the opportunity to do something they would find tedious. We have been to Gettysburg many times since emigrating to the US. However, because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, our focus has always been on the battlefield. This time, therefore, we decided to approach Gettysburg from a different angle and visit Eisenhower’s home.

We arrived a little too early for a tour so we had a wander of the exterior of the property. We saw the limousine the Eisenhowers would take from the White House to Gettysburg and I was imagining this fancy car bumping along the uneven roads for two or three hours. Popping into the barn, I ended up chatting to one Ranger about Scotland generally and specifically about Eisenhower’s suite in Culzean Castle. It has been a long time since I visited Culzean so I had forgotten the Eisenhower connection. It is, therefore, pretty weird that I have ended up visiting two places where he lived given he is not exactly of interest to me. Adjacent to the barn, we saw the cramped cinder block hut that was the base of operations for the Secret Service Agents.

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We lucked out when it was time for our tour as we were assigned to a very informative and engaging Ranger. I only possess general knowledge of Eisenhower so I found it all very educational. I learned that the farm house was purchased and extensively restored by the Eisenhowers as part of their retirement plan but Ike kept being called back to serve his country in one way or another so it took many years before they could use the property as their permanent residence. They did, however, use it as a weekend bolt hole and to entertain visiting Heads of State. Only one – Nehru – stayed overnight and we saw the guest bedroom where he slept.

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My major takeaway from my visit was that, while Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary achievements in public life, in private life the Eisenhowers were massively ordinary. Since I am much more interested in social history than I am military or political history, this actually led me to engage with the tour much more than I anticipated because the home was a time capsule of mid-century taste rather than being a grand home. For example, the Eisenhowers loved to dinner eat off of tray tables while watching TV so we saw the sun room where they used to relax and their wonderfully cuboid TV cabinet. We saw the bedroom where Ike took naps and recuperated from his various acute health complaints and the master bedroom where Mamie would issue orders to staff while still in bed in her nightgown.

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After leaving the Eisenhower farm, we headed into Gettysburg. The centre was packed because of the Memorial Day celebrations so we ended up parked a few blocks away. As it happened, we were near a brewery so we decided to pop in for a grown up lunch and some day drinking on my part since I had a cider. That repast then gave us the recharge required to do some extensive wandering in the blistering heat. Most of the historic buildings were closed because it was a holiday but we took in the exteriors and browsed in some fun stores. Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the house where Lincoln had slept the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address and was also in nerd heaven in a store selling board games and another filled to the gunnels with Civil War antiques. We strolled back to our car along the route of the Memorial Day Parade so we could take in some of the festivities as we went.

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It was a fun day out and we are hopeful for more day trips – preferably with our kids – now that we are officially in Summer.

Museum of Natural History

Our 14 year old had some options for a Biology assignment. I was pretty keen on a project involving writing about unusual diseases that appear in our family history but he chose to undertake one that involved a trip to a Natural History Museum. There is one close to home, in Philadelphia, which would have been more straightforward. However, he requested that we take a trip to New York to visit the museum there, which we had visited as part of the boys’ first ever trip to NYC back in February of 2014.

We had not been to NYC for years so we decided it could form the basis of a fun day trip. We formulated a plan for the day that we had to throw away the evening before the trip when the 14 year old fell of his skateboard and badly sprained his ankle. Since he was still pleading to go and given we had already booked and paid for the admission tickets, we decided to forge ahead with the trip to the museum but to junk all of the other plans for the day.*

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One area of focus for the assignment was early humans so we headed to that section first. I took a DNA test a few years ago as a means of making contact with other family historians researching the same families. It has led to all sorts of interesting interactions but there was really nothing interesting about my DNA. It proved I was as boring genetically as I was on paper. The only unexpected find was that I have a smattering of Neanderthal DNA. Until then, I had not known that Neanderthal DNA can still be identified at detectable levels in contemporary humans. I guess now I know where my massive forehead comes from.

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There was a special exhibition about sharks so we decided to boost our tickets for entry to that gallery. You might recall that my 14 year old and I are a wee bit obsessed with sharks. I cannot say that we especially learned anything new about sharks but we appreciated the life size models as we could really grasp the scale of some of the less familiar sharks. We also had fun with the megalodon models.

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I am sure that many visitors to natural history museums spend a lot of time among the dinosaur fossils. While I am certainly no dino nerd, I have never outgrown that childhood fascination with these ancient beasts. One of the things my son was writing about in his assignment was fossil evidence of dinosaurs being feathered so we particularly honed in on the exhibits relevant to that topic. We also made sure to visit all of our favourite dinosaurs – mine is a triceratops in case you are interested. We visited the Ice Age mammals too. As much as I know it would be wholly unethical to do so, I do think it would be marvelous to resurrect mammoths from extinction.

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Other sections of the museum we visited included the Central American gallery and the meteorite and gem sections. You will observe our family tradition of taking photos of ourselves in the same poses as sculptures. My 16 year old loves sparkly shiny things so has always enjoyed that section and my husband is an astronomy geek so he loves getting up close to space rocks. He was especially enthralled by a case containing three chunks of meteor taken from the surface of the moon.

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Unfortunately the limping 14 year old was starting to feel the strain of his busted ankle so we could not keep forging on through all of the other areas of the museum. We felt satisfied that we had covered a lot of ground, however, so left feeling fulfilled.

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And now we need to return to NYC at some point soon to do all of the things we had planned on doing that day but didn’t manage to achieve.

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*The reason the 14 year old is in the majority of the photos is because they will be used to illustrate his assignment and not because he is more biddable than the others when it comes to having his photo taken.

Capybaras in Cape May

My 14 year old has been obsessed with capybaras for almost a year now. I don’t know the origin of the obsession but he is passionate about capybaras. He has even researched keeping them as pets even though he has been told that is absolutely not happening.

Since we were blessed with good weather and warm temperatures this President’s Day, we decided to take a daytrip to Cape May. This was because the zoo there has capybaras. I have not seen our 14 year old this enthusiastic about a day trip in years. I am pleased to report, therefore, that the capybaras were up and about and doing lots of adorable things. There appeared to be a mother and two juveniles. I was amused by how much the siblings behaved in ways entirely like our cats. They were very playful and endearing. As you can imagine, we were at the capybara enclosure for a long time.

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We did visit other animals in the zoo and we all made sure we saw the areas that contained favourite beasties. My 16 year old wanted to see the primates – I think primarily because he loves the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy – and my 12 year old is cat-obsessed so we saw the various big cats. He especially loved seeing the Amur Leopard and Snow Leopard. The latter made me chuckle because one of them was lying on its back, sunning its belly, just like our three-legged cat at home. For my part, I always like the reptile and amphibian house because I like the weird looking critters.

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It was a lovely day out, just the right length of time away from home to transition out of our Winter hermit ways and something that engaged everyone. I think we definitely fed the capybara obsession, however: on the drive home he was banging on about the best way to give his pet capybaras access to a bathing pool at home and figured some steps up to our bathtub would be the best bet.

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Van Gogh Immersive Experience

Early evening on the first Sunday in November, we headed to Upper Darby’s historic Tower Theater. The purpose of our visit was to go to the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. We had booked tickets in the Spring hoping we would feel confident enough to attend an indoor event safely. We took the chance and crossed our fingers because Van Gogh is our 16 year old’s favourite artist and the Experience was coming to the Philly area around the time of his birthday.

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The first half of the Experience was engaging and interesting. There were three-dimensional objects on which projected images were moving, replicas of Van Gogh’s works, and well-curated information boards. I actually learned a couple of things about Van Gogh that I had not previously known – that he was very possibly colour blind and that the reds in his paintings have disappeared over time because of the degrading of the particular pigment he used. Had this section been the sum total of the Experience, however, I would have been disappointed. It was an attractive and appealing way to present information but would not have justified the ticket price.

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The second half of the Experience, however, was utterly mesmerizing. A large room had images being projected on all four walls and on the floor. The changing images told the story of Van Gogh’s life as an artist, conveyed something of his emotional and mental state, and showcased the imagery of his paintings. I thought the almond blossom section was especially aesthetically pleasing while the crows in the wheatfield were emotionally stirring and the Starry Night was evocative.

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My husband and two youngest sons plonked themselves in deckchairs and enjoyed the entire show from that vantage point. Our 16 year old loves the movie ‘At Eternity’s Gate’ so he popped in his earbuds and listened to the soundtrack of that film throughout his visit – though there was a lovely soundtrack accompanying the imagery. He was definitely into the “immersive” aspect of our time there. He most certainly did not appreciate me breaking into his bubble to take his photo or talk to him. Meanwhile I chose to wander around and see what things looked like from different perspectives in the room. I also enjoyed looking around the room and seeing the sunflowers and crabs and branches being projected onto the floor flitting across all of the other visitors.

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There was an option to extend the “immersion” by doing a virtual reality activity. There was an extra cost involved but it was not too steep. The boys were not keen enough on the idea, however, to want to queue up for a turn plus we were all getting hungry so we did not opt into that. We really enjoyed the Van Gogh Immersive Experience. This type of event was a first for me and I would certainly be keen to visit others with a similar approach. It’s just a different way of engaging in a subject.

Our Autumn

We have had an incredibly busy couple of months so this is going to be a bit of a “catch up” blog post that jumps from subject to subject.

My oldest son moved to Rochester, New York, in the middle of August in order to attend college and then the other boys went back to school on 1 September. This was their first time attending in-person school since March 2020. After 18 months of virtual learning and only seeing teachers through screens, they were very much looking forward to a more normal school year. However, not long after they got home on that first day, our community was hit by a tornado. Some neighbourhoods were devastated and community buildings, including the High School, sustained damage. My two High School aged sons, therefore, had to pivot back to a few weeks of virtual school again. As deflating as that setback was, we were very thankful to have not personally endured any lasting damage to our property.

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In October, my in-laws came to visit. Having not seen their grandsons for almost two years, they decided to risk travel and international flights. Their visit inspired us to return to some seasonal family traditions we had skipped last year because of the pandemic. The first of these was apple picking. We went a bit crazy picking a variety of apples. Over a month later and I we are still eating those same apples and I am still baking apple cobblers for dessert. I never thought I would get sick of apples but …

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Our second son turned 16 in early October. What he wanted to do was take his two best friends to Shady Brook Farm to hang out and eat fair food. We all went together and then we set him and his friends loose to do whatever they wanted while we did the visited the Halloween themed barns, found our way around the corn maze, and visited the pumpkin patch. Mr Pict and our youngest son even took a ride in the monster truck hearse.

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My in-laws wanted some time at the shore while they were in the US so they rented a beach property in Lewes, Delaware, for a week. We went down to stay with them for the weekend and properly explore Lewes, having only dipped in there before. We took a wander around the historic town centre. I enjoyed seeing all of the vintage architecture. Even my kids enjoyed seeing a cannonball from the War of 1812 still lodged in the side of the building that now serves as the town’s maritime museum. We took a stroll past the lightship Overfalls and played draughts (checkers) on the waterfront. I also managed to meet up with a friend who moved to Lewes over the Summer.

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My in-laws celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary at the end of their visit with us. We went for an elegant and delicious brunch at the William Penn Inn.

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Finally, in the last weekend of October, we took a flying visit up to Rochester to visit our oldest son. He had attended the open day on his own – the weekend before we went into lockdown in 2020 – and my husband had dropped him off in August so this was actually my first time visiting the RIT campus. Our son took us on a tour of the campus and to his dorm room. He is actually sharing with one of his best friends from High School so that worked out perfectly. He seems very happy and settled there and it was reassuring for me to see with my own eyes how comfortable and confident he is and how successfully he is managing everything.

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It was cold and rainy while we were in Rochester so, in search of something indoors to do, we went to the Strong Play Museum. It was a terrific museum focused on the history of games and my kids would have had an absolute blast there when they were younger. There were lots of interactive exhibits, indoor playgrounds, and even a miniature supermarket. With our kids all being much older than the target demographic, we spent most of our time on the upper floor which was focused on board games and video and computer games. We are a big board gaming family with an extensive collection and Mr Pict and the boys all love computer games so we all found it pretty engaging. It is always amusing and mildly disconcerting to see things from our own childhoods now being curated in museums as vintage and classic items and there were abundant cases of that in this museum.

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It was so lovely to have all six of us together again and the perfect way to round out a very busy couple of months. I am now looking forward to things slowing down and getting quieter for the remainder of the year.

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.

Brandywine Battlefield

Living in eastern Pennsylvania as we do, we are never too far from a Revolutionary War site. We are surrounded by the stuff. Despite that, I really don’t know as much as I ought to about the Revolution. It just doesn’t engage me as a subject so I really only retain the scratchiest general knowledge about it. This is not because I am British. Nope. I am totally on the side of the Americans. I am just really not into military history unless it intersects with some other genre of history that I am into. I only know as much as I do about the Civil War because I am married to a big Civil War nerd and learning osmosis happens.

Anyway, one of the local Revolutionary history sites we had not visited in the almost 8 years since moving here was a pretty big one: Brandywine. It was the biggest battle of the War, with the most troops fighting and doing so continuously for 11 hours over 10 square miles. The battlefield is only open seasonally and on particular days so we have just never gotten around to making a plan to visit work. Mr Pict, however, was determined we should finally visit so we got our act together and went.

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We started off at the Visitor Center where some friendly, chatty staff placed the battle within its wider context for us. Mr Pict also got deep into the weeds of a conversation with them about why the site doesn’t have National Park status. The rest of us scuttled off into the adjoining museum. Small as the museum was, the information boards were some of the clearest and most informative I have encountered. I was actually finally able to grasp the chronology of the conflicts that occurred in our region and why the American and British sides manoeuvred that they did. I always love a diorama and they had several. Meanwhile the 12 and 14 year olds entertained themselves in the dress up corner.

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The rest of the trip was a driving tour. We could have hit up a couple of dozen points of interest along the route but nobody was really enthralled at that prospect so we kept to the highlights. We started at the house of Gideon Gilpin, a Quaker farmer. It was the property that Lafayette used as his quarters and where he returned after being shot in the leg during the battle. Incidentally Lafayette turned 20 days before Brandywine which kind of blows my mind. I personally just like old buildings so I enjoyed wandering around and looking at the shapes and the stonework. Near the house is a massive sycamore tree that is over 300 years old which means it was around during the battle. I kind of love that living connection to the past.

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The next stop was the Benjamin Ring house that Washington used as his HQ. The interior was not yet open so we just skirted its exterior. I didn’t find it too interesting to look at. However, we got chatting to a volunteer guide who, while telling us that his hobby is making replicas of historic guns, revealed that he lives in the house that was the site of the last witch trial (more of an interrogation) in Pennsylvania. Obviously I had to steer the conversation in that direction. Much more interesting to me than battles and military leaders.

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We went to find Jefferis Ford, which is the spot where the sneaky British forces managed to cross the river. American troops were defending all of the other fords along the river but, for some reason, neglected to protect Jefferis Ford. Quite the oops. Anyway, we cross the bridge that now spans that area and looked down at the dun brown water and then we went on a trek up hill and down dale trying to find a spot with decent sight lines where I could do a three point turn. So that was annoying.

The final stop was at the Birmingham Quaker Meetinghouse. This was the location of some ferocious fighting and fallen soliders from both sides are buried in a mass grave in the small walled cemetery that abuts the meetinghouse. As much as military history is not my thing, cemeteries very much are. After visiting the walled graveyard, I therefore wandered off into the adjoining larger cemetery. Most of the stones are very small and simple, since Quakers traditionally do not approve of ostentatious memorials. I went in search of the grave of artist NC Wyeth but really stood no chance of locating it since his family’s stone is a simple one set into the ground. Our kids were all out of tolerance for this parent-driven excursion as it was so were not up for entertaining my cemetery wanderings.

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While the cemetery largely comprised standard grave markers, there were some very elaborate memorials. Just outside the gates were monuments to Lafayette and Casimir Pulaski, neither of whom is buried in Pennsylvania let alone that cemetery. Inside the cemetery, however, is a large monument containing a marble statue that really is quite at odds with the rest of the graves. It marks the plots of the family of John Gheen Taylor. Want to know why he got to break the rules? That would be because he was the cemetery president.

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So that was our trip to Brandywine Battlefield. I don’t think I will feel the need to return but, surprisingly, I did actually learn something through my visit. Plus it is always nice to go for a wander somewhere new. Now I am actually keen to visit the Museum of the American Revolution so that I can put together some more of the details of the war. Because goodness knows I am not going to sit down to read a book about it or even watch a documentary. Once I feel ready to return to museums, that one is going to be high on my list.

Pict Pandemic Spring

I’m back! I finally have enough free time that I feel able to resume blogging – though it may continue to be very sporadic for a while because, like many people, I don’t have a lot of interest going on in my life given the whole pandemic context.

I thought I would write a bit of a catch-up post containing some of the things we have been up to this Spring. Most importantly, we have celebrated three birthdays. These are all, of course, the second birthdays being celebrated in this weird lockdown context. Yes, I appreciate we are technically no longer in strict lockdown but as a family we have chosen to behave largely as if we still are, taking mitigation efforts seriously. Mr Pict’s birthday last year was literally two days into lockdown so there was a lot of improvisation involved but we made it work. This year was much less stressful because we knew we were going to have to keep everything lowkey and also because the supermarket shelves weren’t empty like they were last year.

Two of the boys have also had their second pandemic birthdays. My third son turned 14. He is a massive Roman history nerd – he seriously knows more about Ancient Rome than anyone I know and I know a lot of Roman history nerds – and is also passionate about Soviet cinema, especially of the 1970s. Those themes, therefore, informed his gifts, one of which was a photo of his favourite Emperor, Trajan, which had even been signed. I am assuming Trajan won’t sue me for forgery.

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And our oldest son turned 18. I know! We cannot believe it either. He is now technically an adult. That is somewhat nerve-wracking to think about and makes me feel even more ancient than usual but I am very excited to see what this next phase of his life has in store for him. He is off to the Rochester Institute of Technology in the Autumn to study computer science.

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We have chosen to keep our sons learning virtually for the entire school year for a variety of reasons. They have adapted well to learning online and are enjoying having more free time and flexibility in their schedule. My 15 year old, for instance, has been using his extra free time to make lots of short movies. His brothers and father have all been press-ganged into acting parts and as cinematographers while I sometimes provide help with costumes, props and make up so it is a bit of a family affair.

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Having the boys home proved very useful this Winter as I very much appreciated their extra digging power with all of the snow we got. Even with all of us digging, it took us over 3 hours to dig out after one particular storm. We then had weeks of vicious looking icicles falling from the house. We built up quite the collection in our azalea bushes.

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We have been on a few walks and excursions since I last blogged but we have tended to return to familiar places. A couple of weekends ago, however, we finally ventured to Ringing Rocks County Park. It is not even that far from home so it is kind of bonkers that we have not ventured out there in the previous seven years. We took the loop trail which took us to the boulder field first. We had a hammer with us (as the website instructs you to do so, we felt OK about the geologic vandalism) and set about glancing it off of various boulders to make them ring. We found that they all emitted a noise that was not just the normal smack-thud you would expect from a hammer whacking a rock but that some boulders really made the ringing sound. Our 11 year old in particular really enjoyed the experience. I guess having spent his entire life being told to respect nature and leave things as we found them he must have been relishing the opportunity to bash those rocks.

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The male Picts all bounded from rock to rock like mountain goats in search of the best rings. That is not something I am comfortable doing primarily because of my malingering SPD problems and also because I am a lifelong wuss so I went off into the woods in search of salamanders. Alas, I did not find a single one. Meeting up again, we headed further along the loop trail to see the waterfall. I was anticipating a bit more drama and oomph out of a signposted waterfall but it was a nice spot to stop and spend some time before we completed the loop. It was a nice, easy walk and one we would definitely do again.

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Finally, and most excitingly, those of us who are eligible are finally receiving our Covid-19 vaccines. As a teacher, I became eligible first but I still had such a massive problem finding and scheduling an appointment that it still took until mid-April for me to be fully vaccinated. Meanwhile Mr Pict and our oldest son have both received their first shots. We plan to keep playing it safe and following mitigation efforts, not least because we still have three members of the family who are unvaccinated and not old enough to be eligible, but it is definitely a weight off my mind – especially as someone who has been teaching in-person since September – that I have that layer of protection. I am so grateful to the scientists and everyone involved in the distribution and delivery of the vaccine.

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PS Here are some photos of our cats, Satchi and Peanut. They have adapted to having us home all the time and think they get to participate in all of the video conferences and frequently appear in my sons’ online classrooms.

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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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