Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center

Our Labour Day weekend trip – our last hurrah of Summer break – was to the Shofuso Japanese Cultural Center.  It’s this little portion of Japan in the midst of Philadelphia.  It is also authentically Japanese as the buildings were built in Nagoya, using traditional materials and techniques, and were then transported to America.  I read that even the rocks in the garden were imported from Japan.  Originally, it was part of an exhibition in New York before being disassembled and reconstructed in Philadelphia.  It has been in Philly since the late 1950s.

We started our visit with the house.  We slipped off our shoes and entered the house in our socks.  It was everything you think about when you think about traditional Japanese architecture: elevated off the ground, connections between the interior and the exterior, between the man-made and the natural, verandas, lots of wood, sliding doors, and gently curved roofs.  There is something inherently relaxing about being in those spaces but I know myself well enough to know I could never actually live in such a space.  I am far too fond of objects to be capable of minimalism and maintaining clean lines.  And my pelvis is too wrecked to cope with floor sitting.  But I like to imagine I could live in such a space.  I especially loved the kitchen.  I feel like you learn a lot about a culture by looking at kitchens (and supermarkets actually) because so much of culture revolves around food.  My kids had zero patience for me reading the information about each room of the house but I insisted on reading all the detail about the kitchen.  It was pretty fascinating stuff.  I thought the little tea house would be the most intriguing and engaging part of the house but for me it was actually the kitchen.

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The garden surrounding the house was similarly gorgeous.  It is such an obvious and probably uninteresting thing to state but it was so green and so harmonious.  Apparently the landscaping was designed to echo 17th Century styles.  The boys absolutely loved the pond which was stocked with carp.  They had some fish food and, within seconds of throwing the first pellet into the water, there was a scrum of koi torpedoing towards them.  There was a line of them wiggling through the water from the bridge and making a beeline to the area where my kids were waiting to feed them.  Their dorsal fins cut through the surface of the water and created wakes.  I couldn’t help but hum the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’.  Despite the fact these carp must surely get so fed up of eating the same pellets all the time, there was a serious feeding frenzy.

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This is such a cliche that I initially resisted typing it out but the whole space really was so peaceful.  I could have chilled there for ages.  A good book and a glass of cold lemonade and it would have been so easy to just sit there for hours enjoying the garden.  But I had four kids with me who had run out of patience and wanted to get home to do their own thing for the final days of Summer so no chance of zen for me.

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Niagara Falls

We couldn’t possibly be in the Buffalo area and not visit Niagara Falls.  I am told that the Canadian side is prettier but, for various complicated reasons, I am unable to cross an international border right now so we had to plan our trip around staying on the American side.  I have seen so many images and so much footage of Niagara Falls and it is so very commercial and touristy that I felt there was a risk I would be underwhelmed by seeing the Falls for myself.  However, I was neither disappointed or deflated.

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Niagara Falls is in fact a gathering of three waterfalls, a fact which I had not really appreciated before my visit.  In order of viewing them from the American side, there was the American Falls, the Bridal Falls, and the Horseshoe Falls.  The latter straddles the international border and is the most powerful waterfall in North America.  Wanting to see the Falls from as many perspectives as we could, we decided to get tickets for the Maid of the Mist.  We were given blue ponchos and headed aboard the boat.  It was actually really cool to see the Falls from water level, to experience the roar and strength of the spray, in order to really appreciate the power of the Falls.  The Horseshoe Falls in particular was so powerful that we had to turn our faces away from the water at times.  It was also kicking up so much spray that our view, once we were as close as possible, was like peering into dense fog.   It might be a super-touristy thing to do but it was actually pretty awesome.

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Having disembarked from the Maid of the Mist, we took in two further perspectives of the Falls.  One of these was a flight of steps that took us up the crags alongside the Falls and the other was a viewpoint high above the Falls.  While I cannot say I was overwhelmed by my visit to Niagara Falls, I definitely was not underwhelmed.  It was very impressive and I was really glad we had made the trip.  Let us just say that I was sufficiently whelmed.

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Family history in Buffalo cemeteries

Something I am certain you know about me is that I love cemeteries.  Even when I don’t have any sort of connection or personal interest in a cemetery, I love to wander around and explore cemeteries and graveyards.  I enjoy the restful tranquility and appreciate the memorial symbolism and funerary sculpture.  Something you may know about me is that I am a total family history nerd and, therefore, when a cemetery has personal significance to my genealogy then it is all the better.  When we were visiting family in update New York, therefore, it was the perfect opportunity to have some family history fun while exploring cemeteries.  I do not have to have a DNA connection in order to be absorbed in a family’s history.  I have researched the genealogy of my step-grandfather, for instance, and when Mr Pict and I became parents, I decided to take on his family history as the custodian of that information for our children – whether they like it or not.  The dead folks I was pursuing in Buffalo, therefore, were not my own but were indeed the ancestors of Mr Pict, specifically his Strickler ancestors.

The Stricklers had arrived in America from Germany at the turn of the 18th Century, fleeing persecution and discrimination for their Mennonite beliefs.  They settled in Pennsylvania (so I have lots of Strickler adventuring to do in future) but, two generations later, Mr Pict’s 4x great-grandfather, Ulrich Strickler, set out with his family north, first to the Niagara River area before settling in Clarence, in New York’s Erie County.  It was in Clarence that we found Ulrich.  Finding the cemetery was a challenge.  It doesn’t appear in GPS listings because it is disused, was never a public cemetery, and now sits on private land.  My research had narrowed the search area and happily my 12 year old caught a glimpse of a distant sign flashing white in the sunlight as we drove a circuit of the relevant streets for the second time.  We disembarked from our cars – as there were 10 of us on this mission – and in no time at all we were in the shady spot where Ulrich Strickler (1767-1838), his wife Magdalena, and various of their relatives are interred.  We had three generations of Stricklers gathered at the grave of their direct ancestor.  That was pretty cool for me as a family history nerd.  The name of the cemetery incidentally is the Strickler Pioneer Cemetery and we also stopped off on Strickler Street for a quick photo of my husband, his mother, and her cousin.

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Next up was Forest Lawn Cemetery.  When I got the other family members on board with the idea of my cemetery trip, my mother-in-law and her cousin had thought they were signing up to visit two cemeteries.  Forest Lawn was the one they had not anticipated and they seemed stricken at the thought of a visit there.  That is because Forest Lawn is a vast city cemetery, covering almost 270 acres and containing over 150,000 graves.  It is where many of Buffalo’s wealthy, successful, and famous residents ended up and is, therefore, home to some spectacular mausoleums and statuary.  I agreed, however, to focus my attention on finding the Strickler graves and I, by and large, kept my promise.  I think the relatives anticipated we would be in the cemetery until dark trying to locate the graves but – thanks to the wonderful volunteers of Find A Grave – I was prepared with the two lots where the most direct ancestors were buried.  It was my father-in-law who found the graves of Daniel Strickler, his second wife and children from both marriages.  Daniel (1809-1901) was the son of Ulrich so these were the 3x Great-Grandparents of Mr Pict – or a full six generations above our kids if that makes more sense.  My mother-in-law has just entrusted me with caring for a blanket made by Daniel’s wife, Eliza Faust, so it was great to see her grave too.  In a nearby lot, it was my mother-in-law’s cousin who almost literally stumbled upon the grave of another of Mr Pict’s 3x Great-Grandparents, this one being Sarah Augusta Tyler, nee Clapp (1831-1920).  It is she who is the connection to John Alden and Priscilla Mullins who came to America on board the Mayflower.

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Despite my commitment to stick to the clusters of Strickler graves in Forest Lawn, I am afraid I did break my promise.  Since we have found ourselves visiting a number of Presidential graves, it did not seem right that I should be in Forest Lawn and not stop off to see Millard Fillmore.  The 13th President is certainly one of the more obscure ones, and perhaps would be even more so if not for his memorable name, and he frequently appears in lists of the nation’s worst presidents.  He is also controversial for a number of reasons but especially his enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Still, I thought I would pop by to have a gander.  In contrast to the more elaborate presidential graves we have seen, Fillmore’s was a simple obelisk.  Nevertheless, it was easy to find thanks to the flag flying above it.

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I also visited the grave of Red Jacket.  I had, however, successfully convinced everyone of a family history connection so they were agreeable to seeing his grand statue, which is sited near one of the cemetery entrances.  Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha) was a Chief of the Seneca and is, of course, famous in his own right.  However, his connection to Mr Pict’s family history involve his remains.  Red Jacket – and many other Native Americans – were originally buried in an Indian Burial Ground that was on land opposite the Stricklers’ houses.  Not being keen on this, the Stricklers successfully petitioned for legislation that led to the closure of the burial ground and the removal of all of the remains, most of which ended up in Forest Lawn, including those of Red Jacket.  Therefore, Red Jacket is only commemorated in Forest Lawn because of the prejudices and insensitivity of Mr Pict’s ancestors.

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All of which is a neat segue into the next location of the family history trip which was to Buffum Street, where generations of Stricklers had owned property and lived and where the original Indian Burial Ground was located.  One of these, at number 49, is currently the focus of a restoration project given its significance as the oldest extant house in South Buffalo.  My mother-in-law and her cousin explained some of the history of the house and then we all wandered along the street to see two other houses that had once been Strickler residencies.  While the older family members chatted with the current occupants, I took the kids across the street to the Indian Burial Ground.  I felt it was important to impress on them the connection between their family history and local history.

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The final cemetery of the day was Woodlawn, where the more recent generations of Stricklers are buried.  Among others, we visited the graves of Allen Darius (1845-1938) and Emma Augusta Strickler (nee Tyler, 1851-1946) who are Mr Pict’s 2x Great-Grandparents (five generations above my boys), and their son, Herbert Arthur Stickler (1881-1951) and his wife Lily, nee Styles (1886-1962).  When figuring all the graves we had visited, not just the direct ancestors but also the collateral ones, we had visited the graves of Stricklers from seven generations.  Now I really must visit the graves of the even earlier Stricklers in Pennsylvania!

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Canandaigua Lake

We recently spent a few days in upstate New York visiting with extended family of Mr Pict’s while his parents were also in the country.  The couple with whom we were staying own a boat so – on our first full day there – we were treated to a trip out on Canandaigua Lake.  Canandaigua is one of New York’s eleven finger lakes.  I learned it was 16 miles long and 1 mile wide (hence the “finger”) and was about 130 feet deep on average – but sinking to 276 feet at its deepest point.  Humphrey Bogart used to vacation at Canandaigua so it’s an upscale kind of place.  We saw plenty of incredible properties lining the shore as we headed out on the boat, some of which had their own funicular systems for getting down the steep hillside to the water’s edge.

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Our kids had never been on a powerboat before so this was a first time experience for them.  They were unsure of the motion of the boat, especially when it slammed into and crested the wakes of other marine vehicles.  They were especially not enjoying the motion when Mr Pict was given a turn at driving the boat.  What they absolutely loved, however, was getting to tube.  A large inflatable was launched into the water and pulled behind the boat with the Pictlings (and sometimes their dad) clinging on.  There were zero complaints about the motion then.  They were grinning and laughing the whole time as they were flung around on the tube.  At first they were tentative and asked that the speed be kept to a minimum but soon they were using their hand signals to request higher speeds.  Our youngest, who had been the most reticent to clamber on to the tube, didn’t even bat an eyelid when he and his father were pitched off the tube and into the lake.

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After a few hours out on the lake, we pulled into one of the marinas and enjoyed an evening meal at one of the bars there.  We felt like we were really getting to experience a little sliver of life as part of the boating set.  I think our kids might be wanting a boat now.

Road Trip 2018 #18 – Skyline Drive

My in-laws used to live in the suburbs of Washington DC and Mr Pict and I would fly out to visit them there and use their home as a base for exploration.  Now, of course, I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, also on the mid-Atlantic coast.  It is, therefore, actually a bit ridiculous that I have never visited Shenandoah National Park.  I really don’t know why we have never gotten around to it.  Always something else to see that was placed as a higher priority I suppose.  Navigating our route home through Virginia on the very last day of our road trip, I spotted an opportunity: I could at least do the Skyline Drive element of Shenandoah since it took us in the right direction.  I discussed my plan in quiet code with Mr Pict as I knew I would be met with resistance from the kids.  He agreed and we took the twisting turn to start ascending the mountains.

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The kids were on to us immediately and were not best pleased.  This was the fifteenth day of our road trip and they just wanted to get home.  I could understand their motivation but, at the same time, I wanted to cram one more experience into our trip.  One of the things I love about America’s National Park system is that its parks result from someone just deciding that something is beautiful or unique or historic or any combination of the three and that it should consequently be preserved and protected.  In this case, said person was President Hoover who decided that a road should be built so that more people could access and appreciate the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The views were indeed breathtaking.  The boys, however, were not appreciating them.  They were just doner than done with tourism and were 200% over road tripping.  Other than when we stopped at a ranger station, the older two even refused to get out of the car on any of the stops.  To be fair, the little grouches were also complaining about how twisty turny the road was and how queasy it was making them feel.  I too was feeling nauseous.  And the going was very slow.  I admitted defeat.  We exited the park at Swift Run Gap, rejoined major roads, and focused on getting home.

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This post then concludes all of my blogging about our 2018 road trip.  Ten new states visited in just two weeks bringing me to a total of 40 US states visited.  That was an awful lot of driving (4550 miles!) and I think we probably – definitely – pushed ourselves to the limits of our tolerance for driving trips.  I don’t think I would undertake a trip involving such massive distances across just two weeks again – especially not with kids in tow.  It was too exhausting and the ratio of fun per miles was inadequate on this particular trip.  That is not to say that it was not worth it.  I would just learn from it and not push ourselves quite so far next time.  It was worth it because I loved seeing how different the landscapes of the Plains states were compared to those I had already visited.  Visiting a whole new region of the country underscored just how vast and diverse America is.  The focus of our road trip had been reaching the Dakotas – everything else just slotting into place as the route there and back – and the Dakotas did not disappoint.  In particular, I could probably have happily spent two weeks just travelling around South Dakota and exploring.  I was glad we spent more time there than anywhere else.  The trade off for that, of course, was that we barely touched the surface of some states.  I will need to go back and explore those properly at some stage.  But maybe not for a while.  I feel like I need a relaxing vacation now in order to recover from my vacation.

Road Trip 2018 #17 – Stones River National Battlefield

The final two days of our road trip were really just about covering distance in order to reach home.  Both were, therefore, slogs of days with no real time available for exploring.  On the penultimate day, however, we did indulge Mr Pict’s Civil War geekery by opting to stretch our legs at Stones River National Battlefield.

Having been to Shiloh in 2002, this was actually my second Tennessee Civil War battlefield.  I feel like I am collecting Civil War sites by association.  Confusingly, Mr Pict talks about this place as Murfreesboro, the name of a nearby town, which makes it even more difficult for me to retain the information.  We were greeted at the Visitor Center by an incredibly chipper Park Ranger.  He provided a summary of the site’s history and I, therefore, learned that this was the first place that the Emancipation Proclamation was enforced.  Furthermore, it was also on the route of the original Trail of Tears in 1838.  However, because the road charged a toll for each Cherokee, the government baulked at the expense and a different route was taken from then onwards.  Mr Pict also informed me that Stones River had the highest percentage of casualties of all the major battles of the Civil War.  And that is the extent of everything I learned during my visit.  Sometimes my brain is just too exhausted to absorb any information I am not keenly interested in.  This was one such time.

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After the Visitor Center, we took a driving tour of battlefield sites.  It helps that the modern day Pike and railroad are in the same positions they were in 1863 when it comes to interpreting the battlefield landscape and understanding the focus of the conflict.  Mr Pict took a stroll through the area of rocks and woodland known as the Slaughter Pen.  A series of attacks in this spot meant that the bodies started piling up and blood was everywhere.  Staying on that theme, we also visited Hell’s Half Acre, which had ended up covered in Confederate dead.  The battle counts as a Union victory only because they managed to repel two Confederate attacks which led to the Confederates withdrawing.  And that really is the limit of my osmosis-gained knowledge.

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Road Trip 2018 #16 – Memphis

Mr Pict and I had fond memories of Memphis so wanted to expose the boys to at least a little bit of the city.  They were not especially up for it but we dragged them anyway.

We parked up near the Peabody Hotel and entered the lobby.  Unfortunately we had literally just missed the famous procession of ducks.  The ducks were not even frolicking in the fountain, having retired to their rooftop palace for the day.  The kids were irked to have been dragged into the hotel without the payoff of seeing the ducks.  The oldest two were virtually snarling.  Our foray into Memphis was not going too well.  We hoped we would win them over with a stroll along Beale Street.

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One of the Beale Street locations I remembered finding fun was Schwab’s store so we headed there for some respite from the sizzling afternoon sun.  The store opened in the 1870s selling men’s clothing, evolving into a dry goods store.  I remembered it being a bit like a junk store or jumble sale, with items heaped on tables, and lots of unexpected finds.  It basically retained that old-fashioned feel.  Visiting again, it had been transformed as items were neatly organised on tables and displays.  There were still quirky items among the usual fare so there was still fun to be had.  I was happy to see that a pair of the World’s Largest Overalls (what I would call dungarees) were still on display.  We ascended the stairs to see an area designated as a museum as it housed such items as vintage cash registers and stiff collars.  The boys, however, were much more interested in the extensive range of candy available for purchase.  Schwab’s contains a soda fountain and sells delicious ice cream but the queue on such a baking hot day was ridiculous so the kids instead chose some candy as a treat.

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We didn’t feel we could bring the kids to Memphis without taking them to see the Lorraine Motel given its significance in American history.  The motel was, of course, the location of Martin Luther King’s assassination 50 years ago.  It is now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum, with the motel complex preserved within its architecture.  We were unfortunately too late to go into the museum (being too late being a theme of our road trip) but it was quite powerful regardless.  We spent some time outside, in silent reflection, feeling subdued.

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The casualty of our spontaneous decision to switch to Tennessee from Kentucky was the quality of our hotel room.  The hotel was shabby and run down.  I would guess it had not been updated since the 1980s.  I took the stairs rather than the elevator and could barely breathe because of the reek of cigarette smoke.  Our room was clean but very basic.  The bathroom was reminiscent of school gym showers, there was constant noise from adjacent rooms coming through the thin walls, and the ceiling fan was not working so the room was utterly stifling.  I admit I had thought of ‘The Shining’.  We consoled ourselves that at least it was not as awful as the horror hotel of 2016.

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