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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A friend who owns a second home in the Poconos thoughtfully offered us the opportunity to spend a day or two at her property. We gratefully accepted her offer partly because we thought we could all benefit from a mini-break and also because we normally only take day trips to the Poconos so it meant we would have longer to explore. Furthermore, I have also wanted to visit the Delaware Water Gap since we moved here (I cannot even recollect precisely why) and having my friend’s house as a base presented us with the chance to go that bit further afield and spend an entire day poking around in that area, which is governed by the National Park Service.
On our first day, we decided to focus on relaxation and quality family time. We spent time in the house together – playing card games, watching shark documentaries – and we walked to a nearby lake to spend some time there. We had planned on going swimming but it was a little bit too chilly at that time of day even for paddling so we just enjoyed the scenery, people watching, ice cream, and playing more card games. After dinner on the shore of another lake, however, it was time to head out and go for a hike.
My husband and I visited Hawk Falls several years ago now but we have never managed to take the boys there because the parking situation has always been horrendously swamped. Because we had the ability to hike in the early evening this time, however, we found a parking spot with ease and headed to the falls. It’s a relatively easy hike to the falls – though a little steep for a stretch on the return – and I like the way the path winds through the woods and across streams. I just really like being in the woods.
There are definitely more impressive waterfalls but Hawk Falls are pleasing enough. Running water is always lovely, right? Except in relation to natural disasters or domestic pipe failures, of course. While we had met other visitors on the path, by the time we reached the falls, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was really peaceful. The boys had fun leaping around on the rocks. The 15 year old even scaled the rock wall on the opposite bank.
We had a leisurely start to the next day. We also decided to start with a big breakfast because we knew we would have few and far between (if any) opportunities to stop for a bite to eat for the rest of the day. Our 18 year old ordered a massive sandwich stacked full of any breakfast meat you can think of and slathered in sausage gravy. His digestive system is in training for that $27 a day college meal plan he had to sign up for.
I had devised an itinerary for our travels through the Delaware Water Gap and the first stop was my happy place: an old cemetery. Obviously I like to wander around in cemeteries regardless of any personal connection to the place but, on this occasion, my husband and kids actually have some relatives buried there. Only my 12 year old agreed to come and find the graves with me. Everyone else stayed in the car. You will observe from the accompanying photos that this became a common occurrence on this particular trip. My youngest son was my exploration buddy while the others opted in and mostly out of most itinerary items. Anyway, we found the two relevant Shellenberger graves with ease.
Next up on the itinerary was visiting the view points on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. Now I had conducted a decent amount of research on the Delaware Water Gap in order to draw up my itinerary so I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the view points were, quite frankly, totally duff. The first one we visited, we literally could not even glimpse a sliver of water through the trees and across the railroad tracks. What we could see was the interstate on the opposite side of the river and the sheer face of a small mountain. The same proved true of the other two view points we visited – though I did manage to see a patch of water from one of them. What I came to realise was that the National Park Service had taken photos of the views using either drones or cranes. Therefore, any human of normal height stood absolute zero chance of seeing the view, especially since there seemed to be no management of the foliage on the river banks.
After that failure, the kids were growing ever more cynical about the purpose and merits of the whole trip. I decided we should boost up the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River and focus on all the bits and bobs on the New Jersey side I was hoping to see. Incidentally, all of the Visitor Centers and Ranger stations were closed and none of the historic buildings were open for visitors so it was just as well I had conducted all of my research in advance. What my research did not tell me was just how arduous navigating the roads was going to be.
The first stops were all fine as they were within the boundaries of still functioning towns. First there was the Foster-Armstrong House (usually open the public but not recently) which was a ferry-side tavern and inn for tired 19th Century travelers. Then there was the Minisink Dutch Reformed Church, the oldest church in the county and still going strong today. And there was the Nelden-Roberts Stonehouse.
After those three historic buildings, my itinerary took us onto the Old Mine Road. Well, this proved to be quite the challenge. The road dates from the 1600s but I had expected the surface to have been improved since then. I am obviously exaggerating but the surface was seriously bad. It was extremely crumbled, full of deep pot holes and eroded at the sides – and it was single track as it was for very long stretches – and just incredibly rickety. It got worse the further we ventured down the road and the more committed we were to just plunging onwards. It actually got to the point that Mr Pict and I were making mental note of routes for one of us hiking back off the road on foot and where the nearest lived in property was for phoning for help should the axel of the car break. I feel like we should have earned badges declaring “I survived the Old Mine Road”.
Anyway, first stop on the Old Mine Road was the Westbrook Bell House. While my oldest two sons trekked back along the road to a ruined barn my 15 year old wanted to photograph, my youngest son and I headed down a grass covered path through the woods in search of the house. It felt like a fairytale with maybe a witch’s house at the end of the trail. We soon reached the house, which is the oldest extant structure in the Delaware Water Gap, dating as it does from 1701. We were wandering around the exterior of the house and peering into barns that looked like they might collapse at any moment when I smelled and then spotted what looked to my non-expert eyes like pretty fresh bear poop. We, therefore, decided it might be a smart idea to skedaddle back through the woods to the car.
After another bone-jangling stretch of the Old Mine Road, we rejoined a proper road to visit what was once the village of Bevans. This rural hamlet has been transformed into the Peters Valley School of Craft so there were art and craft galleries and artisan workshops operating out of the old buildings.
Tempting as it was to stay on these proper roads, I was both determined (some might say foolishly) to see the other items on my itinerary and I was convinced (some might say foolishly) that the final stretch of Old Mine Road could not possibly be as bad as the stretch we had left behind. Yup. Foolish. If anything, it was worse because this stretch also involved uphill stretches. I swear I could hear our car wheezing. I think everyone was relieved when we reached the Van Campen Inn and could pull over the car and take a break from all the bumpy driving. I had spotted on one of the maps I had looked at that there was a cemetery for enslaved people in the vicinity of the inn so my youngest son and I set off trying to find it. We were wholly unsuccessful. I think mostly we were determined to try just to avoid getting back in the car for a while longer.
The Delaware View House was in a very sorry state. It had served as a hunting lodge and a hotel in its prime. Now it is clearly deteriorating rapidly. We very carefully walked around the wraparound porch before losing our nerve and getting ourselves back to solid ground.
The penultimate planned stop was at Millbrook Village. This is the site of a genuine settlement from the 1830s but the few remaining historic buildings have been expanded upon with reconstructed buildings that create the impression of what the village looked like in the 1870s. I think it would have been fun to visit at a time when visitors were permitted to enter buildings. This was probably the most engaged the boys were on the trip but they were fed up and jaded from all of the previous stops and from the nerve-shredding travels on that road so they were pretty resistant to finding anything of interest at that point.
The penultimate actual stop was at the request of my 15 year old. He has apparently inherited my love of dilapidated buildings so he wanted to take photographs of a barn that was falling apart at the seams. My 12 year old stood in the window of a gable end that had fallen, Buster Keaton style, while the 15 year old gave me palpitations by climbing over piles of planks in search of better camera angles.
We made one final pit stop in the Delaware Water Gap as one final attempt to see the Delaware. Kittatinny Point Overlook suggests being in an elevated position that provides a view out over the Delaware. Well nope. Not that we could find anyway. The best we could hope for was descending some stairs in order to be down on the shore. Unfortunately this spot was the end point for the scores of people who had rafted down the river so it was very busy and there were boats everywhere. Therefore, even that close to the water, it was nigh impossible to really take in let alone appreciate the view.
As you can no doubt tell, my trip to Delaware Water Gap was somewhat disappointing. I am sure it is a fantastic area to visit if one wants to interact with the water in some way but I don’t do water sports. I really wanted to engage with the history of the area and to take in the landscape. I believe, therefore, it was a case of too high expectations and a lack of delivery. The whole “view” point debacle really set the tone for the day. When Mr Pict gets hacked off on an excursion, things are really not going well. I happen to like old, abandoned, decaying buildings so I definitely got far more out of it than anyone else in the family but I cannot say that was worth the investment of time. The condition of the Old Mine Road was probably the nail in the coffin of the trip. It set our nerves on edge and meant there was too much focus on the function and mechanics of driving rather than taking in the surroundings. It also simply slowed us down and made a long day out even longer. I am glad I finally visited the Delaware Water Gap after years of wanting to do so but I don’t think I could recommend a visit there to anyone not wishing to float down the river and I don’t envisage a return visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
No sooner was the school year over (actually we bust the younger two kids out a day early) than we headed off on a much-needed vacation. Our oldest son did not accompany us for a variety of reasons so he stayed home with the cats. One of the things I have missed the most during this pandemic is travel so I was very glad of a break away from my own four walls. We needed to book way back when I was the only member of the family eligible for vaccination, however, so at that time we had to keep our plans modest and be mindful of the need to maintain mitigation efforts. For that reason, we rented a house on Slaughter Beach on Delaware’s bay.
The house was perfect for our needs. It had everything we needed for family life and easy access to the beach. There was a set of steps that took us from the house, across the dunes, and right onto the shore. Easy peasy. The boys absolutely loved that they could go to the beach whenever they wanted and at all times of the day. My favourite thing about the house was the master suite because it was massive. It was literally the entire second floor of the house. So luxurious. A large bank of windows meant that I could wake up and see the sun rise over the sea from the comfort of the bed every morning. I even had a nook that I could set up as my art table.
The nearest big town was Rehoboth and we headed there a couple of times. The first trip involved a morning jaunt to a farmers market and from there we walked to the shore so we could have a stroll on the boardwalk. The beach itself was absolutely heaving with people. Even in non-pandemic times, places that crowded set me on edge. I was very grateful that we had access to a very quiet beach with no public access so that we could be isolated and enjoy peace and quiet. Nobody was in the mood for shopping or boardwalk pursuits so we just wandered and people watched for a bit.
Our second trip to Rehoboth was to have a walk around Gordon’s Pond, which is a nature refuge. It proved to be a pleasant enough walk, especially since it was flat on a hot day, but the pond was very low and wildlife was nowhere to be seen. I think I saw a bird at a distance. We did get a good view of the submarine watchtowers from a raised walkway.
Because Mr Pict is an outer space nerd, we went out one morning to see a satellite launch. We were supposed to be able to see it in the sky ten second after launch. Mr Pict was viewing the live feed on his phone and was counting us down to the point when we should have been able to see the object in the sky. Alas, the clouds rolled in and we did not see a single speck of anything. You can see from the photograph how impressed the boys were by that jaunt.
Our nearest town for things like groceries was Milford. It is one of those towns that is clearly in the process of regenerating after the loss of its traditional industries. There are certainly shabby areas of the town but we found the centre to be quite appealing. We quickly found a favourite bakery and coffee shop and we stopped in there for some treats a couple of times. Their baked goods were among some of the best I have ever scoffed. We also returned one evening in order to buy some pierogis from a food truck since our 15 year old is a massive pierogi fan. It happened to be on an evening when there was some sort of community thing going on so the place was buzzing with people and there was a nice atmosphere. The boys approved of the various pierogis they purchased too.
On the subject of food, we also returned to the British themed fish and chip place that we discovered last summer. While it is not quite authentic chip shop grub, it is close enough for our stomach-based homesickness and quite delicious. We did takeaway and picnicked in the grounds of the same still-under-construction health clinic that we ate the same food in a year ago. I guess we are establishing new family traditions?
We visited a Nature Center on the outskirts of Milford one morning. It was not a big place so our visit took no time at all. It was, however, informative and we learned more about some of the local sea life and sea birds. We especially learned a lot about the anatomy of horseshoe crabs, which are truly peculiar creatures, and my 14 year old loved the turtles. We experienced a lot of wildlife on the stretch of beach in front of the rental house. The place was littered in horseshoe crab casts but the boys were most excited by the fact that they kept encountering live horseshoe crabs while they were paddling. We also encountered lots of little burrowing crabs and I even had a visit from a chubby frog one evening on the house’s patio. The wildlife I could most definitely have done without were the horseflies – what I grew up calling clegs. They were vicious and persistent and their bites were very nippy. I actually have a severe reaction to insect bites so the bites were very painful. There were so many swarms of them at certain times of the day that it was impossible to sit still and do anything. I had to take a fly swatter out with me and waft it about constantly just to keep them at bay. The same type of horseflies made us abandon a walk around a wildlife refuge at the end of our week’s vacation. The horde of them was just too apocalyptic to be tolerable.
The best thing about the vacation as far as Mr Pict and the boys were concerned, of course, was the beach. I am not much of a beach person because I loathe sand. I am happy to sit on the beach or paddle for a while but I cannot do it for hours on end. The ideal thing about our location was that I could just scuttle on back to the house and read or draw while still enjoying a view of the sea and fresh air coming in through screened windows. The menfolk, however, made the most of their time at the beach. They went out at all times of the day to paddle, swim, and kayak. There was a long shelf (is that the word?) which meant the water remained pretty shallow quite far out to shore. That meant we felt comfortable letting the boys take the kayak out without an adult being with them. Even our 12 year old was able to take the kayak out on his own. They really enjoyed that freedom. The 14 and 15 year olds even took the kayak out, took a break from paddling, and had some drinks and snacks while bobbing about in the waves.
It was a lovely week and a very welcome break from our own domestic spaces and our own well-worn routines. It was also great to spend a good chunk of quality family time together after a year of being trapped together while working, learning, and functioning as a family all on top of each other. It felt like we were rinsing some of the stress of the past year off and recharging our batteries.
My four sons completed an entire school year as virtual learners and I made it through an entire year of teaching preschool in-person. I absolutely never want to experience teaching and learning during a pandemic – or any other crisis – ever again but I think we made it as successful as possible. The boys also had some opportunities that may not have been available to them in a regular year – such as participating in online film festivals and attending conferences. I think we can all agree, however, that this year was incredibly exhausting and that we were glad to get to the end of the school year.
We had another birthday to celebrate since I last wrote a personal blog post. Our youngest son turned 12 at the end of May. We were lucky to have some lovely weather which enabled us to celebrate with an outdoor activity. I would call this crazy golf but it is apparently known as mini golf around here. Thanks to some childhood experiences, I find crazy golf makes me feel stressed and anxious so I chose to spectate rather than actively participate. The course was fun, well-designed, and had an appropriate level of challenge for kids spanning the ages of my brood. The 15 and 12 year olds even managed to achieve a hole-in-one each. Everyone indulged in delicious milkshakes at the end of the course.
Over a year of being largely stuck at home meant our tired and shabby family living room was really starting to annoy us so our Spring project was refreshing that room. You can see what the previous makeover of this room like in a previous blog post. We did not undertake any major DIY but we replaced the carpet – as we still had the carpet installed by the previous owners, one that was really getting worn and grotty – and bought new sofas. The whole room now feels much lighter while still being cozy. I have more DIY and home organization projects to undertake over the summer break – things I could not get around to while everyone was learning and working from home – but my first big jobs are turning all of our rooms back to domestic spaces. The makeshift classrooms descended into chaotic rats’ nests towards the end of the school year and I am more than ready to transition them back and reclaim them.
I am trying to get back into the habit of making regular time for art. It was absolutely impossible in the last couple of months, however, as my schedule was ridiculously difficult to navigate. I would have needed to clone myself to make it work smoothly. I, therefore, continued with my Post-It note habit, still taking inspiration from the movies my kids have been loving. These two examples both happen to be from Japanese movies, ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Hara-Kiri’.
Two of our kids are moving on to new places in their education. Our 14 year old is now done with Middle School and will be heading off to High School in September. He has been learning to cook over the past few months and especially enjoys getting up on weekend mornings to make chocolate chip pancakes for him and his brothers. He is also really into digital art now.
The big milestone is that our oldest son graduated from High School. This was a whole new experience for us as people as well as parents. My husband attended an international school so he did not have the American version of graduating. There were no festivities for me when I left school. My “milestone” was simply leaving my last school exam. I snapped my pencil in half and walked home. No celebration of any kind. The whole graduation thing was actually pretty overwhelming. Despite opting out of lots of “side missions”, there was an awful lot to keep on top of and process. Every time I thought I had a handle on what was required, I would realize there was another piece of critical information I was missing or something I did not understand. There was so much assumed knowledge in communications about graduation with no accommodations for we ignorant immigrant parents. Keeping on top of all the moving parts was actually quite a slog. Even the evening itself did not pass off without a few glitches but we (just) made it in time and had a lovely time marking the conclusion to our son’s school career.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I have a snow day today (woo hoo!) so I just wanted to stop by and leave a little note for my followers – that sounds cult-like, doesn’t it? – my dedicated readers. For a variety of reasons, I am going to be taking a bit of a break from blogging – longer than my normal breaks – but I fully intend on resuming blogging when life permits. I expect to be chatting with many of you on your own blogs but my blog will go a bit quiet for the time being. Frankly, it is not as if pandemic life is giving me much of interest to share with you.
I shall sign off with some photos of when we Picts recently walked almost the entire length of the Powerline Trail.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.