Return to the Mercer Museum

We were looking for something indoors that we could do on a very hot day that threatened with thunderstorms. The middle two kids were meeting up with friends and that scheduling meant we could not venture too far from home base. I, therefore, suggested the Mercer Museum as my husband and youngest son had never visited. My only previous visit had been in 2017 so I was happy to return.

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The Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and was created to house his vast collections. Mercer had a deep interest in a vast array of pre-industrial trades and tools and the building he commissioned is full of weird shaped rooms and nooks and crannies where he could showcase these according to subject and theme. We learned that the team of men who had constructed the building – from hand-mixed concrete – had been paid about $1.70 for a ten hour day. That is the equivalent of about $5 per hour in contemporary money. Mercer got a right bargain out of that because – to my mind – the building itself is the absolute star of the show.

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I may have unintentionally oversold the experience of this museum to the rest of the family because they were underwhelmed. My husband’s problem is that he compares all eccentric buildings or museums to the Shelburne Museum in Vermont or the House on the Rock in Wisconsin and finds them lacking as a result. As for the kids, I guess they have grown accustomed to interactive exhibits and experiences to capture their interest or some way I have created to engage them. They did enjoy some of the activities designed for kids along the way – despite being 13 and 19 – but they were otherwise a bit checked out. Despite having a bunch of moaners in tow, however, I still loved the place and all of its quirks.

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I will say that visiting a concrete building on an intensely hot day was a challenge in and of itself. I often felt as if I was exploring the interior of a pizza oven. The fans became very welcome and appreciated waypoints around the building. Temperature control was, I guess, the one real flaw in Mercer’s design.

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Prime Hook Beach, Delaware

We have just returned from a week at the beach. Our destination this summer was Prime Hook in Delaware. Delaware again. I confess I was not jazzed at the prospect of a third summer spent on the Delaware shore. However, a variety of alternative travel plans fell through for a number of reasons and it seems like Delaware is now our default setting for family vacations. One advantage of having very much been there and done that is that our time at the beach was very chill because there was zero reason to go out exploring. Rather than experiences, therefore, our focus was on properly relaxing and recharging our batteries and on spending quality time together as a family – and this time our oldest son came with us too so we had all six of us on vacation for the first time since 2019.

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Our oldest son had not been to Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen for several years so he accompanied his Aged Parents on a jaunt there. We were actually able to get inside Battery 519 for the first time so at least that was a new experience. My husband spent a lot of time chatting with the docents about a U-boat captain and the Civil War while I wandered around and looked at the exhibits.

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We also went into Rehoboth one morning. Our first stop was the Farmers’ Market so we could pick up some patisserie for breakfast but we also spent some time on the boardwalk and browsing in stores. One incessantly rainy day, we decided to take a tour of some nearby thrift stores as a fun retail challenge. We ate a few meals out too and – after three summers of trying – my husband was finally able to order soft shell crab – so he ate two of them.

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Most of our time, however, was spent at the rental house. With the house being right on the beach, a lot of time was spent in the water and on the sand. I am not so much a beach person so I just dipped in and out of such activities but I enjoyed sitting in the sunshine and watching the boys larking around in the water. I was able to spend some time on art and reading and we also played a lot of board games as a family.

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We also got to enjoy terrific sunsets every evening.

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Our week at the beach was a much-needed break away from our daily stresses and our usual routines and ruts. It was definitely relaxing and restorative. Next year, however, I am hoping for some travel plans that expand my experiences.

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Spring Break 2022 – National Zoo

We wanted an outdoor venue for our meetup with friends and elected to visit the National Zoo as that would suit the wide span of ages. We had last visited the National Zoo as part of a road trip all the way back in 2016 – which feels somewhat like a bygone era now. This was also our first experience with a very crowded tourist attraction during the pandemic. I don’t like crowds even at the best of times and areas of the zoo were definitely too densely populated for my liking but otherwise visitors were dispersed throughout the zoo in a way that was manageable.

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We had much more success with viewing animals during our previous visit to this zoo. As one of the first properly hot days of the year, perhaps it was too much to ask the animals to be out of their shaded shelters and be out on show for us, but it was a bit disappointing to be seeing so many empty enclosures. The sloth bear offered a fair compromise as he was relaxing in a hammock.

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Although we only saw them at a distance, the pandas put on an entertaining show. One of the juveniles was being a complete derp. As it tried to clamber over some branches to reach a platform, its coordination kept failing and it would wobble off the branches. It almost fell several times – to great gasps from the human onlookers – and even managed to fall off the platform once it had reached it. We can add lack of gymnastic aptitude and no sense of balance to the reasons why pandas are so endangered.

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Our 15 year old is obsessed with the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’ (it’s his third favourite after the 1977 Soviet movie ‘The Ascent’ and the 1997 Iranian movie ‘Taste of Cherry’). He had a mission to find as many of the animals who make up the animated cast of ‘Kung Fu Panda’ as he possibly could. He especially wanted to see the red panda (Master Shifu) and we had almost given up when it appeared in the window of its indoor enclosure. That quick glimpse was all he got but the mission was accomplished. I am sure he will attempt this challenge in the future during visits to other zoos.

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Spring Break 2022 – Monuments at night

It seems to have become a family tradition for us to visit Washington DC’s monuments and memorials at night. While we have taken the kids to see the sites three times, the most recent two trips have been at night.

We started with the Washington Monument and then moved on to see the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial, which is one of my absolute favourites. I think the sculpture of King is wonderful in and of itself but I also love the symbolism of passing through the “mountain of despair” to see the “stone of hope” from which the figure of MLK is emerging. I would love to see it in cherry blossom season some time.

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From there, we circled back to see Mr Pict’s favourite memorial: the Korean War Veterans Memorial. It proved a little tricky to locate and access in the dark because much of that area is hoarded of for construction of horse stables and an expansion of the memorial itself. It is a very evocative memorial, with the expressive faces on the slightly larger than life figures and the way they are placed within the juniper bushes.

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Of course, no trip to the National Mall is complete without a pop in to see Abraham Lincoln. I cannot help but think of that scene from ‘The Simpsons’ where the statue of Thomas Jefferson complains to Lisa that nobody ever thinks to visit him as they all head to see Lincoln instead. We actually had planned to trek out to the Jefferson Memorial on this trip but it was too dark by the time we arrived in the city centre to walk all the way out to the other end of the tidal basin so, yes, we neglected Jefferson yet again. It is definitely better to visit the Lincoln Memorial at night because it can feel a bit too like being a herring in a barrel during the day.

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Incidentally, this Spring break trip was the first time the boys and I had used mass transit since before the pandemic. It, therefore, felt like part of the vacation to them to be travelling on the metro. They especially loved how steep the escalators were and enjoyed challenging themselves to run up the steps as fast as possible.

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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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Season’s Greetings!

From my household to yours, we wish you Merry Christmas to those who celebrate and best wishes of the festive season to all. I hope you all have a wonderful time and have the opportunity to eat, drink, and make merry spending quality time with the special people in your lives.

I did not send holiday cards this year for a variety of reasons. Instead, I donated what I would have spent on cards and postage to the DNA Doe Project. I did, however, take the traditional “look how much they’ve grown” photo of our sons and the cats to share with family and friends near and far.

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2020 was rough; 2021 was worse. We are very glad to be bidding farewell to 2021 but – I am sure like many folk – are trepidatious about the New Year. Maybe 2022 will undersell and overdeliver – in a good way – but only time can tell.

I will sign off with an outtake from our photoshoot.

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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.

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.