Nemours

We had four guests visiting us over the Thanksgiving holiday: my in-laws and Mr Pict’s oldest friend and his partner.  After a day of over-indulging in feasting, we all felt the need to get some fresh air and burn off some calories.  We, therefore, headed to Valley Forge to hike around the site of the encampment and the surrounding fields.  I have blogged about a previous visit to Valley Forge, back in Spring of 2016, so will not repeat myself here.  Suffice to say it was a fair bit colder than it had been during that first exploration.  The wind was so biting that I lost feeling in my ears.  I also tried to recreate a previous “gargoyle” photo but had misremembered which son was the model.

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The following day, the six adults went on a child-free trip across the border into Delaware.  Our destination for the day was Nemours.  This is a French chateau style mansion that Alfred Dupont built for the woman who would become his second wife.  We learned that Alicia was not easily wooed and that the mansion was Alfred’s final pitch at winning her affections.  She agreed to marry him but I am pretty certain he did not win her affections.  Indeed, the subtext of our entire tour of the property was how problematic and dysfunctional Alfred’s marriages were – and obviously he was the common denominator – and how suspicious a few events in the biographical timeline were, including sudden deaths that removed the necessity for a divorce or the mysterious advent of infants.  I basically had my own little dramatic soap opera playing in my head as I moved from room to room and learned more about Alfred and his wives.

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After a quick pootle around the grounds, we embarked on a guided tour led by an enthusiastic young woman named Kat.  She started the tour in the mansion’s basement and that turned out to be my favourite part of the house.  I have visited hundreds of stately homes, palaces, and castles in my time and the public rooms tend to be much of a muchness.  What set this home apart from the others that I have visited was that basement level.  Since he had built his mansion from scratch in the early 20th Century, Alfred was not having to cram modern technology into a much older building or try to couple the old and new.  He also seemed to be especially enthralled with engineering and with the cutting edge of mod cons so there were lots of fascinating gizmos, gadgets, and gubbins going on beneath the surface of the building.  As someone who spends too much of her life doing laundry, I especially liked the spacious laundry room – housed in an exterior building but connected to the mansion through a tunnel so that undies need never be exposed to public view.

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Each room in the house had been decorated for the Christmas season.  The chosen decorations were on a theme connected to the space in which they were sited and I enjoyed the festive sparkle and the attention to detail.  Again, my favourite trees were to be found in the basement level – a steampunk tree in the boiler room and a bottle tree in the bottling room.

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The house is beautifully decorated and immaculately maintained.  I found myself admiring the skill of the people who must remove every speck of dust from the surfaces in advance of doors being opened each day.  There was a lot of opulence on display but it was not so lavish as to be garish or excessive.  My favourite room was the conservatory closely followed by the kitchen.

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After completing our tour of the house, we wandered over to the garage – which was larger than my house – to see the family’s collection of very shiny luxury cars.  We contemplated having a walk around the grounds, which are laid out in a French style, but it was far too cold and we were too hungry to tolerate the cold.  We, therefore, bid farewell to Nemours and its muffled tales of familial dysfunction.  Since we have also visited Hagley Museum (way back in 2015), we now need to visit Delaware’s other open-to-the-public DuPont property at Winterarthur.

 

Eastern State Penitentiary

Thanksgiving is one of my favourite things about living in America.  Of course, I am glossing over the horrible history of European colonialism and the acts of oppression and genocide towards the indigenous population that are enshrined in the mythology of Thanksgiving.  My husband and kids may be Mayflower descendants but we still don’t truck with that whole lore of pilgrims and Native Americans sitting around peacefully and munching corn and turkey as an act of friendship.  No, forget the mythologising.  What I love about Thanksgiving is that it is a holiday that not only celebrates gratitude but also togetherness.  We have four solid days together as a family to just relax and enjoy each other’s company – and eat a disgusting quantity of delicious food.  As the mother and chief organiser of any festivity or event, I am also thankful that Thanksgiving involves minimal preparation and stress.  No gifts to buy or wrap, no decorating to be done, just food to be purchased, cooked, and feasted upon.  And that enjoyment of a stress-free, low-hassle holiday is precisely why – despite my thriftiness and love of a bargain – I don’t participate in any Black Friday madness.  I loathe shopping at the best of times.  Fighting through frenzied crowds in the hopes of finding things I actually wanted or needed at a much lower price is not the best of times.  This Black Friday, therefore, we steered clear of any shopping and shoppers and instead headed into Philadelphia to absorb some local history.

Our destination for the day was Eastern State Penitentiary.  The prison is an imposing building of thick stone walls in the centre of Philadelphia.  We entered through the original entry way and were directed into what was once the guard’s armoury to purchase our tickets and pick up our audio guides.  A few steps later and we found ourselves in the grounds of the prison and all sense that we were in the middle of a major city melted away.  The thickness and height of the walls meant that barely any sights or sounds from the city outside intruded on our wanderings and we could immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the historic prison.

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The building of the prison was completed in 1836 and was modelled on a wheel-spoke design.  A central, octagonal rotunda served as the hub of the building while the corridors containing the cells radiated from this hub so that guards could more easily observe what was happening and navigate the prison.  It is an architectural design I have seen in old British prisons and asylums but I don’t know which side of the Atlantic developed the idea first.  The cells were obviously now in a state of ruin but we could see from the recreated cell that they would have always been very spartan but spacious enough.  While the only light was through a hole in the ceiling – known as the “Eye of God” – the cells did have a rudimentary system of flushing toilets and pipes that filled with hot water to keep the cells warm in Winter. We were able to wander along most of these corridor spokes and poke our noses into the decaying cells, many of which were in ruins all while listening to Steve Buscemi relate the history of the prison through our headsets.

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Eastern State Penitentiary had instituted what was a novel approach to corrections by insisting that all prisoners held within its walls be subjected to what essentially amounted to solitary confinement.  There were initially no doors into the cells from the corridors, just hatches to allow food to be passed in and for guards to observe the prisoner.  Access to each cell was gained through a door from the exterior, via the exercise yard.  We learned that if prisoners were being moved around the prison they were made to don hoods over their heads which both prevented them seeing their fellow inmates and their fellow inmates being able to identify them.  Obviously with the benefit of hindsight we know this to be harsh treatment but this model was actually very enlightened for its time and was motivated by a desire to improve the experiences of prisoners and their quality of life and inspire them to true penitence.  Nevertheless, knowing what we now know about the awful psychological impact of that degree of isolation, I felt quite chilled.  This insistence on solitary confinement ended in the early 20th Century not because reformers were concerned about mental health but because the prison was so overcrowded that it was no longer feasible to keep all the inmates separated.

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We emerged from one spoke out into the exercise yard.  There was a playing field for sports and also a greenhouse and gardening area.  In the middle of the scrubby baseball diamond, a large bar graph was used to illustrate how rates of incarceration in the US have rocketed in recent decades and how the US imprisons far more of its population than any other country in the world.  This was not news to me but seeing it presented in such a way, through a simple but dominating sculpture, and within the context of the stone walls of a prison really made the message quite stark.  Some areas of the penitentiary were being used as exhibition spaces for various art installations, some permanent and others revolving.  One, for instance, was used to recreate the cells found at the detention camp at Guantanamo.  Another had been made by a former prisoner while incarcerated and comprised panels made from sections of his bed linen.  He had apparently mailed each little piece of fantasy landscape home upon its completion so that it was only once he was released that he could piece the whole thing together.  All pieced together, it covered the walls of one particular cell.  Another cell had walls glowing with flecks of gold paint as the artist had added fragments of gold leaf among the pieces of peeling, flaking paint on the walls.  I thought that suggested not only something about the possibility for redemption and rehabilitation but also something about the importance of finding value and beauty in the ugly and ruined, preserving history and the importance of places even with such superficially awful histories as prisons.  Plus I love gold, shiny things.  The most arresting of the art exhibits to my mind, however, was a cell containing monochrome portraits suspended from the ceiling.  Each portrait depicted a person who had been murdered by one of the inmates of the penitentiary.  While I had been feeling a strong sense of pity and sorrow for the prisoners who had been held in the prison from its opening right up to 1970 when it really must have already been deteriorating, that exhibit punchily reminded me that some of those people I was pitying had committed despicable and violent crimes.  My kids were especially taken with a display in one cell which would not have looked out of place in a museum of natural history.  It was a collection of specimens gathered within the confines of the prison – insects, birds, and even a mummified cat.

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I enjoyed the glimpses into everyday life at the prison.  One cell contained a barber’s chair and I could well imagine prisoners gathering there to have their hair cut and chat and gossip just as would happen in any other barber shop.  I was also able to pop into the beautifully restored synagogue that was nestled between corridor spokes.  We also got to see Al Capone’s cell with its recreation of his home comforts.  Eastern State Penitentiary was the site of Capone’s first prison experience and I don’t think it was altogether miserable for him.  Apparently, while the media made much of Capone receiving special treatment while he was imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary, he was probably being treated not vastly differently from the average inmate in that era of the prison’s life, maybe just a few simple perks. Recent research, we were told, explains that the radio he had in his cell was purchased from its previous occupant and also indicates that Capone had to share a cell when surely not having to share would have been one of the first luxuries insisted upon if in receipt of special treatment.

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It truly was a fascinating place in and of itself but also in terms of the wider context of penal history and attitudes towards punishment and rehabilitation.  I could easily have spent another hour or two wandering around the Penitentiary, listening to every last morsel of the audio tour.  However, our kids – especially the 11 year old – had had enough and were at the threshold of what they were willing to tolerate.  We, therefore, chose not to push our luck and to depart while the going was good.  I was very pleased to tick off another historic Philadelphia landmark from my list of places I must visit.

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Thanksgiving Weekend

I like Thanksgiving as a holiday and I am glad I now get to legitimately celebrate it.  As it is not related to a faith group or specific culture, it is inclusive (albeit that it is technically linked to a commemoration of colonising and persecuting an indigenous population) and everyone is off school and work at the same time.  There is no frenzy of gift buying and wrapping, no decking of the halls (at least not for us) and so the focus is just on togetherness and feasting.

Being relatively new to Thanksgiving, I am only just gradually trying and testing different traditions and seeing which fit and which do not.  This year, literally just two days before Thanksgiving, we had a painter in decorating our living rooms.  The house was topsy-turvy, with boxes of art work, ornaments, books and possessions, shelves and cushions stowed absolutely everywhere else in the house.  It was not conducive to organising anything and – in truth – I forgot to even meal plan until the day before.  And that was the day when my oldest son came down with a sickness bug so we were housebound.  Therefore, partly out of pragmatism and necessity and partly because I needed to use my time in other areas  – such as putting the house back together – I took some lazy options and decided to try some American traditional foods.

I love green bean casserole.  It’s delicious.  That is partly because I load it with even more strong cheese and wholegrain mustard than the recipe instructs but it is just entirely scrummy.  That’s a tradition I am totally on board with.  Brining the turkey ensured that it was succulent and juicy despite its massive bulk.  I am a roast potato fan but at least one of my kids claims he only likes potato if it is mashed so we decided to follow the American tradition of having mash.  To make it extra creamy, however, I added sour cream and cream cheese.  It was amazingly creamy and rich but my kids hated it.  No actually they loathed it.  Fail.  Back to the drawing board with the mash then.  We also used corn muffin mix rather than making them from scratch just because of time.  They were OK but not amazing.  The biggest fail of the day though was the stuffing.  In Britain, stuffing is normally based around sausage meat.  My intention, however, had been to make my mother-in-law’s recipe for rice and mushroom stuffing.  Again, however, my timings being scuppered we opted to try out traditional American stuffing which is based around seasoned bread.  It was horrid.  Nobody ate more than a morsel of it because it was so entirely bland both in flavour and texture.  Not doing that again.  None of our desserts were homemade this year either.  However, my husband and kids assure me that the pumpkin pie, pecan pie and fruit tart were delicious.  So our Thanksgiving feasting traditions will continue to evolve until we get a mixture of things we all enjoy – or which the majority of us enjoy at least.  And next year we won’t schedule lots of upheaval just before the holidays either.

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The following evening, we took a trip out to Shady Brook Farm to see their Holiday Light Show.  This was another attempt at forging a tradition since we had also gone there last year.  The car drives through the displays of light which makes for some lazy spectating but keeps everyone contained and cosy.  My kids each had a blanket in the car with them.  The first section was themed around the song ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ so we all sang the song, loudly, as we drove past each section of lights, often in a tuneless muddle but it was fun nevertheless.  We also liked the sea themed section, the landmarks of the world and fairy tale sections.  The displays all seemed to be the same designs as we had seen last year but that was OK as everyone enjoyed the twinkly lights – especially the tunnels of lights we drove through.

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After the driving section, we parked up and wandered around the produce market section.  While festive music played and synchronised lights twinkled and flashed, people were toasting s’mores around fire pits and aromas of salty kettle popcorn, melting chocolate and fried

dough filled the air, wafting at us temptingly from the surrounding stalls.  We capitulated to temptation and bought a toasty hot funnel cake which the boys devoured in a matter of seconds, like hyenas ripping through a downed wildebeest.  I should have made funnel cake and s’mores for Thanksgiving dinner.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

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Give Thanks

This week’s Documented Life Project prompt was to depict gratitude in a creative way.  A similar prompt had been given 25 weeks ago and I had used that opportunity to practise my typography and list all of the things I am grateful for in my life.  That had become a very busy and involved art journal page.  I decided, therefore, to make this week’s art journal page somewhat minimalist and simple.  This was also useful because life has been very busy of late and is only going to get busier as the season progresses.  Plus my house is upside down right now as two rooms are being painted.  Simple very much appealed.

Just as the previous gratitude page had afforded me the opportunity to practise an area of my art journalling that needed work, I decided to use this week’s prompt to practise creating backgrounds.  The obvious colours would have been rich and warm tones of yellows, oranges, reds and browns as befits the season and the Thanksgiving holiday.  Largely out of contrariness, therefore, I decided to do the opposite and use cold colours.  I started with a wash of watercolour in shades of blue and purple, the peacock jewel colours I am often drawn to.  I then decided to practise my stencilling again.  My skills in that regard are not good, not good at all.  This time my hand was a lot lighter and I remembered to dab off excess acrylic paint before applying it to the stencil.  Still there is a great deal of room for improvement.  I opted to use small stencils that were all circular designs so that there was some sort of harmony.  Nevertheless, the result was pretty chaotic and haphazard and messy.  Baby steps I suppose.  I then finished the page with writing the phrase “Give Thanks” in black gel pen, using just my own handwriting as the font.

Week 48 - Gratitude

There are not many weeks left now in the DLP project for 2014 but I am probably going to continue with the group’s weekly prompts into 2015.  It is useful to have that push to make time for experimentation in my art journal.  I have also been gifted the online art course, Life Book, for next year to further develop my mixed media skills and technique.  I will probably continue to blog about both of those here on Pict in PA but will be blogging about all of my other art – my non-art-journal stuff – on my other blog, Pict Ink.  I can hardly believe that 2014 is almost at an end and I am thinking about 2015 already.

Thanksgiving

We have always marked Thanksgiving, particularly as a means of reminding the children of their American heritage.  Of course, in Scotland it is not a national holiday so in previous years we have always had to celebrate Thanksgiving on the weekend.  This then was – for the four kids and me – our first Thanksgiving celebrated on the actual day itself and we had been really looking forward to it.

The older boys had been learning a bit about Thanksgiving in school and my 4 year old had been learning about it through the theme of Native Americans at preschool (as well as doing the Turkey Pokey!).  I had also borrowed books galore from the library – including a lovely one of NC Wyeth’s mural paintings – and had attended a Thanksgiving lunch at the youngest’s preschool.  With all this build-up, we were very much looking forward to the celebration.

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The logical, academic side of me conflicts with the emotional side of me when it comes to Thanksgiving.  I do very much appreciate the sentiment of the day: offering up thanks and expressing gratitude for what one has, reflecting on life’s blessings and spending time with loved ones.  However, it is difficult to square the warm glow of those emotions with the historical event the day commemorates.  After all, only a few decades after Squanto and Samoset had saved the pilgrims from starvation and ignorance, the colonists and the indigenous population were engaged in King Philip’s War (during which one of Mr Pict’s direct ancestors was scalped).  Colonisation, subjugation and genocide are a bit hard to swallow along with tales of planting corn and sharing turkey.  However, I then have to reconcile that moral dilemma with the fact that we would literally not be in America now as a family had it not been for the colonists.  Mr Pict – and, therefore, our four sons – is a descendant of John Alden and Priscilla Mullins who crossed from Europe to America on ‘The Mayflower’.  So had it not been for the whole Thanksgiving story, had it not been for John Alden and Priscilla Mullins surviving the disease and privations that beset the colonists in order to pass on their DNA for generations to come, then Mr Pict would not have been born half-American and it would have been near impossible for us to emigrate.  So, in order to be grateful for this opportunity, I suppose I have to be grateful to the pilgrims for their colonising of land already occupied by the Native Americans.

What we were very thankful for yesterday was the chance to all be together all day, having quality family time, relaxing in each other’s company.  The boys in particular have found it difficult to adjust to Daddy’s new working hours and patterns so they relished the chance to spend four solid days with him.  Mr Pict actually has to go away with work for a week (Florida in December – sucks to be him) so this was a good ration of Daddy-Son time to store up their reserves for the week ahead.

Of course, a critical component of Thanksgiving is the food.  We decided to be very traditional this year so that the kids could experience an authentic American Thanksgiving dinner.  Centre stage obviously was the turkey.  We actually got the turkey for free from the supermarket.  Turkeys here are a loss leader at Thanksgiving, enticing people into the store to buy all the other bits and bobs they need.  Since I shop there anyway, it being my nearest supermarket, clocking up all the required loyalty points was simple.  I even have enough left over to get a dollar per gallon off car fuel.  So we had our freebie $25 turkey, mashed potato, sweet potato, broccoli, carrots, green bean casserole (my favourite), corn on the cob, corn bread and stuffing.  American stuffing is not like British stuffing.  Instead of having a sausage meat base, it is like moistened herby croutons.  It tastes nicer than it sounds.  Incidentally I don’t know that corn on the cob is a traditional side for Thanksgiving – though we usually do creamed corn – but you can never have enough corn on the cob at this time of year.

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A Thanksgiving tradition that is new to me is sales shopping.  There has been a lot of controversy this year in the run up to the holidays regarding the number of shops opening on Thanksgiving itself, which not only means that frenzied bargain hunters leave their family to go and track down deals but also employees are coerced into giving up a holiday.  I am in support of holidays staying as holidays, especially a secular one such as this where everyone can enjoy some time off together, so the ethical part of me wanted to opt out of sales.  I would never actually go out to sales anyway.  I hate crowds almost to the point of being phobic and I don’t wish to do battle with ferocious people clamouring for things going cheap.  However, the frugal side of me won out against the ethical side and I did hop online to snag some deals on Christmas presents for the kids and a vacuum cleaner for me.  I am justifying this on the basis that we had to abandon so many possessions to relocate here that we now have to replace and stretching our budget as far as possible is obviously important.

I was very excited about Thanksgiving TV.  Apparently American Football is a thing on Thanksgiving so Mr Pict watched a bit of whatever game was on.  I don’t do sport – playing, spectating or viewing – so the TV I was looking forward to were the Charlie Brown and Muppets specials.  Charlie Brown did not disappoint.  The two episodes were sweet without being mawkish and the whole thing had a vintage charm.  One episode even mentioned John Alden and Priscilla Mullins which my boys enjoyed.  Family history is proving a good way to engage them in history.  The show I was really excited about – more than would be considered normal for an adult woman – was the Muppets special.  I have always loved the Muppets.  I still forget that they are puppets when I am watching them.  Sincerely, Miss Piggy was one of my icons growing up.  I have managed to emulate her feisty spiritedness but her femininity and glamour have always eluded me.  Unfortunately, the much anticipated Muppets Special was hugely disappointing.  Lady Gaga was supposedly the special guest but she dominated entirely rather than assuming a guest’s role.  As such, the Muppets, including stars Kermit and Piggy, were relegated to bit part players.  The whole thing became one long promotional music video (for music I dislike no less) and all the magic of the Muppets was lost.

So overall we very much enjoyed our first American Thanksgiving.

Menurkey

For the first time in over a century, Thanksgiving is going to coincide with the first day of Hanukkah and this is the last time that will occur for quite some time to come.  This is quite the big deal around here, the collision of two big winter celebrations.

My 6 year old in particular is a tad forlorn that we are not celebrating Hannukah.  He claims every single other person in his class is celebrating Hannukah.  Biased reporting of statistics.  He essentially wants to be part of the double-dip holiday.  He would love us to have a menurkey – a menorah shaped like a turkey, invented by a 10 year old from New York city.  Tempted though I might be to buy one for posterity, to mark our first Thanksgiving in America, it is not happening.  Besides which, menurkeys are sold out.

Yesterday he came home from school begging me to make latkes.  This is a child who professes to hating all potato based foods yet he would not stop going on and on about wanting latkes.  The menurkey was not something I could accomplish but I might just give in and make some latkes.

What is fun about all of this is that the boys are being exposed to all sorts of different religions, cultures, customs and traditions in a way that they just were not, at least in any direct way, in the homogeneous town we moved here from.  So I am quite happy to be hounded for menurkeys and latkes because it means my 6 year old has absorbed information about Hanukkah and Judaism.

Maybe I should have bought a menurkey for him.