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.

Slaughter Beach

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Season of Masks and Mellow Fruitfulness

Apologies to Keats for the lame pun.  Maybe it is not the best idea – during a deadly pandemic –  to reference a text in which the poet uses Autumn to reflect on his own imminent mortality but I couldn’t resist.  It has been some time since I last hit “post” on this blog because, for obvious reasons, I don’t have much to report but I thought I could write something about what we have been up to this Autumn.

We started October with a birthday: our second oldest son turned 15.  He is my movie geek so normally his celebration would involve a cinema trip and a restaurant dinner with us and some of his friends.  While that was not possible this year, his birthday still revolved around movies, especially some of his favourites.  Our 13 year old, for instance, drew his brother’s favourite Director – Martin Scorsese – as a gift and the decorations for his cake were all cinema inspired.

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My 15 year old’s favourite movie of recent years is ‘The Lighthouse’ and his favourite actor is Willem Dafoe.  It was, therefore, not a surprise when he chose to dress up as Dafoe’s character in ‘The Lighthouse’ for Halloween.  Our youngest son went trick or treating as a cat. Our neighbourhood did a safe, socially-distanced trick or treat event.  Candy had to be bagged up in advance and left down by the sidewalk so that nobody had to approach houses and everyone had to walk in the direction of traffic to avoid passing.  It worked really well as a zero contact event and I was glad we could do something approaching “normal” for the youngest members of the community.  Honestly, I rather hope this becomes the new tradition.  It was much easier and the kids were able to gather so much more candy in a shorter period of time because they were not having to leave the sidewalks or wait for people to answer the door.  I am adding that to the list of things I hope don’t return to normal after the pandemic.

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My own personal Halloween horror story was surviving without a fridge-freezer for almost the whole of October.  In addition to being an unexpected expense, we had a whole lot of stress trying to problem-solve a replacement.  When we bought our house, it had not been remotely updated since it was built in 1968 with the exception of the kitchen which dates from about 1990.  It was not, therefore, wholly surprising when the fridge-freezer went kaput.  Unfortunately, dimensions of appliances have changed over the past 30 years and we could not find a replacement fridge-freezer that would fit into the space.  Aside from the fact that we cannot afford to replace the entire kitchen right now, the units are actually in excellent condition.  The only solution we could come up with that maintained the integrity of the surrounding cabinets was to remove the doors from the cabinets above the fridge-freezer space, cut down the interior box, and create an open shelving situation.  It is not ideal but it will do for now and until we do renovate the entire kitchen.  The plumbing for the fridge-freezer was not in line with current code so that was another hiccup along the way.  Needless to say, after a month without a functioning fridge-freezer, I am so happy and grateful to have a new one.

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My birthday fell in election week so the election and the stressful wait for the results dominated the week.  It did, however, make for a very memorable birthday.  I cannot imagine I will ever forget it.  My husband’s birthday fell just two days after we went into lockdown in the Spring and I have the last birthday of the year in our household so we have all had this weird birthday experience now.

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My birthday tradition is to have a trip somewhere that everyone has to agree to and not complain (too much) about.  A lot of things are off limits right now and then there are things we assess as being too high risk.  Luckily, however, one of my favourite pastimes is visiting cemeteries and that is a safe thing to do in the current context.  We, therefore, took a trip to Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia.

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It is always useful to have a focus to our cemetery visits so I went armed with research into some graves we could try to locate.  Mr Pict actually has some distant relatives buried in the cemetery but we had no success in finding them.  Our focus, therefore, was on famous graves.

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The first grave I really wanted to find was that of Mary Grew.  She was an abolitionist and suffragist and, given 2020 is the centenary of women being enfranchised in America and Americans have just elected the nation’s first female VP, it seemed apt to go visit her grave.

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Just a hop, skip, and a jump away, we located the grave of the artist Thomas Eakins.  I confess I had not heard of Eakins until we emigrated and settled in the suburbs of Philadelphia.  One of Eakins’ most famous paintings is The Gross Clinic and the subject of that painting, Dr Samuel Gross, is buried elsewhere in the cemetery.  One of my nerdy interests – an offshoot of my fascination with disease and pandemics – is the history of medicine and the painting of Gross provides some insight into the practices in surgical theatres at that time – not a lot of hygiene, for instance.  That same interest is what drew me to find the resting place of John Conrad Otto.  He identified the pattern of hereditary that caused the transmission of hemophilia.

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As you may recall, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so we, of course, had to visit at least a couple of the graves of notable Civil War veterans: Naval Commodore William David Porter and David Bell Birney.

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My kids have remained 100% virtual for education but, just last week, those students who wished to were able to return to brick and mortar schools on a hybrid model.  By the end of the week, the county public health department ordered that all schools had to pivot back to 100% online for all students for a period of two weeks.  Apart from the fact I returned to work, we have continued to live in a “lockdown” mode so nothing much alters for us.  It may, however, indicate that a strict lockdown is on the horizon.  Apart from not wishing to be furloughed again, we are prepared for it.  We will just continue to watch movies, play board games, and bake.  

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July Projects

A lot of my time and emotional energy this month has been dedicated to the question of what school was going to look like for my boys in September.  It generated a whole lot of stress, to a pretty debilitating degree, as there was all sorts of information, thoughts, and feelings to navigate on the route to arriving at a decision.  It was one of those textbook rock and a hard place things where no matter what we decided we knew there was no completely right decision and we felt that as parents we would be failing our kids in some way.  We arrived at the decision to opt for distance learning, which we could make work for our personal family dynamic.  I then spent time making peace with that decision and figuring out the logistics of making it as successful as possible.  And then, just a few days ago, the school district announced that school would be virtual only for the first marking period at least.  So it turned out all those sleepless nights going back and forth on what to do were pointless.  I am still busy with yet more Zoom meetings about school but at least I know for sure what is happening now (no small thing for a control freak like me) so the only uncertainty remaining now is whether I will be working or furloughed come September.

Anyway, in much more positive news, we have continued to keep ourselves busy and occupied in the Pict household.  My husband continues to work from home full-time and the boys and I are filling our days with projects and fun.  Some of what we have to do might be boring (chores) but we are never bored.  We always have To Do lists longer than time permits and I don’t think that is a bad way to live so long as we can appropriately prioritize those listed items.  We have not done a lot that generates blog fodder this month but this post contains some snippets of some of the things we have been up to.

Despite being together 24/7 – which has the potential to be a powder keg of emotions and frustrations – the four boys are getting along really well together.  They are finding the right balance between time together and time apart.  The only arguments that have broken out are completely daft.  One argument was about whether the Turkish city was best when it was Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul, and another debate was about whether the best siege weapon was a canon, ballista, or trebuchet.  They managed to unite on catapults being the worst.  The boys also continue to make progress with their chosen summer projects.  The oldest is making a computer game on a Greek mythology theme, the 13 year old is learning Latin, and the 14 year has actually completed the online course he was enrolled in about the history of movies.  Incidentally, he (sporadically) writes a movie review blog which you should check out if you are a cinephile.

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My youngest son doesn’t have one big project he is working on as that would not be appropriate for him.  Instead he has been working on all sorts of smaller scale things, some with me and some independently.  One thing he did was complete that jigsaw puzzle that also appeared in last month’s blog post.  He also disassembled an old busted chromebook, made pizza from scratch, and painted a birdhouse he had previously made.  And then I remembered why we had never completed the birdhouse project before: because we don’t have a low enough tree branch to hang it from.  So now I need to problem-solve a way of attaching the birdhouse to a tree that does no harm to the tree.  Suggestions are welcome.

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Our oldest son passed his driving test!  That’s a milestone for him and also for us as parents.  He is actually not very enthused about the prospect of driving but we felt it was important for him to get his license and we preferred for him to be a new driver under our auspices.  We let him put it off for a year and then persuaded him to just get on with it.  Taking the test with Covid mitigation measures involved some peculiarities but maybe that made him less rather than more nervous.  He did great and we now have three drivers in the house.

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We have been tackling some overdue household projects.  It was not so much that we had procrastinated over them as that other projects had queue jumped because of something suddenly needing to be replaced or a household emergency.  One of those neglected projects was giving the kitchen a makeover.  It was not in the budget to overhaul the entire kitchen (which was installed in the early 1990s) and honestly it was not necessary as the cabinets are all still in really good condition and completely functional.  The microwave was, however, literally falling apart so Mr Pict installed a new one and then it was just a case of freshening up the walls with a lick of paint.  The dual aspect windows at the far end of the kitchen means I could not hang any art work on that large blank wall without it rapidly bleaching and the space is too narrow for hanging anything that might get bumped into.  I, therefore, had the idea to put up a large pinboard.  That way I can pin up all of the letters and notices and appointment cards the six of us generate and which usually get piled on the fridge doors.  Now the fridge doors can just be a gallery of the boys’ artwork and my weekly meal plan.

This was what the kitchen looked like just before we embarked on the project.

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And this is what it looks like now, the walls switched from magnolia to a silver grey.  It is a subtle difference but it is so much cleaner looking and so much lighter.

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My art space is the kitchen table at the other end of the kitchen.  We have a dining room so we don’t need that table for eating and, therefore, I can leave it set up so I can grab art time in little gobbets.  The problem with that permanent set up is that I sometimes accumulate a lot of clutter on my art table (which I share with the cats) and it gets a bit chaotic.  I, therefore, used this opportunity to streamline and simplify my art table set up.  I kept out only the things I use frequently and stored the rest away elsewhere.  Three of the four chairs were also too broken to be safely sat on so we got rid of those and got new ones.  I neglected to take a photo of the before scenario but you get a glimpse of it in this photo of one of my cats “sharing” my art space.

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This is what it looks like now.  Much less cluttered and more efficient.  Still shared with the cats.

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Another household reorganization project I had not gotten around to for ages was sorting through all of the bedlinen and making the linen closet more organized.  I forgot to take a before photo so you will just have to trust me that this closet was a complete and utter mess with far too much crammed in and no ability to tell from a glance what sheets were for which bed.  After the flood and the consequent reassignment of bedrooms and new beds, we also had some bedding that was surplus to requirement.  It proved to be a bit of a Twilight Zone project, however.  I pulled out all of the bedlinen and sorted it into piles: keep, donate, recycle.  I generated two large boxes for donation and six garbage bags for recycling.  You would think that would free up so much space in that closet but no.  Once I started to put the linens we were keeping back in, I was still struggling to fit it onto the shelves.  It is a shallow closet but that still makes no sense to me.  The boxes contain the sheets and pillowcases organized by bed size.  I need to come up with a neater way to store all of those bulky comforters and spare pillows.  Again: suggestions welcome.

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We have been so busy that we have mostly just been walking around our own neighbourhood.  We did, however, venture slightly further afield by going for a wander around Ridley Creek State Park.  Last time we went there it was Winter and we did not see another soul; this day, by contrast, the temperatures were in the 90s and it was swarming with people.  The parking lot was so packed that we almost decided to jettison the plan, since we are taking social distancing very seriously.  We walked a couple of the trails before we capitulated to the kids’ complaints about being sweaty and itchy.  Incidentally, just in case you were wondering, our 13 year old has decided he is not cutting his hair for however long quarantine social distancing lasts.  Brace yourselves for Cousin Itt appearing in my blog at some future point.

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On a whim (and inspired by several of Claudia McGill’s blog posts) we had an explore of Norristown Farm Park.  It was another baking hot afternoon so we stuck to one circuit without veering off to explore side paths or a bigger loop but we were still there for a few hours.  It was great to have points of interest along the way to keep the boys engaged and create natural breaks in which we could rest in the shade.

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I, of course, enjoyed seeing all of the decaying farm buildings.  While the kids were paddling in a stream, I went for a donder around a ramshackle building where I encountered a fox (who was too speedy for a decent photo) and lots of my national flower.  There was also a field full of sunflowers.  It has been many years since I saw so many sunflowers gathered together.  One of my brothers has a phobia of them so obviously I had to take plenty of photos to send to him.

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We will definitely go back and wander there again and poke around in some of the areas we never made it to – but when he air temperature is cooler and we are better prepared.

And, of course, we are still baking like crazy.  Despite the “pandemic pounds”, I cannot seem to stop baking.  I justify it was being an activity to engage my youngest son in but really it is just comfort food for the soul.  When we first went into lockdown, I had intended to learn how to make decent quality bread.  I used to bake bread with my Granddad but have never had huge success independently.  I have not actually embarked on that self-improvement project, however, partly because I have not had the time and partly because we have not been eating much bread so I don’t have the same inclination.  If we are still social distancing when the days get chillier, then I might be motivated to dig into that project.  Until then we will just keep churning out desserts.

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Since it is now a tradition to include the cats in these “Pict pandemic posts”, here are Peanut and Satchi “assisting” me with the reorganization of the linen closet.

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Flaming June

June started with a bang.  We had a few days of raging storms.  My kids enjoyed it when it was at the torrential rain stage.  They love summer rain storms because it is warm and they can run around and get soaked without it being uncomfortable.  The rain was soon joined by thunder and lightning and high winds.  Trees came down all over our neighbourhood and wiped out power lines with them.  Amazingly, given our past luck with such things, we didn’t lose power, suffered no damage, and didn’t experience any flooding.  We were very grateful.

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How is everyone faring with wearing masks?  Back in March, I never thought I would get used to it.  I have a more robust one with filters that I use for when I go grocery shopping and am in a confined space and I must admit I am still pretty wimpy with that one.  It still makes me feel a bit claustrophobic – and gives me even more admiration for those on the front lines wearing PPE all day every day.  If we are out walking, we use lightweight neck gaiters as we usually don’t have to come within even 10 feet of other people but it gives us the option of quickly pulling it up if we have to pass someone on a narrower trail path.  I am otherwise getting used to wearing masks.  I read some time ago that it takes 6 weeks to develop a habit and I guess that holds true for this experience.  We also now treat them as accessories.  I got the boys some masks in fun fabrics and I even bought myself one with thistle fabric on it.  Thistles are my national flower, of course, so it seemed apt.

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Our county moved from red phase into yellow phase in early June which gave us more freedom for getting out and about.  We remain cautious so don’t want to be around people as much as possible.  We, therefore, went for a trek around Gettysburg since the National Park covers such an expanse of land and we were familiar enough with it to be able to predict which areas might be busier.  As you will know, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so he likes to visit Gettysburg every couple of years at least.  We have some places that we always return to but he tries to introduce us to a new area of the battlefield each time we return.

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This time, the new area for exploration was Pickett’s Charge.  That is, of course, the famous culminating action of the Battle of Gettysburg when an infantry assault by the Confederates ended in defeat.  We have actually seen Pickett’s grave because we are history nerds and I like cemeteries.  We were led to the Copse of Trees which I thought was just a copse of trees without the capitalization.  Turns out the Copse is of such historical importance that they are protected by a fence.  From what I can recall from Mr Pict’s lecture, as a distinct landscape feature, the copse was a focal point for the charge and also ended up marking the high water mark of the confederacy in this battle.  There is a monument to commemorate this fact at the spot.

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We then walked the field to gain a sense of the distance of the charge.  Or at least we attempted to cover the expanse.  We gave up about half way and turned back because we were getting covered with ticks.  Between the six of us, we picked off over a dozen ticks just while walking in that field.  We would have been exceedingly wimpy Civil War soldiers since we could not even handle parasitic insects.  Retreating from the field, we had a moment of rest and shade at the Pennsylvania Monument.

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As I mentioned before, there are areas of Gettysburg that we always head to: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  As we had suspected would be the case, Little Round Top was far too busy for our liking.  There were far fewer people than we have ever encountered there before but, of course, those previous visits were not during a pandemic.  We managed to maintain an adequate distance from everyone but it was too stressful an experience since some folks were not observing social distancing guidance and were also not wearing face coverings.  Devil’s Den was less busy but we were having to pass people at too close quarters for comfort so we didn’t stay long.

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June also meant we arrived at the end of the school year.  It has definitely been a memorable and challenging school year.  I absolutely commend my sons’ teachers for doing the absolute best they could with the resources they had and all at short notice.  However, distance learning was a bit of an ordeal to say the least and I am certainly relieved to have at least a break from it.  Goodness knows what school will look like in September.  I have to trust that the school district will strike an appropriate balance and shore up the resources for whatever option they decide to pursue.  Anyway, two of my children completed their final grades in their present schools and are moving on to pasture’s new in September – whether physically, virtually, or a hybrid.  Instead of the usual festivities, celebratory trips, and promotion ceremonies, they had car parades and virtual ceremonies.  I confess I think I actually prefer the car parades to the usual ceremony where we bake in the heat.

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Now that we don’t have distance learning to create structure and routine and keep everyone occupied, we have a long summer stretching ahead of us.  My boys are all at such a wide spans of ages, stages, and areas of interest that I can no longer impose unified summer projects on them as had been the case in summers past.  Instead, each kid has had to pick a project they are working on over the summer.  The three older boys are actually continuing with distance learning – taking courses on coding, cinema history, and Latin – and my youngest is going to work through a number of different projects, some with me and some solo.  Meanwhile, I have written myself a lengthy To Do list of domestic projects to tackle, some larger than others, and I always have my ongoing hobbies.  Most of our activities won’t be worth blogging about but our intention is to keep busy, productive, and stimulated during this socially isolated summer.

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June marked the 45th anniversary of the cinema release of my favourite movie of all time – Jaws.  I have written before about my fanatacism about this movie, including when I drew an illustration of the protagonists.  My 13 year old has inherited my love of the movie and an obsession with sharks.  You might recall that we took a trip last summer to visit the sites of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired the novel that was the basis of the movie. I have several Jaws items around the house, a Jaws board game, and a Jaws tea mug.  We, therefore, had to mark the occasion with a family watch of the movie on the anniversary.

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Also, am I the only person who is still doing a ridiculous amount of baking during this pandemic?  I am a really pretty good cook but I am no great shakes as a baker.  When it comes to the former, I use my experience to eyeball a lot of ingredients and I treat recipes as mere suggestions and make up meals from scratch.  The latter requires precision in measuring and actually following a recipe step by step.  It is too much like science for my Arts and Humanities brain.  I can bake things like cookies, brownies, banana bread, and basic cakes, but I am not great at anything more complex.  But for some reason I have been baking non-stop during this past few months and even more so since the kids’ distance learning wrapped up.  Like Pavlov’s Dogs, my kids now pretty much expect a freshly baked sweet treat.  This is not a good state of affairs.  I am gaining pandemic pounds for sure.  My youngest son is helping me with baking.  We recently made brownies topped with cookie dough.  We need an intervention.

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I have created a long list of home improvement type things I want to accomplish over the summer break.  It didn’t look like much on paper but already I think I might have been over-ambitious.  Our house ended up rather chaotic after the basement flood, then we switched rooms around with having created a new bedroom in the basement and my husband having to work from home for however many months.  Multiple rooms in the house, therefore, have to be reorganised and – quite frankly – ruthlessly purged.  I started with my youngest son’s bedroom.  I thought I would get it done in a day, maybe two.  Nope.  A week.  It took an entire week just to clean, sort, and organize his bedroom.  It generated five bags of trash and two large boxes of items to be donated.  Now my To Do list that once looked like a sprint now looks like a marathon.

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Delaware Beach Getaway

We had really big travel plans for this Summer but, of course, the Covid 19 pandemic means that all of our plans were cancelled.  As a family, we are taking the risks very seriously and are being super cautious with what we do.  My youngest brother contracted Covid and had a really gruelling time getting through what is considered a mild case.  That only served to underscore how important it was to stick to our strict way of operating.  However, for various reasons too personal to get into, we did decide to get away for a few days.  We found a beach house in Delaware where we could maintain our isolated ways and that had a robust, Covid specific cleaning regimen to put our anxiety at ease.  We were also the first guests to stay in the house for several months.  Our oldest son opted to stay home with the cats.

We obviously spent a lot of time at the beach.  The property we rented was a two mile walk from the closest public access point and parking lot so it was exceptionally quiet and we never had to get remotely close to any other beach users.  In addition to paddling and swimming, the boys loved collecting horseshoe crab moults (or horseshoe husks as the kids dubbed them).  They gathered husks of various sizes over a few days and then my 14 year old had the idea to turn them into a sculpture.  What my youngest loved doing was finding these peculiar little burrowing sea critters at the shore line.  I think they are a type of isopod but I am not completely confident in even that vague identification.  He enjoyed scooping them out of the wet sand and then watching them quickly burrowing back down.  The beach was also home to a type of crab that ran at comically high speed and scurried from hole to hole.  My 14 year old also found a hermit crab.

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We also experienced some lovely sunrises and terrific sunsets on the beach.  The boys also liked being out on the beach in the pitch dark.  Mr Pict is into astronomy so he enjoyed using his binoculars to pick out details in the clear night sky.

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I can only tolerate sand for so long so I liked having some other outdoor spaces to use.  There was a raised deck at the house where I could sit and read, draw, and paint while being able to see the rest of the family larking about on the beach.  Beneath that raised deck, there was a space enclosed with screens that was perfect for outdoor eating.

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On the subject of eating, we mostly ate food at the house whipped up from ingredients we brought with us.  One evening, however, we decided to have a treat because Mr Pict had spotted a place selling British style fish and chips.  As Brits, how could we not go sample some grub there?  They were doing roadside pickup so we placed our order and then parked up to eat it while it was all still steaming hot.  It really was all pretty authentic and passed muster with our British tastebuds.  The one exception was the brown sauce which was far too good quality for proper chippy sauce.  Just the aroma of clouds of malt vinegar wafting off of hot chips transported me home. It was a delicious treat.

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We did take a couple of excursions.  We thought about exploring historic Lewes but it was far too busy and most people we saw were not wearing masks so we promptly nixed that idea.  What we did instead was head to Cape Henlopen for a wander around Fort Miles.  We have been there before, in 2017, and we planned on also exploring new areas of the coast, but every other spot was just too busy for comfort.

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We went on two woodland walks.  The first of these was at Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge.  We had to pass a few people at the head of the trail but otherwise we seemingly had the whole place to ourselves and we ended up covering the entire network of trails partly intentionally and partly because we got ourselves a bit lost and looped certain trails twice.  We definitely got our steps in that day!  We encountered lots of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and also lots of frogs or toads – I cannot confidently identify the species so please let me know if you can.  My 11 year old also found a complete shed snakeskin but unfortunately we did not meet any snakes.

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Our final trip was to Redden State Forest but that was a much shorter trek and we were literally the only people there.  It was a very humid day, however, and we were being constantly bitten by insects.  I have a severe reaction to insect bites so my left hand ballooned up.  We, therefore, moved around the trail paths swiftly and skedaddled back to the car.

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It was definitely restorative to get away for a few days and be hermits in a different space.  It is not the Summer vacation we had planned for but it were definitely grateful for a simple getaway.

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National Museum of American Jewish History and Ghost Ship

Today is my birthday.  Today is also election day and, since my workplace is used as a polling station, my birthday treat is a day off of work to be home alone.  Each year, on a weekend adjacent to my birthday, I get to decide where we go and what we do for a day trip.  I love museums so my choice was to visit a museum in Philly that we had not yet visited.

The National Museum of American Jewish History is situated in the old city.  It is housed in a lovely building that allows its collections to be organised into clear chronological and narrative strands.  We started on the an upper floor and with the story of the first Jewish community to immigrate to the United States and then moved throughout the galleries and levels to learn about the contributions the Jewish community have made to American history and culture.  I realised that I knew almost nothing about Jews in colonial America so I found that gallery to be especially interesting.  My kids enjoyed the section about migration within the US and my youngest had a hoot dressing up in prairie clothes and pretending to cook beneath the covered wagon.  He tried on various costumes in several sections of the museum which was a great way to keep him moving and engaged.  At one point he even pretended to be a dog in a kennel.  My 14 year old is currently reading the book ‘Refugee’ by Alan Gratz so he liked the display about the perilous journey of the St Louis and, of course, the tragic consequences of countries refusing permission to land.  Predictably, Mr Pict liked the section on the Civil War.  For my part, I really enjoyed my visit to this museum.  I especially like social history and there was plenty of that being showcased.  I actually would have benefited from more time in the museum as I had to rush through the last section and even then we were the last visitors to leave and they literally locked the doors behind us.

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After the museum, we headed off in search of food.  Before we found a suitable option, however, we passed Shanes Confectionery and had to pop in.  Aside from being a sweet-toothed family, Shanes claims to be the longest running confectionery shop in the US.  We were gifted some Shanes chocolate and famous clear candy a few years ago now so we have sampled some but it was great to finally be in the store.  Stepping across the threshold was like stepping back in time as the store has been lovingly and beautifully restored to its early 20th Century style, including restored machinery and gadgets.  My oldest son found the narrowness of the store to be too claustrophobic for his liking but the rest of us thought it was all wonderful.  My youngest is a chocaholic so he was smitten to the point of being overwhelmed by all the marvellous chocolates.  He is also cat-obsessed so he loved seeing chocolate in feline form.  I loved seeing the old cash registers and the stained glass and the patina on all the wooden shelves.  There were so many fabulous confections to choose from but we rose to the challenge and made our selections.

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Dinner was in a British themed pub.  We were all excited to spot that Irn Bru was one of the soft drinks available.  Even though the recipe has (somewhat controversially) changed since we left Scotland, it was a taste of home.  There were also mushy peas available as a side so Mr Pict and I ordered those.  They were far too good quality to taste authentic but that is not a cause for complaint.  I can usually only manage a single course when eating but I had spotted sticky toffee pudding on the menu so had to order it – though I did share with some of the boys.  I was delighted to discover that it had been made with dates just as it should be.  It was scrumptious.

The closing ceremony for my birthday trip was to view an art installation on the Delaware River.  When we arrived at the Race Street Pier, it was already dark so the ghost ship should have been visible.  Alas, it was not.  We were informed that the organizers were experiencing technical difficulties and they had no timeline whatsoever for a resolution.  Oh dear.  The crowd was restless.  Some people were loudly complaining.  We took up a position along the pier’s barrier and waited patiently for the glitch to be fixed.  After half an hour of waiting, however, the boys were bottomed out on patience and started to plead with me to give up and to just go home.  I was, however, determined to see this thing so just tuned out their gripes.  I admit that even my patience was waning as the cold seeped into my bones some time after the 40 minute mark.  Finally, water erupted from rigging that sat on the water’s surface and, as the fountains spumed, the image of an 18th Century schooner appeared, projected onto the water.  It was impressive and I was glad to see it.  Was it remarkable enough to wait almost an hour in the cold with four moaning children?  The verdict is still out.

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1916 Shark Attacks Trip

Our 12 year old has an obsession with sharks.  This is partly because he fears them and partly because he thinks they are fantastic creatures.  This obsession has led him to becoming a bit of a mini-expert on the (in)famous 1916 shark attacks.  I appreciate that some readers might think this is a bit of a tasteless topic to allow a tween boy to become obsessed with but a) we are nerds rearing other nerds and b) we encourage our sons’ curiosity and support their interests.  After all, our kids are being raised by parents who are – among other things – interested in the American Civil War, zombies, pandemics, the history of sideshows, and true crime.  It’s how we roll.  Anyway, at the (shark) tail end of Shark Week, we decided to facilitate our little shark nerd by taking a trip to the Jersey Shore to visit sites relevant to the attacks that occurred in 1916.

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While it would have been neater to visit the sites in chronological order, other factors dictated that we actually undertake the trip in reverse order.  We, therefore, started our trip in the town of Matawan.  The final attack actually occurred at Cliffwood when 12 year old Joseph Dunn was attacked as he was clambering out of the water.  Thankfully he survived.  Matawan was the site, therefore, not of the final attack but of the final fatal attack.  One of the reasons the 1916 shark attacks are so notorious is because of the bizarre fact that the final attacks occurred in an inland creek and not in saltwater.  It was 12 July and some boys had just gotten off work from the factory where they were employed and headed to the creek to swim.  Obviously there was no way these poor kids could possibly anticipate that a shark would be present in the water and unfortunately one little boy, Lester Stillwell, was killed.  The other boys alerted the folks of Matawan and tailor Stanley Fisher leapt to action.  He dived into the creek to recover little Lester and was himself attacked.  Heroic Stanley was quickly lifted from the water, placed onto a train to get him to hospital, but he succumbed to his injuries.  My research had made it apparent that there was no way for us to access the swimming hole without committing an act of trespass and probably doing battle with poisonous plants.  Our 12 year old, therefore, made do with visiting a part of Matawan Creek that had safe public access.

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We then visited Rose Hill Cemetery, a lovely, peaceful, shady spot where both Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher are buried.  Little Lester’s grave is sited near a pond that was absolutely covered in blooming lily pads.  It was a pretty and serene spot.  Previous visitors had left little toys and trinkets for Lester so evidently we were not the only people who had undertaken this trip.  On a little grassy promontory, we located the grave of Stanley Fisher.  It seemed apt that his grave overlooked that of Lester just as, in life, he had been looking out for the boy.  We also stopped by to see a memorial that was placed in a park to commemorate the centenary of the tragedy.

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After Matawan, we went slightly off-theme.  It would be entirely off-theme except that the location is on Raritan Bay and it was in that body of water that the alleged man-eater shark was caught.  I write alleged because we cannot know for sure that they captured the correct shark or indeed that only one shark was responsible for all of the attacks that happened over the course of those 12 days in July 1916.  Anyway, since we were in the vicinity, we thought we would go and check out the National Park at Sandy Hook to see if it was worth making that the focus of a day trip at some point in the future.  The answer is “Yes” so I won’t go into too much detail in this blog post since we plan to return and visit properly at some point.  I love lighthouses so it has one of those for me and it has Fort Hancock so has some military history for Mr Pict.  For the kids, it has wide open space for them to be feral and access to beaches.

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Back on topic, our next location was in Spring Lake.  This was where, on 6 July 1916, Charles Bruder was attacked.  The poor man was so severely injured that he died on the lifeboat as it made its way back to shore.  Bruder had been employed as a bellhop at the Essex & Sussex Hotel.  The building is still standing, though it is now a condominium block, so our 12 year old was able to see where Bruder lived and worked as well as the section of shoreline where the tragedy occurred.

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Our final location for the day was Beach Haven, on Long Beach Island.  We had been to Long Beach Island previously – and even found a dead shark on the beach – but that was before our son had researched the 1916 attacks and knew of its relevance.  Beach Haven was the site of the first attack, on 1 July, when a young man from Philadelphia named Charles Vansant was attacked.  His rescuers pulled him from the water and carried him into the hotel where he was a guest but tragically he died.  The Engleside Hotel was demolished in the 1940s but we could visit the place where it once stood as it became a Veterans Memorial Park.  We then headed down to the beach.  It being the conclusion of our trip and getting near the end of the day, we opted to spend some time relaxing and having fun there.  Amazingly  – given the theme of the day – the 12 year old with the mild phobia of water went swimming in the sea and had a wonderful time.

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Next time we go to the Shore, we will commit to doing what more regular folks do.

Virginia Battlefields

Mr Pict and I seem to have a bit of a tit-for-tat or quid pro quo thing going on when it comes to touring historic places: I get to visit a cemetery and he gets to tour a Civil War battlefield.  Having dragged everyone around Arlington National Cemetery the previous day – and two of the kids really were dragging their feet around there – the following day was dedicated to sites of Civil War battles.  While my blog post about the Cemetery was very probably too detailed, I will tell you in advance that my post about the battlefields is likely to be a bit threadbare and impressionistic because it really is not my area of expertise.

We started out our day at Fredericksburg, which I believe featured in a few cycles of warfare.  We watched an informative video presentation in the National Park office but apparently it all went in one ear and out the other because this is what I think I know about the action there*: by the Autumn of 1862, Lincoln needed a Union victory in order to bolster support for his administration so the pressure was on for Burnside and Hooker to take Richmond; the plan involved Burnside relocating his troops across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg; various bits of the plan went pear-shaped and the result was a Confederate victory.  In addition to the video, the building housed a small but effective museum.  I thought it was well-balanced in terms of its focus on the two sides of the conflict and in terms of its narrating of the experiences of combatants and the civilians.  I especially liked a wall of framed portraits on hinges that revealed information about the individuals portrayed when opened.  My youngest son, meanwhile, enjoyed the challenge of building a pontoon bridge.

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What the boys really enjoyed, however, was discovering a lizard inside a wee cranny and my youngest found an injured moth which he decided to adopt for the duration of our walk around the site.  He named the moth Stick and chose a suitable tree away from the car park to relocate it to.

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The area of battlefield preserved by the National Park Service is focused on a bloody scuffle called the Battle of Marye’s Heights.  This is an elevated area, a stone wall, and a sunken road.  I have the impression that every Civil War battle either involves a sunken road, a peach orchard, or a wheat field.  There were houses in this area so the civilian population had been forced to flee and leave their property to get hammered by weaponry.  While all that remains of most buildings is an outline of where they once stood, one building remained intact and in situ.  Peeking through the windows, we could see the pock-marks of bullets all over one wood panelled wall.

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The park area contained a statue to a young soldier named Richard Rowland Kirkland.  He was a Confederate sergeant positioned at the stone wall.  He grew perturbed by the groans and anguish of the suffering Union soldiers and his compassion moved him to minister to the wounded.  There was not a ceasefire while he did so so he was very much risking his own life and limb to bring water to these injured men who were his enemy.  Poor Richard was to be killed at Chickamauga at age 20.  His is a touching story and one that is probably embellished but I prefer to remember the humanity people can be capable of when immersed in the history of hatred, division and bloodshed.

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After a picnic lunch, we stopped off at Chancellorsville.  The visitor centre included a very good museum full of artefacts and information boards, lots packed into a small space.  For various reasons, I didn’t spend much time consuming the material but I did spend quite a bit of time in one room.  The centerpiece was a display case containing Confederate and Union uniforms and equipment but what really caught my attention was the surrounding walls.  They were covered in the names and, in some cases, photographic portraits of those who were killed in the battle – which, if memory serves, was the bloodiest except for Antietam.  Seeing all of those names was really quite arresting.  For my brain, numbers are a bit too abstract but to see those numbers as a visual was really evocative.  I was also struck by the mingling of names from both sides of the conflict. As someone with only a passing interest in the subject, I too often think of the Civil War in terms of the conflicting ideologies, the attitudes and decisions of the leadership of both sides, the dichotomy of “goodies and baddies”.  However, as soon as I am forced to remember the experiences of individuals, what I reflect on is that Confederate mothers keened and mourned for their sons as much as Union mothers did.

I had thought that Chancellorsville referred to a town of some description but learned at the visitor centre that it in fact refers to just a single dwelling house.  At the time of the battle, it was occupied by a woman surnamed Chancellor and her daughters.  They found themselves under siege in a burning house during the battle before being rescued and relocated out of harm’s way.  Again, we watched the video which was very informative and once again I almost instantly forgot much of the detail.  What I remember from the reenactment was a sense of complete chaos and scenes of fire raging through the woodland.  It was also the battle that inspired the novel ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.  It was also at Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was shot by friendly fire, which led to the amputation of his left arm, and ultimately to his death from pneumonia a week later.

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On the subject of Stonewall Jackson, he was the subject of our next quest.  As a fan of “Roadside America”, oddities, and the more obscure tourist attractions, this was the aspect of our day of battlefield touring that most interested me.  A short car journey deposited us at the end of the driveway that led to Ellwood Manor, a house dating from the late 18th Century that was requisitioned as a field hospital during the Civil War.  We were not there, however, to visit a historic building.  Nope.  Instead, we strolled right past the house and down a pretty little path that led to the family cemetery.  Buried in that cemetery was the subject of our quest: Stonewall Jackson’s left arm.  Jackson’s chaplain was the brother of the occupant of Ellwood Manor and, therefore, chose that spot as the final resting place of the General’s amputated limb.  It even has its own headstone, which is more than can be said of any of the entire people buried there.  We found ourselves at the grave of the majority of Stonewall Jackson in the summer of 2016 so it feels like some sort of achievement to have now visited his arm too.  I love all that peculiar and macabre stuff.

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We concluded our battlefield tour with what, to my untrained eye, was just a field.  Mr Pict tried to explain its significance to me – something about the site of Jackson’s final flank attack – but by that point anything he was saying about military strategy and battle action just sounded like the brassy “wah wah” sounds the teachers make in ‘Peanuts’.  I guess some things my brain just was not designed to absorb.  Mr Pict was happy, however, and that was the important thing.

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Then it was back to home base for a barbecue and s’mores for the boys, which is what they had been promised/bribed with, so they ended the day on a happy note too.

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*Feel absolutely free to correct me in the comments.