Saturday, July 28, 2018

Hanging Out With Mark Twain

Mark Twain House from the back (photo: M. Richmond)

It’s not often you get to soak up the atmosphere of a long-gone author and American legend but as I sit in the Mark Twain House in his library, surrounded by his personal objects, listening to the magical splash of the fountain in the adjoining conservatory, I feel as if he might walk into the room at any moment.

The library, perhaps the most appealing room in the mansion, boasts a large, carved mantelpiece, which he found in a Scottish castle and “simply had to have.” It bears a brass plaque, with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, etched into it: “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”

The stately library (photo: Mark Twain House)

The carefully arranged mementoes of his life are neatly placed around me and the bookcases overflowing with his personal books, ornate vases and sculptures interspersed throughout, only enhance the perception that he’s just a breath away.

On some evenings, writers are invited to spend three hours in Mark Twain’s library to hone their craft and this is one of those coveted occasions.

It’s hard to imagine that this former riverboat pilot ended up as one of America’s most revered authors and humorists. According to lore, he took his literary name from measuring the depth of the water while working on the river: “marking the twain.”

Today, Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) is synonymous with American literature.
He traveled throughout the world before choosing Nook Farm, in Hartford, CT (“The most beautiful place I’ve ever seen”) as the spot where he would build, in 1874, the estate which stands as an impressive - if slightly garish - memorial to his genius.

The conservatory from the outside (photo: M. Richmond)
The Hartford Daily Times predicted that, “The novelty displayed in the architecture of the building, the oddity of its internal arrangement, and the fame of its owner, will all conspire to make it a house of note for a long time tocome.”

But then, would you expect anything less from such an eccentric, unpredictable character?
The home was a very busy social center for Clemens, his wife, the former Olivia Langdon and their three daughters as they played host to some of the 19th century’s most glamorous personae.

Once inside the dimly lit passages, you’re transported to a kinder, gentler Victorian world full of frills and ornate extravagance.

I find myself gladly giving in to this gilded age, half expecting to see Sam frolicking in the conservatory with one of his girls riding on his back as they played in their “jungle.”

The conservatory (photo: Mark Twain House)
As night falls, I can almost hear the raucous laughter from the adjoining dining room, the table richly set with Olivia’s sterling flatware.

Apparently, Sam and Olivia entertained several times a week. They evidently believed in pampering overnight visitors as the guest room is comfortably furnished and includes a private bath (with tub) and dressing room. They purportedly had the first shower and telephone in Hartford.
The second floor houses the bedrooms and the schoolroom where the girls were tutored by their German governess. Their original cradle is on display, as are many period toys and artifacts, poignantly placed as if little hands will return to resume play.

The huge, ornately carved walnut bed on which rest four angels on each corner post, dominates the master bedroom. Thinking it was a 16th century masterpiece, Clemens paid $200 for it in Venice. The fact that he later found that he had been “ripped off” didn’t diminish its value in his eyes. He and Olivia slept in “the angel bed” their feet facing the headboard so that, “The headboard is the last thing I see before I go to sleep and the first thing I see when I awake.”

The angel bed (photo: Mark Twain House)
The man we know as Mark Twain died in that bed on April 21, 1910 in his subsequent home in Redding, CT.
His success was boundless during the 1880s but sadly, as the decade drew to a close, he encountered financial calamity which forced him to abandon his beloved Nook Farm in 1891 and move to Europe. In 1896, while the family was in England, their daughter Susy, who had returned to Hartford for a visit, died of meningitis in this house at the age of 24.
Clemens, who believed that, “The house had a heart, a soul and the eyes with which to see us,” couldn’t return after her death and the family never occupied the house again. It was sold in 1903.

Somehow, sitting here in the dimly lit library, I can’t help but feel that perhaps they’re all still here.
The Carriage House (photo: M. Richmond)

Monday, July 16, 2018

You Had Me at Strawberry Picking!

Searching for the perfect strawberries at Lyman Orchards

Not long ago my soon-to-be 15-yr-old grandson Mateo asked me two very touching questions in the span of a few days:
  • When can we go to Lyman Orchards to pick strawberries?
  • When can you and I go on a cruise again?

While these may seem like ordinary questions, anyone who has a grandchild knows that the fact that that a young man that age wants to do anything with his grandmother, is something not to be taken lightly!

Ever since Mateo was three years old, we've made our annual summer pilgrimage to Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, CT to pick strawberries and blueberries. We started out as a duet but as his enthusiasm grew with each year, my two daughters started joining us. Eventually, even the family Pug made the trip with us – although sweet Maggie’s presence eventually was frowned upon.

Picking blueberries with Auntie Kimberly long ago

The last couple of years, “life” happened and we didn’t do our trek to the bountiful, blooming hills of Central CT in search of our sweet fruit. 

I mistakenly assumed that Mateo had outgrown our yearly ritual and while it pained me, I didn’t want to mention it. Call it fear of rejection!

Taking a break with Mom a year later

He only had to ask once and we were on the road to the strawberry fields - along with his mother, newborn brother and extended family - within days. 

Request No. 2 did not fall on deaf ears, trust me! From the time Mateo was a year old, we’ve been on cruises, usually with the whole family. 

In 2012 I took him on DisneyCruise Lines' newly launched Fantasy, a wonderful experience, which neither one of us will ever forget. 
Getting ready to set sail on the Disney Fantasy in 2012

He was only 8-years-old and this was to be our first foray into the world without other family members – not even his mom. I have to admit to having some trepidation about turning him loose on such a large ship, but Disney fortunately equipped passengers with cell phones so that family members could keep track of each while on the cruise.

I clearly recall my near terror when he asked to join some other kids and go off on his own our last night on board. I tried to act cool as I sent him off – equipped with cell phone and the promise to “check in” regularly – to join his newly found friends.

True to his word, he returned at curfew and then asked for a late-night snack before turning in for the night. I mean, who could refuse such a sweet kid!

There's nothing like a midnight snack after a night out with the boys.

Other cruises have involved extended family members and have become a ritual we all looked forward to, although as Mateo reminded me, we haven't been on a cruise in "a very long time."

Bridge tours are a "must" on every cruise.
I feel as though the clock is ticking and if I wait too long, Mateo will move on to “other” interests and leave those lush strawberry fields behind, so I’d better plan a cruise ASAP.

Autumn, of course means apple-picking, so my fingers are crossed that this trend will continue. But for now, the fact that he still wants to spend time with me makes me one happy Mémère! I am blessed!

Mateo, on the left, now towers over his fellow berry pickers!