Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Future and The Present

Greta is so excited for her birthday she can barely contain herself. She talks about her party. Who she is going to invite, what games they will play, what presents she would like. Every day she asks me multiple times when her birthday is.

It is in January.

Our conversations go like this:
Greta: How many days till my birthday?
Me: (rounding) Two hundred.
Greta: (disappointed) Awwww. How many months till my birthday?
Me: Seven
Greta: (perking up) Oooooooh! Seven!

So I decided to do something to bring home the message of just how far away her birthday is. We made a paper chain, one day for each day until her birthday. Each day she can tear off a loop and see how many links are left until her birthday. We numbered the days of each month so if Greta forgets a day it will be easy to catch up. Evelyn helped out by doing August.

Here it is. In her play silk and birthday chain she looks a bit like Lady Un-Liberty.

We draped it across her bedroom ceiling in arcs. It looks like a party in there. We left the June and July end hanging down to the floor, so she can tear off the days. After hanging it up we contemplated it.

Me: Each one of those links is a day. Is that a little or a lot of days?
Greta: A lot.

Maybe now, I think, we'll have some relief from the relentless pain of birthday longing. I wander away patting myself on the back. What an awesome visual representation of just how long it is until her birthday.

Two minutes later Greta taps my arm. I look down. She has a bag freshly wet with glitter glue and hearts.

"Can you put my birthday presents in here?"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reasons to Travel #1

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” - Mark Twain

Every now and again I make resolutions to keep my car clean or do the dishes right after dinner, or make the kids pick up right away when they are done playing.

And yet I am sure that when I look back twenty years from now I will not regret that I didn't do the dishes.

At home it can be hard to put away the laundry list of to do items.

On the road, the visual clamor of items needing your attention--the dishes, the faucet drip, the falling fences, the cobwebs, weeds, unpaid bills, unmade beds, the junk boxes and book stacks, the papers and puzzle pieces and game pieces and toy pieces that need sorting--is silenced, allowing you to turn your full attention to your children and see and hear them.

On the backdrop of a messy kitchen, of a sink overflowing with dishes, a child dripping sticky watermelon juice can seem like just one more mess to clean up.

On a backdrop of sand and waves and roseate spoonbills she is pure joy. And my life, instead of feeling cluttered, feels unbearably and delightfully full.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Immersion and Connection

Our trip is now water under the bridge.

We crossed a lot of bridges on our trip, both figurative and literal and we soaked up a lot of knowledge, sunshine and local color.

We were immersed in history, in the Atlantic ocean, in the Magothy river, in the kindness of friends, relatives and even strangers.

We made bridges between events in time, we connected with the living and with artifacts that the dead left behind. We certainly made a lot of connections among neurons in our brains. And we were immersed in each other's company and connected by our shared experiences.

Right now I plan to make such trips often. Once a year if I can.

Before the girls' childhoods are water under the bridge.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Month and A Day

To get a feeling for our trip over the last few days print out the pictures below. Don't look at them. Now go for a drive and hold them out the window and try to steal a glimpse at each one, while driving, before letting it slip from your fingers and blow away.

I want to hold on to all of them and can't. These last few days I fell into a trap I'd avoided the whole trip up to now. In a last ditch effort to see everything it seems like we saw nothing properly.

We are sorely afflicted, too, by a desire to go home (and by too much affected colonial speech).

And yet, every time I pass a brown park sign I feel a stab of pain at something we are missing. I pass by signs like that all the time at home but don't feel the urgency, because, hey, we live there.

Here I want to turn off and see that thing before we leave, who knows when to return. I actually did it today to see Walden Pond. But the parking lot was locked and the park service has put evil brown posts all along the road to prevent you from even pulling over to look. So I glimpsed flat water through branches at 40mph.

If anything this trip has given me a profound sense that time is short for the vast wealth of things there are to do and see in this world. I vow that when I am home I will not return to sluggish complacency. When I see them, I am going to turn off and follow where the park signs lead.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Once Upon Philadelphia

Our first day in Philadelphia did not wow the kids. We rolled in later than I had hoped, with not much of a plan. Everything was going to be closing soon.

So we did the closest thing: the Liberty Bell.

The kids were thrilled and moved by this symbol of freedom in America.
Mm hmm. Sure they were.

Being pesky little inquisitive things they kept asking why it was a symbol of liberty. The entire brand spanking new hall the bell is in is an elaborate self-justification, and yet even I came away thinking the bell story was cracked.

It was brought to Philadelphia in 1752 long before revolution was contemplated.

It is thought that it was rung (though no one knows for sure), along with all the other bells in Philadelphia, on July 8 when the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly.

Sure, it does say:
Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.

But really, its chief claim to being a symbol of liberty is that it has been used as a symbol of liberty. The only thing I like about the whole liberty bell thing is the crack.

The idea that freedom is fragile and we have to work to preserve it. The metaphor gets a little stretched here because really, wouldn't it have been better to just make the thing right in the first place?

Unimpressed, we hurried on to see Ben Franklin's house.
It is gone.

The white steel frame shows where the house stood.
Engraved stone circles mark his ice pit.
And privy pit.
Ok, I thought these were cool.

No one had complaints about dinner at City Tavern--one of those places where they serve you period food in period dress.
Ok, my mom was not thrilled with her pewter water cup.
But she was fine with her George Washington recipe porter.
Despite the good dinner, enthusiasm was low for our second day in Philadelphia. Clementine professed outright hatred for Philadelphia.

My mom had hopped a plane early in the morning so I'd be on my own with the dragging feet.
But there were too many things I wanted to see to cancel and go to the beach.

So we went. First stop, the Visitor's Center. You have to get there early to get tickets for Constitution Hall. We got there at 9:30am and got tickets for 1:30pm.

Then we dragged along to Ben Franklin's grave site. They were a bit interested in the graves.

Benjamin and Deborah Franklin's

As was I.
Imagine living to 74 and having 11 of your children die before you. That is a real nostalgia-for-colonial-days stopper.

But it was at Betsy Ross's house that the magic that brought the past to life really began.
Betsy was sitting out front, a stone's throw from her grave site. She was telling the kids about how she showed General Washington how easy it was to make the 5-pointed stars she thought would look good on the American flag. He'd had six-pointed stars in mind for the flag.

But with a few folds and one snip she made a perfect 5-pointed star.
Try it yourself. Betsy cut and handed out paper stars to all the children who wanted one. Greta wowed her with her Williamsburg curtsy and was rewarded with a small piece of Betsy's knitting that we hope to work into our quilt.

Inside Betsy's house we took the audio tour. Greta kept disappearing. I'd ask her to wait and she'd shout (because of the headphones), "But it told me to go down the stairs!"

Did you know Betsy Ross, when her upholstery business was suffering during the war, made musketballs in her basement?

But it was back out in the courtyard that we discovered something that would send us gleefully running back and forth across town all day.
A circular bench and this sign mark magic.
You just sit down and a fabulous actor tells you a story.
Don't get too comfortable because you'll be joining in.

You might steal stones from a construction site with Ben Franklin to construct a wharf at your favorite fishing pond.

Or you might be British navymen firing cannonballs at Captain Barry's ship (see the legs of his statue in the background). In that case you'll have to shout, "God save the king. KABOOM!"

Each kid gets a Betsy Ross flag. There are 13 story booths scattered around historic Philadelphia at various sights and monuments. After each story you get a foil star to put on your flag.
If you visit all 13 you get a free ice cream and carousel ride.
We only made it to ten.

But who cares? The real prize was the stories themselves, so well told, that instead of dragging feet, we had running feet all day.

They ran gleefully, knowing at the end there'd be a familiar circular bench waiting to rest on and a wonderful story to hear and participate in. These stories carried us to all the major sights and then helped us travel back in time to relive snippets of the lives of Patriots, Pirates, Heroes and Spies.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Valley Forge: Fragments

Valley Forge. Some things were supposed to come together here. We've been assembling fragments of history, fragments of the American Revolution, a sketch of the British occupation of Charleston, a glimpse of George Washington as farmer living and dying at Mount Vernon, artifacts at Yorktown. I am not sure why, but I thought Valley Forge, where Washington's army lived through its darkest hour, where 2000 men died of disease, cold, and starvation, where officers left because they could and soldiers stayed because they couldn't, would complete the puzzle somehow.

But on a glorious day it is hard to imagine the misery suffered by men in these cabins they built themselves. Washington offered a $12 prize to the team of twelve men in each regiment who first completed a well-constructed cabin.

There were more cannons.
And there were cousins. Cousins definitely raised the day above the run of the mill. It was great to see the girls share the knowledge with their cousins.

And have fun with their cousins. But the place was falling short of my expectations.
Until we arrived at General Washington's Headquarters.
This is the original building.
I was excited about the Commander's flag flying out front. We learned at Mt. Vernon that this was Washington's flag and it was flown when Washington was visiting a camp. Seeing it out front of the headquarters made me feel like I would find Washington inside and he would help us put it all together.

I did not find Washington in.
Instead we found a dig going on.

Clem is holding a pot shard still cold from more than 200 years in the ground. The last person to hold that pot was there in that winter of 1777-1778 when the British, happily occupying Philadelphia, thought the Continental Army could not hold out long.
Initially the archaeologists said that kids had to be 14 and older to participate in the dig. But we hung around and after a while the kids, with their enthusiasm and knowledge insinuated themselves into the groups surrounding four screens on saw horses. Each screen was for a marked off quadrant of the dig.

The kids pressed the dirt through the screen and when they found lumps they asked what each was. It wasn't long before they were identfying things themselves. I joined in late because I was taking photographs. I'd show them what I found and they'd say, "oh, that's just brick" or mortar or "klinker", a byproduct of smelting.
The kind archeologists put Greta in charge of saving earthworms.
I was so glad that my mom got to share this amazing experience. It was her last day with us.

Just like that our day was transformed from ho hum to highlight. And digging in the dirt, finding old nails and pot shards and pipe stems and glass, the broken remnants of the lives of Washington and his men, made me realize that I had been looking for the wrong thing.

History is not a puzzle to be assembled into one final picture, but a mosaic of unfixed fragments that we can arrange and rearrange and add to endlessly.