A Road Trip through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont

Linda and I have just returned from a two-week sojourn through New England with many memories, photos….and new books which will pose a bookshelf problem at home! Speaking of books and writers, we began our adventure at the Mark Twain house in Hartford, Connecticut.

 IMG_0850Mark Twain’s home in Hartford

Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, “Mark Twain,” built this beautiful home on the then-outskirts of Hartford in 1873 for Olivia, his wife of three years and their future family of three girls. Nothing was spared in its planning and construction thanks to Olivia’s family coal fortune and Twain’s bright prospects as a writer and speaker.

Alas, Mark Twain was as dismal at investing money as he was brilliant writing stories. Because of  terrible business decisions, Twain was forced into bankruptcy in the early 1890’s after writing such successful classics in his Hartford home as “Tom Sawyer,” and “Huckleberry Finn.” He embarked on an arduous, year-long, around-the-world lecture tour in 1895 with his wife and two daughters, Clara and Jean, in order to pay off his former creditors even though legally not responsible to do so after bankruptcy. In 1896, the eldest daughter, Suzy, who had remained home at Hartford, died of meningitis in that beautiful house. Twain and Olivia were devastated on receiving the news overseas. They were never to return to the beautiful house at Hartford after Suzy’s death; there were just too many beautiful memories of happier times, there.

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I purchased two books in the gift shop at Hartford, both centered on Mark Twain’s gift for peering into the heart of human nature….and subsequently laying it bare in prose via his pithy quotes and his stories.

The first book discusses his insights into human nature, and the second is a book of resulting quotes – for example:

“Such is the human race. Often it does seem such a pity that Noah didn’t miss the boat.”

“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

“Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anyone.”

“Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.”

“Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired.”

One must admire a man who has the courage to call it the way he sees it – even though his personal shortcomings may be the well-spring of his insight and wisdom.

That last one is my own little commentary on the marvel which is Mark Twain, a writer and a personality worth knowing. I look forward to reading more!

Norman Rockwell: The Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

Linda and I had rubbed elbows with the great artist/illustrator, Norman Rockwell, once before in Arlington, Vermont. That took place in 1992 when we visited New England and stayed at the stately farmhouse built in 1799 that was once his home. In fact, the bed-and-breakfast room that we occupied was Rockwell’s bedroom! It was a beautiful interlude for a few nights, compounded by the fact that we were the only guests! That left time for leisurely breakfasts and long conversation with the congenial couple who owned the place – in front of a crackling fire in the fireplace on crisp Vermont mornings.

It was at the small museum in town that we first saw original Rockwell illustrations, many of them famously familiar. It was there, too, that we learned that he painted from “live” models – often the local town-folk. The faces and the personas in the illustrations are unfailingly “dead ringers” for the folks he used – this, based on the photo evidence. From Arlington, Vermont, Rockwell moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1950’s, and it is there that a beautiful and fitting museum was built to permanently house many of his great works.

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Just beyond the museum, sits his gallery which was moved from downtown Stockbridge, where he lived, up the road a bit to its present spacious setting.

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I could not resist this original, authentic Saturday Evening Post magazine cover from Nov.8, 1930 which was offered in the gift shop for a reasonable price. It is one of my favorites of the many Post covers he did. It is called “The Voyager.”

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Shame on those who pigeon-holed Rockwell as merely an “illustrator” and not an artist! I am not an expert, but I recognize artistic brilliance when I see it. We all can. Has anyone better-captured the soul and spirit of his human subjects while telling their story than Rockwell? If so, I stand ready to listen and learn!

Who is Daniel Chester French?

If you said he sculpted the huge, seated Abraham Lincoln, the focal point of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, you have earned a gold star. If you also gave him credit for the beautiful, inspiring minuteman statue at the Concord, Massachusetts Old North Bridge, you should get three gold stars. We had the opportunity while at Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to visit his home and his studio – both situated on beautiful, spacious grounds and referred to as “Chesterwood.”

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The actual, reduced-size plaster model of the Lincoln Memorial

The technique used to transition from smaller plaster models to larger-than-life statuary is a fascinating process, and we had a chance to learn something about it at Chesterwood – well worth the visit!

Two Great B and B’s along the way!

The Inn at Mount Pleasant Farm near Litchfield, Connecticut was both relaxing and interesting. The vantage point overlooking an endless meadow and many trees was beautiful and the conversation with super-hosts Bob and Maggie was fun and  interesting. Bob took us through the original 150 year-old dairy barn which he, a retired developer/builder had to save from danger of collapse when they acquired the farm – interesting insights into preservation/restoration.

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Yes, we are having fun!

Brattleboro, Vermont and 40 Putney Road

Our last stay prior to heading south to Danbury Connecticut, near where we began our trip, was this elegant and delightful B and B run by the fun and efficient, Rhonda. Extra touches were abundant all around, evidence of Rhonda’s successful desire to be the perfect hostess.

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 Rhonda’s breakfasts served in the music conservatory were a treat!

 Visiting Tasha Tudor’s Homestead near Marlboro, Vermont

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My wife has long followed the life of departed author/illustrator/nature-lover, Tasha Tudor. Ms. Tudor lived by herself with her Corgi dogs in the deep woods of Vermont, choosing “the simple life” except for occasional outreaches to the most “civilized” world of book publishing.

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Eschewing all modern conveniences save a water closet and minimal electric lighting, Ms. Tudor lived off the land – going barefoot, chopping wood for her stove and fireplace, weaving on a loom, fashioning garden tools from tree branches, but always painting her story of Corgi Cottage and the simple life, there. Tasha Tudor came from an accomplished and privileged background, yet somewhere along the line – while still quite young – she eschewed that life for the “simpler” one she chose. Don’t look for directions or signposts on how to reach Corgi Cottage, there aren’t any – on purpose.

Tasha Tudor’s personal story is quite fascinating, so Linda made early arrangements for the very infrequent and limited tours of her cottage and natural gardens which are conducted by the immediate family. We had a fascinating look at a different lifestyle as we toured the very rustic premises on a drizzly morning.

Her son, Seth, who was on our tour, and the rest of the family face a daunting challenge in keeping Tasha Tudor’s legacy alive and well while doing the necessary things to fund the ongoing maintenance of the property. Tasha, herself, somehow managed the delicate balance of living an isolated life (except for certain family members) while creating a name and image in the wide-world of book publishing.

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 Tasha Tudor’s second book – 1942

 The Friends of Gladys Taber (FOGT) Annual Reunion

Our final stop before heading home was the Friends of Gladys Taber (FOGT) annual reunion held in Danbury, Connecticut. My post last week, A Father’s Day Surprise from Susan Branch, June 22, 2014, stemmed from that reunion which included a visit to Ms.Taber’s beloved Stillmeadow Cottage where she spent many of her happiest years. It was Susan Branch who, through her blog, introduced my wife to Gladys Taber and her wonderful commentaries on life and country living. Mrs. Susan Turnley edits the quarterly FOGT newsletter which every member receives and which features articles on Ms. Taber and current membership news.

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As is quite evident by now, our New England sojourn of two weeks could rightly be termed a “literary pilgrimage” of sorts, one which was inspired primarily by Linda’s interests in Tasha Tudor, Gladys Taber, and the scenic Connecticut route 7 which she had longed to see. Being interested in writers and immersed in writing, myself, I enthusiastically signed-on to the trip somewhat to Linda’s surprise and joy; I am glad I did. We both saw a lot, learned a lot, and will savor fine memories of people and places for a long time to come.

A Father’s Day Surprise from Susan Branch

Linda and I have just returned from a two-week vacation trip through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. We had numerous adventures, saw beautiful scenery, and met interesting people along the way. This past weekend, our trip was capped by a “Friends of Gladys Taber” conference at Danbury, Connecticut, in honor of Gladys Taber, longtime past resident in nearby Southbury and chronicler of life in the region during the thirties, forties, and fifties. The keynote speaker for the conference was Susan Branch, author, artist, blogger par-excellence, and devoted fan of the lifestyle and philosophies espoused by Ms.Taber.

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 Susan Branch signing her book for me

Linda was introduced to Gladys Taber by Susan Branch via her uniquely charming blog. Susan’s blog was initially recommended by Sally, one of Linda’s longtime friends and a kindred spirit.

As for me, I am a bit of a newbie to Gladys Taber and her story, but I have long-appreciated Susan Branch and what she does. Linda would occasionally call me away from my computer during the course of my own blogging activities to show me something on Susan’s latest blog post. Not infrequently, Linda’s call would be preceded by the sounds of great music wafting into my den – often the incomparable music of Frank Sinatra singing with the Tommy Dorsey band which Ms. Branch frequently adds to her charming visuals. Linda would call down the hall, “Come here, Alan. You are going to like this!”

I am a devoted fan of the big band era, and, in my opinion, the Sinatra/Dorsey collaboration in the 1940 time period produced some of the finest music…ever. After hearing many of my Sinatra/Dorsey favorites on Susan’s blog and learning that she is a huge Astaire and Rogers fan, as well, I recalled that most-expressive phrase from Anne of Green Gables – “kindred spirits.” I enjoy reading her unique and well-written blog posts to boot!

In this day and age, encountering someone who is both aware of and passionate about the marvelous entertainment legacies of both Sinatra/Dorsey and Astaire/Rogers is a very rare event. Fred Astaire? Probably the finest complete entertainer ever to come our way – he and, perhaps, Al Jolson. Nobody has ever done what Astaire did – and seemingly so effortlessly. Ginger Rogers? She did what he did, only backward and in high heels. As for Sinatra and Dorsey, I had a chance to briefly chat with Ms. Branch about that very subject at the conference and to verify what had been obvious about her love of their music.

 My Big Surprise

 After breakfast on Saturday morning, the large audience in the event-room at the Danbury Crown Plaza was eagerly anticipating the arrival of Susan Branch and her keynote address to the conference. The first thing Ms. Branch did upon taking the podium and thanking the assembly for their interest in Ms. Taber and their attendance was to produce a camera and take a three-shot panoramic record of the audience from her vantage point. That was quite cool…and unique.

Then, she asked the audience, “Are the parents of Ginny from California here in the audience?” Linda and I sat stunned for a moment before concluding that she MUST mean US! We raised our hands and with help from the assembled members, Susan located us toward the back of the room. She continued (paraphrased), “I have a message from Ginny: Happy Father’s Day, Dad!” The entire assembly applauded as my fallen-jaw joined forces with the rest of my face to produce a huge smile. Linda and I looked at each and laughed in amazement. How nice of Susan Branch to do that and how about that daughter of ours – Ginny, back home in California! How did she manage that?

To our great surprise, when we called Ginny from Connecticut later that day, she was almost as surprised as we were. It so happens that Ginny had commented on Susan’s blog post about her dad citing her “sweet tribute” to him. Ginny went on to merely mention that her dad (and mom) would be attending the Gladys Taber convention over the coming weekend.

Susan replied to Ginny that she would watch for us, there, venturing that we will love visiting Stillmeadow, the former home of Ms. Taber. The house tour was a scheduled conference activity for that Saturday afternoon. Fair to say that Susan Branch surprised us all with her thoughtfulness on Saturday morning!

When Linda first proposed our trip centered on this conference months ago, I probably surprised her somewhat by saying, “Sure, let’s go!” I appreciate thinkers/writers like Ms.Taber, and I decided to fully participate in this three-day event with Linda including the tour of Stillmeadow. When I heard that Susan Branch was the keynote speaker for the event, my decision was a no-brainer. I had long appreciated Ms. Branch and what she does. I had seen Linda’s signed copy of Susan’s book celebrating her twenty-fifth anniversary with husband Joe and their European trip. She is smart, she is savvy; first and foremost, it is obvious that she really cares about people and gives of herself in her blog, her books, and her public appearances.

It took hard work to build her unique niche and to earn her popular and well-deserved acclaim. Hers is a wonderful example of a success story anchored on true dedication to a cause and working hard/working smart. I like that.

Thank you, Susan, for making our Saturday morning at the “Friends of Gladys Taber” (FOGT) conference most memorable. I enjoy now having my own personalized copy of your book to remind me of the day; your keynote address was wonderful and wise – as expected.

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Next week’s post on Reason and Reflection will highlight our other adventures during the two weeks we spent in New England, including more on Gladys Taber. Linda has many of Ms. Taber’s books, but lacked a copy of Stillmeadow Sampler, shown above. She had hoped to pick up a copy at the silent book auctions held at the conference in Danbury. As I suspected, a nice copy would not likely surface, there, so, before we left on our trip, I found this fine copy on the internet. It was here when we arrived home, and I enjoyed Linda’s excitement when I gave it to her that evening. Pictured with it is the delightful account of Susan’s and Joe’s celebratory tour of the English countryside, A Fine Romance.

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 Linda and I at Gladys Tabers’ Stillmeadow home. It was all great!