Christmas, 1997

Text by Michael Broschat, with Melissa Meier

[Edit 2014: This piece was written so soon after we'd found a place to live in Georgetown that we had very little time to occupy the space before setting out on the adventures detailed below. We would live together one more year—all of 1998, and although we finally did spend significant time in the DC area, we never stopped traveling around the East Coast region in which we then lived.]

It took a little while, but we finally had Christmas.

We’d driven here to this small suburb of Philadelphia (Aldan, near Swarthmore), after spending several hours at our home in DC. At least, we think that’s where it is.

The first days (when the rest of you were having Christmas), we did the usual (small) family things in this small suburb of Philadelphia. Then, it was time to go into the city to see the Robert Capa photography exhibit at the Philadedlphia Museum of Art. We trained in (it’s the most remarkable part of the East Coast life so far—these trains are everywhere) by walking a couple blocks to the station in this little town, and then riding the R3 into one of the three major train stations in Philadelphia (the wonderful film “Witness” of some ten years ago was filmed in part at the 30th St train station, the majority of the rest having been shot in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, of which more later). It was a rainy day, and while we weren’t alone, there was plenty of room on the streets for anyone else who might have been there.

Walking up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art is an experience that means something to the, apparently, millions of people who saw the first Rocky film. Rocky does part of his early morning training by running up and down those steps while the chorus sings a song that might be called “Getting Strong Now.” Certainly, that’s what the few people around us were singing as they walked up. Melissa couldn’t even walk—she had to run up. Not being from Philadelphia, I was able to do it the old fashioned way—slowly.

They had an exhibit of dresses we had to see first, as it turned out. Grace Kelly (from Philadelphia) and Princess Di were the featured departed stars. The Capa photographs were interesting, but mostly from an historical point of view. He died in Vietnam, before we got there. He was shooting the French presence. Some years before, he’d photographed in China, and that was interesting to me.

We rushed over to Wanamaker’s, a huge old downtown department store of the old (and dying or dead) variety, to see a holiday display of lights that meant a lot to Melissa as child. Although it wasn’t played just then, the store houses what I believe we’ve learned is the world’s largest organ. Ironically, it is played by the organist of a Longwood concert we saw a couple days later, that at another of the “world’s something” organs. More later.

After the concert, we killed some time in a Starbuck’s near the train station. A perfect day for a cup of coffee—cold, rainy, and so it was crowded. Too many people for the poor two employees. I wanted to say “Hey, I’m from Seattle, and I’ve seen this done a thousand times—I’ll help,” but I didn’t.

We trained “home” (getting to be “where we hang our hats”), and watched a Shirley Temple movie. I hearby proclaim a Shirley Temple revival. The only time I’d ever seen these films was as television “filler” in the old days when they didn’t seem to have enough to put on TV. “Bright Eyes” is a terrific Depression era film, where what was surely the cutest kid in the universe charmed not only the millions who watched these 1934-35 films, but also the super rich folks who populate the casts, and who dutifully learn that we poorer folks aren’t the animals we seem to them, but are people, too. Sort of.

Yesterday (Sunday), we set off for Longwood Gardens and other places, on a very cold day that had turned the moisture of the previous days into heavy frost and ice. By the time we got to the Gardens area, there was even a nice photogenic covering of snow most places. Cute, but not a hazard to traffic.

We first tried to visit one of the many duPont family sites-turned-into-museums. This was Hagley Hall, the site of the first duPont enterprise, a gunpowder factory build in 1802. The current hosts (duPonts?) are very proud of the place this site served in the industrial history of the US, and the museum complex requires nearly four hours on the part of the visitor. We had to postpone til a later day, but it looks well worth the visit.

By a navigational error, we traveled through areas of horse farms and other Wealthy Activities. Gorgeous scenery on a sunny cold winter morning. Next stop was the Brandywine Museum built for the Wyeth family. There is always a new or changed exhibit, and Melissa wanted to see the holiday train set. I liked the book illustrations of a Philadelphia artist named Charles Santore, whose original illustrations of a recent publication of Snow White were simply wonderful (although Melissa was bothered by more than one of them. I say—the wierder the better).

After lunch, we went on to Winterthur to finally see the holiday exhibits. We’d tried back at Thanksgiving, but couldn’t get in. Winterthur is another duPont home turned into museum. This duPont was a major collector of furniture and things, and his house was more than capable of storing, and now, showing all that stuff. They had decorated several of the rooms as they might have been at various times in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this part of the country, that can seem like yesterday. Certainly, the very, very modest house Melissa and I are living in (whenever we’re in DC) is older than many parts of the duPont mansion we visited.

As we’ve mentioned before in this travel journey, Winterthur serves as an institute of study for antiques, and their gift shop reflects this. I’m madly in love with at least two pieces there—modern woodworking in the old style. These copies(?) are $35,000 a piece, so we don’t want to know what the originals might cost (if available), but we don’t care. The new ones are as beautiful as anyone could ever want, and as so few people could ever afford. I got my Sauder equivalent for 100th of that price, and it’s even customized for computer usage! Of course, it’s made of pressed board, but there had to be some sacrifice.

Then, it was on to the event that always warms Melissa’s heart—a visit to Longwood Gardens. Do you know about this place? A couple of you have said you do, but because you lived in the area at some point in your lives. We spoke with an attendant about how well known the place is or isn’t, but he claims it has been his experience that many people know of it, even if they’ve not visited. In my experience, few have ever even heard of the place.

It’s the most amazing botanical site I can imagine. Like Winterthur, it has a research and development aspect, but to the public, it’s just an amazing place to see. At Christmas time, they decorate many of the trees with lights to create a truly astonishing nighttime sight. There’s also the magical fountain show to a Nutcracker theme that mirrors the July 4 display we saw a couple summers ago. The enclosed “greenhouses” (so big, ‘house’ is the operative word) have what appear to be acres of red and green plants, often tropical in nature (at one point, I saw a bunch of bananas growing over a display of orchids, behind which was a huge Christmas tree created from poinsettia plants.

Oh, I forgot the mushroom museum. Not a subject of the greatest interest to me (although I love mushroom soup), but the “museum” (a thinly disguised publicity stunt for the Phillips family mushroom factory) was interesting, if just to tell us about how much mushroom sales mean to Pennsylvania (it’s the major state selling mushrooms, if you didn’t know that already).

All in all a full day.

But, a visit to this area is never complete without a trip to the “Dutch” country. ‘Dutch’ is us common people’s understanding of their word ‘deutsch’, meaning “German”. We went up there for a couple of the stores (stores in Lancaster County are often run by Mennonites, whose women wear “old-fashioned” clothes). Amish folks, who are so visible, with their black clothes, beards, straw hats, and horse-drawn buggies, normally have little contact with “the English” (=us), and I’m not aware that they work in stores. They are, of course, the reason so many of us go there. A fascinating blend of different lives, and all in the setting of beautiful farms in rolling countryside. And today, it was all covered with a shallow blanket of snow.

Through now. We leave in the morning for DC, if we can remember how to get there.

Hope your Christmas went well...