Friday, February 24, 2017

Asking a Slave at Mount Vernon

On Wednesday Jim and I ran off for the day to Mount Vernon. We're both stressing over the remodel, packing and managing the details of our overseas move so we thought we'd go see Mount Vernon on a very unseasonably warm February day on President George Washington's birthday.

Five million trillion estimates from contractors. Okay, so I'm exaggerating. It just feels like I've had every home contractor in DelMarVa traipsing through the house. Samples of shingles, paint shade chips and kitchen countertops are all starting to look the same now. How many different shades of gray paint are there?

Our visit to Mount Vernon wasn't a very relaxing or good experience for a couple of reasons. First, being that it was the only day of the year in which admission is waived it meant that the entire place was chockablock full of children. Lots and lots of big fundamentalist families, denim skirts, denim jumpers, pious public behaviors and a couple of attempts at witnessing to both Jim and I. Screaming shrieking young kids everywhere. By the time we'd been there just a few minutes I was ready to go home because I'd already had my toes run over a half dozen times by strollers, was bumped into, had kids peeking under the bathroom stall and shattered eardrums from the screaming.

I wasn't expecting that, and would not have come had I known it would be that busy with children. I have nothing against children or families, I just was already somewhat stressed by the move and the wrangling between Jim and I over what goes, what stays and what gets shipped. Constant discussions like him pleading that his Jimi Hendrix poster is an essential and my insisting that the dishes, pots and pans, drying rack and clothes pins are a more pressing need. I'd anticipated a mini vacation day, not landing in a place too loud to hear myself think filled to the brim like that.

Children should have the opportunity to explore these places, I have no problem with that. They belong at Mount Vernon too. It's important for their education, to develop a base of well rounded knowledge. I guess my problem is more with the parents than the children. Well, the two types of parents I encountered on Wednesday.  I just have a problem with those two types of parents there. The ones that let their children run wild with no attempt to make them behave and their polar opposite that hit their children to make them behave. In the first hour I witnessed no fewer than four kids get hit hard by parents, one a mother right in front of us on the house tour backhanded her 8 or 9 year old son for not paying attention to the math problem she was trying to get him to work as they waited in line.

Want to make my blood boil? Hit your child in front of me. I was hard pressed to say nothing. I didn't want to make a scene because I knew it would highly upset Jim. He hates it when I call someone out publicly like I might have done had I been alone. We did have an immediate and loud conversation on the wrongs of ever hitting your child, and he suggested we say something to the park rangers, pointing out the child beater and allow the law to deal with her. She got out of line and left us far behind after we started our discussion. We still reported it to the park ranger and pointed out the mother and son. Poor kid.

The other times it happened we were too far away to intervene or say anything. It's so awkward because if you say anything the parent almost always reacts badly. What is the best way to handle this? I've gotten in the habit of simply turning to law enforcement when I see it now.

The other fly in the ointment of the day was the second I stepped into the actual house of Mount Vernon I started, you guessed it, having an asthma attack. I don't know if it was the dust, and there were a few dusty areas, or if perhaps the house had been flooded and moldy at some point but as the tour went on I went from tight breathing, to putting on my filtration mask, to moderate wheezing right to rescue breathing and medicating like a crazed junkie. I ditched the house tour midway through, pushing my way through the crowd to get out.

Once I was outside in the fresh air next to the Potomac river I was much better. Better still once I got the portable nebulizer out and did a treatment. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the grounds of Mount Vernon, enjoying the gardens, visiting the tombs, the barnyard holding the sheep and some cattle. The grounds are incredibly beautiful, rambling off over many acres, which was good because the majority of the crowd and noise stuck near the house.

When we got to the sheep pen there was a lady in costume talking to the crowds and encouraging the children to pet the sheep. She was a middle aged African American lady dressed in the fashion of a house slave at Mount Vernon. I hung back and listened to her interactions with the kids and their families, thoroughly enjoying this, though not for the reasons you might suppose.

One of the web series I got the biggest laugh out of used to be the Ask A Slave series written and performed by another lady who'd held that exact same job position at Mount Vernon - Azie Dungey. She's now involved with Tina Fey and working on 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' - one of my favorite shows on Netflix.

The first time I saw the series I laughed out loud at the questions poor Lizzie Mae was having to answer, knowing that it's very likely at some point the actress was asked that same question by a clueless visitor to Mount Vernon. But I wasn't sure how much was exaggeration and how much was true, at least until I eavesdropped on Wednesday afternoon at the sheep pen. Here's some of the questions ADULTS, not children, asked.

  • Where did you get this beautiful dress?
  •  Did you make it yourself?
  • Oh, so you spun the cloth too?
  • Why didn't you spin your own cloth?
  • Are you happy to have homemade clothing or would you rather have store bought?
  • I know there had to be nice stores in D.C. you could have bought your dresses at.
  • Isn't George Washington a great master for allowing you to grow sheep, allowing you to keep the wool and get clothed for free from it?
  • Was George Washington mad when Abraham Lincoln freed you and the other slaves?
  • It must be a great honor to work with the Washingtons!
    ...and so on....
Knitter, please! I would expect ignorance in the questions from children, but not from supposedly educated adults. That question session made up for every moment of uncomfortable frightening asthma and the problems of overcrowding and avoiding the dreaded 'Come to Jesus'!

As we were leaving I spoke for a moment or two to the lady playing a slave. She told me that she had been working here back when Azie did. Of course I had to ask her what she thought of the web series and we shared a laugh or two.

I love to people watch because sometimes you get treated to the strangest things, like adults asking an actress that question about Lincoln freeing Washington's slaves. George was dead quite a long time before Lincoln ever took office.

Jim posed for a photo with the living history representative playing George Washington and I got some pretty spectacular shots of the eagles nesting along the banks of the Potomac.

I'll return to transcribing my notes on my Costa Rica trip in a few days. Right now I'm running on too little sleep and too many things to do. Anyone want to buy an antique piano? Readying it for sale, spent part of the day at a big antique dealers today making arrangements for them to take it on consignment.

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