Last summer was a bit of a bust. Having had my heart smeared across the pavement like a downturned ice cream cone, I was in need of some restoration…and a new proverbial ice cream cone! That’s when I decided that it would be best to date myself for a while. I would not let a faithless boyfriend put a blight on my summer! Well, that was in theory. I was having a good old time getting glammed-up, and taking myself to gorgeous places, but my heart was still a bit mushy. In ice cream terms, it resembled the awful freezer-burned film on the top of the ice cream carton which not only tasted awful, but resided in the container as goo. Not wanting to subject my dear friends any longer to the taste of a spoiled attitude, I spent quite a lot of time on my own.
Katherine Livingston, Courtesy of Clermont State Historic Site
Despite my better instincts to live as a hermit for a while, friendships found me around every turn. I was a sticky mess that clung to the fingertips of friends old and new. While a steady trickle of camaraderie sustained me for a while, it was at the end of June that I experienced something which solidified my notion of people as thoughtful, unselfish beings. A small gesture of kindness which was the cherry on top of my friendship sundae. The moment occurred as I began my internship as a Curatorial Assistant at Clermont State Historic Site. I was tasked with accessioning a fantastic collection of clothing, jewelry, letters, photographs and ephemera from the Katherine Livingston Timpson Collection, and while rifling through fusty old documents, I was hardly prepared to find new kindred spirits.
Tortoise shell locket with hair, Courtesy of Clermont State Historic Site
One of the first people that I met when I began work at Clermont was an employee named Jen. She whisked me past her office desk, which was crowded by classical composer comics (she was a classically trained pianist. among other things), and took me upstairs to the space where I would be cataloging and conserving museum assets. One of the first objects which I had the pleasure of working with was a kimono, which Katherine Livingston purchased on a trip to Japan in 1890. The kimono was of a beautiful blue silk, with tiny pink abstracted designs.
“They look like a thousand tiny penises.” Jen remarked. This sparked an hour long conversation on fertility festivals, penis sizes and….my love of Franz Liszt. Well, my love of a famous portrait of Franz Liszt, painted by Henri Lehmann. Because my father was super strict, and would not let me date, or even think about boys until I was ready to join AARP, I had to find heartthrobs to ogle over where I could. I discovered the delicious old Franzy in my mom’s ten pound Compendium of Classic Art. As I thumbed through the pages of the book, my heart skipped a beat when I set eyes on Mr. Liszt. I was in love! Which proves rather definitely that two dimensional boyfriends are often better than the three dimensional variety. I made clear this point when I gave a detailed account of my break-up to Jen. She sympathized, and agreed.
After a long day of accessioning, I bid my new co-workers adieu, but before I left the park, I strolled around the gorgeous grounds and gardens of Clermont, and soaked in the classic Georgian architecture of the manor. The original Clermont had been burned to the ground by British troops in 1777. However, the scrappy Margaret Beekman (the mistress of the house) had Clermont rebuilt between 1779 and 1782. She wrote letter after letter to the Governor of New York, appealing to him to send militia exemptions her way to rebuild her home. Her persistence paid off, and Governor George Clinton complied to her request. Within a few years, the Georgian style house that I know and love today was completed.
The front entrance to the house is guarded by a pair of lion statues. Finding them to be of good company, I sat myself down between the two and looked out towards the Hudson River, set amongst the rolling Catskill Mountains. Views like this allow a person to muse and reflect. Did I need a partner to feel fulfilled? Can I truly date myself and not feel like a weird loser? Were the abstracted shapes on the nineteenth century kimono intentionally made to look like penises? As I reflected upon all of this, I was surprised to see my new friend Jen come around the corner of the house.
“Oh, good! You’re still here!” Jen beamed. She waved a piece of paper in her hand, and presented it to me. Expecting to see a print-out of some paperwork I had to complete, I was tickled to find a love note from Franz Liszt, instead. It was a simple message: “For Laura. Love, Franz Liszt.” But it is the simple message which leaves so much more room to read in between the lines. Either Liszt’s lyrical spirit had been transported over time and space to meet me in this moment, or I had just met a truly great friend in the present. Whether I had been affected by a spectral love maker, or a kindred spirit, that is yet to be determined. However, I am certain that I am loved, and that a lifetime of dates with myself will always be augmented by visits from dead composers, thoughtful friends and ice cream metaphors. I would have my ice cream and the cherry on top, thank you!