Mark & Harriet & Clark & Us: Sibling Adventures

My brother has a knack for gardening, and I have a knack for letting plants die, and we found ourselves among flowers and history several times this summer so far.

Clark Botanic Gardens is small, yet easy to get lost in. Several times my brother mentioned how the map is not to scale. I did look at the map quite a bit, thinking maybe this would be the day I could understand spatial relationships, and then I gave up when I noticed something gross on my hand and used the map to wipe it off while doing what any normal adult would do—shouting, Ewww, grosssss, get it offffff.

Also gross was a dead bird we found on a pathway that my brother thought had been killed in a sacrificial ritual because it looked like it had no head. I suggested that animals could have eaten it, and he suggested that animals would not be so precise. Neither one of us got a real good look at it, so let’s call this debate a draw.

Other than gross, the gardens were pretty. There was an apiary (but I didn’t see any honey for purchase, which was a bummer). There was a gazebo. Then paths wound around paths, and we saw art and flowers. A man with a camera and a large beard who referred to himself as Santa Claus ran into us several times, and each time he pointed out the turtles. One time he shouted at us across a pond about the turtles. Sure enough, there were turtles we would have missed otherwise. We also saw a rabbit and monarch butterflies. We started to see the same plants over and again, we realized we made our way around several times, just in different ways. There was also art, and we all know how I love public art.

You know where else there are gardens? Connecticut. We drove out to the Mark Twain House where there is also the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, and Stowe kept pristine gardens.

Let’s take a side note here about how I have misconceptions about history while my brother is a history teacher. You may all recall the There Are Two Hoovers incident, which garnered a full on facepalm. This time around, I kind of eased my way into the misconception: I know that Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe are two people, but sometimes I think of Harriet Tubman when I hear Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even though Stowe wrote it, and also, Stowe was a white lady, and sometimes in my mind (like always up until I saw the Stowe house) she’s black.

Perhaps my brother is now beyond facepalming at my historical inaccuracies because there was no shout or self-flagellation that occurred. A bit of a head shake. Perhaps because I was already shaking my head in my own shame already.

Anyway, we started with Twain. There’s a building that serves as a museum to show a Ken Burns film and a panel exhibit of Twain. Something I re-learned: Samuel Clemens named himself after a nautical measurement. Something I learned for the first time: Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, was terrible at inventing things. He tried a printing press and a memory game among other things, and they were both not good and sent him into debt. It’s a good thing the world loved him because he went on a talking tour to earn money to support his family.

His house is large. He had several children, but still, large. It’s also very ornate, each room with wood carvings and stenciled wallpaper. He had fancy fireplaces installed throughout the house, too. He clearly built the house he dreamed of owning when he’d had very little growing up.

The tour guide knew a lot. We heard so many dates and facts. When someone asked a question, she always had an answer. That means, on top of knowing the script for the tour, she has additional knowledge rolling around in her Twain synapses. It’s impressive. It’s one thing to memorize a script, but to be able to also offer answers to questions you don’t know are coming is super neat.

Once we got back to the museum part, we finished watching the Ken Burns film we’d seen only part of and then headed to the Harriet Beecher Stowe House across the yard. It’s literally a few feet away. Once that tour started, we quickly learned that the Stowe family lived there first. Twain build that monstrous house in her backyard. They were all friendly, so it wasn’t a big deal, but still—that massive thing going up behind such a regular-sized house had to be a bit of a headache at times. Stowe was happy to have this smaller house; she, too, at one time had a massive house and decided it was too much.

Her house has many of her own paintings. It also has plants. It also has her paintings of plants. She was really talented. During this tour, a family of four joined us, and one of the daughters had completed a school project on Stowe, so she knew a bunch of stuff. The tour guide was very attentive towards her because of this, which was nice because it made the tour simple and a bit slower than that face-paced-facts-in-yo-face of Twain. Something I re-learned is that Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Something I learned for the first time—well, we already know but I’ll say it again—Stowe was a white lady.

Another side note: I mentioned this to my mom, and she said, You know what? I think I thought she was black, too. So there. We’re all not on top of our history at all times. Why do so many women have to be named Harriet? And by so many, I mean two. These two in particular. It’s very confusing.

One room that makes you go, Oh my, is the one with all the memorabilia about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the book was meant to rail against slavery and racism, it inspired plays and movies and adaptations and toys and knickknacks that were very racist. It reminded me of when we went to a museum that had a sign that there would be racist images in a particular exhibit, and we were like halfway through and were like, there’s no racist stuff her, and then we turned a corner and saw a huge propaganda poster that used the word Jappy, and we were like, oh, yes, there it is. What we’re learning is that a lot of history is racist. And also, the Hoover incident occurred during the same adventure.

At the end of this tour, we went into the small museum gift shop and wrote a note on a community paper about the experience. I wrote that it was inspiring. Stowe lived a long life of writing and art, so of course, that’s inspiring. Also inspiring are her gardens. The flowers are so vibrant, and they made me almost want to plant some of my own. Almost, but not quite. I’ll leave the pretty plants to my brother.

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