My Dad was a natural born story teller. He loved to spin a yarn. Two things were a given when you went to seek advice, go for dinner or just a visit, start a pot of coffee and get ready for the stories. My Father could find a way to weave his past experiences into your present dilemma with humor, clever meandering and a lot of parental gentleness. I learned how a clipboard and a checklist stroked the ego of a not so army, army subordinate. I remembered to look at the back end of the car before getting behind the wheel because he once thought he had run one of us over backing out of the driveway. The importance of honesty, from the time my father and my grandfather walked over four miles just to return the extra money the cashier had given him by mistake. With the dinner table as his stage, his hands emphasizing each nuance and his expressive huge brown eyes; my dad had a unique ability to connect me with the past, to my family and most importantly to the world around me.
A good writer can do that by transporting us back in time, exposing the human condition and trying to change the world around them; all with words. Melvile's Moby Dick can bring you so close to a whalers life that you can hear the deck creek. Shakespeare can illuminate the dangers of greed and power through Macbeth and Sinclair exposes the harsh existence of exploited immigrants in urban cities at the turn of the century in The Jungle. But in my opinion, it is Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain who seemed to do it the best. Whether its through such works as Innocents Abroad, Pudd'nhead Wilson, Roughing It or his masterpiece Huckleberry Finn; Twain becomes the "Great Numina" breathing life into each character's existence imbued with warmth, cynicism and his unmistakable rousing elan. Yes, I am a great admirer of Mark Twain's innumerable talent. So, when I had the chance to tour his house in Hartford Connecticut, visit the museum and spend three hours writing in his library; well lets just say I was "as happy as a dog with two tails" Mark Twain's The Adventures of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrasss
Chapter One: En Route
As I get older the prospect of driving on the highway is pretty daunting. I don't enjoy going 85mph squeezed between two huge trucks. I get particularly perturbed at the people who ride my bumper to get me to speed up. Heated, when they use the passing lane to not pass me. Miffed, when they decide to play frogger, weaving in between lanes just to get five feet ahead of me faster. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy driving but I like it better when no one else is on the road. With that said, eventually I made it into Hartford, where I took exit 46 Sisson Ave to the stop light and a right onto Farmington Ave. The Twain House and museum is a couple of blocks down on the right. The parking lot is large, very close to the site and most importantly free. I had a good two hours to kill before my tour so I decided to collect my prepaid tickets and tour the museum. I suggest reserving ahead of time there were several people ahead of me who were turned away because the tour slots was filled up.
Chapter Two: The Museum
The museum itself is a separate building in the back of Twain's house. I began wandering through and as expected there was a nicely stocked gift shop and a cute cafe serving drinks and treats. Past the gift shop at the Hartford Financial Services Theatre, I watched a very well done documentary of Mark Twain by Ken Burns. Across the way at the Aetna Gallery was the permanent exhibition of Twain's life and work. Through this gallery, I actually got to see The Paige Compositor Typesetting Machine (which nearly drove the Clemens family into ruin) his last pair of glasses, and as if by divine intervention, the title of this blog post. The words were still scribbled on an invention called the memory jogger ( a small tablet with paper attached) designed to jog the memory. Samuel Clemens was a big proponent of technology and among the items on display was the famous picture of Clemens with his buddy Nikola Tesla's oscillator and the only movie of Mark Twain shot by his good friend Thomas Edison. The upstairs housed the exhibit ,In their Father's Image: Suzy, Clara and Jean Clemens, a wonderful showcase chronicling the lives of his three daughters. I enjoyed this exhibit. It's rare that you can get such a thorough glimpse into their lives, mostly because their fathers fame seemed to overshadow their endeavors.
Chapter Three: The Photograph and a New Friend
I still had some time before my tour, so I walked the grounds and photographed. I met a woman named Yolanda who lives in the area and walks her dog regularly through the property. She asked me if I had seen any ghosts peeking out the windows, and during the course of the conversation mentioned SyFy Tv's Ghost Hunters had been to the Twain house. "They did find activity" she said with assurance. Interesting, I thought. Surely someone, who was that larger than life, must leave some kind of energy behind. Especially knowing how much he loved living in that house. Eventually, she got around to asking me for a copy of a picture of the Twain house. We exchanged email addresses and I sent her the copy of the photograph above
Chapter Four: The Tour and a Connection
My tour was the last scheduled. Just another woman and our enthusiastic tour guide. The house on the outside is impressive, but I was caught off guard as we walked through the front door and into the entrance hall. All marble floor, silver embossed wallpaper and deep rich wood; it nearly took my breath away. And as you looked up the grand staircase, three floors of unending ceiling enveloped in opulent Victorian-ness. In fact all throughout the bottom level whether it was the parlor, library or conservatory; no expense was spared. More so than the upper levels. This was what was called " keeping up appearances". I was informed by my tour guide that this was common practice in the Victorian Age. But it was the dining room that really connected with me. Magnificent, yes, but there was something more. I could see Twain holding court here, like my father, to dignitaries, famous friends and most importantly his family. The rest of the tour was just as impressive including his third floor man cave, The Billiard Room. Complete with an amazing billiard table, Texas deck, vaulted ceilings and his desk. I wondered how any work was completed especially knowing what an amazing billiards player he was and his great love of scotch whiskey.
Chapter Five: In the Library with the Laptop and a Mantelpiece
The whole tour lasted about forty minutes. Immediately after, I met up with the rest of the group who would be writing in the library. As we all settled into our chairs and pulled out our laptops the conservatory fountain's tranquil bubbling seemed to lull us into writing nirvana. I stared and marveled, numerous times, at the rooms enormous intricately cut oak mantelpiece purchased from Ayton Castle in Scotland. Through the libraries huge and numerous windows, I watched as dusk's fading light danced off the warm oak book cases, trim and the rich green gold embossed wallpaper. I had hoped I could channel the voice of the master as I wrote. Instead, I was caught off guard as to how completely silent a house like this could be, and marveled at how at peace I felt. When our time was up, we packed up our gear and turned to the front door. A bunch of rag tag writing disciples who had traveled across town, from the outlining cities or perhaps like me, from another state; all to worship in the temple of Twain.