History. We cannot understand present day unless and until we understand our history. How did we get to this place? What events brought us to this current time and way of life?
Well, the only way we’re truly going to know is to experience our past, whether that be through books, documentaries, museums or stories handed down from family members. At their worst, history lessons are taught as no more than a series of dates and events to be memorized. Is it any wonder students lose interest and find the subject completely boring? But a good history teacher brings the subject alive! I distinctly remember a scene in the movie “Teachers” in which an escaped mental patient played by Richard Mulligan walks into a high school history class by mistake. Everyone assumes he was the teacher and he shocks his students when he tells them to throw their history books out the window! Much to their surprise and delight, he brings history alive by dressing as historical figures and reenacting their stories. Turns out to be the best teacher in the school!
It’s really a shame history cannot always be taught that way. Via drama, reenactment, music (hmmm ... the uber popular Broadway play, Hamilton. comes to mind right about now), whatever it would take to enlighten and excite children to learn more! Sigh ... in a perfect world with a perfect educational system, I guess.
The next best thing is to personally do what our school system simply cannot. Make history come alive with your children and grandchildren by visiting historical places as much as you can. Or take them antique shopping, visit older family members, play games of yore, look through family photo albums, pass down heirlooms. There is any number of ways to get them interested in their own personal histories.
This summer I took our granddaughters Jain and Sofia to the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. They had seen a video of the mansion and were so excited to tour it. I made sure we arrived right when the gates opened. Indeed, we were the first car in the line to enter that day! We drove along the long, winding road through the estate’s vast forest. Sofia was in the middle of reading Serafina and the Black Cloak, a children's novel that takes place at Biltmore, so I wanted to give her the opportunity to view the grounds on which the children in the story roam.
We parked, boarded the shuttle bus and continued to the front of the estate grounds. Jain and Sofia's eyes were round as saucers when the mansion loomed before them. Hopping off the shuttle, our cell phones came out immediately to take pictures of the two giant lions guarding the front entrance, the many and varied gargoyles along the roof line, a large outdoor clock, and the huge arched doorways leading to the former stable area (now gift shops and eateries). The mansion wasn't ready to enter yet so we roamed around the outside of the still-closed gift shops. Peering in at the old-fashioned items in the toy store, I snapped a shot of the girls looking longingly at frilly, lace-adorned porcelain dolls. With a promise to come back to the gift shops we made our way to the front door of the mansion, me eagerly anticipating their first reaction at its magnificent interior.
They did not disappoint. Old souls, both of them, they oohed and aahed at nearly everything they saw. (These are two girls who love "Murdock Mysteries" and other turn-of-the-century -- 1880s, ‘90s and early 1900s — TV shows and movies.) The first part of the mansion's interior anyone sees on a tour is a round sunken area with myriad plants. It's a conservatory of sorts, for both plants and music, since musicians often perform there during tours. During the winter holidays it is festooned with Christmas trees and greenery. There were plants, but no choir, no musicians during the summer. Still, Jain remarked, "Can you imagine me playing my viola in there?" The dreamy look on her face made me wish like anything I could make her wish come true.
From there, we entered the large dining hall, replete with tapestries, an immense pipe organ and long dining table. Jain let out an audible sigh and said, "I want to live here!" To which I tenderly patted her on the shoulder and remarked, "You and a lot of other people, honey."
I have visited Biltmore three times now, but this time I saw the estate through children’s eyes and what a discovery it was! Sofia knew there were hidden doors leading to secret passageways in the Serafina book, so three sets of eyes set about scouring every room we were in to find at least one. Channeling my inner Nancy Drew, I spied one partially obscured by brocaded velvet drapery, and Sofia immediately asked if we could check it out. Alas, these rooms are roped off to preserve all the antique furniture and objects. Disappointed but not deterred, she eagerly ventured through the remaining rooms of the house, looking for a stuffed owl on a mantel that was also mentioned in the book. We discovered it in one of the rooms at the end of the tour, but I'm not divulging that location in case any of you decide to visit this palatial house. Far be it from us to spoil the surprise!
Every item, every piece of furniture, every tapestry and set of drapes, every photograph and painting was gazed at, admired, and touched when possible. Objects I would have normally passed right by were pointed out by one or both of the girls. How did I ever miss that old ornate elevator? Jain and Sofia hopped right in and much picture taking ensued! Old pianos and an oversized wooden music stand were also some of Jain's favorite items. Even the mansion's spiral staircase sparked the girls' imagination as they fancied themselves ladies of the manor descending the stairs to attend a ball or their own wedding (we videotaped their descent for posterity!).
The girls remarked how tiny the beds were, swooned over some of the ladies' bedrooms and sitting areas, and just about D-i-e-d with a capital D when they walked into the estate's immense library. All those books and not allowed to touch or read a single one. So totally unfair. I knew that would be their favorite room in the whole house and could not wait to see their reaction! Oh, if only they had been able to climb its spiral staircase, curl up on the couch by the fireplace and get lost in a book or take in a game of chess with its beautiful antique pieces. Total bliss!
Jain and Sofia did NOT want to leave that library, but on we went. I pointed out an old wooden wardrobe during our tour and asked them whether they thought it might take us through to Narnia! It was then I revealed to them their great-great-great grandma had a portable wardrobe in one of her bedrooms. It was just a closet to me as a kid, since I knew nothing of Narnia until I read C.S. Lewis's books in my 20s. I certainly loved spending magical times with my grandmothers and feel their love and influence around me as we provide our granddaughters with our own fun adventures!
Although there is no outdoor pool on the grounds, there is an indoor one in the mansion's basement, and Jain and Sofia both wished they could swim in it. The Vanderbilt children must have had a blast roaming the estate and its grounds. There are gigantic trees close to the house we all wished we could climb, and the estate is surrounded by a vast forest — purchased not only as grounds for the mansion but to preserve all the land around it. Some of the people and details in Serafina and the Black Cloak are real, among them Frederick Olmsted, who aided Mr. Vanderbilt in landscaping and designing the grounds. Thanks to Mr. Olmsted, this vast acreage will be preserved and protected forever as one of our national outdoor treasures. Go for a visit if you can with the children in your family. And be sure to see it through their eyes! History will be exciting as long as we make it so! Whatever adventures you have with your family, remember, as Grampy always says,