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A Cutting

May 16, 2010

Avocado and corn

Today began in the town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where I stayed over for only one night and then left early this morning. I’d put Kennett Square on my list because it had been the home of Bayard Taylor, who’s credited with having written the first queer American novel, Joseph and His Friends, in 1870. I’d also come across the town on a list of great American small towns. Unfortunately, my late arrival yesterday kept me from doing any research about Taylor or discovering what makes the place so great, but my hosts in Arden (where I’d begun the day, and about which I’ll write when I’ve fully processed the experience, which was pretty incredible) had told me about a Mexican ice cream shop on the main street. Unbeknownst to me, Kennett Square is the Mushroom Capital of the World, and there’s a large Mexican population who work on the farms. My goal then became to find a burrito (which I did) and to eat Mexican ice cream. I had a scoop of avocado ice cream and a scoop of corn ice cream. So good.

On a back road on the way to Lancaster. I would love to know how this happened.

From Kennett Square I rode about 40 miles northwest to Lancaster, in Lancaster County, famed for its Amish population, but because it’s Sunday, I didn’t see a single cart on the roads, and all the roadside shops and stands were closed. It also meant the quilt museum I wanted to see in Intercourse—yes, Intercourse—was closed. I figure this is just the nature of the beast: The loose structure of this whole trip means I’ll miss out on some things. The ride, though, was mostly lovely. There were rolling farmlands, horses, a plethora of quaint churches (many of them Mennonite), and a couple grammatically incorrect religious signs telling me, for example, to Believe on Jesus. I encountered a couple guys out for a serious Sunday ride even though they’d competed in a Christian bike race just the day before. One of them offered me a place to stay, but I already had something arranged with a young couple in the town of Lancaster in their old brick house, once located on a farm but now located next to a hotdog factory. (The unlovely part of the day’s ride was the hills, but they’re just a fact of biking life and aren’t worth whining about too much.)

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold

One of the reasons I came to Lancaster was to see the home of artist Charles Demuth, another queer artistic figure and one whose paintings I’ve always loved. (For the record, his name is pronounced duh-MYOOTH, and not DEE-mith, as I’d always thought.) His well-known painting I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (from 1928) hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I’ve stood in front of it numerous times taking in its dizzying curves and sharp lines and the expression of affection it holds for his friend William Carlos Williams. Demuth grew up in Lancaster and died here, in 1935, and his home is open to the public as a museum. It’s closed on Mondays, so I made sure to get here early enough to drop off my things at my hosts’ home and get to it before it closed at four o’clock.

The Demuth home

My hosts fed me a fantastic meal and then shoved me off toward the museum, found on one of Lancaster’s main streets. It’s a small, nondescript whitish two-story house next to the tobacco shop that’s been continuously owned by the Demuths since the 1770s (and whose income allowed Charles to live the life of a dilettante). I pushed Gustav into the rear courtyard, where I found a sign on the entrance door telling me the museum was closed. For what reason I still don’t know.

This isn’t a tragedy, since I’ll be here until Tuesday morning, when it opens again (if it actually opens). But as I’m learning on this trip, sometimes the little snafus lead to greater things. Today, this greater thing took the form of Margaret, the elderly volunteer gardener attending to the roses in their beds in the rear courtyard of the Demuth House in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She had on a bright pink T-shirt, lavender fleece gardening gloves, a straw hat, and sunglasses, which I later saw hid large blue eyes with a touch of mascara. A dirt smudge spread across the bridge of her nose. After I asked her why the museum was closed (she wasn’t sure), she expressed sympathy that I’d come so far just to be thwarted and, to make up for it, took me across the street to a stone house from 1768 to show me something called an eavesdropper—a smiling face built into the underneath of the overhang, an uncommon adornment in this area. Back in the courtyard, she told me the story of the Demuth garden.

Part of the courtyard garden, with the old Demuth tobacco factory behind it.

Charles, the artist, died at age 51 from complications from diabetes, predeceasing his mother, Augusta, by several years.  When she passed away, the house was sold and became offices, and the little back courtyard with its brickwork and raised brick flowerbeds was paved over for a tiny parking lot. In the 1980s, the house came into the hands of those who wanted to preserve it and turn it into a public museum. They wanted to re-create the rear courtyard and hired a company to come in and remove the asphalt, which Margaret says they did by rolling it up, like a carpet. She also says there’s a picture in the archives that shows the new proprietors with a look of complete shock on their faces when they saw, upon the rolling back of the asphalt, that the original brick courtyard and the original flowerbeds had never been removed. They were still there underneath and wouldn’t at all have to be replaced.

The rugosa rose

Margaret also told me that when Charles returned from one of his trips to Paris, he brought with him a rose cutting for his mother—a white rugosa rose that she planted in the rose bed off to the side, across from the side courtyard door. When the building was sold after her death, a friend of Charles uprooted the plant (or perhaps just took a cutting; Margaret wasn’t sure) and planted it in his own garden. When the Demuth flowerbeds were restored in the ’80s, that plant was returned to the original spot that Augusta had chosen. I like this story—of renewal and return, of family affection. I also liked Margaret, and had the museum been open, I might not have even noticed (much less spoken to) the kind chatty lady digging in the dirt in her lavender gloves.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Cecilia Vore permalink
    May 17, 2010 6:30 pm

    You found the ice cream!

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