A Newport, RI Holiday

1.27.2023

On December 30th and 31st, our little family and my sister-in-law's family headed to Newport, RI, to see the beautiful Newport Mansions decked out for the holidays.   It was a short trip with just a one-night stay, but on Friday, we had a chance to see the Sparkling Lights at the Breakers, and on Saturday, we had a chance to do the popular Servant Life Tour at the Elms.  

For some quick background information, the Newport Mansions were once considered "summer cottages" that were built by wealthy business tycoons during the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age, which encompasses the years between the end of the Civil War in 1865 to 1900, was considered a time of extravagance for just a few businessmen who amassed their wealth during the Second Industrial Revolution. While the late 1800s was considered a time of invention (electricity, the incandescent light bulb, the telegraph/radio, and petroleum refining, to name a few), it was also considered a time when "the wealthiest one percent of American families controlled 51 percent of the nation's real and personal property" (P. Kiger "How Robber Barons Flaunted their Wealth during the Gilded Age")    The richest of these families were known as robber barons, a title they were given because they used unethical business practices, exploited workers, and created monopolies, all to accrue fortunes (worth in the billions today). Another interesting fact during these times is that the government had no ability to break up monopolies or even tax them!

To understand the lifestyle of these robber barons is to understand the extravagance that existed in Newport during this period. For one, this elite class didn't just compete in business; they also competed in terms of homes, decor, material possessions, and even social events. Although the Newport Mansions were only used as summer homes, their owners built them for lavish summer entertaining, which meant they needed to be big and furnished with Europe's finest luxury items. Silk, marble, gold, mosaics, paintings, tapestries, and jewels were all the norm. The wives of the robber barons changed their clothing five to six times a day as they freshened up for each social engagement, and they flaunted jewels along with their beautiful gowns--some coming from faraway places like Paris and London. Food, drink, and dancing was the norm, along with all-night costume parties with massive guest lists. To learn more about the opulence of this time, I highly recommend reading P. Kiger's full article here.

Going to see the Sparkling Lights at the Breakers was a fun family experience. While the adults had visited the Breakers Mansion before (many years ago), it was a new experience for Little Lewie and his four cousins. We first toured the inside, getting to see all the magnificent rooms decorated for the holidays. Then we followed a spiraling maze of colored lights around the grounds, which led us to a snack place where we could purchase hot chocolate, s'mores kits, and other goodies. The kids loved being able to toast their marshmallows while overlooking the grandeur of the mansion and the "sparkling lights" in the backdrop.  






While touring the mansion, the opulence of the Gilded Age was right in front of us. Being the "grandest" of all the Newport Mansions, the Breakers has 70 rooms and a 45-foot high Great Hall that sits on 13 acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, President and Chairman of the New York Central Railroad, had the house erected in 1895 as a "summer home," which boasts Italian Renaissance architecture complete with marble statues, fountains, high ceilings, ornate murals/paintings, and grand balconies. Here are just a few more photos, mostly with us, of the estate:






This bathroom is larger than our living room at home!






During our second and last day at Newport, we had lunch at the Red Parrot and then drove to the Elms for their popular Servant Life Tour. We thought the kiddos might enjoy seeing the secret living quarters of the servants, the passageways, and the coal cellar, while the adults might enjoy learning about how the servants worked behind the scenes in such a way that it seemed as if these mansions were run by magic.



The Elms, a French-style chateau, was another mansion erected to serve as a summer home--this time for the millionaire Edward Julius Berwind who founded the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company. Known as a coal baron, Berwind was "the world's largest individual owner of coal mining properties," and he worked with another business tycoon, J.P. Morgan, to expand his coal mining empire. Interestingly, he was "director of the International Mercantile Marine company, which owned the White Star Line and the RMS Titanic." He also controlled the steamship business in New York and Philadelphia, where he was the sole coal supplier to run the ships. (During the tour, we learned that Berwind had a passion for technology and engineering, which resulted in the Elms being one of the very first homes in America to be wired for electricity. He also had an electric icemaker!)

The Servant Life Tour focused on the "hidden" parts of this mansion, which included the servant quarters, the laundry rooms, the boiler rooms, the basement kitchens, and the coal cellar. As expected, the glitz and glamour were reserved for the main parts of the mansion, so the other parts, away from the public eye, were modest at best.   


For example, when looking at the Elms, it appears as if there are only two floors, but few people know the fancy part at the top (without the windows) is actually a third floor where the servants slept. They did have access to the rooftop for sunlight and fresh air, but they were very much hidden from view. Here is what the third floor looks like on the inside:


Surprisingly, the rooms were quite large, and Mr. Berwind tried to add some extra comforts for the servants in order to tempt them to stay employed with him. Still, when they signed up to work at the Elms, they were committing to working 16-hour days with only one day off per week. They also were not allowed to be married or have families. Many of his servants were immigrants from Ireland; however, he did hire some "professional servants," such as the butler and the cook, who received higher wages.

The tour provided a wealth of information, complete with original photos and documents of some of Mr. Berwind's staff. As expected, the life of the servants was hard; however, I never knew that the noble women of the house changed outfits about five times per day and that the sheets to all the beds in the house had to be laundered and ironed twice per day (even if they were not used). It felt like the servants often had to do work for work's sake, and I wondered if they ever grumbled among themselves as to why they had to put in all the extra effort for seemingly no reason at all.  

The tour ended with a visit to the basement. In the winter, the mansion was heated using coal, and they brought us to the coal cellar, which had a distinctive tunnel. (Evidently, Mr. Berwind had the coal unloaded blocks away, so the tunnel could be used to bring it to the mansion discreetly.)



Overall, our Newport, R.I. trip was a beautiful and interesting experience of a dark past, for underneath the glitz and glamour of the Gilded Age was a culture of incessant superficiality, materialism, gluttony, and snobbery.  Robber barons made money from unethical practices, often resulting in a number of human rights abuses and environmental attrocities. They stepped on the toes of others only so they could live a life of excess and brag about their immense fortunes.  

Now, of course, thanks to the Newport Historical Society, the mansions have been preserved and become houses of "the people."  They're used for community events (like high school dances), for large events like the Newport Flower Show or the Sparkling Lights at the Breakers, and for educational tours and lectures. As we visited the two mansions, we couldn't help but notice the tremendous amount of upkeep they require.  We all had some minor allergy symptoms from the unavoidable dust and mold!

At the end of the trip, I felt like we had our own small fortune to brag about and that was our family. Lewie was awe struck by the mansions but said the best part of our one-night adventure was spending time with his cousins.  I couldn't agree more. The kiddos were so well behaved, and I had no idea, the youngest, Lilly, is a little historian in the making. I LOVED watching her marvel at old photos, documents, and all the rooms in the houses. (She literally beamed with excitement throughout the entire two-hour servant tour!)  "That's so cool," she repeated over and over again.  As I watched the expressions of the kids, each with their own cell phones or parents' cell phones taking pictures, I couldn't help but think in my head, "yea, this is pretty cool, indeed."

Happy 2023 - A New, 365 Day Journey in Love

1.02.2023

I'm a day late writing about the New Year--for this, the critical voice of self-judgement is brimming in my head, but I won't release that negative thought.  Not today.  Not this year.  (I hope.)

Credit

I'm starting 2023 in a slightly awkward place.  My job was eliminated back in October, and I left feeling unappreciated for my 21 years of service.  Still, my heart jumps back and forth from aching to rejoicing. I knew for some time, I wasn't passionate about my work anymore.  I cared about many of the friends I made there, but the leadership was toxic--making callous decisions for their own self-preservation.

It was hard to leave, but I knew my exit would provide a new personal freedom--a freedom to start over again--a freedom to even recreate myself.  But, as I write this, my indecisive nature keeps me stifled.  "Who do I want to be?" I hear my subconscious voice ask my heart hundreds of times each day.  I read through lists of job openings, and I waffle. Do I want to work here?  What will the commute be like?  Will the pay be decent? Will I have a work-life balance?  Will the job feel rewarding?  Fear takes over until I remember that I've been craving a new beginning.  So, I am exactly where I need to be...

                                          *                         *                         *

2022 was an interesting year.  My sister-in-law was living with us for the first six months until she could find an affordable apartment.  My husband was taking her back and forth for chemo treatments while I was doing my best to help uplift her spirits and get her settled into a new place.  My son couldn't have friends over the house during this time, so we made up for it by taking the boys to the movies, snow tubing, rollerskating, and bowling.  Big Lew, Little Lewie, and I also had a chance to see Jim Gaffigan live at Foxwoods, which would be Lewie's first experience watching a standup comedian live. 

We all came down with COVID in May, which was quite a scare, but thanks to the vaccines and new medications on the market, we survived it without any complications. Still, I continue to have "brain fog" and wonder if it's from long COVID.

In June, we took a trip of a lifetime to see the Mighty Five National Parks in Utah.  I haven't begun to write about our full experience yet, but I have a folder on my desk with all the brochures, so I don't leave out any details. Highlights of the trip included hiking to the Delicate Arch, sleeping in a Tee-pee, learning how to "canyoneer," and winding our way around hoodoos and slot canyons.  It was the perfect distraction from my unfulfilling work life and my strange, public home life, where my sister-in-law was around 24/7 to see my every move.

In July, we helped my sister-in-law move out, and Lewie resumed his friend sleepovers.  They watched outside movies, swam at night, and ate breakfasts from Dunkin Donuts in the morning.  We also took them to Lake Compounce Amusement Park, Sand Jam Movie Night at Penfield Beach, and boat tubing on Lake Gardner.  It was an active summer, to say the least, which included tons of friend and family pool parties, too.

In September, the winds of change fell upon us.  My work colleagues and I learned that the college we worked for was "millions" of dollars in debt, and there would be layoffs, cancelled classes, and wage freezes.  Students would suffer the most because there would be less resources, activities, and classes to choose from all while their tuition increased.  I felt strangely uneasy and decided, rather than worry, to start reading the book I purchased this summer--Gabby Bernstein's The Universe Has Your Back(I had a chance to hear her speak at the Cornwall Library earlier this summer under a garden tent surrounded by lush greenery and cows--it was lovely!!)  Her words struck me, "To truly say yes to the love of the Universe means you have to look at your resistance and give up a thought system that you mistakenly identified as safety, security, and the foundation of your life."  In other words, I needed to release fear and control and say yes to love.  As I read further, it became abundantly clear that to say "yes" to a happy life, I needed to leave my job.  Then, one week before my October 3rd birthday, a mini-miracle happened.  The college did it for me.

I wish I could say I spent the last three months of my unemployment happily meditating and waiting for the perfect opportunity, but fear, as usual, reared its monstrous head from time to time.  In October, I had two promising job interviews for a college I liked, but when an internal candidate was selected over me, fear and self-doubt took over AGAIN.  Then I sent out more applications, resumes, and cover letters with no response.  This only heightened the worry.

                                          *                         *                         *

Today is the start of a new 365-day slate to begin again (364 days since I am writing on January 2nd).  I am still organizing my house, sending out job applications, and very deliberately reading through Gabby Bernstein's book, not wanting to rush the process of learning how to be "fully committed to love each day."  I believe in synchronicity and know I am purposefully being led down this path of self-discovery.  Now is my chance to break the cycle of fear and to embrace love, laughter, forgiveness, and understanding.  I know there is a plan, so for now, I am going to be patient, loving, and kind.  I am going to meditate, spend quality time with loved ones, and practice self-care.  I know fear isn't working for me, so I will LOVE with my thoughts, actions, and words this year...for my heart and head both know there really is a lot to LOVE and celebrate.

Words from one of my all-time favorite authors and role models. 
Credit 

Wishes for an 80s Christmas!

12.28.2022

My husband and I are both children of the 80s.  We have slightly different memories of the decade since he is five years older than me, but nonetheless, we find ourselves reminiscing about everything from music, movies, fashion, and toys to even commercials--(Where's the beef?!)  For the longest, Little Lewie has been bored with our "tales" of wearing parachute pants (or a pleather skirt with feather earrings) to school, our addiction to MTV music videos, or our Christmas wishlist of toys like Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbie Corvettes, Atari, and boomboxes.  We've also made him suffer through songs by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Boy George, Journey, The Police, Van Halen, Twisted Sister, and Tom Petty, to name a few.  

Then, Stranger Things came out, and the 80s became cool again.  All of a sudden, Little Lewie didn't roll his eyes when I told him I used to rollerskate to the "Ghostbusters" theme song, or Daddy spent countless hours as a teenager learning how to play songs from Metallica's Master of Puppets album.  In other words, Hubby and I became downright "rad," "gnarly," "totally tubular," and "wicked awesome!"

I know fads don't last long, so I decided it would be fun to buy 80s Halloween costumes this year to celebrate the return of our favorite decade.  Lewie liked his 80s jumpsuit but was too embarrassed to actually wear it on Halloween--ahh teenagers!  Still, I did make him promise to wear it for this year's JC Penny's photoshoot.  (We've been going there for Christmas portraits since 2017...)







For the last photo, the photographer thought it'd be fun to have the boys actually pick me up! 
That was a little nerve-wracking.

In all, we had a blast getting dressed for the pictures and hope we managed to capture people's nostalgia for the 80s.  (I wish I still owned a hair crimper!)  I still plan on putting my neon blue tights and fanny pack to good use. ;-)

Wishing everyone a "totally righteous" holiday and an "amped" 2023!!

Lewie Receives the CAPSS Award!

12.18.2022

There are some moments in life when we are pleasantly surprised by something out of the ordinary...something completely unexpected and unknown.  For us, this happened to my husband and me when, out of the blue, Lewie's middle school principal called to tell us that Lewie received the Connecticut Association of Publis Schools Superintendents (CAPSS) Leadership Award!

In typical fashion, I missed the phone call, but my husband spoke to the principal and then called me immediately afterward.  "Guess what?" he asked excitedly, "I just got off the phone with Lewie's school principal."

At that moment, I wanted to be excited, but instead, I was worried.  "Oh no, what happened now?" I asked.  You see, this wasn't the first time the school principal called us.  Six months earlier, Lewie was holding the door for a group of students when he accidentally hit the school's fire alarm.  (I KNOW.  If you're thinking, how can that possibly happen, I thought the same thing.)  The alarm resulted in a fire drill with the volunteer fire department coming out.  Poor Lewie was mortified, and his principal called us to let us know about "the incident."  Lewie, of course, wasn't in trouble, but his principal wanted us to know that he gave Lewie some time in his office and the school media center to decompress as he was obviously very upset.

My husband chuckled at my worry.  "Oh no, it's not that.  It's something good.  Lewie received a leadership award at school, and we've been asked to attend an award banquet on December 12th at the Grassy Hill Country Club!"

I had a whole bunch of questions that my husband couldn't answer, but the principal's voicemail on my phone answered them.  Evidently, the CAPSS Award is given to two students from high school and two eighth graders from middle school each year.  In Lewie's case, his eighth-grade teachers voted for him to receive the honor because of being kind, hardworking, and an upstanding role model at school.  His "biography" in the program read, "Lewis is a very positive and genuine student who elevates anyone who sits around him. He always comes to school ready and willing to do his very best.  His behavior, academics, and social abilities are unquestioned." It ends with a list of his extracurricular activities, including his skills in programming, 3D art, graphic design, music, computer technology, and multimedia presentations.



The award ceremony itself couldn't have been more special. Lewie was honored with three other students from our region and 16 other students from other school districts.  The audience was comprised of these fine young students, their parents, their principals, their superintendents, and some of their teachers.  I could see that everyone was genuinely happy to be there to support the students, and their support was out of love and not out of obligation.


Another reason why the ceremony was special is because the other 8th-grade student to receive the award from our school district was Nora, Lewie's friend's sister!  The dinner conversation flowed easily because we already knew Nora's parents (having had their son over our house multiple times for pool parties, sleepovers, amusement park visits, and rollerskating outings).

At the end of the night, we took some final pictures in the foyer, which was festively decorated for the holidays.  Lewie hadn't been to a banquet hall since he was six-years-old (for his aunt's wedding)--an experience he hardly remembers.  Thus, for him, this award ceremony felt like his first formal banquet, and he admitted that it was actually fun to dress up for such a "fancy event."


Daddy Lew, Lewie, and I left the country club grinning ear-to-ear.  It was one of those magical moments we couldn't have ever anticipated--Lewie receiving an award just for being authentically Lewie.  What an honor to be his mom!

Best Vacation Ever - Our Beautiful Excursion through Southern Utah

12.11.2022

In June of this year, our family had an AMAZING opportunity to visit Southern Utah! Prior to planning our trip, I visited websites like Trip Advisor and Viator and read family blogs, similar to this one, that posted information about Utah's Mighty Five.  Since we live more than 2,200 miles away in Connecticut, I knew this trip would be a "once in a lifetime" experience, so I wanted to make sure we made the most of it--and make the most of it, we did!


The first decision I made was to have us fly into the St. George Regional Airport, located in the southwest corner of Utah, and drive 5+ hours across the state to Moab.  If our goal was to see the Mighty Five in a week (we had exactly seven days), I wanted to start at the far left side of the state and work our way back to the airport for takeoff on the final day.  Thus, we stayed at four different resorts (Moab Springs Ranch, Capitol Reef Resort, Yonder Escalante, and Cable Mountain Lodge), as we inched our way back to St. George.
 

As one can imagine, going from one resort to the other for only a day or two at a time was a little exhausting.  For one, we never fully "unpacked" because we knew we'd be repacking the very next day.  Often, we lived out of the trunk of our rental car!  Still, I wouldn't have changed a thing.  Going to the four different resorts felt very much like four different trips--each with its own unique environment and traditions.  Hubby and Little Lewie very much balked at the idea of staying at four places in the beginning, but after the trip, they couldn't thank me enough for each of the experiences.  We loved them all!  

To avoid discussing too many details about our trip all at once, my plan is to write four posts for each of the places we stayed.  Hint--they include hiking and UTV adventures, teepee glamping, star gazing, canyoneering, a drive-in movie theater, and a few talks about geology.  Since Earth has been around for approximately 4.5 billion years, there is quite some history found in each of these National Parks.  Oh, if only the mountains could talk!

If you've ever been fascinated by rock layers, Outerspace, and the vast expanses of mountains and canyons--then the Mighty Five is definitely for you.  Out of all of my National Park trips so far, never did I feel so small and inconsequential while also feeling so spiritual and close to God.

October Recap

11.07.2022

October flew by in an instant, and yet, it was probably one of the most jam-packed months we had in a while.  It was a month of the highest of highs and the lowest of lows with feelings of love, appreciation, anger, sadness, and nervous anxiety sprinked throughout.

October 3 - My birthday.  My mom, Daddy Lew, and Little Lewie surprise me with a small celebration at home. There is some stress, however, because my place of work (my place of work for 21 years) decides to demote me.  I can either accept the demotion or get laid-off.  My choice--to get laid off.  I know in my heart I cannot be my best when I feel totally deflated and unappreciated.  October 4, 2022 ends up being my last day.  I choose to let love steer me forward.

October 11 & 22 - I get a chance to spend some quality time with my mom--first at Mystic Seaport and then at Angevine Farm in Warren, CT.  We shopped until we dropped at Mystic, getting a chance to go into so many cool and unusual gift shops.  We ended our afternoon with a classic seafood dinner so typical of a New England seaport village.  At Angevine Farm, my mom and I had a chance to go into their small gift shop and pick out a few fall treats while taking in the gorgeous autumn scenery; our dog Bruce came for the ride, too.









October 15 - Little Lewie helps his good friend with her Gold Award presentation.  For anyone who is unfamiliar, the Gold Award is the highest achievement within Girl Scouts (similar to being an Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts).  Girl Scouts who receive this honor must research an issue (local or global) they care deeply about and create "an actionable plan" to bring awareness to the issue "with measurable, sustainable, and far-reaching results." 

Lewie helped serve as "film and video editor" for the video part of her presentation.  (He worked with her through Sept. and part of Oct. to put it together.)  On the 15th, we came to support her "in-person" presentation, which was wonderfully received by her church community.  We were so proud and inspired by her passion and hard work!





October 18 - Daddy Lew, Lewie, and I attend our cousin Sarah's big Senior Night for her Ladies' Swim Team award.  We are amazed at watching her compete and are especially emotional to hear all the wonderful things her fellow swimmate (is that a thing?) has to say about her. Sarah's moment ends when she jumps into the pool to swim her very last lap to a song of her choice; her parents greet her at the other end of the pool.  The night, truly, was very memorable and special for all 10 ladies that were honored.  I asked Lewie if he'd ever be interested in joining the swim team in high school next year.  His answer: "Nope."






October 20 - Little Lewie and I have an outing with his best friend Ryan and his mom to see Beyond Van Gogh--an immersive "museum-type" experience, which brings all of Vincent Van Gogh's artwork to life. The attraction begins with a colorful maze, which showcases his personal quotes and informational tidbits about his life.  It ended, however, in a huge 30,000-square-foot space, where his drawings and paintings danced and swirled all around us, making us feel as if we were part of the art itself.  (There were a few moments during the 'immersive experience' where the artwork, quotes, and music brought me to tears.)  My friend and I left feeling inspired while our two boys sort of shrugged and said, "Yea, I guess it was pretty cool."  Oh, let the teenage enthusiasm begin!









October 25 - I interview for the first time in many, many years for a Campus Dean of Students and Faculty position.  The interview is with five other folks on Zoom, and I'm happy to report that I made it to another round.  The group gave me a warm feeling about the college and their commitment to students.

October 21 & 28 - Daddy Lew and I take Lewie and his three friends to Phantom Fall Fest at Lake Compounce and then a Haunted Hayride sponsored by the local Lions Club in Woodbury.  On the 28th, the boys sleep over, and I take them on a hike before I return them safely home to their parents.  The boys had a great time--so evident that they are at an age where they crave "in-person" interaction over just texting and talking to each other through Xbox.





October 7, 13, 22 & 29 - I get a chance to go for a walk, a lunch date, and have two "witch-themed" evenings with some of my lady friends from work and home.  All four days were wonderful reminders of the great friendships and support I have all around me.


October 31 - Halloween.  Lewie decides to go trick-or-treating last minute with a good friend from "the past."  It is the first time that we are not all dressing up and going out as a family.  I am bummed but understand that Lewie is entering a new phase of his life where it's all about his friends... Daddy Lew and I use the time to watch some scary shows together at home.

Yes, October was a SCARY month--in more ways than one.  Still, in between the "fog" of uncertainty, I was reminded about this wonderful light and love that surrounds me each and every day.  I must trust there is a plan for the next chapter--no tricks, though, just treats!