Over the years, I have convinced myself that I am the absolute best and worst person to bring along on a museum trip. Every place I go, all I can do is act like a tour guide, especially in the Egyptian department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I visit every year, much to the annoyance of my companions I’m sure. I did not, however, have the time to be so when I visited Charlottesville, Virginia this year, as I was too much in awe that I was actually in Virginia in the first place.
I live in a small town of only one square mile across the bay from New York City. You can literally see the city lights from my building at night. As such I have rarely had the pleasure of traveling outside the state of New Jersey, (aside from a brief visitation to Philadelphia for the Tutankhamun exhibition in 2007, but that’s a story for another time). So you can only imagine my excitement when my mother agreed to accompany me on a six hour road trip south to Virginia for a three day stay.
Virginia has a very homey feel to it, at least where I visited. Growing up in a house that the woods practically ate, I loved the country feel of the mountains. I was practically jumping up and down like a bunny on crack when we got to our hotel, which was quite close in proximity to our ultimate destination: Monticello.
I have always had a strong attachment to the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson in particular is one of my idols. For some time, I had wanted to visit this great man’s estate, and now I had my chance. Our tickets were booked and our tour was awaiting. I think I barely slept that night in anticipation of what I would see, so many thoughts swimming through my mind – I was going to the one place I had always dreamed of seeing, had looked at photographs of for so long, had read about in so many writings I had lost count. Morning could not come fast enough.
Work on the property began in 1768. Jefferson married his bride, Martha Wayles Skelton, on New Years Day 1772 and the couple moved in straight away, though it is not known exactly how much of the house was completed during this time. The house was built and rebuilt for more than forty years by Jefferson himself, a mastermind in not just the written word, but in architecture as well as many other things. He continued making constant changes until his death in 1826. Upon his death, his only surviving child, a daughter named Martha Jefferson Randolph, would inherit the property, but because of her family’s immense debts, it was sold in 1831. In 1923, the property was bought by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns the grounds today. The house currently operates as a museum.
Standing at the entrance to the house and seeing just how big it was literally took my breath away. I must confessed I spaced out a bit, simply gaping like a fish before my mother, with a roll of her eyes, gave me a small shove and we went inside, my face red.
I was impressed when we came to the library. Every wall was lined with books! It made sense, considering books were Jefferson’s greatest love (he famously said, “I cannot live without books.”) but I was surprised my the amount and variety. Jefferson could read ancient Latin and Greek, often reading ancient works in their original text, and I caught a glimpse of a few of these, including what was rumored to be his favorite, Cicero. The sad thing is that none of the books were original; nearly everything had been sold upon his death to cover the family’s debts, including these precious books. The Foundation had replaced those it could find, but several rare copies are still missing, according to our tour guide.
The Dome Room, as I call it, was located at the top of the house after a short flight of a steep and skinny staircase. The room itself is painted bright yellow, the floor simple unpolished wood that creaks when weight is added to it, the ceiling, similar to the ceiling of the Pantheon in Rome, had an open glass window at the top that showed off the clear blue sky that morning. For early spring, the sunlight that came through made the room relatively warm compared to the outside temperature. I had to take off my jacket. I closed my eyes and imagined Jefferson’s children and grandchildren playing up here and for an instant, I swore I could hear the sound of children laughing, just for a minute. It made me remember that throughout the years that the Jefferson family occupied the house, it was never empty or quiet. Despite the fact that Thomas and Martha had several children throughout their short marriage, only two daughters survived to adulthood, only one of which passed the age of twenty-five. The survivor, Martha, called Patsy, had a grand total of twelve children with her husband, and the large family were frequent visitors and guests, with Patsy being the hostess in place of her deceased mother. Jefferson was a family man who doted on all of them, as is shown by his frequent letters to the children from his days in Europe. All too soon, it was time to move on, my thoughts still on the many little Jeffersons.
When we came to the study, I felt my heart racing. Everything seemed to be in its proper place, as though Jefferson might come in at any moment. You could feel his presence in the room. Jefferson was a man of science, similar to a modern Leonardo da Vinci, and there were several items in this room to prove it, including a device used to copy letters (which would have been useful, as Jefferson did a lot of writing) and a telescope, among other things. There was even a bust of his friend and rival, John Adams, under whom he had served as Vice President. I found it funny that that bust was there because both men had a great deal of tension between them for many years. In fact, they had not spoken for many years following Adams’ presidency, and did not reconnect until Adams sent a letter in 1811 that became the first of many that they would share until their deaths, both on the same day in fact (4 July 1826, Adams passing only hours after Jefferson on the nation’s fiftieth Independence Day)
Jefferson’s bed, to my surprise, had been built into the wall, which I learned later was called an Alcove bed. There were mirrors in several places that were used to maximize the natural lighting of the room, which came in handy, as the president was often up reading into the late hours of the night.
Once our tour had ended, we were lucky that we were brought by bus to the cemetery, which is surrounded by an iron gate and the golden seal-like TJ crest upon it. The area is also the resting place of his wife, two daughters, mother, a few grandchildren and several other members of the family. Jefferson’s grave itself is marked by a large obelisk that can be seen from the pathway.
The carved epitaph was written as per Jefferson’s own instructions. It is simple and short, as he wanted to be remembered not as the Third President or any other title that nation bestowed upon him, but by what he felt were his greatest achievements. I must admit I got a bit misty here, especially when I came upon the grave of poor Martha, Thomas’ beloved wife.
By all accounts, Thomas and Martha had a loving yet short marriage that lasted for ten years. Together the couple would have seven children, though only one would go on to outlive her father. The two shared an intense love of literature and music; she was said to be an talented musician, often playing on a harpsichord piano that is in the house today, while Thomas was said to be a skilled violinist. Theirs seemed to be a deep love, but Martha was a sickly woman, possibly suffering from diabetes, which was aggravated by her frequent pregnancies, and died at the age of thirty-three in September 1782, four months after the birth of her final child. Her husband upon hearing the news “was led from the room almost in a state of insensibility by his sister Mrs. Carr, who, with great difficulty, got him into his library where he fainted, and remained so long insensible that they feared he would never revive.” He remained locked in his room for three weeks, only emerging occasionally to go horseback riding by himself. He began to resume a semi-normal life around mid-October, writing at the time of his emergence from “that stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as was she whose loss occasioned it.” He goes on to say, “A single event wiped away all my plans and left me a blank which I had not the spirits to fill up.” Thomas would never remarry, remaining a widower for the rest of his life.
As we continued our drive down the mountain and back, I felt sad to leave. I had nearly broken down upon seeing the graves, but as we entered our car to return to the hotel, I had to wipe away a few tears thinking about the story of Thomas and Martha and all the souls whose lives were intertwined to that one house. I decided that I would return to Monticello one day and, upon my return home in the next few days, took to my laptop to type up a short poem, Call Me Home, about the experience. When I am feeling an intense emotion, I write, and the emotion I felt that day was intense as anything I had ever felt. Reading and seeing are two different things entirely, and I had learned this firsthand that day.
Beside me, my mother asked if I had had fun. Dumbly, all I could do was nod. She looked at me strangely from her place behind the wheel, probably because my eyes were red from the tears I had to blink back. I’m a sucker for sad stories, tragedies and romances alike, and she knew that I loved Jefferson from an early age, but regardless, I still must have looked silly. When my voice caught up with me a second later, all I could say was, “I loved it.” She smiled just a little, probably to make me feel a little better, I’m not sure. I watched the house fade away in the rearview mirror and turned up the radio to HIM’s Funeral of Hearts, my thoughts in another time and place, reminding myself that I would definately return to Monticello one day.