Not many people have heard of Washy Custis. His full name was George Washington Parke Custis. I did not expect to meet him, but there he was. You may remember that George Washington (yes, that George Washington) married a widow named Martha Custis, whose late husband was a man named John Parke Custis. Martha’s grandson was Washy, and he grew up at Mt. Vernon.
(It is, by the way, historically accurate for him to be carrying an umbrella, which we all needed to do on this rainy Sunday. When I asked about that, I was told that the Egyptians had umbrellas. “A palm frond on a stick is not rocket science,” I was told.)
Washy guided us through the historic property, pointed out the “necessary” (the privy) but discreetly saying very little about it; gentlemen don’t need to talk about such things. He described the winding paths that led to the house, each flanking the “bowling green” – which was not for bowling but for bocce balls (which, if you haven’t played it recently, is a really fun game on a flat lawn). The paths were designed to look like they meandered naturally but were in fact quite specifically planned that way.
He explained about the cupola, affixed to the roof of the house not to ornament it, but to provide a much-needed escape for the hot air of the summertime. You opened the first-floor windows and the cupola windows, and the hot air went up and out (some of it, anyway, let’s hope most of it).
He took us to the greenhouse, where Washington’s tropical plants, such as this key lime tree, live during the winter. Washington’s only trip outside the continent was to Barbados when his brother was ill; it was there he developed a fondness for things tropical.
The formal gardens, seen behind the tree and in the next photo, are comprised of boxwoods carefully shaped into fleur de lis (to honor the French and their help during the Revolutionary War), the freemason’s symbol (General Washington joined this elite organization at the age of 20) and something that resembles a dog bone but does not represent dogs, even though Washington had several. Funny how you sometimes remember what a thing isn’t, but not what it is!
Hats off to the gardening staff at Mt. Vernon!
(Did I mention it was raining? Our feet were soaking, our umbrellas were dripping through. The view through the window of the boat, this boat,
during the river cruise we took that had nothing at all to do with Washy (to whom we shall return) looked like this. Not the nicest day for a tour.
When I worked at Smuggler’s Notch ski resort in Vermont one winter and the wind chill factor one day made the temperature feel like 50 below, and people were getting on the lift to go up to the top of the mountain to go skiing, I remember thinking Fools! No, actually I realized even then that, well, this is their vacation, this is their day. If they don’t go today, they don’t go. I used to think I would have stayed by the fireplace, but there I was today out in the rain with all the others – all the other fools! It was my day!)
We followed elegant, amazing Washy all over the place, into the stable courtyard, through muddy paths, across soaking wet grass. He cut a dashing figure, bow in the hair and all. His jacket in the back is joined with buttons at the sides, which of course he could undo when it came time to get on a horse.
Washy, what a name. He was a trip, continually referring to what his grandpapa would have thought or said or done. At the smokehouse, a squirrel interrupted his spiel, walked right through the eight or ten of us carrying its baby into the (unused for smoking hams anymore) smokehouse.
Coming through, folks. Baby duty. ‘Scuse me, to your left. Coming through…
“Never share the stage with babies or animals,” he said. “They one-up you every time.”