A Charmed Week

            For about a year and a half, but mostly within a week in July 2021, I experienced a series of fortuitous incidents when I was researching and writing my book The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas (coauthored with Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, publication date September 5, 2022, The History Press). The book involves the Black and biracial people who modeled for William Sidney Mount, a famous 19th century artist. Mount lived and worked in the Three Village (Stony Brook, Setauket, and Old Field) area in Long Island, New York, where I grew up. My wonderful sister, Jennifer, and I rented an Air B & B together in Stony Brook so she could take photos of old houses for the book, gather materials for the map she would draw, and most of all, for the two of us to have fun together in the setting that is very dear to both of us. I live in Seattle and Jen lives in Virginia, and it was the first one-on-one vacation we’d had in many years apart from our husbands and families.

Jen and I pose in front of the Brewster House in Setauket.

            Here are some examples of synchronicity:

            Mount recalled childhood experiences of knowing a Black fiddler, Anthony (Tony) Hannibal Clapp (1749-1816), and sitting at Clapp’s knee while he played folk tunes. Clapp was buried in a cemetery for people of color on land that used to belong to Mount’s grandfather. I’d read an article about an unnamed Stony Brook resident finding that overgrown cemetery in land behind his back yard. One day, about a year and a half ago, while texting my coauthor, Vivian, about Anthony Clapp, a Facebook Messenger text came in for me at the very same time from a school friend, Bob, who wanted to tell me about a webinar he thought I’d enjoy. For the first time in decades, I talked to Bob on the phone. I told him about the Mount book I was writing. He told me about the cemetery he’d discovered in back of his house. You guessed it—Anthony Clapp’s grave site! 

Anthony Hannibal Clapp’s gravestone, carved by Phineas Hill, circa 1816, the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages Collection, 0007.015.2140. Photo by Katherine Kirkpatrick.

           Jen and visited Bob and his wife, Anna, and they showed us the cemetery. While there, I told Bob I was hoping to see a house in Stony Brook where William Sidney Mount’s sister (and people who are likely portrayed in Mount’s Dance of the Haymakers) lived. I had an address from the 1970s; for all I knew, the house could have been torn down. Bob knew the house and its owner, and drove my sister and I over to it. The owner, named Rich, said to my surprise, “I know you! I was your father’s chauffeur.”

            What chauffeur? My sister, Jen, and Rich filled in the story. My dad, Dale Kirkpatrick, broke his neck two years before I was born while teaching my brother to dive off a diving board at our beach club. Rich was the teenage son of my dad’s chiropractor. While Dad’s neck was in traction and he couldn’t drive, he employed Rich to take him places. Rich turned out to know a lot about William Sidney Mount and gladly showed Jen and Bob and me around the house. 

            Within a day of that visit, I had another serendipitous meeting, this time in Stony Brook’s Crazy Beans restaurant. Months earlier, I’d written to the head of a local preservation organization through a general website contact, but did not get a response. Attempts at obtaining the director’s email address had failed. I wanted to meet her because she was in charge of an old house, now a museum, where several of Mount’s models had lived. While Jen and I were having brunch with one of my longtime school friends, Paul, we were suddenly surprised when Leighton, another longtime school friend, strolls in—accompanied by the organization’s director. 

            Another day that week, Jen and I hiked along the narrow strip of Setauket’s Shore Road in a quest to find out where William Sidney Mount had been situated when painting Eel Spearing in Setauket in 1845. Looking across Setauket Harbor at Strong’s Neck, we searched in vain for St. George’s Manor, the house depicted in the artwork. A lot of trees had grown up and houses built since Mount’s time. Barbara, Brookhaven Town’s Historian, happened to be driving by in her convertible on the way to playing golf. “I recognize you two!” she said, pulling the car aside. We’d visited her the day before at her office in Farmingville. As it turned out, Barbara had grown up on Shore Road. She took us to a place where we could see the manor; as it was barely visible in the summer’s foliage, we wouldn’t have spotted it on our own.

Jen taking photographs on Shore Road, Setauket.

            There are numerous other examples of synchronicity related to this project; I’ll tell you just one more. Jen and I ran into a family friend, Megan, while visiting the Long Island Museum. We were surprised to hear that Megan was employed by the museum. Last we’d heard Megan was living and working in Manhattan. She’s now in charge of reopening the museum’s gift shop, and is involved with a book event for me that will take place on October 2, 2022. 

            Out of my nine published books, The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas is the only title to go into print within a year of contract. In most cases I experienced a lag of at least three years. I ask myself how I could be so lucky in regard to this book, while I’ve encountered many obstacles for other projects. Arguably, there’s a certain ease that comes about when choosing a subject related to one’s hometown. My late parents, Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick, were very active in the Three Village community. Still, does my family’s wide network of acquaintances and friends explain the nature and timing of my experiences?

            My friend author Andrea Simon uses the Yiddish word bashert (orchestrated by God) to describe a certain kind of synchronicity, in which things easily fall into place in uncanny ways. Was I experiencing bashert? I’ll leave it at this. I believe there are periods in our lives when we are particularly in the flow, and when we are particularly receptive to being in the flow. I believe that when we are relaxed and happy, as I was when I was enjoying time with my sister, that fortuitous occurrences are most likely to take place. 

            May the synchronicity related to my project continue. I’m hoping that the stories in the book connect descendants to their ancestors and descendants to each other. And I’m hoping for further opportunities to reconnect with those from my Three Village past.  

Cover for The Art of William Sidney Mount: Long Island People of Color on Canvas by Katherine Kirkpatrick and Vivian Nicholson-Mueller (The History Press, publication date September 5, 2022). Detail from Eel Spearing at Setauket (Recollections of Early Days–“Fishing Along Shore”), 1845, by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868). Collection of the Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York. Gift of Stephen C. Clark. Photograph by Richard Walker. N0395.1955.

Celebrating Fifteen Years of Redcoats and Petticoats

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            Recently an envelope arrived in the mail from the literary agency that represented my earliest published work. Only one of those titles, my 1999 picture book Redcoats and Petticoats, remains in print.

When royalties start to dwindle, an out-of-print notice usually follows. It seemed to me I had a fifty percent chance of receiving disappointing news about Redcoats and, especially since I was about to leave for London the next morning, I decided not to open the envelope. Several weeks later, home again but caught up in busyness, I continued to shelve the envelope and any feelings of sorrow that might come from discovering its contents.

Finally, one evening I felt ready to face what the wheel of fortune had dealt me. As I took out my paper knife, a favorite Buddhist teaching popped into my mind: “The dharma wheel turns, pay no mind to it.” In other words, when we’re down we’re on the way up and vice versa, so knowing that ever-changing state of things let’s try to live with grace, trust, and equanimity. Somewhere, at the center of the wheel, I reminded myself, there’s always a place of peace.

I’d hoped to find a check of at least six hundred dollars. I feared I’d receive a hundred or less. The check in my hand amounted to nearly four thousand dollars. Woo-hoo! Score! I could hardly believe it. Then I remembered that the subject of my book, George Washington’s spies on Long Island, had been featured in a recent AMC television series, “Turn.” Obviously, the public’s renewed interest in the topic accounted for my boon in sales.

I laughed so hard I felt giddy. I told one of my daughters what happened. Grinning, she gave me the thumbs up. I giggled some more, at the sheer surprise of the news, but also at myself for the way I’d behaved by waiting to open the envelope.

Redcoats and Petticoats, published by Holiday House, Inc., and illustrated by Ronald Himler, has continuously been in print in hardcover since 1999. Privately owned and managed, Holiday House remains one of the few independent book publishers in New York.

 

* * * * *

            Redcoats and Petticoats tells the real-life story of a brave woman named Anna (Nancy) Strong who used her clothesline to help her group of fellow undercover agents relay news to General George Washington. I’ve known the story as long as I can remember. I don’t think it’s possible to grow up, as I did, in the Three Villages of Stony Brook, Setauket, and Old Field, on the north shore of Long Island, New York, without knowing of our beloved Setauket Spy Ring. This handful of heroic citizens, via a person-to-person assembly, on foot and by horseback, by rowboat, and finally by whaleboat across Long Island Sound to Washington’s headquarters in Fairfield, Connecticut, passed on news of Tory battle plans that secret agents had overheard in the tearooms and taverns of the city of New York. In Setauket, sixty-three miles from the city, Nancy Strong did her part by signaling to a fellow spy a code that indicated the rendezvous spot in one of the nearby coves, where the secret missives would be waiting for a whaleboat captain to row them across the Sound to Patriot shores.

As part of a fourth-grade school assignment, my mother took me to meet Kate Strong, a blind woman, by then well into her nineties, the great-great-granddaughter of the famous clothesline patriot. The essay I wrote subsequently won me my first award in a writing contest sponsored by the Long Island chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. No doubt this early recognition contributed to my becoming a writer.

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The locations in Redcoats and Petticoats, beautifully and accurately rendered by artist Ronald Himler, serve as fixed points in my childhood. The Setauket Neighborhood House on Main Street, where George Washington paid a visit, was where I’d taken ballet and where my mother attended historical society functions. In the waters off Strong’s Neck, near the spot where Nancy Strong hung her clothesline, I’d clammed its muddy shallows, rowed, sailed, and, with my high-school chum Elke Dee, learned to water-ski. In the summers during college, and after, I spent many happy evenings star-gazing, boating, and barbecuing with my dear friend Lisa Lesko and her family.

The book’s opening spread shows the Battle of Setauket on the Village Green, in front of the Setauket Presbyterian Church. Here my parents, Audrey and Dale Kirkpatrick, performed marionette shows at church fairs. And here, loudly bellowing traditional Highland melodies, a bagpiper opened and concluded our family weddings, including my own in the same year Redcoats was published. Six years later, in the church cemetery where the Tories camped and uprooted tombstones to use as cooking tables, my father was buried, and four years after that, my mother laid to rest beside him.

The present Setauket Presbyterian Church structure was built in 1812. Its graveyard dates to the 1660s.

The present Setauket Presbyterian Church structure was built in 1812. Its graveyard dates to the 1660s.

Walking the path of history.

Walking the path of history.

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven, on Setauket’s Village Green, was built in 1729.

The Caroline Church of Brookhaven, on Setauket’s Village Green, was built in 1729.

Writing the book put me in touch with our distant Revolutionary War past. Reflecting on the book now puts me in touch with my own past, the flow of my life, and the lives of many dear to me. Through beloved local landmarks, I see and appreciate the distances we’ve traveled, and the well-worn, age-old paths still ahead of us.

I’m so grateful that my book has beaten the odds in the competitive venue of publishing and I now celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. Viva Redcoats and Petticoats!

Checking proofs for Redcoats with editor Mary Cash.

Checking proofs for Redcoats with editor Mary Cash.