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Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Nut Lady...or the Fall of the Acorn

The Nut Lady…or the Fall of the Acorn

I was going thru a tough time in my life, though others have undoubtedly been through worse. As my sister always tells me, ‘your reality is your own.’ Brilliant. My angst is not particularly germane to the story, other than the fact that it was my state of mind that led Ellie to decide that I required some cheering up. I flew from Aspen to Massachusetts to spend some time with my family of birth.

When I arrived in New England, my sister said, “While you are here, I think you and I need to visit the Nut Lady.” I totally love my sister, but I was thinking she might be two slices of bread short of a loaf here. “The Nut Lady?” I asked. “You’ll see,” she replied, somewhat cryptically. Um. Ok. I figured she’d forget before my 3 weeks ended, so I wasn’t all that worried about being tied into a trip to Southern Connecticut where this Nut Woman allegedly set up shop. 

I was enjoying my time with my family, as I always do. My elderly mother and I would cap off every night with a salvo of Scrabble games; sometimes 4 or more per evening. We had a friendly competition going ever since she’d begun teaching me the finer points of the game when I was 10. I suppose that, even then, she knew that she was creating a ready opponent. My Mom, in her prime, was probably the most brilliant human being I’ve ever met to this day. Parts of her mind still hold vestiges of that intellect even today, though she is nearly 85 and her brain has been ravaged by multiple ischemic strokes over the past 26 years. She still can spout off wry witticisms, almost without taking a breath after someone makes a comment to her. 

My Mom and I have the same tendency to relieve tension, boredom and depression through playing solitary games: puzzles, solitaire, etc. For some reason the ‘mindlessness’ of game play seems to alleviate the bulk of the stress. Or perhaps it just tamps it down so that it can be dealt with another day. Sometimes, we would sit for hours and do puzzles or play solitaire parallel to one another. However, Scrabble, and other games of skill and strategy, were always reserved for evenings; honing our minds and psyching eachother out. Rarely did I ever win against my Mother. And, she respected me too much to ever ‘throw’ a game. I knew when I won, I deserved it. 

My Mom had a very difficult life. When I was going through my own hardships, I wouldn’t need to say a word. Somehow, in our silence and the intensity of our play, my problems appeared to minimize and seem almost downright ridiculous. There was just something about being around her that made that happen, even though nothing was ever discussed. Of course, my time in New England was not limited to playing games. I also spent time with my nieces and nephew, visited 2 of my brothers who still lived in Massachusetts and Connecticut, respectively and hung out with my best friend since 2nd grade, Debbie Peterson. 

As the time was nearing to wrap up my trip, Ellie started to, once again, remind me that we needed to visit the Nut Lady. I had never heard of her and was not all that excited about visiting her, but if it would make my sister happy (or at least make her stop nagging), I would do it. We scheduled the trip to Lyme, Connecticut, for a Thursday; I was leaving on Saturday. I really had put this off for my entire visit. 

The day started out pretty much like any other. Mom and I had breakfast, I gassed up my rental car and drove over to Ellie’s home to pick her up. Her daughter, Lauren, had decided to come with us, as well. Most of my family now lives in South Central Massachusetts, just over the Connecticut border. Lyme is in Southern Connecticut, right along Long Island Sound. The drive down should take about 1½ hours, we reckoned. 

Ellie is a Type I (Juvenile) Diabetic and very ‘brittle’ in control of her disease. She always has to carry an arsenal of testing supplies, medications and food goods to treat any and all emergencies that could potentially arise on a journey of any length. She doesn’t usually venture too far from home due to the vast considerations of her illness; so, this was an unexpected treat: to be able to sojourn with her to the edges of her earth…or at least, New England! 

We drove, at her instruction, down a freeway on the eastern side of Connecticut, I believe it was the 395, heading south toward our target. It was autumn and the trees were starting to turn. The weather was lovely, sunny and warm further north, but as we got into Southern Connecticut, the skies grew cloudy and gray. We got to Lyme right on schedule and just as the drizzling started. 

“Ok, where is the Nut Lady?” I turned to Ellie and asked. “Well….I don’t exactly know…” came her reply. “I just figured we’d find her when we got here…” she let out a nervous giggle. I was not amused. “You know,” I started, “I could have gotten a TripTik” from AAA, but you said you knew where the Nut Lady was!” “But, I did!” she insisted. “she’s in Lyme.” 

I just growled.

“Why don’t you go to that gas station, Auntie Karen,” interjected my peace-seeking niece. “Over there.” She pointed to an old-fashioned service station down the street, the sort that still had full-service pumps and a garage. I pulled in. It was starting to rain harder. “I’m NOT going in,” I said to clear up any potential doubt. “I am NOT asking anybody where the ‘Nut Lady’ lives.” 

“She has a museum,” said my sister in a small voice. “Oh, alright; I’ll go in,” she said, dejectedly.

Within a few moments, Ellie and 3 attendants were standing outside, pointing down the street. One of the men came up to the driver’s side of the car. “You need to drive down here,” he indicated with a flick of his index finger; his cigarette dangling, mostly turned to ash. “Then turn left and head to the ocean. Drive a short ways to your right and zigzag and you’ll see the sign.” He shook his head and continued: “Man that Lady is nuts, though. She’s like…” and he made the sound of a space ship from the outer limits and twirled his index finger, pointed at the side of his head, in circles. 

Ellie climbed into the passenger seat. As we pulled out of the service station lot, we could see the attendants pointing at our car and laughing. Ellie started laughing, too. A lot. “See! I told you this would be fun!” she said, gleefully.

We followed his instructions exactly. We found the Sound; we zigzagged, but we never saw a sign for any ‘Nut Museum.’ We continued down the street he’d indicated, but only came to a naval launch at an inlet for the Sound. We turned and headed back toward town. “What now?” I asked, somewhat rhetorically. 

I am someone who almost never gets lost in the daytime. I don’t do well with maps or GPS units, but I’m great about committing landmarks to memory. At least, I think that’s how I do it. I started to retrace our steps back to town. I noticed, on the right side of one of the streets we were on, there was a psychiatrist’s office. “Hmmm…” I observed. “Nut Lady.” Surely here, they would have heard of her. I pulled up alongside the house on the quiet, mostly residential street, with the shingle on the lawn. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when I got to the door. Maybe it was someone’s home and they just did part-time psychiatry. I wasn’t willing to just bust in there like a…well, nut! I knocked softly. Rat-tat-tat…no answer. I rapped louder. Still no answer. Defeated, I returned to the car. But, not before another car pulled up behind mine. I walked back and indicated to the driver, a middle-aged man, that I wished to ask him a question. He rolled down his window, somewhat cautiously.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where the Nut Museum is?” I implored. (it was really more like plain old asking, but ‘implored’ sounded more pitiful here). He raised one eyebrow, ala Mr Spock, and said, “I may have heard of it, but I don’t know where it is.” He kept glancing at the psychiatrist’s sign, then at me. He looked at his watch like he was late for an appointment. Maybe he was the psychiatrist, I reasoned. But, no, he went up the walkway to the adjacent home and let himself in. Ellie was on the floor laughing at me when I returned to the car. “Did you see the look on his face?” she snorted, and broke into fresh gales of laughter. I took one look at her and started laughing, too. And, Lauren was laughing in the back seat. We’d been gone from Connecticut for nearly 3 hours and were no closer to finding the Nut Lady than when we’d left! 

“I think I saw a fire house just before we turned onto this street, just down from the gas station,” I said. “The firemen would have to know the Nut Lady…” I drove to the clean, new building I’d seen earlier and pulled into the lot. Chuck, my husband, was a volunteer firefighter/EMT for 15 years in Colorado. Firemen knew everything that went on in a town! 

It was raining quite hard, by now. I pulled my jacket up over my head and ran to the side of the building. Locked. I guess Lyme had a volunteer department, too. There was no evidence that there was anyone in the building. No cars. Nothing. I ran back to the car and climbed in. “No luck.” By now, I was becoming intrigued with the idea of meeting this Nut Lady. Certainly, she was not highly regarded by the townsfolk. But, strangely enough, considering the reactions of the locals, she wasn’t trying to be on center stage, either. 

“Where to go…where to go?” I pondered. Now, Lyme is a very pretty, very quaint small New England village. Aside from being the inspiration for the spirochete that bears its name, it appeared that Lyme had a plentitude of museums. It occurred to me that one museum usually fraternizes another. “Let’s go to a museum and ask!” I exclaimed. This had to work!

We quickly sighted an art museum that was both open and appeared to be busy. Ellie and I alit from the car and dashed inside, the rain still coming down in giant, wet globs. Just within, there was a woman sitting at a reception desk that looked more like a lectern. “May I help you?” she asked in VERY loud, nasally voice, all the while snapping her gum, creating a sound that was unpleasant and made me wish to leave. “Uh, yes…” I began, “Do you know where the Nut Lady’s Museum is?” Ellie echoed my words, a beat behind. “The NUT LADY?!!?,” the woman intoned, almost screeching. I felt as though I was in a library with a patron who was violating it’s quietude. I put my index finger to my lips. “Yes, The Nut Museum?” I repeated softly, hoping to model ‘our quiet voice.’ 

Very, VERY loudly and without provocation, she shrieked, “Does ANYONE know where the Nut Lady and her Museum are?!!! Anyone?!” I thought she was yelling at us…but, then, I realized she was asking her co-workers, whom we had not seen, to this point. A small voice, from upstairs, quietly responded, “I do.” The receptionist gestured us upstairs, tilting her head toward the staircase.

Ellie and I, red-faced, climbed up the stairs, only to find a petite, soft-spoken woman in an office. “I just took some friends there a few weeks ago. She’ll be closing any day for the season. She may already be closed, in fact. But, I can direct you right to her door.” Surely we hadn’t come all this way, only to discover she had closed for the season. We resolved to at least find her.

As it happens, she gave us the identical directions as the gas station attendants, with one important difference: the sign for the nut museum, she told us, was very, very small. We might overlook it, unless we knew just where to look. Her directions were impeccable. We thanked her profusely and left.

We drove back up the residential street where the yellow house stood that was also a psychiatrist’s office. The gentleman’s car was still parked in front of the adjacent house. I waved as I drove past, though he wasn’t in his car. “We’re going to the Nut Lady Museum,” I called out my open window. 

It occurred to me, just then, that I didn’t even know the story as to how Ellie had come up with this hare-brained scheme, so I asked her. She told me she’d recently read an article about The Nut Lady in Good Housekeeping Magazine. The article jogged her memory, for she recalled having seen her on Johnny Carson. She said she was very funny and just the thing for us. We drove up the zigzag street where the museum allegedly was housed. The homes here were far larger. THERE! On the Right. There was a sign no bigger than a corner street sign, hand-written and low to the ground. ‘Nut Museum’ was all it said. I turned the car into what appeared to be an alleyway. We drove just a short distance on this paved, narrow road, before coming to a very strange array of sculptures, all made of sheet metal. Behind the sculptures was a large home; a mansion, really. It was in a state of disrepair, but it clearly was the Nut Museum. We pulled up alongside the sculptures. 

Noticing the time on the dashboard clock, I realized it was now almost noon and I began to worry about Ellie. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Her diabetes is very unstable. “Now that we know where she is, should we go get some lunch and then come back?” I asked. “No way. We’re here now. I brought some instant breakfast. I’ll just drink that and I’ll be fine till after we do the museum. How long can it take, anyway?! We’ll be done in no time and go to lunch after.” So, we sat in the driveway, motor running, as Ellie pulled out her jar of chocolate instant breakfast and started to sip. 

I’m not sure what prompted me to do it, maybe just the residual silliness from this mornings’ events…but, I remembered that when we were little kids, if I was drinking something, Ellie would say to me, “I hope you don’t laugh and that drink comes out of your nose!” So, for some reason, I looked at her and said this and started laughing. Ellie started laughing, choking and snorting and the chocolate worked it’s way out of her nose and all over the windshield, glove compartment and her seat. We all started laughing, hysterical at the sight. The chocolate had spewed EVERYWHERE: the dashboard, windshield, cup holder. It really was funny. I would probably have to pay a clean-up fee for the rental car, but I didn’t care. However, in the midst of my laughter, my boobs pressed against the horn of the car. That was when we met Elizabeth Tashjian, the Nut Lady. She thought, in beeping the horn, we were summoning her. She came out on the great porch of her mansion. We exited the car and approached her, a tad cautiously. 

“Is the museum open?” I queried. “Oh, yes,” came her reply. But, they DID tell you there was a charge for admission, didn’t they?” I wasn’t sure who ‘they’ were, but I nodded my head. “Yes, I brought money.”

“That’ll be $2.00 each plus a nut per person.” She said in all seriousness. I cocked my head to the side as I looked straight into her eyes. A nut? She smiled and indicated a squirrel that was attached to the exterior wall of her home, just to the right of the door. She lifted it’s brass tail. The ‘entry nut’ was to go into a round slot in the squirrel’s ass and drop into a repository below. I couldn’t take my eyes off the squirrel or it’s ass. “Of course,” she winked, “if you don’t have a nut of your own, I DO have ‘loaners.’ This was when I knew that I would absolutely love the Nut Lady. Lauren, my niece, jabbed me in the side as she brushed past me. 

“I wasn’t expecting any visitors to the Museum today. I don’t get many at this time of the year, now that school is back in session, during the week. I close the Museum this Saturday for the season.” Elizabeth ushered us into the great foyer of her home/museum. The phone rang. “Will you please excuse me? It’s been ringing a lot lately.” “Of course,” we assured her. 

We started to glance around. Ellie’s attention was captured by the crown moulding in the foyer. I caught her glance and followed what she was staring at. “Look,” Ellie observed. “This is what she grew up with. No wonder she honors the nut.” The moulding had bas relief sculptures of acorns. And, there were acorns worked into the domed ceiling, as well. 

The mansion had to be well over 150-200 years old. It looked as though it hadn’t been attended to in almost that many years. The walls had dents with plaster and wood showing below. In places where there was wallpaper, some of it was torn or pulled away from the wall. There were stains on the painted sections. But, through all that, you could see the grandeur of what once was. There was a beautiful staircase leading to a second level. This was cordoned off and not available to view. To our left, we could see a display room and caught glimpses of nuts, large and small. Some were adorned, some plain. 

Articles from various magazines were posted on a wall in front of us. We edged closer to read. There were photos of Elizabeth with Johnny Carson on two of the magazines; younger, yes, but no less spirited in her mien. I suddenly realized that Lauren hadn’t followed us over to the magazines, but was standing in the foyer still, listening to Elizabeth on the phone. “Well, I’m not sure…yes. Yes, of course I would like to. May I think about it and let you know? Alright. I will call you back. Yes. Goodbye then.” She stirred a bit in the other room and came out, holding a large piece of material in her hand which she deftly smoothed out and put on over her clothing. It could best be described as something between a caftan and what a seer would wear when doing tarot readings. It definitely added to the eeriness of the setting! 

“That was the BBC. They want me to fly to Australia to do a talk show, but they never want to pay me enough. Johnny said to me, I’m going to make sure you get your AFTRA (union) card so that you will at least always be paid minimum! But, that’s only in the US. Now then…I see th…” she began. “Excuse me for overhearing your conversation,” Lauren interrupted. “But, do you have someone to represent you to the media? It’s clear to me that you have something they want. You have a lot to maintain here and that can’t be inexpensive for you to do. Plus, there are a lot of costs associated with traveling. An agent would negotiate all that for you. If I was you, I would tell them you are worth MORE than that. Your time ALONE is worth much more, and you want to be paid what you are worth!” The phone rang. “Excuse me,” Elizabeth said, apologetically.

“You know,” we over heard her speaking. “I have something you want. And, I have a lot of expenses maintaining my museum and no one to tend to it when I am away. I have my AFTRA card in the US and so I am paid at least minimums here, plus travel arrangements in the highest class. Maybe I should have my agent speak to…what? Ok…that would be fine. December 18th? Ok. Thanks. Yes, alright. I will wait to hear back from the scheduling desk. Goodbye.” 

Elizabeth returned to the room, beaming. She looked at Lauren and said, “I told them just what you said, and you were absolutely right! They are giving me everything I asked for, plus a first class ticket to Sydney! Say…will YOU be my agent?” It was the sort of question that had you wondering if Elizabeth was dead serious in asking, or if she was being facetious. Lauren laughed nervously, unsure. “Oh, I don’t think you’d want ME to do that,” she said softly. “Oh, but I DO!” came Elizabeth’s reply. “Well, I’ll have to think about it.” Lauren responded, a little sadly. We’d only known the Nut Lady for about 10 minutes.

Elizabeth sashayed, her satiny gown flowing behind her, into the main room of the museum, to the left of the entry of the mansion. “I see you were looking at my articles. Johnny changed my life. I loved him for that. He ‘got’ my humor. A lot of people think I’m crazy. But, I’m not! I’m eccentric and there’s a difference. Eccentric is bright and off-beat. Crazy is…well, crazy! I’m eccentric and I love being this way. I call myself a Nut Evangelist! There is no one but me singing the praises of the lowly nut. In fact, I’ve written a few songs about them.” She dashed past us and grabbed some giant, placards with musical notes and scales painted on them. “Would you like to hear me sing? Johnny paid me $10,000 to sing this, but I will sing to you for free!” Without so much as a nod from us, she launched into a heartfelt rendition of ‘Nuts To Youuuuuuuuuuu’ which stirred us to the core (and, truth be told, we had trouble not laughing out loud—and when she saw this, she gave us permission to laugh, because after all, it was funny!). If it ‘translates’ to this blog, here is Elizabeth, singing her own song,  "Nuts Are Beautiful"  :

Keep in mind that the ‘exhibit hall’ that we were in was perhaps the size of an average parlor or living room, maybe slightly larger. It took us 1-½ hours to go through the ‘exhibits,’ each with an explanation, a song or a memory of how they came to be in her possession, including the largest nut in the world, which I believe was a betel nut. The phone rang yet again. Elizabeth left us and indicated that we could go to the other ‘hall’ in the room that was to the right of the foyer. We made our way in there as she spoke with someone from a US network. She was definitely in demand.

In this second and larger ‘hall,’ we noticed that there were fewer small nut items and more of Elizabeth’s sculpture and paintings. We glanced around the room and noticed that, at the far end, there was a piano with a transparent tray of pastries atop. “Oh, my gosh. She is going to try and feed us afterward,” I said to Ellie! We broke into fresh gales of laughter. We pretty much had not stopped laughing since coming to Lyme. 

Elizabeth had come back into the room. Here she showed us masks made from nut husks and explained that her love of nuts was lifelong. She was born into an artistic family and her grandmother encouraged all her right-brained activities, including music and art. She started out as a fine artist in her earlier years and still enjoyed sculpting from sheet metal and painting. Many of her paintings, some quite lovely, graced the walls. She said she’d gone through a ‘nut evolution’ late in life. In her inimitable way, Elizabeth then proceeded to tell us her theory on nuts: “"Nuts have a heart. Hard and prickly sometimes on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. That's my philosophy." 
She caught Ellie staring at a strange-looking metal sculpture. “Oh, dear!” I made that one just for Johnny! He thought it was my best,” she exclaimed. “And, it’s anatomically correct, as he pointed out.” There stood a large amorphous stick figure carved from sheet metal. Between it’s legs dangled 2 chestnuts. “Nuts to youuuuuuuuuu,” Lauren sang softly. Elizabeth was priceless!

“Well, you can mill around this room some, but really, that concludes the tour of the Nut Museum.” We were now just over 2-½ hours in. Elizabeth walked to the end of the room and said, “I just baked some muffins. Would you care for any?” Caught off-guard, Ellie hesitated. I looked at Elizabeth and quickly said, “No thanks…we really need to go now.” She shrugged a shoulder toward Ellie and replied, “Well, SHE was going to say ‘yes’ before you said that!” She had me there! I went on to explain Ellie’s diabetes and that she would have eaten out of politeness, but that I needed to get her to a restaurant for a real meal. 

“Oh, ok.” Elizabeth seemed a little defeated. She reminded me a lot of Ruth Gordon, I decided. “But, I need to get a few things from the store and I no longer have a car. Can you drop me off at the Stop and Shop? It’s not very far…” I started to assure her we could, but Ellie broke in quickly, “You know, we’d be really happy to pick whatever you need up for you.” “Would you? You are so kind. Just a moment. I need to get something,” Elizabeth said. With that, she hurriedly left the room, removing her caftan as she floated. She did NOT move like a woman who had to be in her mid 80s, I mused. 

The moment she was out of sight, I looked at my sister. “Why did you say that, El?” I asked, my voice serious. “Because, if it took 2-½ hours for her to take us through her museum, how long do you think it will take for her to shop? And we can’t just leave her there! How would she get home?” I couldn’t really argue with that logic. There were maybe 15-20 minutes worth of exhibits at the Nut Museum. Had it not been for the entertainment portion of the program, we’d have been long gone.

Elizabeth reappeared, coupons in hand. “Would you like me to write this down for you?” I shook my head. The three of us would remember the few items she needed. “Ok,” she began, “they’re having a sale on this ice cream, Chocolate Royale. I love my ice cream. And, D’Angou pears, too. I really like them. Could you get a few?” We all nodded in assent. “Oh, and, I almost forgot. Some liverwurst. And, if you see any…” I looked over at Ellie and she was rolling her eyes in an ‘I told you so’ fashion. The list continued. And continued. Then Elizabeth handed us $100 in cash. “I hope this will be enough.” “I’m sure it will. We’ll be back very soon with your groceries and change,” Ellie said, rubbing Elizabeth’s shoulder with her palm. 

We returned to the car and, the minute I opened the door and saw the chocolate Instant Breakfast spewed all about, it brought to mind what an insanely strange day this had already been; and we weren’t even nearly done yet! We all climbed in. 

“Oh, Auntie Karen,” Lauren started. “she hadn’t known me for 10 minutes before asking me to be her agent. And she gave us $100 in cash. How does she know that we won’t just keep driving and pocket her money? Someone needs to protect her.” Lauren brought a moment of clarity to the situation. Yes, it would be easy to take advantage of someone so trusting. And, it makes you wonder how many have? We continued on to the Stop and Shop, a mile or so away from Elizabeth’s house.

Walking inside, we realized that Elizabeth’s ‘list’ contained enough items that we would need a grocery cart. I looked over at Ellie and said, “I can’t believe we are grocery shopping for The Nut Lady!” We split up and divvied the list to shop more efficiently and were done and back at her home in less than one-half hour. 

Elizabeth looked very pleased to see us (and her ice cream!). She offered us the change from her $100, about $65. We refused. Really. The pleasure was all ours. I went from being cranky and depressed to having one of the best experiences of my life. And, despite my account, there IS no way to adequately describe Elizabeth, her Museum OR the amazing adventure we three had on that one October day in 1998. It’s been 11 years and we still talk and laugh about it as though it was yesterday. And, other family members, who’d chosen not to or weren’t able to go have rued that decision ever since. 

Sadly, Elizabeth died, I read, in 2007 at the ripe age of 94. A few years before, she’d been forced into a skilled nursing facility in nearby Old Saybrook where she lived out her last years, undoubtedly singing to the staff all the way to the end. 

“Nuts to youuuuu,” Elizabeth; Godspeed to you.

Elizabeth Tashjian is featured on the “Best of Carson” available on DVD. The segments included were all hand-selected by Carson as some of his favorite moments on his shows over the years. Elizabeth Tashjian's Website

© 2009, Ryb Katz, all rights reserved

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