Lucky for me, Kevin is interested in following bread crumbs.
Case in point, last Sunday, AKA Mother's Day.
The plan had been to go to Asbury Park and swim. Thankfully, we're both getting better at veering away from the plan.
It could have been a good day to pack a quilt and wrap up on the beach but it was cold, a little colder than the previous days when we laid these plans. Instead, we got some food in Philly. I knew I wanted to pick up some sacred stones for friends so I suggested heading to Garland of Letters. Kevin, always the nerd, happily agreed. The shop keep, with Buddha's naga serpents tattooed around his skull, let us in. I found myself fumbling over some moss agate and smoky quartz and assembled my gifts. Kevin found three rare books he's been obsessed with. While Kevin and the shop keep nerded happily together, I realized I'd forgotten palo santo. I picked some up and our friend, the naga-headed one, gifted them to us.
I realized there's a coffee shop near there that always feels good to me-- good light, pretty tiles, succulents. We headed to Chapterhouse Coffee to sit and plot what was next. As I sipped my cappuccino Kevin pulled a few books from the coffee shop shelf. He thumbed through and said, "Father Divine! I was just talking about him with Anthony! He was a Black man who founded a religion in Philly. The Divine Lorraine hotel and a few others were run by him and his followers. The followers still live in Gladwyne. We should go."
Normally, I'm not one for Gladwyne. It freaks me out. Seems to me that the oldest money in the Philadelphia area resides in Gladwyne. Driving through is beautiful. There are sun-speckled glades and gentle hills and soft trees but it's freaky! All the land is private. You can't actually be in any of that beauty and it doesn't seem like anyone ever enjoys it. I have many suspicions about how many torture lairs are underground in Gladwyne. All I feel out there is repression and corruption.
I also don't know anything about Father Divine other than his fantastic name and his beautifully named hotels. Yet somehow, on this particular day, it didn't seem like a bad idea to visit.
We began to drive from center city to Gladwyne. Here's the other weird thing about Gladwyne-- you never take the same route twice. I don't know that the roads actually exist. I think that the powers that be that make certain access points from day to day. You think I'm joking.
I have lived in the Philadelphia area for most of my life and I saw things on that ride I have never seen before. Somehow, somewhere near Manayunk we began riding on a residential street right along the Schuykill River. I DIDN'T KNOW ANYONE LIVED ON THE SCHUYKILL. A tiny street! People were FISHING out their back door! It felt like other areas-- maybe New Hope or Norfolk-- not the Philadelphia suburbs. I was shocked. If you want to get to this area-- if it's real! Try to get to Flat Rock Park. On the river. Stunned.
We climbed the hills into Gladwyne proper. Across from the Philadelphia Country Club we turned into the driveway of a private estate. One manor had 8 dogs barking at the fence. Fenced in nearby there were grazing donkeys, alpacas, sheep, and an emu.
I'm not joking about any of this.
We continued down the drive until we found ourselves at Gatsby's place. Seriously. An old mansion with an air of 1942. When Kevin and I are on adventures we're endlessly chatting so we were happily talking about something or another, parking the car, and walking towards the mansion when an old German woman in a 1930s school uniform comes to the porch and says, "Are you here for the tour?"
And that's when I thought we might die.
OK, I thought we'd wander around a largely abandoned place, maybe find a caretaker, and maybe take a tour.
It was way weirder than that.
This woman was genuinely sweet. Kevin eagerly said, "Yes!" The woman looked at me, dressed in jeans and a loose sweater and clucked, "Oh, we'll have to put you in a skirt."
She invited me into the mansion and found an old apron skirt with snaps. I began putting it on over my jeans as an old man in spats sat thumbing through a book to my right, a hunched over sweet woman in her 90s began clucking at me, and I spotted another very elderly woman seated in a chair in the room in front of me. I began to realize there were people EVERYWHERE. And they were all watching Kevin and I attentively.
It felt like a cult retirement home.
They gave us booties to slide over our shoes to maintain the cleanliness of the manor. The women debated who would take Kevin and I on our tour. The mansion was absolutely beautiful and completely frozen in time. The great room has vaulted ceilings, a fireplace with a Bible quote on the mantle, and life size portraits of Father and Mother Divine overhead. There was a music room, a drawing room, an office, and a dining room set for Mother's Day dinner. A table off to the side was filled with the only recognizable technology, a CD player and CDs. I asked about it and our guide said, "We listen to Father Divine's sermons as we eat."
In the music room she opened a beautiful wooden box filled with a giant perforated silver disc. "It's a music box!" our guide said, "this is what people listened to before the radio!" She wound it up and began to play it's tinny tune. We listened politely while people sat in their chairs or quietly watched us.
From the dining room we were taken into the kitchen which was much more lively and gregarious. Women were preparing dinner, cleaning up, ironing, and cutting flowers. They even had a room dedicated to preparing vases!
After the tour of the house we were shown the outdoor shrine where Father and Mother Divine rest. There were estate trails that our guide invited us to enjoy. One took us to a cave where Revolutionary soldiers hid during the war.
Everyone we met on the estate was kind. We saw one other family touring; a couple about our age with two small children. They entered as we were touring the kitchen. The women giggled saying, "The children are wearing booties!"
Throughout the tour Kevin kept asking questions about belief and customs but we didn't hear much response. Our guide told us that followers believe in the Constitution and are patriotic. They believe Father Divine is the incarnation of God as was his wife, Mother Divine. However, theirs was said to not be a traditional marriage. Followers stay "virtuous." They all believe they are married to Mother and Father Divine but do not consummate relationships, which is why the group is slowly dying off. When we met visitors or followers everyone greeted us by saying "Peace." The Sisters, as they call themselves, lived in the mansion. The Brothers lived down the road. They share communal chores and responsibilities.
Father Divine was a Black man who originally married a Black woman. She passed when Father Divine was in his 50s. He found a young white woman in her 20s who he said was the incarnation of his deceased wife. This woman became Mother Divine. I tried to ask a bit about the group's racial politics but didn't hear much response. The elderly followers were predominately Black with a few white members, including our German tour guide who's parents joined the group when she was a toddler.
They seem to believe in prosperity gospel. At it's heyday Father Divine had or was given properties in Europe as well as many parts of the US. There were photos of Father Divine homes in the Hamptons and Hudson Valley in addition to the Gladwyne headquarters. The Divine Lorraine Hotel and second hotel in West Philadelphia must have also been sources of income but it wasn't entirely clear who built, owned, or managed what.
The space felt sweet and creepy-- a combination Kevin is fond of. The friendliness and care the collective gave to their daily tasks reminded me that these are simply the practices of any devout people. They infused meaning into tending the home, preparing the food, and engaging in the rituals they'd lived all the decades of their life.
It also reminded me of being with my grandmother. The house had the feel of the 1940s. Not much had changed. It's a time capsule and those are rare to find.
To see exactly what it looks like with a generous story, check out this piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/02/kristin-bedford-father-divine_n_7673846.html
We followed the bread crumbs to the Father Divine estate. We wandered the grounds a bit before returning to Flat Rock Park and winding our way home.