Love Comes Full Circle
By Kevin Nordstrom
I’m going to tell you a love story.
A love story that spans hundreds of years. And it all circles around a very special place.
A place called Clermont.
Clermont is a mansion that was built in the mid-1700’s by Robert Livingston Jr. and would go on to house several generations of Livingstons. The most famous of which would be Chancellor Robert Livingston who played a large part in the birth of this country. The Livingstons were vocal patriots and, because of that, the British army, after burning Kingston (the first state capital) they burned the first Clermont to the ground. The Chancellor, as he was affectionately called even after he left office, went on to help draft the Declaration of Independence (sadly, he was called away before he could sign it). He also helped invent the steam boat, administered the oath of office to General George Washington and brokered the Louisiana Purchase.
Historically the mansion and its numerous inhabitants and visitors played an important role in the shaping of this country. But, you didn’t come here for a history lesson. You’re here for that love story I promised.
Let’s skip ahead a few hundred years. This is where I come in.
It’s the middle of October and I’d just received a text from my sister saying, “Do you wanna scare little kids?”
My sister was working at The Boys & Girls Club in Kingston and they were putting together a haunted house and could use a little extra help. I agreed to volunteer for the night and met her outside the locked doors of the club. She’d told me that her boss, Laura, was on her way and she had the keys. When I heard the word “boss” it instantly conjured images of an older, homely looking woman.
I was very wrong.
The car pulled up and out stepped a young, vibrant and beautiful woman. She was carrying a large array of things for the haunted house and I’d have offered to carry them for her had I not been so dumbfounded by her beauty and couldn’t form the words. A rare thing as anyone who knows me can attest.
She was a tiny woman, an inch or two under five feet, but her lack of height did nothing to hinder the size of her personality. I watched in amazement as she told six-foot tall teenagers who grew up on the worst streets in Kingston what to do and where to go and they did it all with respect and without hesitation.
I managed to focus myself away from her beauty and we were able to put together quite the haunted house for the kids. I had a wonderful time and I quickly fell in love with the club and its children. When I left that night I’d texted my sister one sentence: “Is she single?”
Nonetheless over the ensuing months I volunteered at the club regularly. I made it a point to avoid Laura because I wanted to make sure that all of my focus was on the kids. I’d grown up on the same streets and a dark seed had gotten into me when I was young. I’d done a lot of bad things when I was young so it gave me a sense of peace to finally be doing something good.
Despite my efforts to keep my distance Laura and I grew close and when her relationship ended I was there helping her pick up the pieces. The first time I’d put my arm around her it was meant only to comfort but I instantly felt butterflies go through my stomach. I’d been with my fair share of women and never once had I felt such a thing. I’d thought that things like that didn’t happen in real life.
It was only a matter of time before we were pulled together. Simple touches, glances and flirtations lit a fire between us and we were both quickly consumed by it. My journal pages from around that time are littered with phrases like “This is nothing serious” and “This won’t last.”
But for every day that passed we were drawn closer and closer. Before long we were living together and having our families come together for holidays. We had our fair share of hardships like any couple but they only proved to bring us closer together. It was a love unlike any I’d ever known or even seen. And others reacted to it too. People we hardly knew would say how happy we looked and would get excited about the prospects of us getting married and starting a family.
I’d been married once before so marriage wasn’t something I was going to take lightly. I’d more than once had declared I would never do it again. I had settled on the idea that true love belonged only in fairy tales and movies. But this…. This was something new. It was everything the great poets and songwriters had said and more. This woman had become my life. My everything.
So, on one snowy January day, when Laura said she wanted to get out of the house and do something, I knew it was time. I asked her what she wanted to do and her answer started a new chapter in our lives. She said, “I learned about this supposed hidden jewel of historical sites I’d like to check out. It’s called Clermont.”
We bundled up and headed out. My thoughts raced as we drove. Laura’s mother’s wedding ring was in my pocket and I was starting to get nervous. Would I get an opportunity to give her the perfect proposal? Would she even say yes?
All of these fears were forgotten when I first stepped out of the car and caught sight of one of the most breathtaking views of the Hudson River I’d ever seen. The snow-covered hills rose and fell, glistening in the sunlight like a Thomas Kinkade painting. Just like the love I’d found that I thought was nothing more than a fairy tale, I’d found a place that seemed to jump out of a story book. Yes, this was just the place for the perfect proposal.
We made our way down the lilac path. Even with the lack of flowers it was a surreal introduction as we finally came upon the house. It stood silent and impressive in its historical significance. After taking it all in, we made our way to the Italian gardens. Laura was enchanted by the stone walls and pathways. Giddily she described all the beautiful flowers that she was sure would be there in the spring and how beautiful it was even with all the snow.
As we left the Italian garden we came upon a small pond and, behind it, a tiny stream with a simple, snow-capped bridge crossing it. We stood together on the bridge, taking in the beauty of the clear, crisp stream that cut its way through the snow.
This was it.
The moment I’d been waiting for had come. Atop the crest of the bridge, at the center of a veritable winter wonderland would be the perfect place for the perfect proposal. I dug my hand in my pocket as my breaths came faster and faster. My fingers snagged the ring and I looked up, preparing to drop to one knee…. But she was gone.
In her utter excitement at the absolute beauty of the undisturbed snow that decorated this magical place, she’d run out, hands in the air, laughing unabashedly.
I’d lost my moment. Was that a sign? Would I get another such perfect chance?
Putting the ring back in my pocket I followed Laura as she made her way up a trail where there was another, larger pond. Ice played on its edges and the rest of the water reflected the sun in an enchanted array of sparkles. A large rock stuck out of the ground at the water’s edge and Laura jumped up onto it so that she could take in the view of the whole pond. Like on the bridge she was overwhelmed at the beauty and hopped excitedly up and down on the rock. She turned to me saying, “It’s so pretty! Don’t you think - -”
I was looking up at her, ring in hand, my one foot resting on the rock. I told her how much I loved her and I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her if she’d have me.
No words were spoken. She let out a cry of joy, leapt from the rock and kissed me so deeply I thought we’d merge together. Holding her tightly in my arms I spun her around and when I pulled back I noticed she was crying so much her glasses had fogged up. That’s when I realized I was crying too. There was no fear in me at all. Just a perfect, indescribable happiness.
As we made our way back to the car we knew Clermont would remain a special place in our hearts. Little did we know that it would become much more than that.
As you might expect we took several pictures and posted them to Facebook, letting all we know that the marriage they’d all been hoping for was going to happen. A wave of congratulations and excited responses came from posting those pictures. But something else also came from it.
One of Laura’s friends saw the pictures. She messaged Laura saying that she was actually going to be taking part in a fashion show with The Friends of Clermont. She went on to say that they could use more women to be models and that Laura would be perfect.
Laura was delighted. After all, what girl wouldn’t love to wear all those fancy dresses? Especially a girl with a passion for history and a newfound love of Clermont.
Sadly, the show itself did not take place at Clermont but this is where we met Kjirsten, the Director of Education and historian for Clermont as well as several of Clermont’s employees and regular volunteers.
The fashion show went wonderfully and Laura expressed interest in doing more with Clermont as she shared with them the story of how we got engaged there. Kjirsten and the others were delighted by the story and seemed happy to have the extra help. Before long I was volunteered to help out as well, given that I’d acted in several plays in college.
At the end of the show we said our goodbyes and went back to our lives, intrigued by the idea of future events with Clermont. Later we did some research and found out that Clermont also allowed weddings. How great would it be to be married in the same place we got engaged? Even better, it was in our budget! Depending on the spot where you had the ceremony and the reception, the prices varied allowing those of us with tighter budgets to be able to maneuver a beautiful yet affordable wedding.
We looked at a few other places just in case but I think we always knew it would be Clermont. We got in contact with them and they were great about showing us the different lawns and prices. After a bit of thought and looking at our financials we picked our spots and began the journey of planning the wedding.
It wasn’t long before Clermont beckoned us back. The Hudson Flag day parade was coming and Kjirsten had asked us if we wanted to be a part of the float. Soon after, we met with Kjirsten and the others to get fitted for our costumes. Slowly but surely I was beginning to put names to some of the familiar faces. Jennie. Caitlyn. Emily. Susan. Rebecca. We also met a new face. Another historian, who was Clermont’s resident Chancellor Livingston, named Geoff.
It was obvious right away that everyone knew everyone and they’d all been doing these kinds of things together for a while. Despite the fact that we were obviously outsiders, we were warmly welcomed into the clan and quickly made friends.
We would go on to win best float for our wonderful array of costumes and spent the rest of the day taking photos by the water and walking around the fair in full costume. It was hot and sticky in the heavy cotton but we had a great time. So much so that when Clermont needed us again, this time for speaking roles, we were happy to oblige.
I’m not going to lie, I flubbed up our first speaking roles. We lost a volunteer and I took on extra lines and I just couldn’t seem to get them memorized. We were to be playing a version of chess but with live people as the pieces. During the game an argument was to break out about the taxation from the British but just a few exchanges in I went blank. They were able to save it but I felt awful. I’d let down my friends when they were counting on me.
I was worried that they wouldn’t ask us to come back after my mix-up so when they reached out to us to be a part of their Halloween Candlelight Ghost tours I was determined to make up for my flub.
The ghost tours were a fantastic idea. The story changes every year but the basic gist remains the same. A group is brought in to take part in some kind of séance when they unintentionally unleash the ghosts of Clermont. The ghosts of actual historical people that were somehow connected to Clermont are met as you wander through the house and each of them tells you their story. You meet Chancellor Livingston, played with gusto once again by Geoff, as he goes on and on about how nobody knows who he is even though was a founding father and did a great many impressive things. You also meet the pirate Captain Kidd, played by yet another new friend, David, who tells you of his lost buried treasure. All the familiar faces were back and there were several new people and each of them played their characters amazingly, telling one fantastic story after another.
Laura was to play Louise Davezac Livingston, who grew up with French parents in Haiti and became the wife of Edward Livingston. She told a tragic story of loss and pain, losing several children and a husband at a very young age.
In contrast, I was to play a fun Irishman named Brigadier General Richard Montgomery. My tale was similarly tragic but was told with a more comedic irony. I would speak of how I only wished to farm but the revolution called me into action. My speech was littered with lines that always garnered laughter such as “I told my good friend that if he let me go back to my plow I’d give the ox a break and pull it myself.” Even my death was told with a sardonic smile saying, “I lost my hat at Quebec City, you see…. When a British cannon took my head out from under it.”
I adored the role and one night, after a particularly good set of performances, we were laughing and joking about General Montgomery when Kjirsten told us the heart of General Montgomery’s tale.
Montgomery had befriended Chancellor Livingston and, while on a visit to Clermont, met the Chancellor’s sister, Janet, whom he instantly took a liking to. Montgomery would go on to fight in other wars but upon his second visit to Clermont he married Janet Livingston in the drawing room of Clermont in front of the fireplace. They were one of the few in those times who married for love and after their marriage they set about building a life together. He farmed and began to lay the foundation for a larger home. During those first two years he was to have been heard saying, “We were never so happy in all our lives.” But at the same time he would tell his lovely Janet that “This cannot last; it cannot last.”
I’d played Montgomery for several nights at that point but it was at that moment when I understood him like I never had before. A life of war had taught him that this world was hard and often unfair. Because of that he appreciated what wonders he had for as long as he had them. I knew all too well what that was like and my journal writings of, “This won’t last” echoed in my mind.
Montgomery and Janet were married for only a few short years before the Revolution began and Montgomery was needed for the fight. While he was gone Janet wrote in her journal that she’d had a dream where she and her soldier were walking together when they came to a crossroads. Montgomery stopped her and said that he had to go one way and that she must walk the other road alone without him for many years. Two days later she received word that Montgomery was killed in battle. Montgomery was buried respectfully in Quebec at sunset by the enemy.
Janet would go on to remain very active in politics, even building upon the foundation Montgomery had laid, creating Grasmere and then she later went on to build Montgomery Place. It would be over 40 years before they were able to negotiate moving her dear soldier’s body to New York City. She watched from her porch as his body sailed up the Hudson River. The immense amount of love and loss was too much and she fainted at the sight. 5,000 people came out for the funeral procession in New York City and she was heard to say, “What more could I wish than the high honor that has been conferred upon the ashes of my poor soldier.”
Janet would outlive Montgomery for over 50 years. She would receive a marriage proposal from a continental army general but she turned it down. She only ever had eyes for her soldier. It was a far more loving and tragic tale than we’d ever expected from the ghost that called people “ragamuffins” and made jokes about how a load of grapeshot through the head would change a man’s mind in battle.
As beautiful as the tale was after the ghost tours ended it was somewhat forgotten. After all, Laura and I had a wedding to plan. We’d go on to volunteer once more around Christmas with Clermont and then a few months later we would receive a message from them regarding our wedding. As a thank you for all the volunteering, Clermont was going to wave the fee for the lawn where we were having our ceremony so we would only have to pay for our reception lawn. A better argument for good karma could not be made. When I was young I’d looked at good deeds with disdain claiming that no good deed goes unpunished. But volunteering had given me my love and now it had given us a free ceremony on our wedding day.
As the months went by slowly but surely everything fell into place. Laura hand-made all the decorations herself so the last few weeks leading up to the wedding were utter chaos until, finally, the day came.
I’d been brought by my groomsmen to our beloved Clermont and was lead to the Italian gardens that were now in full bloom. A beautiful contrast to the snowy memories from that fateful first day.
I was waiting with the photographer until Laura arrived. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen stood before me. Laura’s hair was in a large braid and decorated with flowers, her white dress shimmered in the sunlight. I cried as the happiness overwhelmed me.
The weather was perfect and everything went smoothly. I choked back tears as I listened to Laura’s vows and even had to stop a few times through my own. As we took our photos we were delighted to see some of our Clermont friends off to the side, sneaking peeks at Laura’s dress and smiling and waving as we headed over to the reception.
The reception itself was a flurry of laughter and smiling faces. One of my groomsmen and I surprised Laura with a song he and I wrote. I practically carried her through the dance as she cried at every new lyric that echoed the happiest memories of our time together.
As things wound down we took photos with the sun setting on the happiest day of our lives. Clermont had given us a beautiful engagement and kept its magic going without fail right up to the last moment of our wedding.
Clermont had even followed us home that night. After stopping (in full wedding attire) for a hot dog and some beer, we came back to our apartment where I carried Laura over the threshold. As we reminisced about the day, we went through our cards and gifts when we found a small box with a card attached. It was from everyone at Clermont. They’d bought us a small set of vintage glasses and gave us a small card reiterating their gratitude and how much they loved us. They’d done so much for us already that this little extra bit was the absolute perfect end to an already perfect day.
You’d think that our love story with Clermont would end here. But there was more that Clermont had still to do.
We’d only been married a month when we heard from Kjirsten again. The Candlelight Ghost tours were here again and there was something special happening this year.
I would be back playing the great Brigadier General Richard Montgomery but this time Laura was playing someone new. She be would be the loving wife of General Montgomery, Janet Livingston Montgomery.
The tours would start similarly enough with a séance gone wrong, but this time the first ghost the guests would meet would be Richard’s dear Janet. She would tell the story of how everyone told her she was getting too old to be a bride and how she met her dear soldier, fell madly in love and then, after only a few, short blissful years lost him to his duties. But on that night, when the spirits had returned she may yet find him again. She would bestow on one lucky visitor a letter she’d written to her soldier in case they may happen upon him.
Surely enough, after meeting all the other spirits, the guests would meet a ghost patrolling the grounds who would introduce himself as “Brigadier General Richard Montgomery… or what’s left of him at any rate.”
After receiving the letter from his beloved Janet, Montgomery would tell of how he wanted nothing more than to stay with her on the farm but knew that life could not be so kind for so long.
While much of my speech as Montgomery remained the same it carried more emotion than it ever had the year before. It was darker, more heartbreaking. While before, Montgomery longed to be at his plow, now he was trying desperately to find his dear Janet amidst the dark.
It was our last night performing when Laura and I truly realized what Clermont had done. It had given Richard and Janet the happy ending they’d deserved through us.
Clermont had brought the lovers back together after hundreds of years apart. And it did it through a new love that had blossomed amidst the very same walls and grounds in much of the very same manner.
From the harsh life that bred cynicism and doubts to the unbridled love that had flourished and was felt by so many who were witness to it, our love story echoed theirs and came to a beautiful close in the same way ours had started….in a haunted house.
Clermont has since become a second home with a second family that has given us a unique love story that connected us to history in a way few people have ever had the opportunity to experience. We are so grateful for every moment spent there and with those we are proud to call our friends. After all, as Janet and her dear soldier have taught us, life can be hard and fleeting but, in the end, it always comes full circle…