Dont Fear the Nutcracker:
Connecticuts Nut Museum
The well-worn sign of the Nut Museum appears as if it will collapse from the slightest wind, like Dorothy's house after a Kansas tornado. A wind whips up a loose paper bag that blows in circles around thin aluminum sculptures placed in the front yard. An expectant silence hangs over the Monks as they cross the grounds.
The Monks are more concerned about deer ticks. One bite from one of these innocuous critters and youll contract a degenerative illness that'll leave you feeble, suicidal and beset with systemic nervous disorders that make car crashes look like carousel rides.
They say shes nuts. Others say she loves nuts, but isnt nuts. We are here to crack this nut for ourselves.
We approach the front door on heightened tick alert. The ante-bellum mansion where they currently stand has an uncanny resemblance to an "Addams Family" estate, complete with columned porch, pitched roof, and gothic molding. The sideboards shed paint like a lizard shedding skin. A looming, almost despairing, second story darkened window seems to hide a legion of morbid eyes.
At the massive, wooden door, I cradle a coconut, while Jim holds a 99-cent bag of corn nuts. The thundering strike of the brass knocker reverberates through the interior of the house. In the Monk mind, a black clad, cat-eyed Morticia with a nut fetish will open the door. But who answers? A small, frail as gossamer, ancient as marble woman with rice paper skin, a prominent nose, and eyes that dart and dance like fireflies on a warm Lyme summer eve.
"Helllll-ooooo," Ms. Tashjian intones. Standing about as tall as the hem of a mans jacket with an unmistakable hump on her back, she nonetheless carries herself with an aristocratic air. Her tone hints at a genteel, upper crust rearing and her alert, penetrating eyes say it all. "Who are you? Why are you here? And how long do you intend to stay?"
We stand for an awkward moment at the door not knowing what to say. We quickly legitimize our visit with a brief explanation of an interest in the hundred species of nuts on display. The Nut Lady has a look of disbelief. At first, she doesnt seem like shell let us in. But with a little Jim Monk persuasion, using arcane rhetoric more to her liking--"we are mere humble men of the road seeking nut-ural wisdom"--she reluctantly opens the door.
Inside, out of the rain, we find ourselves in the middle of a foyer facing a grand and noble staircase. Her house is dimly lit. After brief but cordial introductions, her suspicions now carefully stored away, Elizabeth moves slowly towards a front wall, where she playfully inquires, "Well, have you brought your nuts? Because, you know, you cant visit the Nut Museum unless youve brought your nuts."
We summarily present our nuts. First the coconut, which meets with enthusiastic surprise, and then the corn nuts, which elicit a crusty smile. "Corn nuts, though not true nuts, are welcome too."
After the ceremonial shelling out of nuts into the cardboard nut receptacle, we are escorted into the inner nut chamber. Were it not for the cobwebs, aging floors and stained walls, this might be considered an elegant sitting room--sort of "Arsenic and Old Lace" meets Mrs. Havesham. Yet, there is nowhere to sit. It is, instead, a gallery of nut-mabilia.
I spot the table of nutcrackers. "What are nut crackers doing in a nut museum?"
Ms. Tashjian answers, as if on cue. "Well, in the outside world, nutcrackers are the nuts' mortal enemy," she says, with almost childlike glee. "Here, nuts and nutcrackers can be friends."
I pick up a rooster head nutcracker and attempt to crack a modest hard-shelled walnut only to snap off the rooster head.
"Oh, what happened here?" Elizabeth says woefully, as she picks up the nutcracker and examines the split rooster head. "Well, you werent supposed to crack the nut! These are for display!"
I feel horrible, as if I have destroyed a precious heirloom. Elizabeth shrugs with disapproval, a slight frown forming on her brow.
"So, what compels the Nut Lady to create her Nut Museum?" Jim interjects, hoping to distract her from the tragedy at hand.
Before the words have even left Jims mouth she lectures, "I am not the Nut Lady. I am a Nut Culturalist!"
"Oh, indeed," Jim nods, picking up the cue. "Does the Nut Culturalist eat her nuts?"
"Oh, noooooo," comes her reply, as if you just asked a vegan if he liked McDonald's. "Nuts are fresh tokens of primeval existence. They are not to be eaten."
There is a long, awkward, moment of silence. She seems distracted in the dark, musty corner of her collection.
Jim soon breaks the silence and encourages Ms. Tashjian to sing, something she has been known to do on occasion. She brushes a few cobwebs from a music stand and carefully flips through sheet music looking for the "Nut Anthem." Gathering herself into a proper singing pose, she breaks out in a warbling a cappella rendition. Jim, meanwhile, leans dangerously on a nut sculpture, as I absentmindedly begin cracking on another nut with an even more precious frog nutcracker.
"Oops!" There is the unmistakable crack of something breaking. Its sharp sound underscores her straining voice and slows her tempo.
Ms. Tashjian looks at the poor froggy, its jaw split into two pieces. "Oh, what happened here?" I banish myself to a far corner of the room and study faded nut illustrations that hang on the wall.
Again, Jim comes to the rescue. "Oh, that is so beautiful, Elizabeth. Do sing it again!"
"Oh nutttts, have a bee-you-tee-ful his-tory and lorrrre...." ," she warbles.
The song concludes and the silence is tense. Now what? There is a tray of orange juice and sugar cookies, but none are offered. Ms. Tashjian escorts us over to a corner of the room, far from the nutcrackers, where lurks the voluptuous cocoa-de-mer. Her face now reeks of suspicion, as she gives me the look. You can read it in her eyes. "Dare I trust a 35 pound nut with these two klutzes?"
Jim is the first to pick up the precious world-renowned cocoa-de-mer. No sooner has he lifted it off the ground does his spine let out an unmistakable crack, not as loud as the frog nutcracker, but nearly as loud as the rooster. His face fills with pain.
Ms. Tashjians voice betrays panic. "Here. You may put the cocoa-de-mer down here." Her wrinkled finger points downward toward a wooden chair.
Jim lets the nut down with a thud.
As if not wanting to acknowledge the potential disaster diverted, Ms. Tashjian launches into her plan to build a 32-acre nut theme park overlooking Long Island Sound, including The Nutcracker Suite restaurant. She leads us from the gallery into the TV room. There, she places the "Mask of the Unknown Nut" over her face for a moment while rewinding the video tape of her 15-year previous appearance on the "Tonight Show," which she very much wants us to see.
Seating us in chairs five feet away from any tangible objects, she feels relief that nothing more can go wrong.
The VCR is not cooperating. I reach over to lend a hand. "Seems like you need to rewind," I say, while gently wrestling control of the remote out of her hand.
"But it is rew....."
The tape snaps.
A spinning gear can be heard deep inside the VCR before it gives out with a last gasp. In the silence of the room Ms. Tashjian silently folds her hands in her lap. A fleck of dust slowly drifts from the ceiling toward the carpeted floor. A squirrel scurries across the roof.
A sizable donation is deposited in Ms. Tashjians hand, as we, ever so humbly, quietly show ourselves to the door. Outside we conclude that nuts arent nearly as tough as they look.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Connecticut
Like this on Facebook: