The Old House Whispers

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The old house had long been a mystery to me. I discovered it while walking in a state-owned wildlife refuge just around the corner from my own old house. I turned a corner and there it sat, overgrown with vines and saplings and peering out at me accusingly from those broken windows.

It has been in my imagination ever since. One cold winter day, I approached the house to take a few pictures. The sudden – and terrifying – appearance of a vulture which flew out of a second-story window with a tremendous flapping of wings only added to the sense of foreboding the house evoked in me….and to my heart rate.

Funny how the change in seasons and a bright blue sky can do so much to change one’s perception of a thing. The house didn’t seem nearly so sinister in the warm sunshine of my next visit last spring.

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I had trekked out to the old house with my friend, Jan, an avid photographer. She happens to be much less of a coward than I am and talked me into going inside. What about snakes? And skunks? And rotting floorboards? The fear of these things, evidently, does not deter the truly intrepid photographer and so we tiptoed inside….she leading the way, of course.

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This is Jan’s photo taken from the side porch from which we could peek into the house to determine whether we really wanted to go in.

 

And what I saw just broke my heart- a grand old dame falling to ruin right in front of our eyes.

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Rotting floorboards and peeling wallpapers don’t entirely diminish the old girl’s beauty.

 

It turns out that Jan, long a resident of my small Southern county, knew somebody who knew somebody who had grown up in this house during the forties and fifties. From that person, I learned the house was called “Kennons.” And with that little morsel of information and my county history book, I was able to unearth a few more secrets.

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Remnants of a kitchen addition. Apologies for terrible photo quality!

We don’t know exactly when Kennons was built, but it is antebellum. The earliest reference is the year 1832, so we are sure slavery was an integral part of the daily scene on this Virginia plantation. My history book gives an excerpt from the instructions a plantation owner gave to his overseer:

Mothers to be allowed sufficient time and worked as near the house as practicable – pregnant women to be put to no work that might endanger their situation such as ploughing or fencing, etc…..no striking a negro with the fist or stick or butt end of the whip or kicking him unless in self defence. The sick to be attended with tenderness and visited everyday…..the negro houses to be kept clean and any and all filth removed – every negro to be cleanly dressed every Sabbath day…which is to be a day of rest…..

 

There are but two entries in the “Historical Notes” volume I own which specifically relate to Kennons and both refer to women. One is Sally Dandridge Cooke who kept a diary containing descriptions of plantation society circa 1847. The ritual of the visit was highly developed and often, it seems, quite tedious. The necessity to entertain frequently, and to return the favor by paying calls, was so demanding that Miss Cooke tells of her relief here, “a rainy day- much to our joy – as it precluded the possibility of visitors.”

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Fireplace surely destined for some salvage yard someday.

 

We are told that when word that “somebody is coming” was whispered by “innumerable little voices,” the young ladies were sent scurrying to dress quickly and be presentable for their callers. Sally tells us of an invitation to attend a children’s party at a house right around the corner from where this blog is written. “Invited to dine at the Hermitage next day. To our infinite disappointment there were not horses – so posted a little servant over at daylight with our regrets and received theirs in return.”

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The house is not particularly attractive from the outside – nothing like the grand antebellum mansions that Frances Benjamin Johnston photographed during the 1930s. But inside is quite another matter entirely. Standing in the lovely foyer admiring the double front door flanked by glass transoms and sidelights, I was struck by the gracious design of the old manse. Ten foot ceilings, wonderful square rooms with ample lighting, generous proportions, elegant woodwork, and a fine staircase. Remember this staircase, more to come on that.

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The other lady mentioned in the book is a Sally Gaines Stegar, born at “Kennons” in 1832.

“She died at the age of forty, having borne fourteen children, been the mistress of an ante-bellum plantation, and last but not least, having lived through the War Between the States and witnessed the ending of the kind of life to which she had been born.”

By this time, I was getting brave and wanted to go upstairs. Looking up, I thought better of it.

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When you live in a small country town and start asking around about something, sooner or later little tidbits of information come your way. And one of those led me to another long-time resident of the county who is related to the last family to have lived at Kennons. In those days, the property was a large dairy farm, she told me, and the house? Not quite as grand as my vivid imagination would take me. So much for my visions of crystal chandeliers and Oriental carpets.

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When the owners of the property grew too old to continue the dairy farming operation and subsequently received an offer from the state of Virginia to buy their land as a Wildlife Management Area, of course they took it. The house was closed up in the late 1960s and has stood there ever since, slowly sliding into ruin. And that, I thought, was the end of the story.

Until my friend dropped this little bombshell:

“By the way, my wedding reception was held at Kennons.”

What?!? After I picked myself up from the floor, I asked – with heart in throat – about the possibility of photos. Oh yes!

And here they are taken just a few years before the house was sold:

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Remember that staircase? How wonderful is this?

 

 

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You must know how thrilled I was to see these photos after wondering about this house for so many years. Of course I knew on one level that real life had happened within these walls, but to see black and white confirmation of such a joyful occasion right there before my eyes was truly more than I could have hoped for.

And it is bittersweet, is it not? This house full of whispers. We come and we go and all that’s left of us is whispers.

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

 

Posted in History, Random Ruminations | Tagged , , , , , , , | 137 Comments

Freezing in Florida

The only difference between this post and being trapped at somebody’s house as they whip out their laptop to regale you with vacation pictures is that here you have the option to move on.

But I will attempt to lure you in with the enticing proposition of seeing my beach wear.

Behold:

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Rumor has it some people actually bask in the warm sunshine while vacationing in Florida. Obviously nothing but tourist propaganda from my experience. Here was my first clue that I might have packed abundant unsuitable attire:

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Hotel landscaping covered to protect against freezing temperatures.

 

And my second.

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So what is one to do when it is freezing in Florida? If you’re anything like me, heave a sigh of relief that no pool time is on the schedule and trot off to the nearest historical site. We chose beautiful St. Augustine, our nation’s oldest permanent city.

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Settled by the Spanish 450 years ago, St. Augustine was home to the first Catholic Parish church, the first city government, and the first free Black settlement.

If not for freezing in Florida, we might have missed all of this:

And the supremely Floridian kitsch seen on the secondary roads:

And you know how I love a good ruin. In New Smyrna Beach, where nobody was on the beach, there resides a sugar mill plantation which was destroyed by Seminole Indians and black slaves in 1835.

If it were not for freezing temps in sunny Florida, we might have missed some tremendous sights.

The same holds true for Virginia, sadly, as we learned upon our return:

 

Zero degree temperatures and 100-year old houses are not a compatible duo. BH gave me very specific instructions of exactly how to shut the water supply off and drain the taps. And I followed said instructions to the letter….except I added my own special touch by deciding to close the taps just before walking out the door. Seemed liked a good idea at the time.

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Remember my post a few weeks ago about what our choice of luxury might be? I amend mine to this:

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Luxurious indoor plumbing!

 

Hope to be able to catch up a bit with you and your blogs very soon. But there’s some clean-up to do around here first. Last night this happened:

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Thinking Spring,

Barbara

 

 

 

 

Posted in Art, History, Humor, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 132 Comments

“She Who Must” Strikes Again

True blue friends are hard enough to find; couple friends can really be tough. All four have to like each other for the friendship to properly gel. This can be a tricky feat, as we all know; at least one person is usually deemed deficient somehow by one of the others, and the relationship never evolves into a successful foursome.

Man, what a bad picture. We are all infinitely better-looking and less blurry in real life.

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Our oldest friends have just slowly navigated down our snowy driveway towards their Delaware home. We’ve known each other since we were all in our twenties, young and ambitious and so ready to take on the world. We’ve been through thick and thin together as happens when you remain friends for decades, almost like an old married couple. What do they say about “in sickness and in health?” There are unspoken vows between dear friends too, I think.

And I, with my unerring good judgment, fought meeting N and B tooth and nail.

You see, it was my mother who was trying to force the meet-up. N worked with my father. Mom and Dad were instrumental in arranging their wedding. They socialized together regularly and all I would hear was “You need to meet N and B. They are great.”

BH and I felt exactly simpatico on the subject: “We have no interest whatsoever in meeting people our age who would socialize with our parents. How rare a breed of loser must these two be?” My mother, never one to be deterred by mere resistance, would not take no for an answer.

And so we dodged, ducked, and deployed defensive maneuvers to discourage my mother’s relentless matchmaking. Twenty-somethings, as you are aware, always know what’s best.

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My mother is not called “She Who Must (be obeyed)” for nothing. She out-strategized me by inviting us over for margaritas one sunny afternoon and cheerfully exclaiming when we arrived, “Oh, N and B are out on the deck! Go meet them.” My death glare didn’t dampen her victorious zeal in the least and, really, what was I to do? Good manners prevailed, I put on my game face, and BH and I slunk out to the deck to meet what surely must be the dullest couple on the planet.

Except Mom was right.  Dash it to bits, she usually is. We’ve been friends now for thirty years.  And to her credit, Mom never says “I told you so!” Well, maybe once or twice but who could blame her?

I’m curious. How did you meet your oldest friend(s)?

We’ve had a massive snow storm in Virginia last night into this morning. The state is effectively shut down at the moment. It is my plan to fly out tomorrow morning for warmer climes. I’ll be taking a bit of a blog break.

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View down the driveway this morning. Brrrrrr.

 

Hope you all are safe and warm wherever in the world you are. See you all when I return,

Barbara

 

 

Posted in Random Ruminations | Tagged , , , | 103 Comments

A Valentine’s Day Scrooge

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Valentine’s Day tends to rouse the dormant Scrooge in me, I have to admit. It’s the ooey-gooeyness of it all that makes me cringe. Lest you think I have a heart of stone, au contraire, I assure you.  I rather love the romantic gesture, just not when it’s mandated by the giant economic machine d’amour which begins stocking the supermarket shelves with heart-shaped boxes of chocolates before the Christmas tinsel is put away. So what’s a girl to do when she despises pre-printed proclamations of passion courtesy of Hallmark?

I turn to poetry for consolation, that’s what. Why do I love Ogden Nash so? Because he has exactly the right dose of ooey-gooey to make this granite heart swell.

To My Valentine by Ogden Nash

More than a catbird hates a cat,
Or a criminal hates a clue,
Or the Axis hates the United States,
That’s how much I love you.

I love you more than a duck can swim,
And more than a grapefruit squirts,
I love you more than gin rummy is a bore,
And more than a toothache hurts.

As a shipwrecked sailor hates the sea,
Or a juggler hates a shove,
As a hostess detests unexpected guests,
That’s how much you I love.

I love you more than a wasp can sting,
And more than the subway jerks,
I love you as much as a beggar needs a crutch,
And more than a hangnail irks.

I swear to you by the stars above,
And below, if such there be,
As the High Court loathes perjurious oathes,
That’s how you’re loved by me.

 

More than a grapefruit squirts. Ahhh, now you’re talking.

Happy Valentine’s Day, y’all,

Barbara

 

 

 

Posted in Random Ruminations | Tagged , , , , , , | 114 Comments

A Reading Resolution

Were it not for my fellow bloggers, I would not be the least tempted to break out of the reading rut in which I’ve been happily ensconced. I’m stuck in England, usually, reading Penelope Lively, Jane Gardam, Elizabeth Taylor, Muriel Spark, and a new (to me) discovery, Angela Thirkell. Add to the list Nancy Mitford, P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and we see a pattern emerging. Literary Anglophilia.

But many of you are avid readers and have either posted about favorite books or left me comments urging that I read this or that. I decided to make 2015 the year of stepping out of my literary comfort zone, ditching my snooty attitude about certain authors (hello, Stephen King) and giving the books you’ve suggested the old college try.

My 2015 Reading List:

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

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In response to my turtle post, Thom from the excellent music blog, Immortal Jukebox, passionately recommended this book. I know when an excellent writer such as Thom urges a book upon me, it’s best to pay attention. Besides, it’s described as “prickly, yet heartwarming.” Sounds like some of my favorite people.


11/22/63 by Stephen King

In my twenties, I read a lot of Mr. King but gave up after some perfectly dreadful books. “Tommyknockers” anyone? UGH. But in response to my “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” post, Phil at The Phil Factor recommended I give this a try. I’m fascinated with the idea of time travel and the ripple effect one alteration of the past – stopping the assassination, in this case – can have, so I am stepping off my literary high horse to give this one a go.


The Sneaker Tree by Phil Taylor

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Speaking of Phil, (the blogger must likely to cause me spontaneous outbursts of cackling) it seems he’s a published author himself. I read three books in 2014 written by fellow bloggers and each was terrific. I know nothing of the premise of this book and don’t really care. If Phil wrote it, I’ll read it. Phil, I’m really stepping away from my world of middle-aged English writers now and adding your novel to my list. You’re not a middle-aged English writer, are you? Cleverly disguised?

Bad Debts by Peter Temple (first in a series)

I asked my great Aussie friend, Margaret Rose (author of “And Then Like My Dreams“) for a book which might expand my knowledge of Australia beyond “The Thorn Birds” and “A Town Like Alice.” Peter Temple is her choice of author who best captures the Land of Oz in modern lit.


 Anything at all by Terry Pratchett but maybe start with the Discworld Series

P. G. Wodehouse got us talking about the great humor authors out there which led to another dear Australian friend, Heather at Master of Something Yet, recommending any and all books by Terry Pratchett. She says he’s intelligent. And funny. And makes obscure references and has inside jokes and…..well, let’s just say Heather’s convinced me to take a giant step out of my comfort zone and read fantasy. This for a person who has yet to read Harry Potter is a leap of faith.


 

Botticelli’s Bastard by Stephen Maitland-Lewis

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Kate at Rough Seas in the Med reviewed this book in her lively and opinionated (we do require our reviewers to have firm opinions, do we not?) manner, and I added immediately to my list. She didn’t wax euphoric over it, but any book combining art history, Nazis, Paris, and a painting which speaks to its restorer cries out to come home with me. Look at that face, so perfectly haughty, isn’t he?

 


 

The Amelia Peabody Series by Elizabeth Peters

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Recommended by reader Kate in Australia, this series combines Egyptology, sleuthing, World War I, and more. Kate loves Nancy Mitford and that’s enough for me to know our reading tastes are simpatico.


 

House of Prayer Number 2 by Mark Richard

Not a book I ever would have chosen on my own, but sometimes an excerpt is all it takes for a book to grab me violently by the collar crying “Read ME!” That’s exactly what happened when We Have An Old House gave a hint of the exceptional writing in store for readers of this book.


 

 

Great Dixter books by Christopher Lloyd 

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If Helen at The Venomous Bead urged me to read the phone book, I probably would. Thankfully she did not and pointed me instead to the great English garden writer Christopher Lloyd. Described as “opinionated, argumentative and gloriously eccentric, he changed the face of English gardening through his passions for meadow gardening, dazzling colours and thorough husbandry.” How could I possibly resist? And, ahem, we’re back in England!!

 

 


Well, those are the books recommended to me. Now here’s three for you. I mentioned earlier in this post that I read three books by fellow bloggers in 2014. In order of reading, they were:

As the long-suffering members of my book group will attest, I’m the one most likely to hurl a book against the wall, so it’s no small thing to say I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any one of the three to you. There are some remarkably talented writers hanging around the WordPress blogosphere and these three deserve far better than such a brief mention in this post. All three books are available via Amazon, by the way.

Heading to my book pile,

Barbara

 

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 131 Comments

Monthly Photo Challenge: Ice in the Wheelbarrow

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” we like to complain during Virginia’s steamy, sultry summers. Well, it’s February and “it’s not the cold, it’s the wind.”

It’s cold all right, but it’s the biting, bitter cold gales that are keeping me indoors. I learned a long time ago to respect those giant old oaks in my yard and to marvel at just how heavy – and potentially deadly – one falling branch can be.

All this by way of explanation for not taking pictures the past few days for a new photo challenge. My friend Joanne at My Life Lived Full explained the premise devised by fellow blogger Cardinal Guzman and I was immediately captivated by the idea.

The purpose of this challenge is choose a location near your home and take several pictures every month. The idea is to capture all the changes that occur over the year – the seasons, the weather, and different times of the day.

I’m jumping in a month late but the Cardinal says that okay. You could join anytime too!

I’m thrilled to have a monthly photo project which will document what is going on in my gardens and when.  So without further ado, here are January/February shots around the old Barn. I’m looking forward to the changes ahead as the weather warms up and the wind stops howling a bit. It will stop, won’t it?

 

Wishing you all a great weekend,

Barbara

 

 

Posted in Challenges, Garden, The Barn | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 124 Comments

Life’s Little Luxuries

Little sister and I were hiking on Sunday when conversation, in between huffing and puffing, turned as it sometimes does to things apropos of nothing at all. Mary brought up the subject of indulgences, the little luxuries that help make life ever so much more endurable.

If, and it’s a big if, money and logistics were no object, what would be your fantasy luxury?

For Mary it would be a fresh bed every single night. A fresh bed with perfectly tucked, best-quality cotton sheets which, she emphasizes, have to smell good too. Ahhhh, I love this idea. Not enough to go upstairs and make her a fresh bed today, but I so understand the appeal.

BH came up with his, surprisingly enough, without a second’s hesitation. Chinese Foot Massage every night for the rest of his life. He’s tried unsuccessfully to find something comparable state-side, so I know the anticipation of a proper foot massage helps him endure the interminable flight to Taiwan each year. p1

Oh-oh, my turn. With my mind all abuzz, I struggled to imagine what on earth my luxury might be. Somebody to clean up each evening after I destroy the kitchen? Nah.  A helper in the garden? Sheesh, am I such a drone that all I can think of is work-related assistance?

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And then the next morning, it came to me in a flash. I realized I already had my luxury. It had simply fallen into the category of “things I take for granted.” It’s the super-duper coffee machine BH unexpectedly came home with one evening. With the push of a button, it grinds the beans and dispenses the most heavenly cup of fresh coffee imaginable. Complete with the little swirl of crema on top. It even steams the milk. Yes, this is definitely my luxury.

And Max? Well, this week he’s had the ultimate luxury every little Westie boy longs for: complete and utter devotion from his “Aunt Mary,” although he has had to endure a dress-up session. Have you ever seen such a look of canine resignation?

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Max preparing for the Super Bowl.

 

How about you? Is there a luxury, real or imagined, you’d like to share?

Thanks for reading,

Barbara

 

 

Posted in Humor, Random Ruminations, The Boys | Tagged , , , , , , | 137 Comments