The tricycle bothers me. I got one, large and red, for my 4th birthday. Since March is cold in Ithaca, NY, I will ride it wearing pajamas in our duplex’s basement careening around foundation poles and crashing into cinderblocks. My mother and I are the same age in this black and white photo. All we share is the same shocking white neon hair. She wears a fancy white dress, pristine shoes and a metal bracelet. “Are you at a party?” I ask her looking for balloons, a cake and other children. “No baby.” This confuses me more. “Then why are you so clean?” Mom brings the photo closer studying her image. A frown draws down the edges of her mouth. For a moment she is this child, with the forlorn look of a baby bird. I point to the white building in the background, “Is that your house?” She thinks a minute and her voice is flat, ” I grew up there.” I’m not old enough to understand what it means to be an orphan, the damage of not belonging to a place or people. But fairy tales inform me of what happens to children who loose their parents. “It’s not your home,” I pat her hand, “And that’s why you are the saddest little girl in the world.”
It will be 30 years before my Mom discusses the trauma of growing up in north central Oklahoma where she is raised with care but without love by an elderly Aunt and Uncle. She will find her friendships among the abandoned children of literature. Plucky Anne of Green Gables. The resilient Jane Eyre in Thornfield Hall. Mary Lennox searching The Secret Garden of Misselthwaite Manor. Charles Dickens, the patron saint of orphans, is her favorite. Their bravery to overcome a cruel world attracts her devotion. They transport her far beyond a clapboard farmhouse, isolated among row crops and red dirt, to castles, estates and manor houses built as much on romance as brick or stone.
So, it is no mistake my name is taken from the great literary work Rebecca which begins with the remembrance of a house. ” Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” My mom tells me later she loves the name, it is feminine and elegant. The narrator is, of course, an orphan, but I don’t care. My excitement is for the evil title character who lives in a beautiful estate worthy of a grand name. My mother shares in my delight.
My dad surprises us with a drive to the country. Usually this is reserved for releasing captured raccoons or finding a free Christmas Tree. But I hear my mother catch her breath as we drive up the long pot holed dirt road edged by over grown hedges and twisted fruit trees. It sits alone, the white façade faded to oyster, the color of polished bone. My mother hangs back as we children run up the steps. Birds have built nests in the soaring leaves of the Corinthian Columns and their droppings dot the sagging porch. My brother holds his nose and says it stinks. In a haze, my mother, joining at the front door, takes my hand and points to the small railing in front of a glass door. “That is a a Juliet balcony,” she whispers. We both swoon.
We ignore my father busily listing all the problems with Our House. We are awestruck in front of the grand staircase, imagining the wedding dress floating down the gentle curve. “This ceiling is caving in,” Dad says trying to sway us from our dreamy high tea in the ladies’ lounge. My younger brother wanders over from what must be the gentleman’s study holding an empty beer can and a tattered Playboy magazine. I run upstairs to the turret bedroom and promptly claim it. It will have blue tulip wallpaper and a white canopy bed. I’ll sit in the window seat and write in my small leather diary, the one with the lock, about the adventures of my life in our grand home. My Mom says little on the car ride back to the rental. She is lost in the love of a manor.
A few days later, my dad tells us we are moving. Not to our mansion, but to Athens, Georgia. He has a position with the University. At first we are heartbroken, my mother and I. Someone else will host balls in our estate. We know nothing of the South except the romantic version sold in books and movies. This is our consolation, large oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss. Lemonade on the Veranda in a caned rocking chair. We pull into our new neighborhood, Chamberlin. Perfect. It sounds very English. I am excited, bouncing on the car seat. My mother tells me to settle down but she is flush with anticipation, expecting Tara as well. Instead, we pull up to a modest brick ranch with a single door entrance. There are no columns or trees. The yard is barren. Either side is flanked by cinderblock foundations for future homes similar to our own. We say nothing, but for a moment, my mother and I are the saddest girls in the world.
I will live in many homes but only one will be my choice. I cede my desires to Bruce. I fall in love with a Craftsman Bungalow to learn “the rock basement is unusable.” The Drummond Mid-Century Modern I yearn for? “That’s such a high price per square foot.” I resign myself to living in the lovely confines of someone else’s narrowly defined esthetic. Ironically, I will be the one pouring energy into creating interiors to define these homes, but always for someone else. It’s a story I sell many times but never fully buy with my heart.
Looking to purchase a first home on my own, I begin the search in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas. Victorian, Gothic Revival, and Tudor, each grand lady entices me with her finery. I swoon over crystal door knobs, marble mantles and stained glass. But it’s small bungalow with a robin’s egg blue door where I me yell at my sister, “stop the car!” Rushing up the path, ignoring the light winter drizzle, I lean on a column, and claim the porch with a satisfied grin. Before entering, my mind is writing, entertaining and weaving into the diverse culture of this town. But my footsteps echo in the high ceiling rooms and it sounds of loneliness. The ripples in the heavy wavy glass distort my features into a ghost-like visage. The lively salon of imagined artists disappears, leaving an empty space where I wander alone. I call my real estate agent before shutting the front door. He is instructed to find me a fixer-upper in a family friendly neighborhood with highly rated schools and re-sale value. “This is being practical,” I tell my sister as we pull away from the cottage, becoming the architect of my own disappointment.
“Do you like this house?” Bill asks balancing his lap top, looking at real estate. Half a year later, he has joined me in this slice of suburbia, combining his furniture, art work, and even his pets with mine. The smart answer is to lie and say, “yes.” The last 6 years have been one long renovation, wrecking and rebuilding. But with this man, I can not hide. Bill is a kindred spirit in my romantic longings, so I share with him my folly. “I want a home to take my breath away. To watch lights from chandeliers dance on the walls. Put my face to the plaster and feel it’s coolness. Hear a creak in the floorboard and not be afraid.” He turns the screen towards me, with a look of knowing, so I may see the Queen Anne better, with her icing-like fret work and paint the color of autumn leaves. “Will this work?”
A Home with History
We are staying at the Steamboat Inn, built in 1845 on the bluffs of Weston, Missouri. I sigh at the long pine surface of the large kitchen island with it’s legs as shapely as a screen sirens. The female inn keeper notices my wanting, refills my coffee and offers ” I bought this at the Curious Sofa.” I know this place well and it provides an invitation for a deeper discussion of antiques and interior design. We bond over repurposed Olive Baskets as lights and the use of chipped lime plaster. Across the room of the kitchen, Bill is engrossed with the male inn keeper on topics of gas ranges, locally sourced ingredients and the proper crispness of bacon.
Glenna, the inn keeper, takes a seat in a wing-backed chair by the fireplace. I take the matching chair. Rob, Glenna’s husband, stands behind her. We are posed as a family portrait, except for Bill standing in front of us, looking at me with a tilted eyebrow. He felt the shift first, the night before as we enjoyed wine with our hosts. So he is unsurprised when Glenna says, “we meet many people, but you two, you would be great at this.” They know nothing more than our gregarious natures, the vaguest of skills sets and our obvious affection for one another. Bill steps into our scene to place his hand gently on my shoulder. An entrepreneurial girl, searching for her dream home, meets a boy, gifted with hospitality, searching for a business to call his own. Our future is sealed with a kiss on the cheek.
Be Our Guest
Bill is driving to Oklahoma to meet my parents after an 8 month delay due to the pandemic. Anxiety and anticipation lead me to arrive a day earlier from a job in Dallas. My father teases me, “Is this an old fashioned may I marry your daughter visit?” He wonders if I am worth one or two cows, chuckles at his cleverness, and leaves Mom and I to cleaning. I look in the case holding antique salt & pepper shakers. This is all she has of her mother. Carnival glass, Santa’s and quilts fill other displays. But it’s the three-tiered village, with it’s winter perfection, lighted streets, and singing choir, which dazzles the most. She has managed to create a place where she belongs and feels loved. I thought it was enough for us, her family to do that. But I am not an orphan.
I suspect Bill will ask me to marry him.
“I will say yes,” I tell my mother as I share our plans for the Bed & Breakfast – how we will build a personal and professional life together.
She turns to me, “Do you remember that house in Ithaca? I dream about it all the time.”
“Me too,” I answer, pulling from a cabinet one of her finest china plates.
“That set is for you, when I’m gone.”
I hold it up admiring the delicate light shining through. “The set will be beautiful in our historic home.”
She smiles. “I have quilts too, those are perfect for a Bed & Breakfast.”
“We would love that.”
We look at each other. Mother and Daughter. And for this moment, we are the happiest girls in the world.