Lost and Found
Write about a found object. That’s the next assignment in the MIT courseware program. I wonder if that means I have to go out and find an object? I’m seventy miles from home—too many miles from the familiar to wander around searching for things. The Porches, where I’m staying, is a writers’ retreat situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, in the small hamlet of Norwood.
On my fourth day here, the sky has clouded over. The leaves have turned over and the wind is picking up. The birds have stopped singing. The hummingbird no longer flits from honeysuckle to cedar. Tree frogs play herald for the weather as it moves across the mountains. It’s going to storm.
Thunder rumbles in the background. I find myself wondering if rainbows will follow the storm, like the double rainbow that painted the eastern sky the day I arrived here. The swing that graces one end of the second floor porch rocks rhythmically on the other side of the large, paned window. So large, I cannot open it alone. A craftsman carefully created the sashes, stiles, and muntins from solid, durable, wood. There are no pulleys to make raising it easier; the pleasure of the breeze has to be earned. The glass in my window has clearly been replaced. But in other places in the house, the glass is heavy, its weight causing it to run in waves down the pane. What memories lie therein?
According to the markers at the front door, W. M. Cabell built the house in 1854. What sorts of ghosts haunt these halls? William Cabell was a member of a prominent Virginia family. The Cabells owned the land as far as the eye can see from here. William’s father gave him the property as a gift. A young African-American man, working close by, called this house “the big house” the way slaves would have referred to it when it was new. Is that a holdover? Did he hear his parents and grandparents call it that? There are no slave quarters on the property.
From its position on the hill, it witnessed the trains rolling by—toward Richmond. Appomattox. Coal trains run on the tracks today. Their whistles blow, warning deer and foxes to flee. John Prine springs to mind every time I hear it…
When I was a child, my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky, where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town,
So often remembered that my memories are worn
The memories here are worn into tongue and groove hardwood floors, knotted and scarred. Red bricks line the fireplace, long ago blackened by fires that warmed those looking out this same window onto this same landscape. Who lived here during Reconstruction? The twenties? Did this house fall into disrepair during the Great Depression? Was it then lovingly mended in better times? Did the family, finding prosperity in the fifties, send their children away to The University of Virginia or The College of William and Mary? Cabells have buildings and halls dedicated to them at both. Did those children find something in the larger world that made them reluctant to return? Was Norwood’s serenity too much? Did the tranquility that called me here drive them away? It has a silence that beckons writers seeking the solitude of train whistles, rainbows, and hummingbirds.
If I close my eyes, I can imagine William Cabell’s dream of a quiet country life stolen away as Union troops came through and took all of his corn, and clothes. According to the Heartbeats of Nelson, a Nelson County history that I found in the refectory, they broke the china, and the windows. They, according to more than one source, left him “ruined.”
In the 1880s, the house was sold to the Ribbles. And then perhaps the Heaths? Or is that house the next one down the road? Perhaps the beautiful schoolhouse over yonder through the trees is the building in which William Cabell and his second wife, Mary, started a prep school for Confederate veterans who wished to go to college. This is where, before the Ribbles and the Heaths, William and Mary Cabell transformed their home-place from a center of agricultural activity to a center of intellectual activity.
Mr. and Mrs. Cabell must be satisfied that their dream of a plantation built on intellectual pursuit survives. Lofty discussions are still shared over meals made of local harvests. But, how long did it sit vacant with windows like eyes looking out onto the lush Virginia landscape, feeling betrayed?
The place has a feel to it: found, not purchased. I’m sure Trudy, the proprietor, paid money for almost every object in this room, this house. The property itself, tucked away off the side of a side road in Nelson County, Virginia had a cost. I’m just as sure she found everything, except the chair, desk, and of course, my possessions that litter it. I imagine her going from antique shop to flea market looking at this item or that. Paying cash and loading up her find while thinking about the perfect place to put it.
I’m sitting at a desk. It’s a new desk with a keyboard drawer/tray. My computer, portable printer, iPad, Zune, and cell phone are scattered across it. There are various flash drives, ink cartridges, and USB wires collected in the corner behind a lamp that looks turn-of-the-century, the twentieth century. The chair has a familiar computer-desk-feel to it. It’s leather and on wheels. An air conditioner hums behind me, on energy save. A bumblebee buzzes at the screen. My Riverside Shakespeare looks at home on the quilt covered day-bed.
I have taken to walking through and around the house photographing things. Finding things. I was surprised by the tiny doll on the mantle, the ukulele in the kitchen, the bronze cupped hands on the porch—the first floor porch. I found all of them, captured them with my camera, and committed them lovingly to a digital memory to be carried away. Even the double rainbow. There’s a story—a universe—in each one. I searched every bookcase in the house—looking for William Cabell. No book, no biography. Nothing. I scoured the internet and found cursory mentions on Ancestry and at the University of Virginia Library.
I wonder what sort of shape Trudy found this place in. It’s a 19th-century farmhouse, three stories tall. Two rooms per floor, a fireplace in every room. The original kitchen was probably detached—beyond the pantry that leads to what is presently Trudy’s private quarters.
The front porch opens into a hall with a large, old-fashioned, staircase. The banister from the first floor to the second is one care-worn piece of wood. I imagine hands lovingly shaping it and placing it there. Did William and his father, Mayo do that? Or was it a hired hand? The rail is scratched and scarred and yet worn smooth by a thousand gliding hands over one-hundred-sixty years. Within it, the memories of palms leisurely, worried, rushed, determined moving along it. Holding on for support physical and emotional through weddings, funerals, childbirth, and war.
To the left of the stair is the parlor. It’s a rich inviting, room. A baby-grand piano stands close to the entry. I imagine one always did. In the intrinsic quiet of the 1800s, with no electricity or fans or air conditioners, its sound must have permeated the hilltop and echoed into the small valleys surrounding the property. In the hush of daily quiet time here at The Porches, it still would.
Beyond the stairs, nestled away, is the refectory; I assumed it was the dining room in 1854, but it was apparently the master bedroom, or at least it was when the Ribbles lived here. Upstairs, on the second floor are two bedrooms both overlooking the porch. A bathroom, with its claw-footed tub and complicated modern shower system and an amazing stenciled floor. A step down, through a curtained doorway, lies another bedroom and a small room with a staircase down to the kitchen. At some point that was probably the cook’s quarters. The other back bedroom probably belonged to the upstairs maid. The third floor, small before Trudy added dormers, clearly belonged to servants or possibly young children. Slaves?
But what I’ve found here isn’t as significant as what here has found in me—awakened. This place has touched me deep inside. The house, the train, the company.
The rain stopped and I stepped onto the porch and I was breathing air untouched by today. My comment was, it smells like the 1960s. Before the pollution invaded my childhood sensibilities, before sorrow, heartbreak, before the world crowded in.
The dawn is fresh. And with it, I wake up.
Word Count: 1462