What I have lost is a treasured and cherished place, Melrose. If you've known me any length of time you will know about Melrose primarily as a regular vacation and respite destination. But it was so much more than that. Its history includes its use as a peach "plantation" by my great-grandfather (distaff side, for what it's worth) in the early years of the 20th century. The story goes that he purchased the property in the cooler hills across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia, to find relief from the oppressive, southern, summer heat in neighboring South Carolina. Peaches ensued, but eventually, as William Maltbie Rowland aged and his declining health limited his ability to manage the plantation, it settled into a state of neglect.
peaches ready to ship out
The Rowland women offer hospitality: that's my great-grandmother at the left,
and my grandmother in the plaid skirt.
As a family we spent each spring vacation traveling to Melrose, so it holds distinct memories of a childhood full of climbing rocks, walking through the woods to a favorite swimming and picnic spot, gathering on the lawn to watch the sunset each night, and so much more. During college I managed two trips there on my own to visit my grandmother, and gradually, in adulthood, I claimed my own pattern of regular visits to connect with her, and to establish a bond with that place that has anchored me to the core of my being.
To be at Melrose was to pause time. Its amenities, in the physical sense, were practical and sufficient. The cottage wasn't insulated, so relief from the cold came from fireplaces in the living and dining rooms, and a handful of scattered space heaters. We added ceiling fans to two of the three bedrooms, the living room, and the front porch 10 years ago, and continued to draw on floor and window fans in an attempt to snag a share in whatever cool air might be found on a hot, South Carolina day or evening. Until the later 70's, perhaps even the early 80's, there was no phone service there, and until about the same time the water for use at the cottage was pumped from the ground (it was, at least, an electrical pump!). There was no television, and radio reception was spotty. Although this description sounds primitive, it never felt that way. Care was taken to keep the cottage maintained and hospitable. It was here that I learned how to use a paint brush--a vacation project that tapped into a team of volunteer laborers--to prune trees, bushes and shrubs, recognize bird calls, and make pancakes. It was here that we spent hours around the dinner table feasting on each others company, playing games, or sitting before a roaring fire on a damp day working jigsaw puzzles.
When various projects didn't beckon, time was spent on the front porch reading, conversing, working crossword puzzles (my particular favorite past time) or simply staring across the front lawn toward the Georgia hills to the west. There was a hammock in which to stretch out and sway, or a glider for matching the rhythm of the breeze that danced up the lawn. There were walks down old roads to former tenant farmer homes, or what was left of them, or to streams that found their source in springs farther up a hill. There was time, and breath, and the unbearable luxury of letting the gentle magic of nature seep into your pores and keep company with whatever joy or heartbreak arrived with you when you pulled into the drive. At Melrose there really weren't any distractions to lead you away from yourself, or escape pesky concerns. Instead, the time and space to sit with your life brought the opportunity to find clarity of perspective, acceptance away from judgment, and an assurance that whatever woes afflicted one's life, the serenity of this place acted as a balm against the assaults of the world. Its beauty was two-fold: that which was natural, and the way it loved you so fiercely when you came to be in its presence.
Once I moved to Tennessee in 1999 the proximity of Melrose made it possible to make visits there twice a year, as my mother began to do in her retirement, following the pattern of her mother before her. By then my grandmother had died, leaving Melrose's acreage physically divided between Mom and her two nephews. As a way to protect this legacy from the jaws of crushing taxes down the road we established a family partnership, so that in time my brothers and I essentially owned the property as general partners, and Mom managed it.
I was the only one of my siblings to maintain an attachment to Melrose. After we interred my grandmother's ashes there in a special garden bed, my younger brother and his wife visited once. My older brother and his family came a few times when my nephew was young, but Jesse, soon to be 26, was 14 the last time they were there. As a family we held a collective commitment to practice good stewardship of the gift that was Melrose, both environmentally and financially, with a primary goal being to draw on this asset, as needed, to support my mother's quality of life. It was this latter factor that drove an earlier-than-anticipated decision last year to sell the property.
Through tears I made every possible appeal to find a way to leverage the value of what we owned without having to lose it. Perhaps startled by so much emotion, one brother asked me if I could describe my feelings about parting with what to me was more than a cherished legacy. "Sure," I told him, "it's like a death." And so it has been.
In March an offer to purchase the property came that we decided as a family to accept. In April Ken and I spent the equivalent of a week packing, sorting, and dispersing the contents of the cottage, trying in between phases of emptying cupboards to enjoy this final opportunity to sit on the porch and drink in the view that transcends time and space. It was during one of those last stretches of fixing the view into my memory that I stopped to consider the durability of the physical place that had housed family gatherings and provided a retreat for friends here and there as a getaway. There is no denying the emotional and psychological benefit of having a place of continuity in life. Melrose had been that for me and for my family. Yet as I looked at the posts reaching between porch railing and roof beams, I saw them suddenly as a standard-bearer of faithfulness. They were always there, greeting us on arrival and bidding us farewell when it was time to load the car and depart. Sentries, if you will, of stability and endurance, and part and parcel of the experience of welcome and acceptance that characterized the heart and soul of what this place had been for me. It is a place that never failed me, but simply let me be, and for that my heart will forever be grateful.
A few days ago I recalled that experience of acknowledging the witness born by the cottage through the years, and an epiphany followed. That place that I loved, and that loved me in return, is still there. It continues to love me from afar, to rejoice in the time when our lives intersected and our spirits danced together. It remembers my tears and my anguish and rejoices in a heart overflowing with gladness for its very existence. Our connection can never be erased, nor can the power of its beauty ever be extinguished.
I continue to mourn the loss of this beloved, and will for some time. As I move into a future that doesn't include its real presence, I will treasure the sunbeams it left in my heart. I will find comfort in the knowledge that its springs continue to nourish the earth and fill the river, that its branches offer a landing for the hawks and the wrens, and that the deer and the turkey find refuge in the glens and the broad spaces that make up the tracts of what was our land. I will imagine the rain on the roof and the the light gleaming through the wisteria leaves on the arbor that shaded the porch. Perhaps most importantly, I will draw on the strength within that was nurtured by the peace and beauty of this extraordinary place, and thus honor the legacy that was my privilege to enjoy and love.