I was never one who understood the appeal of the road less traveled. I had no interest in bouncing along an unknown pitted path, dust and gravel spewing in every direction, in search of some precarious destination. The allure of maneuvering through traffic on crumbling asphalt aligned by familiar street signs was more in keeping with my then very conventional and younger self.
Now, however, with my sixtieth year within wrinkled arm’s reach, I made a startling and unexpected U-turn from my predictable past. Having recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, I was in need of a new home and instead of my usual insistence on newly constructed subdivision houses in neatly condensed sunbaked rows, one two-storied box indistinguishable from the other, I had, without ruminating or regret, purchased an elegantly aging house constructed in 1917. Built in a Foursquare style with sturdy Doric columns that stood as sentries before a sweeping front porch, its personality was as unique as each of the neighboring homes all pleasantly shaded by leafy umbrellas of towering trees.
She was a dowager and, perhaps, I found in her a genuine connection-a shared history in our journey of growing older. I had empathy for her blemishes, complaining water pipes, occasional sagging oak floorboards, and much like me, the benefit that could be made from a few cosmetic repairs. Together, they were rather humorous reminders of my own drooping parts, faded childhood scars, and creaking bones.
I also felt, at this stage in my life, an awakening nostalgia which bore in me an ardent curiosity about the many generations of memories that had accumulated in the old house like the thick multiple layers of paint on her plaster walls. Their presence seemed to hover in each room, prompting my latent traditional beliefs, largely influenced by my fondness for such 1950s and 60s sitcoms as Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver, to create idealized scenarios that spanned over a century.
I was confident that the striking mahogany staircase, curving openly to the second floor, must have ushered more than one nervous young bride, her ivory satin train trailing endlessly behind and velvety crimson roses trembling in elbow-length gloved hands, to her waiting, boyishly handsome, soon-to-be husband.
Of course, the living room had to have been the heart of the home. It remained a timeless Norman Rockwell painting for the many families that had gathered around the coal generated warmth of the beautifully emerald-green tiled fireplace. I imagined evenings pleasantly spent with dad comfortably reading the newspaper and mom content in her needlework while the children concentrated on their homework or entertained themselves by playing games. A console radio stood nearby supplying the dry humor of Jack Benny or another exciting adventure of The Lone Ranger.
During the holidays the room was heady with the pine scent of a freshly cut Christmas tree so tall that its golden star nearly pierced the ten-foot ceiling. Decorating with colorful glass ornaments and homemade garlands of popcorn and cranberries was traditionally done on Christmas Eve which further heightened the already elevated ebullience of little ones.
Upstairs, overlooking the backyard, was a sleeping porch once used to escape Virginia’s summer humidity which usually hung heavily within the house like wet towels on a clothesline. I often wondered what scary tales and whispered secrets were shared on that porch throughout those starry nights.
Babies were, certainly, born in one of the bedrooms with the reassuring assistance of the family doctor who, naturally, made house calls anytime night or day. What joy and relief each mother must have felt holding her healthy newborn after long hours of exhausting and painful labor.
These were the romanticized musings that, for me, continued to breathe and roam among the shadows of the house-their fragile presence filling, like spilledmercury, my empty spaces that until recently, I was unaware even existed.
That all changed on the day I met Mrs. Edith Louise Davenport.
Mrs. Edith Louise Davenport came to my door on a sweltering August afternoon with her granddaughter, Faith, lightly pressed against her, I assumed, in readiness for a possible stumble made by the elderly woman. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Despite being in her nineties and having a noticeably bowed back, Mrs. Edith Louise Davenport was in spirit, ram-rod straight. Her eyes were clear, sharply observant, and studied me as if to gage whether or not I was worth putting forth the effort. Despite the temperature, she wore a crisp navy blue long sleeved polyester pantsuit with a pink sweater lingering across her shoulders. She stepped confidently in white orthopedic shoes with a matching white purse locked tightly and defensively in the crook of her arm.
After the introductions, (the older woman slowly enunciating each of her three names as if to emphasize her importance) Faith, her cheeks blooming in an apologetic blush, timidly explained that her grandmother had been born and raised in the house and if it wasn’t an imposition, could she take a look inside?
Mrs. Edith Louise Davenport waved a freckled hand in dismissal. “Even if it is an imposition, who would deny an old lady a few moments in her childhood home?”
Imposition? In one swift motion I opened the door as far as it would go, fervently waving the two women inside, anxious for the echoes of the familiar surroundings to reclaim for the older woman the many cherished memories made here along with the pleasurable emotions they once evoked.
She stood in the center of the wide foyer, nodding deliberately, her lips disappearing in a taut line stretched across her weathered face. “Yes, I was born upstairs in Mama and Papa’s bedroom. February second, nineteen and twenty-five. 2:14 a.m.”
“That’s so amazing,” I said breathlessly.
Her expression was stern as she levelled it at me. “It was something alright. We both nearly died. Complications with the birth. That did it for my mother. Frightened her so that she refused to have any more children. Papa was devastated. Never had a son to carry on the Langley name. I always felt he blamed me for it.”
“I’m- terribly sorry,” I offered lamely.
Faith rushed in, a strained enthusiasm in her voice as she attempted to lift the dark shade that had been unexpectedly drawn closed. “Weren’t you and Grandpa married here? This beautiful house would have been the perfect setting for a wedding!”
Mrs. Edith Louise Davenport sniffed divisively. “It was just Mama, Papa, the two of us and the preacher, of course. I was three months along and already showing so a white wedding dress was out of the question. After the ceremony your grandfather went back home to his house and I stayed here. We hadn’t found a place to live yet so…”
Suddenly, the only thing I could hear was the dispiriting sound of bubbles bursting.
Upon entering the living room, however, there was an immediate transformation in her rigid body language and expression. With a surprising measure of unrepressed delight, Mrs. Edith Louis Davenport clasped her knotted hands together and pressed them to her chest. “Oh, how this room brings back memories of Uncle Bedford!”
Suddenly,my body straightened, alert with anticipation.
“He was my mother’s youngest brother and I loved him dearly. And oh, he could make me laugh! Lived with us for about a year-well, that is until the accident.”
That short-lived expectation escaped from me like the dying breath of a party balloon.
“Killed in a terrible automobile accident. Just terrible. Only thirty-one years old.” She then gave a curt nod in the direction of the sunlit bay window. “For two days Bedford was laid out right there where your sofa is. Poor thing didn’t even own a suit to be buried in. Mama had to use one of my father’s which Papa was none too happy about.” She narrowed her eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses as if to sharpen the time worn image that had not been lost but simply shuffled to the very back of a collection of faded, crumbling letters tucked away in a cigar box for safe keeping.
Mrs. Edith Louise Davenport and her granddaughter left and as I stood outside on the front porch watching them go, the older woman’s dour face barely visible above the passenger side door, I chided myself for the fanciful and, from what I learned today, ridiculously idyllic stories I had created about the people who had spent part of their lives within these walls. Unfortunately, like the house itself, they must have had to weather occasional stormy moments that incurred damage.
For me, there would be no more inspiring spirits representing perfect past lives in this old home. Mrs. Edith Louise Davenport took care of that by dousing me with the frigid water of reality.
Then how do I explain the indistinct image of a smiling young man in an ill-fitting suit reclining on my living room couch on so many evenings?
Jill Abell is a retired English teacher who enjoys being able to teach part time in Richmond, Virginia. When not teaching, she can be found in a small home office loving or hating – depending upon the day – writing fiction. She has completed two YA manuscripts but has yet been able to get them published.