Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us.
Elizabeth and I exchanged a few “homebound” letters over Lent. The nature of a letter is to communicate over a distance, but the season of Lent introduces other distances – there is the space between winter and spring, the break between longing and fulfillment, and the chasm, so like a tomb, between death and new life. But what is Lent, after all, but a kind of long homecoming? It is a practice of return and a way of erasing distance.
Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them (Psalm 126:6).
This is the meaning of Easter.
Easter is watching all that miserable distance shrink, almost to nothing. Easter is no more letter-writing but a face-to-face encounter. Elizabeth and I haven’t yet achieved that, it remains our not-quite-yet, but here is our literary equivalent. Here, for you Elizabeth, and for each one of you reading along: your very own tour of Maplehurst at Easter time. I am so glad you’ve come to visit.
The first thing I say to almost every guest arriving at my front door for the first time is: You found us! It always seems slightly miraculous to me. These narrow, winding Pennsylvania roads twist and curl in a way that confounds even Google and every form of GPS.
But, Elizabeth, you found us!
Even after you discovered my road (a road once traveled by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln on journeys between Philadelphia and Baltimore), even after you crawled, slowly, down our long driveway, craning your neck to see the faraway tops of the maple trees meeting in a green cathedral ceiling overhead, even then there was the matter of our front door.
Where is it?
The apparent front of the house, facing the street, has no door, only a wide front porch and two tall windows. You followed the sign with its pointing arrow, glued to a rock at the place where the driveway splits, to the right. Here is a lamppost, here is a door painted the light green color of old copper, but is this the front door? The driveway curves on around the house, there is nowhere to park, and you were unsure. This is why you found me waiting and waving right there, half in and half out of the door.
You found us! You are here!
If this were your second visit, you would continue on the driveway’s curve around to the western side of the house. You would park your car next to my pickup truck near the old, red barn, and you would enter through the back door on that side of the porch. But this is your first visit, and I will open the front door, with its many glass panes, wide.
Here is the space we grandly call “the front hall,” but it isn’t so very big. A small, oval table sits in the center of an old red rug. The table once belonged to my husband’s great-grandparents in Mexico. I don’t know exactly why, but it looks right at home here at Maplehurst. On top is a glass vase I have filled with branches: the electric green of sassafrass buds and the starry white of spirea. The staircase with its scarred wooden banister moves up toward a tall window before turning out of sight.
Not only is it Easter now, but it is April, and the air is sweet in that way some people name warm and some people name cool. There is no need to pause at the coat closet. Instead, I place your bag on the table, take your hand, gesture to our left, and say,
“Here is the parlor. This is my quiet room. Unless the children are practicing their piano.”
I turn and indicate the room on our right,
“We call this larger room the family room, though I sometimes wonder what the Hughes family, who first built this house, would have called it.”
You see that a round, oak pedestal table sits in the curve of a bow window. The cloth is dark, dusty pink and covered in cabbage roses. I explain that it was once our kitchen table, but we, along with our guests, have outgrown it. Now it sits here for board games and library books and cups of tea with a view of the flower garden.
“Look,” I say pointing toward the garden just beyond the window, “Lent was for planting tiny shriveled pea seeds only to watch them be buried by snow. Easter is for that shower of wild violets. It has flooded the garden. Purple, lavender, white, and green everywhere you look. And there, in the middle of a purple sea, is my youngest. She is a hunter stalking dandelions. When she finds one, she will shout with pleasure before wishing, yet one more time, for a dog of her own.
Bless her heart. I’ve always insisted that Jonathan and I are not dog people, but maybe those dandelion wishes are more powerful than I know.
Would you like to step through to the kitchen?”
To be continued …
Elizabeth is giving me and my readers a personal tour of her home, Mersea. Will you join us?
Elizabeth and I are homebound. She, a writer of poetry and prose, is bound to Mersea, a 1904 white Victorian nestled in the historic district of a South Carolina shrimping village. I am bound to Maplehurst, a red-brick farmhouse built by Pennsylvania Quakers in 1880. We are both writers, wives, and mothers, but nearly twenty years and hundreds of miles lie between us. This season, as winter turns toward spring and Lent leans toward Easter, Elizabeth and I are writing letters, she beneath the pines and pecans, I beneath the hemlocks and maples. We will reflect together on our homebound journeys. We will explore the bonds of love and faithfulness that tie us, and not always easily, to these particular places and to the people sheltered within them. Please join us for an epistolary exploration of love, loss, and restoration.
Find Elizabeth’s first letter here. My response is below.
March 1, 2017
From the kitchen table at Maplehurst, where a peacock blue, block-printed tablecloth is scattered with the crumbs of last night’s pancake supper
As I write, Dr. B is smoothing down our old oak floors with an electric sander. It sounds as if an airplane has flown in through an open window by mistake, a mechanical bird looking for escape. Once the old finish is removed, he will soak the wood in a mixture of tung and orange oils. The dull, dry floorboards will absorb their own luster until they can absorb no more. Then the floors will shine for the first time in many decades, and my children will no longer gather splinters with their bare toes. He says the finish will take a month or so to cure. While we wait, the rugs will lie rolled up in the basement, and the house will smell like a grove of Florida citrus.
Dr. B is our doctor of old houses, and he does indeed have the healer’s gift. He came to us a year ago when Jonathan and I found that we had fallen into a silence more sinister than the usual quiet lull between house projects. This was the silence of rotted wood beyond our ability to repair and crumbling limestone mortar whose nineteenth-century recipe was a puzzle we could not hope to solve.
The first time I met him he showed me photographs of his intricate, swirling plaster work. I admired them like I admire sculpture in a museum. It did not matter that our plain, Quaker-built farmhouse has no decorative plasterwork. The second time I met him he told me he’d been praying for one more old house to restore. Maplehurst was the answer to his prayer, but he is the answer to ours.
Here in Pennsylvania, a mild winter appears to be coming to an early end. I have seen the very first of the bright yellow daffodils called “February Gold.” Despite their name, they have never bloomed for me in February, until this year.
Soon, then, he and I will turn our attention outdoors. He to the red bricks in need of fresh mortar on the west side of the house, and me to the garden. Before I plant out sweet peas and dig in bareroot roses, however, I need to finish wallpapering and painting “Julie’s room.” For two years, our friend Julie lived in this room, but last month she moved out to a place of her own. I have chosen a pale, not-too-pink shade of pink for the sloped attic ceiling and walls, and a bold pink-and-blue floral wallpaper for the window wall at the far end of the room. Quite likely, we will call this bedroom “Julie’s room” forever, but I intend it to be a bedroom my two nieces can call their own each time they visit.
Perhaps I plant baby trees so enthusiastically because I, like you, live in fear that one of our ancient pines will one day topple down, taking our front porch with it. Restoration that peels back the ravages of time like layers of old paint is such a hopeful thing. But the restoration required of us in the wake of disaster, even a disaster as small as a broken pane of glass or the deep scratch my boys left on the banister, is a more daunting cross to carry. In my weariness, I opt for bandages that hide but do not heal. Months ago, I taped a square of cardboard across the missing pane of glass in the door to my potting shed. Now I can see that cardboard flapping in the breeze.
Restoration is beautiful to contemplate, wonderful when finished, but often difficult to live. In this season at Maplehurst, restoration is the bone-rattling sound of renewed floors. It is the rosy-pink glow of a bedroom decorated for young girls. It is also the note on my calendar reminding me that my husband will soon travel to escort our nieces to their Daddy-Daughter Dance.
To commit oneself to restoration, we must be willing to draw near to brokenness. Broken floors. Broken hearts.
Today is Ash Wednesday. Tonight, I will make the drive to church with my children. I will allow four soft, small foreheads to be smudged with a mark of sin and death. We are turning toward spring, toward resurrection, yet I worry: is restoration second-best? Is it always not-quite-as-good-as new? When I study these many broken things, I know I want better-than-new.
The broken walls, of which Scripture speaks so often, are only partially rebuilt. The ruins have only begun to be repaired.
But the work has begun, and this gives me hope.
With gratitude for your listening ear,
You can find Elizabeth Marshall’s letters and more of her beautiful words here.