When we lived in Virginia, I spent some of it working at Historic Kenmore in Fredericksburg. A friend of mine was an avid gardener and this was a great opportunity to work alongside some master gardeners on some pretty amazing property along the Rappahannock River. I grew up as a USAF brat and by the time I got to high school, we were living at Ft Huachuca, Arizona. The lack of state history was evident. The state of Arizona is young and I think there was only one civil war battle to report and no casualties. My children’s experiences in grade school meant that I got to learn about history in Virginia and I was having a great time wandering through history with them. I was drawn to the historic structures and to the people who staked a claim in the work needed to preserve the history on behalf of those who lived so long ago. Many of the workers had a direct lineage to someone in the history books. For me, it was a chance to witness what it might be like to have a family tree so deeply rooted in the past and growing in the present.
We all started the work day the same way. You had to park on the street, homes from 2 centuries ago didn’t account for parking a car. I would walk across the tree lined back property, which was technically the front because it faced the river. Originally, everything that grew was cut down and burned during the war, so the illusion of centuries old brick and boxwoods was a trick. I liked being a part of that trick in a way. I also liked having access to the basement space under the house. You see so much by looking up at the floor. You can see how sturdy the massive pieces of wood are and you can also see where modern engineering has helped to preserve the aging structure. Walking to my morning post took me past giant chestnut trees and stout, heavy fig trees. I had an unconscious habit of counting the cannonballs embedded in the exterior walls. It didn’t take long for me to start reciting the tour pitch in my head, if only for my own benefit. The beginning of the day was my favorite time, it was quiet and dewy. Someone upstairs always made an urn of Early Grey Tea and left a basket of ginger snap cookies. They were offered upstairs in the gift shop as well. Maybe like a stagehand who is always backstage for performance, it would be more than a year before I ventured into the gift shop and I was a little surprised to see the same tea and cookies. To me they were communion, for visitors, they were a treat.
I worked alongside many accomplished gardeners. Much of the work was tedious and there was little opportunity to talk as we were spread out by 20 or more feet. I often found myself at the cold frame, near the smoke house that was now a storage shed with a brass plaque on the door. This was Buzzy’s territory, where the heavy tools congregated. I never knew Buzzy’s surname, but I knew WHO he was. Buzzy was a groundskeeper like his father and his father before him. Someone down the line had been kept at Kenmore as a slave and here in the 1990’s was a man with such a deep spiritual connection to a house that he remained in employment. I always stopped to talk to Buzzy, he didn’t have much to say but it was far more interesting and inspiring than the lunches that were thrown by the foundation’s president. He was in such a remarkable contrast to Buzzy. He wore ascot tied scarves and argyle sweaters. He would march through the lawns with his English Spaniels, waving at us like we were the hired help and he was entitled to stomp on the lawn where I had just hand picked fallen leaves. “Daisy, come ….come Daaaaiisy, we have a full day ahead of us.” And the eyes would roll for all the entitlement, Buzzy loved Kenmore more than this guy ever would.
When Thanksgiving rolled around, Kenmore prepared for the holidays. Greens are cut from nearby Ferry Farm and the magnolia leaves are gathered from the lowest branches. For as long as it takes, the fruits of the land are constructed into garland for the historic house tours using only organic pieces and using only those tools and methods handed down from the time of Fielding Lewis. I really felt like I was walking with ghosts and I deeply appreciated the repetition of seasons. Going to Ferry Farm meant I got to see Jean. Jean was in her late 70s, a serious girl in heavy boots and flannel shirts. She did not chop her words into something just because you didn’t want to hear it. She had guts. Guts enough to balk at a Turkey and Brie sandwich and swap me for the Roast Beef and Cheddar, because, “That is not a sandwich to feed someone who has been working as hard as I have today.”
I left Kenmore when my pregnancy with my 5th made the bending and stooping difficult.
Life goes on…some of us creep ahead into the future and some of stay behind and help keep the past alive.