The House Ruth Wilkinson Built

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I never met Ruth Wilkinson. The matriarch of 367 E Water Street died well before I ever heard her name, before I knew Belhaven, N.C., existed. But her spirit touched me when I walked through the front door. Why else would I buy a house, on impulse, driving home to New Jersey after just one look? For me, the answer is simply Ruth. Ruth chose me.

It wasn’t until we opened our doors as a bed and breakfast that I understood the power of Ruth. I met her granddaughters Becky and Linda, and through Ruth’s great granddaughter Anne Becker, I have come to know the deepest roots of their family and the home that we named Between Water & Main.

Linda recalls her grandmother as a woman of faith, a talented seamstress, a storyteller and cook. She describes her as “a comfort,” who took in boarders after her husband, Will, a tugboat captain, passed away. Her door was always open to anybody who needed a friend. No one left hungry. “That really was her joy in life,” Linda wrote to me.

In the past four years, we have had the fortune of meeting the Wilkinson descendants, as well as other former families. There were the Miller children, who grew up here in the 1950s. Spending time with them was like being with my own siblings. Their stories were so rich, I could visualize them standing on the front porch, daring each other to be the first to jump into the Pantego Creek, which had risen just high enough to reach the top porch step, as high as its ever gotten, after a major hurricane.

We also sat at the kitchen table with Dr. Charles Boyette, who clearly loved the house. Ruth’s friend and neighbor, the young Doc Boyette sourced old planks and bricks when he added new rooms to the house. Last year, we hosted his daughter Cherryl, who grew up in the house in the 1970s. She brought her two sons and reminisced about climbing the magnolia and swinging from the stairwell. We pulled down the attic stairs to show them all where Cherryl had left her own indelible impression on the house. Her name and initials are inscribed where she played with her friends so many years ago.

Because Ruth’s house is open for guests, these families were able to return “home” even after several changes of ownership.

When Alan and I listed the inn for sale, I knew we were passing on more than a house, more than a business, more than a lifestyle. We were passing on a connection to all of those who came before, all of those caretakers who did their part to keep this 110-year-old homestead from being razed.

Now the time has come to open the door to a new family of owners: Kasey Mickler and Molly Joyner. Kasey said she never does anything on impulse. Except this once. She said she fell in love the minute she walked in the door. She and Molly, who has lived in Belhaven for a few years, decided to buy the inn when Kasey was driving back to Connecticut. They will run the inn together.

Knowing the house that Ruth built will be in more than capable hands, hands that will lovingly craft a new dream, makes it so much easier to leave, although I doubt we will ever leave Ruth’s house behind. We will be among the families lucky enough to come back home for a weekend. Lucky enough to be rocked to sleep in the embrace of an old house.

Houses change hands, but special houses change spirits, absorbing the essence of their caretakers into the timber from the floor joists to rafters. And while every life, including Ruth’s, has its share of misfortune, the walls of Ruth Wilkinson’s house radiate “nothing but love,” as Anne Becker, keeper of her family history, has often repeated. And love is a powerful thing.

 

 

Circling-In On 60

When your birthday is in mid-November and you live in the northeast, it might very well snow that day. And so it did the year I got my first new bicycle. A metallic blue Schwinn Stingray with chrome monkey handlebars, streamers, and a sparkle-flecked banana seat. Getting that bike was a dream come true. The weather did not deter me from giving my new wheels a test drive. I ran that bike into the snow-covered cul-de-sac and rode around in circles, leaving a tangle of tread marks in the snow. On a future November birthday, I would make a similar pattern with much larger treads, practicing my driving skills in a snow-covered parking lot.

When my boys were young, one of their favorite songs was Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game. The happily-ever-after lyrics lulled to sleep: A boy catching a dragonfly in a jar, painted ponies, ice skating, cartwheels, car wheels, fears and dreams. For me, it was Brothers Grimm, camouflaged by rhyme and a lilting voice: Ten, 16, 20. The years spin by. We’re captives on a carousel. You can’t drag your feet; you’ll get burned. You remembered what happened when you tried to stop the playground merry-go-round before your friends flew off. Better to hang on for dear life and push through your fear, repeating, “It’s only a ride. It’s only a ride.”

If Joni had written more than four verses, I’m sure the calliope would have played through the decades until the boy turned 90, taking his final nap in the lion chariot. Round and round, ups and downs. Odds are that the years won’t all be clear, frozen streams and carefree, cartwheel days, but each birthday we celebrate is another chance to inhale a wish and blow our smoke signals to heaven.

The girl who dreamed tomorrow now is 60. Pedaling through the years like a possessed child on a metallic blue bike, she’s on the ride of a lifetime.  

Any July

July, she will fly. And give no warning of her flight. – Paul Simon, April Come She Will

“I can’t hear, May.” My grandfather scolded my grandmother as he tuned the radio to the daily marine forecast. My ears opened before my eyes did. It was always the same routine: My grandmother quietly asking my grandfather about the work lined up in the boatyard that day, while my grandfather adjusted the radio until, barely audible through the static, he honed in on an announcer hypnotically reading words off a page. They floated up to the sleeping loft: Visibility more than five nautical miles. West Northwest Winds at 10-15 knots, diminishing to 10 in the afternoon. Wave height 2-3 feet. Sea surface temperature 70.1 degrees Fahrenheit.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Velocity.  Small craft advisories. Tides. It was like eavesdropping on an “adults-only” conversation, but there wasn’t any useful content I could use as collateral to bribe favors from my brother, Gary, who was likely still asleep on the opposite end of the loft. We were separated as far as possible to minimize bed-time disturbances; two years older, he had the privilege of staying up 30 minutes later than me.

It was July. Any July. The beginning and end of summer in New England. It was the month that my grandparents, who lived on a saltwater pond, connected by inlet to Little Peconic Bay on Long Island’s South Fork, gave my parents and sister a break from my brother and me. It was the month, we told our friends, “We are going to the country.”

July had routine: the annual North Sea Fireman’s Carnival, riding to the dump in the back of my grandfather’s beige and white pick-up, Nana’s rice pudding, and Schwenk’s milk, plugged with cream, delivered to the backdoor.  We fought for privacy in the outdoor shower and took turns pumping water from the spring-fed well. Boats. There were boats with oars, sails and motors. There were the things we could count on like the daily marine forecast, and there were things that would change like our height, so diligently recorded by our grandmother on the wall of her tiny kitchen.

There would be so many Southampton summers, until there weren’t. When did Schwenk’s stop delivering milk? When did we coax the last drop of water from the rusty hand-pump? When did our heights plateau? When did jobs get in the way of Julys?

Our grandparents followed our examples. They flew the coup, moving to Florida where summer prevailed.  Not beholden to our fondest memories, the sleepy bay-side landscape of our youth transformed to vineyards, horse farms and large estates.

Untethered things change. Change is growth, and growth is good.  Right? No matter how far south I have moved to extend summer, July still flies, leaving longing in her wake.

 

Going with Flo

 

When we moved to Belhaven. NC, about five years ago, my husband dumped the contents of his basement workshop and two-car garage into cardboard boxes labeled “shed.” We were downsizing, but he wasn’t ready to do the hard work of sorting. He would deal with it after the move, so he told me.

When the moving company arrived in Belhaven, the workers diligently put the boxes marked “shed” where they belonged, stacking them until they almost reached the ceiling. Almost daily, I walked to Riddick & Windley/Ace Hardware to buy something – lightbulbs, screws, hooks, painting supplies – all stuff I knew was packed in one of dozens of boxes marked “shed.” If only I could divine which box contained the item I needed at the moment.  It became a running joke between Aaron, the counter clerk, and me: “I see it!” he would say, tapping fingers to his temples pretending to be psychic. “It’s in the box marked ‘shed.’”

Eventually, Alan unpacked and shelved most, not all, of the boxes. By my standards, it was still a mess.  “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s ‘when,’” I lectured him periodically. A storm will come through and flood the shed.

And she did.

The stuff from the boxes marked “shed” are now in a heap marked “Florence.”

Aside from minor property damage, our losses fit squarely in the category of “stuff.” That is not true for tens of thousands of people in coastal Carolina, many who lost everything. We are among the fortunate. Almost everything we needed, including a window air-conditioner, was a walk-away. As soon as the flood waters subsided, Belhaven’s Riddick & Windley/ACE  hardware store opened its doors to help residents get back into their rubber boots, armed with bleach, mops and pails.  For now, Florence, whose name will join the ranks of weather legends, will be banished to a higher shelf. May her record remain out of reach.

 

King of the May

img_2198-e1525789597900.jpgThe release of Charles Shultz’s animated “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was poor timing for my classmate Tommy Shortall. Almost from the day he began his tenure at our small Catholic grade school, Tommy was compared to the character Pig-Pen – the one perpetually surrounded by a cloud of dirt.

The nuns started it. They used Tommy’s slovenly appearance to shame him, forcing him to stand in front of the class as an example of how not to come to school.  It didn’t help. Every day he showed up looking as if he had just rolled out of bed wearing his uniform. Wrinkled and untucked, his shirt looked unclean, his hair unwashed and uncombed. The girls complained that he smelled “dirty.” No one wanted to sit next to him in class. Pig-Pen or Poindexter, the loser date in the Barbie Queen of the Prom board game, Tommy was to be avoided.

I felt sorry for him. Where were his parents to make sure he was cleaned, pressed and ready for school like the rest of us? Didn’t they notice? I also felt vulnerable, and scared. From the very first day of school, I was compared to my older siblings, falling somewhere between “smart” and “lazy” in the continuum of labels used to define us. Better to lay low than attract a label. I didn’t join the mean girls by reporting Tommy’s hygiene habits to the nuns, nor did I defend him. Like good little Charlie Browns, the boys didn’t care. They were aligned in their belief that girls, not boys (not even Tommy) had cooties.

By third grade, Pig-Pen was a codename for Tommy. He bore it well. A nickname means you are “cool.” Negative attention from a member of the opposite sex means you are “popular.” Such were the lies perpetuated by parents to help their children survive the cruelties of youth.

One morning, a nun came to our classroom to announce that three lucky girls would be selected to participate in the May Procession – a ritual to honor the Virgin Mary by crowning her statue with a wreath of flowers. The only requirement was that the girls had to wear their First Holy Communion dresses from the previous year. For a uniform-wearing Catholic School girl in the 1960s, this was the equivalent of dressing like a Disney princess for the day. Every girl raised her hand to be considered, even the ones who clearly had outgrown their dresses.

The teacher directed each girl to write her name on a slip of paper. One by one, she summoned three boys to pull names at random. The boys were less than thrilled. The girls vibrated like an audience of game show contestants. The first two girls shrieked like newly named Miss Americas when their names were read. Finally, the teacher called Tommy to pull the third name, pointing out that it was his reward for coming to school neatly attired that morning, most likely a Monday. The girls dropped their heads. No one wanted Pig-Pen to choose them. It would be bad luck in the board game of life, like drawing Poindexter (instead of cute Ken, athletic Bob or intellectual Tom) as your steady date.

I lost interest in the whole affair, and started picking at a scab irritated by my green, woolen knee socks. Then I heard my name.

I wanted to hug Tommy.

The girls would continue to be mean about it, but I was going to be in the May Crowning because of Tommy. With that one lucky draw, one sleight of hand, he instantly became my King of the May. I stood up against the girls who picked on him and offered sympathy when the nuns were less than kind. I began etching my own groove on the continuum: “nonconformist.” By the time I reached 8th grade, I was a doctrine-challenging, guitar-playing, Rolling Stone magazine reader, who idolized Bob Dylan. The nuns were glad to see me go.

I think of Tommy whenever the topic of bullying comes up, which is all too frequent, and the complicity we all share when we don’t speak up.  Looking back, the word I would choose to describe Tommy is “resilient.” He grinned through the pain of humiliation. He was more like Christ than the rest of us.

Under the Belhaven Sun

 

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It wasn’t how I had envisioned it. In the original script, my husband and I arrive in Alessandria, Italy. Unexpected, we ask directions to Luca’s farm in amazingly practiced Italian. Lenny, Luca’s Labrador retriever, greets us on the dusty road. Signaled by his dog, Luca shields his eyes with his hand and squints into the sunlight. A smile slowly comes to his face as he recognizes us. “Luca!” we yell, waving. The sky bursts into the thousand colors of Belhaven. “We’re here!” We kept our promise.

In the revised version – how it really happened – we are in Milan, Italy’s second largest city. It’s raining. Holding a map in one hand, an umbrella in the other, Alan and I are struggling to find our pre-arranged meeting point. The streets are crowded, and everyone is moving fast to get out of the rain. We are lost, and late. We stop to get our bearings. Someone nudges us from behind. It’s Luca! Our smiles radiate the thousand colors of Belhaven.

We settle into a neighborhood pizzeria, where we meet Luca’s girlfriend, Giulia, and catch up on life. She shares photos of the beautiful stucco farmhouse they are renovating, their creative display at last year’s farmer’s market, and a recent trip to Thailand. Luca talks about the difficulties of converting from traditional to organic farming, the bad weather that has delayed planting season and his latest venture — egg-laying chickens.

“It’s so weird seeing you in Milan,” Luca said. “When I think of you, we are in North Carolina.” Intuitively, I understood. Before Milan, our relationship existed in fixed space: a single Google Maps pin for the five weeks Luca spent as a Workaway volunteer at our bed and breakfast.  Fast-forward two-and-a-half years. Here we are, gathered around a new pin 4,341 miles away, eating pizza and gelato.

We recalled how difficult it was to say goodbye in North Carolina. At the time, we didn’t have a plan to re-connect, only a promise. Parting in Milan, we had neither plan nor promise. We had possibilities. And all things are possible under the Belhaven sun.

 

March Madness

Several years ago, on Panama’s Pacific coast, a small hotel owner told me he no longer lived in one of the exquisite bungalows he had built on top of the cliffs. He moved to town because he had forgotten what quiet was.

For him, the sound of crashing waves, loud and persistent, was like suffering with tinnitus. I remember thinking how odd it was to seek quiet in town, with its own set of predictable disturbances.

For me, the ocean is a sedative; it puts my monkey brain to rest. And there’s science behind it. The sounds of the ocean activate the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling us to slow down and be present.

After being stranded on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, for nearly a week during winter storm Riley, then returning in time for Quinn, followed by Skylar, and now Toby, in rapid succession, I am beginning to understand what that hotel owner was feeling.

The weather madness that will be remembered as March 2018 left an earworm burrowed in my head, and it is not the calming CD of crashing waves. It’s a Halloween soundtrack of the wind. Howling. Groaning. Whining. Wailing. Caterwauling. Whirring. Revving. Whistling. Booming. Buzzing. Moaning. I had never considered so many descriptors for the wind before this month. Constant. Insistent. Shrill. Punishing. House-shaking. And there’s that un unearthly drone that sets the dog to inconsolable barking. I have to investigate, despite the voice inside my head that warns me, “Do not go down the stairs!”

Somewhere deep inside, blanket pulled over my head, I long to hear a car alarm, a dog (other than my own) barking in the distance, an idling truck, human laughter. The quiet of town.