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.