In the mid 1800s, a wrought iron gazebo – at that time, also known as a “summer house,” although it’s only 9 feet in diameter – was erected at a home in Natchez, Mississippi, called Montebello. The house later burned down, but the gazebo, unharmed, was taken apart and shipped to Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, where it was erected beside a pond on an estate called Rochroanne.
In 1927, when my grandfather was 7, my great-grandparents purchased the estate and renamed it Grey Towers. For fifty years, the gazebo overlooked the pond at Grey Towers. My grandfather and his siblings grew up with the gazebo, as did my mother and her siblings. In the late 1970s, my grandfather removed the gazebo to his home in New Hampshire, just before I was born. I, too, then grew up with the gazebo, which perched on a hill behind his house, overlooking a rolling meadow and clear brook where my siblings and I caught minnows and beavers built dams. My aunt and uncle were married in front of the gazebo; a photograph of my extended family has us posed, smiling, in front of the “summer house” celebrating my grandparents 40th anniversary.
I don’t want to digress too much but growing up was not easy for me. I had a complicated and fraught relationship with my father. I began suffering from – at the time – undiagnosed and untreated depression around the time I was 12, but even prior to that, I had a very difficult time. Our annual summer pilgrimages to New Hampshire – during which my father stayed home – were one of the (if not definitively the) brightest spots in my childhood. My grandfather was loving and fun, and provided me with the positive, affectionate male attention I desperately needed. We would often see my aunts and uncles while there, and they also showed me love and were interested in me and my life. I was especially close with my grandmother, with whom I shared an indescribable bond. I was her first grandchild and she made me feel special, important, something I craved more than anything.
Our summers in New Hampshire were filled with games, laughter, dancing, swimming, tractor rides, church fairs – everything a perfect summer childhood should have. For ten days I was carefree, happy beyond measure. My mother was happy, spending time with her parents and siblings. My sisters and brother were happy, unfettered, blithe. Life was truly good.
One of my favorite activities with my grandfather was “picnics in the gazebo.” A picnic lunch was packed – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (when I was little, my grandmother made them; as I grew older, I helped), Fanta or Tab, potato chips. My grandfather, my sister, and I would gather in the gazebo, chatting, eating our lunch, my grandfather gently teasing us. These were halcyon days, and the moments spent in the gazebo typified the peace and beauty of those times.
When I was 14, my grandmother died on Christmas Eve. My world went into a tailspin. We did visit New Hampshire the following summer and I cried almost the entire time. My grandfather hastily remarried, lonely and lost without the love of his life. His new wife did not want to live in the home he’d made with my grandmother, so they sold the house, the land. I didn’t get to say goodbye. As I write this, thirty years later, I feel tears prick at my eyes. To this day, I dream of the home – which we called “The Farm” as it had been a working farm in its original iteration – and in my dreams I wander through the house, sobbing inconsolably. I wonder sometimes if I don’t haunt the house in my dreams. I stroll through the rooms, reliving memories – here is where my sister and I slept side by side in twin beds, here is where I cuddled my grandmother in her canopy bed, here is where we played backgammon with my aunts and uncles, here is the barn where we unearthed relics from my my mother’s childhood. And here, in the backyard, is the gazebo, still ringing with the laughter of two little girls picnicking with their grandfather, most beloved of all men in their lives.
There was another house, a lake house, where we often spent day times swimming and, if the Farm was full, would stay. One bedroom, one bathroom, open ceiling, no privacy, but still – happy. Full of love. Sadly, my grandfather left that house to his new wife when he passed away in 2012, and she to her children when she died. Without a word to any of us, they sold it. Now, in New Hampshire, there is nothing left for me of my most cherished childhood memories. I look the houses up sometimes, on Google Maps or Zillow. I wonder what the new residents have done with the interiors. In my dreams, they stay the same.
In 2019, we moved to Pennsylvania from Seattle. We did not have the furniture to fill our new home, but serendipitously, my aunt and uncle in Connecticut – the same ones who married in front of the gazebo – were downsizing and moving south. And they had many pieces of furniture from the Farm, which they offered to me. I gratefully and emotionally accepted, and now the same canopy bed in which I snuggled my grandmother occupies a room in my own home, the velvet couch on which I sat and paged through a book of nursery rhymes lends its elegance to my living room.
One day, nonchalantly, my aunt and uncle asked if I was interested in taking the gazebo.
Unbeknownst to me, when my grandfather sold the Farm, they removed the gazebo to their own home and had had it in storage ever since. And now it could be mine. Now my own children could grow up with it, a representation of beautiful childhood memories, a family heirloom passed down through four generations. I accepted, gratefully, happily, excitedly. And that’s where Lower Merion Township comes in.
(to be continued)