Passing It On

PASSING IT ON BY MEA TOWNSEND We swooped up the 1841 white Georgian house with black shutters, picket fence, large barn and a substantial amount of property in the middle of East Hampton village, previously owned by Captain Sylvanus Parsons, Katharine Bennett, Dr. David Edwards, and children’s writer Connie Greene. It would take five years to complete the landscaping. “Would you like to see my vegetable garden?” Max, our five-year-old son would ask. And disarmed by a little boy’s simple and sweet request, guests willingly take his hand as he bounces up and down the great lawn. They proceeded along the curving row of maples and hand — trimmed ilex, under Max’s piñata birthday tree, past our wisteria-covered barn onto the pool gate and disappear. A flowering oasis of every imaginable shade of pale blue to the deepest purples await with cascading white roses running down the entire length of our pool. At the far end, two apple trees bursting with ripening apples on each side flanked a double gate. “How tall are you? I’m, 3’3”. I want to be 7’4”, he says, like he does repeatedly throughout the day, with no conception whatsoever of the difference between feet and inches. This is how Max gets his coordinates for where his body begins, ends and where he is in space. Having gone past the double gate his guests walk through more apple trees and arrive at a shaded area with an antique wrought-iron loveseat and chairs and a low stonewall that extends the width of the property. Not realizing that they haven’t seen half of the yard or Max’s vegetable and herb garden, yet, the guests always think this is the end of Max’s tour. So Max makes a sharp left turn, then a right through the opening in the stonewall. “Come on,” he says, standing under the ancient cherry tree surrounded at the base by stones gathered from all over the property. He persuades one of our guests to lift him up onto his favorite sturdy branch from there he descends down the long, curved stone staircase; each step the size of a platform with low stonewalls on either side and forsythia creating an archway. When we get to the bottom, it opens out to a field of wild flowers swarming with birds and bees and butterflies. Max picks a flower and smells it and soon after that, he proudly opens the gate into his vegetable and herb kingdom. “I’m going to make you a sandwich with all these vegetables. Would you like that?” he asks. “What a lovely garden, did you plant it yourself?” Max never answers. He quickly exits his little patch of earth and continues around the path. Through an archway of roses, onto the lilac bushes that bloom in the spring, he pauses to inhale their long past and imagined scent. We arrive at the forest — a darker, cooler, quieter world — than the radiant and busy wild flower field now behind us. As we enter the forest and walk along the ostrich fern-bordered and winding path, Max picks up a stick and the guest may pick up one too. The adults start to giggle, perhaps imagining sticks as swords or mischievous fairies peeking out from under wild strawberries. The children instinctively know they can be free here and take off running down the path. The Maxwell bird, otherwise known as the chickadee, calls out — a lower note for “Max,” a higher note for “well.” “Maxwell, Maxwell, Maxwell,” the bird insists. “Why does that bird call my name?” Max quizzically asks. “Because he likes you,” I say as we watch the Maxwell bird fly away. The stillness of the forest quiets all as it slowly reveals itself. One can imagine the beginning of a symphony mimicking the sounds of a forest. Or is it the forest evoking the instruments of some timeless orchestra? A tangled web of twisted wooden ropes support lush green tracery overhead creating a humble cathedral with thinner branches like the lead veins of stained-glass windows colored by rays of sunlight, blue sky and the vibrant red of darting cardinals. Some of our best moments are when we can be ourselves in silence with someone else. On our first walk to the forest after getting out of the hospital Max said to me, “Mom, if you die, I’ll have to get another Mom.” “Oh Max. You don’t have to worry about getting another Mom. I’m not going to die.” I said. We quietly cried together, in silence. These moments with Max in our garden and forest were magical for our guests and us because during them we could believe everything was right. Max’s tours may be over, but their spell remains. “We will have to sell the house,” declared my soon-to-be ex-husband. “It’s a unique property, but the right person has to come along,” the real estate agent points out. “Can it be subdivided?” With outstretched arms and legs I extend myself to the boundaries of our yard. “MY yard” I say, wanting to take up more space and realizing how important this place is not only for my son, but also for me. Is that what it’s all been reduced to? Quantifiable real estate calculations? “White glove manor house with 3.5 acres of formal gardens and park-like grounds in the center of East Hampton village…” A raindrop lands on my face. Does it have to rain, now? Another drop confirms it. Tears and raindrops mingle as they run along my cheeks, into my hair and ears as my unseeing eyes adjust to the darkness of this night. One star casts off its uneven twinkle. Jagged snowflake. Jagged star. I’m a Vitruvian Persephone, caught in the dead of winter. No flowers in bloom, no leaves on the trees… Outlined by moonlight, a naked, forked branch hangs over me like a Japanese photograph capturing luminescent light. As I stand under that same old scrappy, wrinkled and tangled butternut tree that killed the white hydrangeas I realize sometimes times the most insignificant and crudest objects evoke joys and sorrows, pleasure and pain. Ohhh… the mangled bittersweet comfort of happy visual reminders of things past… soon, … too soon… I wonder if the new owners will be able to hear the echoes of the child’s laughter. And I’m suddenly filed with gratitude we were lucky to have this house like the owners before us and like the owners after us. And so it goes. “Hay-yaa, hai-yaa, hay-yaa, hai-yaa…” I sing the traditional American Indian song, then reach for the guttural tones of Tibetan monks and the sound I made countering the high-pitched pain of natural childbirth. I AM this place and this place IS me. Hay-yaa, hai-yaa, a fork in the tree, a fork in our relationship, two ways of being, one his, one mine, torn asunder letting in light of the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, as the chanting resonates and reverberates in my inner and outer landscape. Max is now fourteen and this summer he is a counselor-in-training at Pathfinder’s Day Camp in Montauk. As we pull into the driveway he solemnly says, “I’m going to miss this house. It makes me sad, but I know we can’t keep it.” Silence. “I’ve made a lot of friends here through the years and I wouldn’t want to lose them. We need a house, Mom. I don’t care what kind of house or how big it is or even if it has a yard. Can you promise me you’ll buy another house?” At that moment, it becomes perfectly clear that we belong here. This place is our home. We will find a new house.