It was a long and sleepy winter for the House. Dust collected under the beds. Spider webs embroidered the windows. The indefinable perfume of centuries’ old terra cotta tiles, wood beams and hand made chaux appropriated the air.
The only sound on that sunny, end of winter afternoon when I was making my weekly rounds was the occasional squeak of a floor board or perhaps a cornerstone, as if the house was sighing and settling into a deeper position.
Our room was warm, heated by sunlight. The bed was always clean and made up, just in case. I opened the window, yawned and lay down, so sleepy I felt like an old stone myself, sinking into place. The house had been closed for exactly one year. As I drifted off, a vague thought surfaced: “how long does it take a site to regain her composure?”
Dreams of sirop scented acacia trees in blossom, a new patch of tender spring nettles, the return of the swallows. I could hear them swooping and diving. In fact, the sound grew insistent, until an anxious flapping of wings startled me awake.
There they were, wildly circling our room. Made frantic by the loss of their nests, the swallows had flown into the house to construct on the ceiling beams. Like the return of the dove to the Ark, I took this for a sign.
I knew what must happen next. But I also had an amorphous premonition, which propelled me to my reserve of empty jewelry boxes. I found myself scurrying to the darkest and most unfrequented parts of the house and collecting. From the backs of armoires, the far reaches of attics, the far corners of cupboards, the furthest barrels in the old chai, the deep innards of the hearth. The bats made a ruckus when I climbed into the tower, but this outpost also needing collecting. Then I took my pretty boxes full of house dust to a wood on the far edge of the property and buried them.
It was time.
It was time for the humans to return, but I dreaded the return of the dilemma: how do you welcome the multi textured coat of human nature with all those hues from ignoble to glorious, and also preserve the fragile spirit of a place?
We hungered for the return of barbeques and marco polo, cocktails and croquet. Most of all, laughter and communion. Decent people enjoying each other, enjoying this magical place.
On opening night, I walked down the hall carrying cocktails to the terrace. My gasp almost shook the tray to the floor. Even the ghosts had come back – too snobby to say hello, but there they were, exhaling on the pre dinner drinks in my hands. I forged ahead to greet my living guests.
That evening, in the midst of the laughter and wine and sunset on the river I smiled to myself, thinking it all due to Lady Spirit’s return. Then I remembered a conversation with Suzanne; she said maybe we bring our own spirit to a place. Or the place offers us what our spirit needs at that moment. We talked about how each soul is a portal. When you open your door, you invite something to fly in. The trick is in the filter. The finer your filter, the finer the entrant.
Family members returned like the swallows and were pleased with a modernized kitchen and a brightly painted room for breakfast. With the acacia trees trimmed, at risk to John’s life and limb and against my will, the splendid view of the river was open again.
With time we were able to establish a delicate sense of community.The gardiens, ever helpful and discreet, sometimes livened up the courtyard with spontaneous concerts and regaled us with extraordinary tapas; friends came to help with on going renovations and were rewarded with home grown tomatoes and feasts of wild boar caught in the vineyard. We enjoyed the immense pleasure of the company of our guests renting the big house, sharing cocktails on the terrace and chats under the magnolia trees while the teenagers organized marco polo tournaments in the pool for days on end. And sometimes we were joined by our guests from the little cottage on the hilltop for an afternoon swim. They came from near and far, from Australia and Lithuania, Sweden and South Africa, with their accents and appreciation, to enjoy the paradise that is Aquitaine. Somehow we were able to find a balance between these little communities so that an individual was able to live their own personal and sometimes intimate attachment to the place; we wanted everyone who came to feel at home and benefit from the peacefulness, but also remain aware that others shared the same desire.
And so we found ourselves, like the Intendant in 1761, stewards of La Tourbeille. Yes, someone has to “own” a place in order to make sure the taxes are paid and the roofs are kept up; to chase away burglars and plant new trees; to seek out the best artisans and fight the local road authority about the environmental impact of their “improvements.” When we had time to catch our breath, I could admit privately that the up side of this burden was the power to set the tone. When it is your land, even if you are caked with grime from cleaning the chimney or a backed up grease trap, you can remind people gently that “ici, ça ne se fait pas.” With a dash of diplomacy and several packs of post-its, it seemed to have worked.
On the other hand, we were fresh witnesses to the dangers that ownership can afford; how the concept of “possession” can become an illness. It wasn’t hard to remind ourselves constantly to tread lightly.
Our only immutable goals were the preservation of the spirit of the place and the architectural integrity of this assemblage of stones. We hoped that in our lifetime we would say we did our best; that we passed on a legacy to the next generation, in better condition than it was when received.
So a few years ago when we realized it was time to plan the replacement of old trees we had lost, I pushed to plant Cedars of Lebanon against remarks that we would not live to enjoy them. Suppose that had been the weltanschauung of the person who planted the magnificent and powerful Cedars we enjoy today?
This is another lesson from Madame V. She reminds me these old places can’t really be possessed. But when you’re very lucky, you get the chance to wear a burdensome yoke for a while, and care for the Lady with all your heart.