Monday, July 25, 2011

The Anniversary Getaway, part 3

8 AM and time to get up for breakfast. I’m suffering from sleep deprivation and having half my brain not in this world.

Troy made me coffee from the Keurig machine in the hallway while I showered and dressed. After relaxing until 9, we went downstairs, accompanied as always by the creaky floors and a CD of soft piano music. Katherine seated us at the long dining room table and treated us to the most exquisite breakfast I’ve ever had: a starter of her own coffee blend, a freshly made tomato juice (like V-8, only better!), and her own award-winning recipe for cold cantaloupe soup, topped with whipped cream. Oh, my. And then came fluffy biscuits, baked in a small, well-seasoned cast iron skillet and real butter, and Katherine’s homemade strawberry jam. And then, the main course, “Bloomsbury Benedict,” her version of Eggs Benedict.

Oh my, oh my, oh my. And I was still a little full from Italian the night before, and couldn’t finish it all. My Midwestern farm upbringing still won’t let me forget that!

In the meantime, Bruce came in, sat down with his own cup of coffee, and proceeded to recount the history of the house.

I already mentioned Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose father in law was the third wealthiest planter in South Carolina before the Southern War for Independence, errr, War Between the States. (No, I haven’t been influenced by twenty-one years of living in the Deep South, not at all!) James Chesnut, Sr., built Bloomsbury for his spinster daughter Sally, so she could have a “little” place of her own in town. (The house has 4 floors and a total of 8000+ sq ft.) As a wife of Confederate general James Chesnut, Jr., Mary spent much time with her sister in law and entertained auspicious callers such as Confederate president Jefferson Davis. A charming hostess and brilliant conversationalist, Mary drew the confidences of many notable people of her time ... which she then recorded, with her own observations and sentiments, in her diaries. We know that she was an outspoken feminist and highly critical of slavery, but not to the extent of refusing the service of those they owned. But who could, in that era? Many people of the day felt trapped in the system, ever in fear of slave revolt, unhappy with the increasing amounts of fear and intimidation it took to keep the slave work force productive. Mostly, it’s said that Mary was unhappy with the moral license that slavery allowed men, who could force their attentions on enslaved women without being held accountable for it.

Let’s face it, society is no different today. I’m not sure it was ever really different in millennia past.

But I digress. Or detour. Whatever. It’s recorded that Jefferson Davis did indeed visit Bloomsbury, and that Mary used one of the upstairs rooms for writing. From their own research, Bruce and Katherine have surmised that it was probably the room Troy and I slept in—which I found a wonderfully nifty coincidence. (Or not, LOL! Since I don’t believe in coincidence.)

Bruce also explored a bit of the colorful history of the Chesnut family, which left me itching to read up and possibly work it into a future story. After covering the more recent history of the house—the renovations done to the upstairs, where we slept, and the bathrooms added during the 1930’s (all the current tiling and fixtures are from that time), up through the more recent renovations that the Browns did—we finished breakfast, and Bruce began the tour.

As Bruce took us through the front parlors, I had the chance to notice more of the bits of their personal history woven in with the collectibles and antiques: books on military history, a case containing all the military coins Katherine had been awarded, a military-themed throw or pillow here and there. The parlors were a little more densely decorated than I usually like, but it was beautiful—and not cluttered in the way that our little house, with ten people, always is. There was just too much to see, too much to absorb in one walk through ... or even three.

Katherine’s kitchen was gorgeous. I tried not to be too nosy, but I love looking at layout and organization in other people’s work spaces. And the view out back was beautiful—gardens and trees and a separate brick building that used to be the kitchen and—you’d never know we were in the middle of town. (Camden is just that lovely anyway.)

We then went up a floor, to where we got to see the other three bedchambers. Ours was the most spacious, but the green room was the prettiest—both the soft décor and the double bed that used to belong to one of their own daughters. I’ve considered saving my pennies and requesting that one someday just for a writing retreat ...

Then it was allll the way up the stairs to the attic. There Bruce showed us some of the pre-renovation details, like what the heart pine floors looked like before refinishing (a detail I promptly used in A Family To Keep), and old wallpaper that nobody could decide what era it was from, so the State Historic Preservation Office decided should stay. Suddenly, a new part of my fascination was riveted—Bruce shared some of his experience renovating a house that is listed on the National Historic Register, and how he wound up getting on the Camden historic board so he had the resources more readily available. Troy asked some pretty searching questions about the process and cost, and I was more than content to listen, look, and soak it all in.

The four attic rooms were originally the nursery or servant’s quarters. Now, one serves to hold ductwork and filters for the guest area’s central air system, two are storage, and one is a work area for Katherine. I observed that as well as being a retired officer, incredibly gracious hostess, and fabulous chef, she paints, sews, and cans.

Bruce led us all the way down to the full, raised basement. He mentioned that they keep their “I love me” wall down there, as well as laundry areas and his personal office. Everything was that wonderful historic brick—just like the basements at houses like Drayton Hall, Hampton Plantation, the Kershaw-Cornwallis house at Camden’s Revolutionary War park, and many of the historic houses in Charleston. I kept stopping to breathe in the “old” smell. I was still content to note details and listen to Bruce’s running commentary—more freely intermixed now with Air Force anecdotes and “gossip,” since he and Troy shared many of the same acquaintances. We’d already discovered that Bruce had been wing commander at Hickman AFB in Hawaii, and here was where we found out that he’d edited the 700-page document that comprised the nuclear arms treaty at Geneva between the United States and the former Soviet Union, back in the 80’s. Bruce’s offhanded, almost self-deprecating explanation of the single framed document page hanging near his and Katherine’s other Air Force memorabilia just astounded me.

At some point I realized that not only had I been given the pampering experience of a lifetime (right down to the chocolates on our pillow), but this unpolished, country-bred mama of nine was getting a crash course in courtesy and Southern gentility. One minute I was intimidated into complete speechlessness by the accomplishments of these two people, and the next minute disarmed by their down-to-earth, unaffected manner—but always amazed by the way the two of them, with their former position and distinction, were not ashamed to be serving us.

It is as God has been trying to teach me the last few years ... the truly great are less mindful of their own reputation than of the needs of others.

(To be continued!)

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