A Mystery at Royal Orchard

You know how you get invited to an event sometimes that’s outside your normal scope and is either exciting all by itself or exciting because of where it is or who else will be there, and you can hardly wait? And other times you get the invitation and your mouth makes a weird shape – the kind that’s trying to form some variation of Oh, yay! but just can’t because you are at the opposite end of the excitement spectrum? And other times you are smack-dab in the middle and the best you can come up with is Eh or Okay?

I generally veer toward Eh when I am unsure. Combine Vagueness (various aspects of the event are unknown)

with Else (going requires me to switch mental gears)

with Extreme Overall Body Soreness. It has been a week of gung-ho carrying/ placing/ leveling/ finagling 50+ cinder blocks as well as shoveling tons – has to be tons – of dirt and “crusher run.”

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Add an unexpected memorial service to the week and I am ambivalent. But I said I was going so I’m going. I had RSVP’d YES to this thank-you-to-CASA-volunteers event weeks ago. On the upside, it would be a reason to put on something besides overalls, and there would be great food and drink there, and nice people would be commending important work, I was sure of that. And doesn’t it often happen that once you get there, it’s so fun and amazing that you wonder whatever made you hesitate?
But the venue, “Royal Orchard” – never heard of it.

I worked in hospitality for years, a job that requires you to know about local attractions including wineries, breweries, cideries. Royal Orchard kinda sounds like it falls into that general category, don’t you think?

I could have looked it up. I could have asked around. Even if I had, it would not be found in a printed or posted or anyone’s mental listing of local cideries. That’s because Royal Orchard is a private home. They don’t sell apples, they don’t make hard cider, they don’t have a pumpkin patch and they don’t make donuts for tourists, though it turns out they do have a vast network of walking trails open to the public. Who knew?

We turned off the main road onto Royal Orchard Drive and started climbing a single-lane road up, up, up the hillside. Slight curve, serious hairpin, up some more, up, up, up. No mile-markers, but it has to be right. There were no other roads. Suddenly the house appears before you.

This is the Royal Orchard “Big House,” or as much of it as would fit in my camera’s viewfinder. The host of the event, who owns it along with “about a hundred of my cousins,” said his great-grandfather did well (I guess!) in the railroad industry and built the house (or let us more correctly say had the house built) around 1913.

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This is the side driveway. That building way over to the right seemed to be some sort of carriage barn.

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That’s a lot of stone.

The interior is lavishly furnished in period style. This is one of the (I stopped counting at 15) bedrooms.

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This is the view.

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If you adjust the lighting and look carefully at the foreground of the view, you see a curious thing. Four curious things. See them?

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Zooming in doesn’t really help figure out what they are.

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I want to know your guess.

Glorified grain silo? The door has to be around the back.

Primo-natural rock-climbing wall? For the outdoor experience that is not a mountain.

Tomb? The grandfather? But then who are the other three for?

Monument? To those who did all the work? (I can hope!)

Above-ground dungeon? You would not hear the screams from the house.

Newfangled monolith? Who says it has to be just one large, upright stone? These Virginians, they do what they want and call it what they want.

It is a question for the host. It is a question for which, surely, there is a good answer. “I wish I had a better story” is not the answer I was looking for. “We think they just didn’t know what to do with all the leftover stones,” he said.

Huh.

I got to thinking about all the built things I look at and wonder about. Why is it there? Why did they build it like that? Who thought that was a good idea?

Maybe there’s not a good answer.

Maybe there wasn’t a better thing to do. Maybe someone was bored and made the thing absentmindedly. Maybe they goofed. Maybe they were sure it would come out nice and it just didn’t. Maybe they wanted people to wonder in a hundred years: What is it? and be dumbfounded. (Funny little joke – think they’re still laughing??) Maybe they assumed a legend would arise. Maybe not everything is purposeful.

I think someone buried something in there. Not necessarily a corpse, though the Edgar Allen Poe part of my mind has to entertain the possibilities of even gruesomer images. But more like a time capsule. You could argue that the house serves that purpose, and be right, but something more personal maybe.

What would you put in a box and tuck into a stone tower for someone to find in a hundred years?

Just Show Up

Thirteen years ago I began working with a man who in his earlier life was, like Patrick Swayze, a ballet dancer from Texas. By the time I met him, he had made the transition to another form of performance, another way to give the public an outstanding experience that they spend good money for. If you doubt that being a food and beverage director requires a great deal of grace, dramatic flair, improvisation, reading your audience, and endless, creative accommodation of individual whims, you haven’t tried to be successful at this. Nor have you met the master of all such abilities.

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Scott Meynig had no qualms about saying that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tasted like cat pee. (How he knew what cat pee tastes like is a question I have no answer for.) Richard Hewitt, sommelier at the time, remembers the wine-tasting occasion when the wine/pee comparison was made. He also relates this story:

When Scott was running the banquet department I loved to throw him ‘ringers’ that would challenge him.

Scott: ‘Did you really promise the bride that the groom could ride in on a white horse dressed in armor’?

I would just reply that I was trying to up-sell the event.

Scott: ‘The horse and armor are fine but where are we going to get a lance?’

The 300+ people at Pippin Hill who gathered to celebrate Scott’s life on Tuesday of this week all had their own special admiration for him. Some remembered how he helped his family with their business, Family Ties & Pies, not only in the kitchen but also at the City Market on Saturday mornings (Charlottesville’s outstanding farmer’s market). Some remembered how he mentored them professionally. Some, his taking the time to listen to their personal bemoanings, followed by his ability to dole out wise advice in fifteen words or less. Some remembered his bottomless well of kindness and wit. Some, his get-the-job-done spirit and unbegrudging willingness to pitch in and move chairs and tables or whatever had to be done to make the event perfect for the guests.

I remember him saying that one of the most important things a person can do is just show up. The rest comes, but you have to be there. As much as one person could, Scott showed up. He never seemed in a hurry, but he got to where it mattered. His presence made the difference countless times to countless people. And everyone knew that if Scott was there, whatever was happening would be better. I never saw anyone take charge in such a quiet way. His teams were unfailingly loyal. Is it any wonder? Who wouldn’t want to get on board with this caliber a leader?

I am honored to have known him, to have worked side by side, to have gathered my own nuggets of gold from his masterful performances. I am so grateful he practiced what he preached, grateful that he just showed up, time and again, during the window of time we had, grateful to have watched him do the next thing with seeming ease, with unshakeable commitment, with spot-on humor. Many will miss him, none more than his amazing family.

May we all have a Scott in our lives.

Something Lighter

I needed to listen to something light the other day because my thoughts had been immersed for too long in serial killers. I go for the crime drama shows and had just finished the last episode of Mindhunter on Netflix – two seasons about the early days (1970s) of the FBI’s “Behavioral Science Unit,” a department that studied patterns and traits of the baddest of the bad to help find and identify others of their ilk. The second season concerns the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. It’s heavy stuff.

Not yet ready for bed after I turned off the TV, I was curious how much of the show was based on fact so I googled Atlanta Child Murders. Seems the writers of Mindhunter got a lot right.

That led to curiosity about the renamed “Behavioral Analysis Unit” founded in 1972 at Quantico by real-life agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas. That led to a piece on the qualifications for being an FBI agent (what does it take to get that job) which I couldn’t/wouldn’t even consider for various reasons, which then led to an article about the most notorious of the serial killers, the Top Ten, the ones that shaped the initial studies and led to criminal profiling that is still used today.

Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, Jeffrey Dahmer and others – these almost alien men committed crimes that have no words strong enough to describe. Ghastly, shocking, horrifying, evil, wicked, despicable, heinous, demonic, atrocious, monstrous, brutal – all these words seem pale to me when examining the crimes. This is not the kind of stuff you should be reading before going to bed if you want good dreams.

So I finally said to myself, Yeah, something lighter maybe.

A gardening podcast perhaps? My gourds had reminded me that the garden was not a complete failure this year.

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My neighbor Jennifer took some that I offered and had fun with her daughter Anna Lane.

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But I didn’t find a gardening podcast. Instead I stumbled on something called The Slow Home. No, it’s not about the homeowner’s intellectual deficiencies. And it’s not about how fast we move (or don’t) when we are exhausted from shoveling too much concrete that is masquerading as dirt. It’s about purposefully, mindfully adjusting your pace, your home, your life to make room for the stuff that matters to you.

It was a lovely alternative to serial killers, I must say.  And an intriguing topic.

Taking our time, enjoying the moments, not in a hurry – do we do this as much as we should?  Thinking about such things reminded of some of the scenes I like best in some of the children’s books I like best. (These are for you, Mona!)

Such as when Frog and Toad stare at the garden plot together and Frog gently suggests that the garden will grow in its own good time.

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Or when Fern and Avery take turns swinging in the barn door in that famous summer of Charlotte’s Web.

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Or when the boy plays in the bracken with The Velveteen Rabbit.

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Or during One Morning in Maine when Sal and her sister Jane have to wait just a bit longer for their ice cream cones because of “Mr. Ferd Clifford and Mr. Oscar Staples, who were sitting in the store talking about trapping lobsters and how the fish were biting.”

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Or in Blueberries for Sal when Little Sal “picked three berries and dropped them in her little tin pail…kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!” (Oh, may we take the time to hear the kuplinks and the kuplanks and the kuplunks in our lives!)

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Or when, “early every morning, Francois, the keeper’s son, stopped on his way to school to say, ‘Bonjour, Happy Lion.’”

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Or when Madeleine is not afraid of mice.

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Or when Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel are peacefully settled in the humble cellar of the new town hall and Mrs. McGillicuddy brings a hot apple pie 😊

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I was just reading to Ellie and Nelson last week, so I’ve got these lovely, peaceful images fresh in my mind.

 

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Frog and Toad and Fern and Avery and the Velveteen Rabbit and Sal and Jane and Francois and the Happy Lion and Madeleine and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel make me wonder about “the company we keep.” For years I read these books and many others to my kids, over and over again, and now I read them to my grandchildren when they come visit. The pages are soft from many, many turnings. The images are familiar old friends that warm my heart and gentle my day.

We all have something, I hope, Something Lighter, Something Balanced, Joyful, Peaceful, Delightful for those times when Something Gruesome or Tragic or Angry wants to win the day and snag every part of us and paint the world all wrong. What’s your Something Lighter? I know some of your answers: fishing, golf, painting, woodworking, writing poems, cooking, playing games, watching the Patriots (!), playing Wordfeud or Rummikub, walking the dog… What else?

Who, me? A Napper?

Dumb luck comes to everyone at some point or other. It came to Harry by way of a bird – an unsuspecting, industrious, blessed bird. First, the backstory of No Roses for Harry.*

Harry was a white dog with black spots. On his birthday, he got a present from Grandma. It was a woolen sweater with roses on it. Harry didn’t like it the moment he saw it. He didn’t like the roses.

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This is a story that packs a punch. In the opening paragraph alone and in the priceless expression on his face, we are all reminded of a time when we opened a gift, feared our inability to hide our shock and thought How ghastly is that!

Poor Harry. No one else seems to think the sweater is ghastly. He does his best to lose it, fails three times, is forced to wear it and finally hangs his head.

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That’s when his luck began.

As he sat wondering what to do, Harry noticed a loose stitch on his sweater. He pulled at the wool—just a little at first – then a bit more – and a little bit more. Harry didn’t know it, but a bird was watching….

Quick as a flash, she took the end of the wool in her beak and flew away with it! It all happened before Harry could even blink.

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To Harry’s great delight, the bird kept flying with the string of wool in her beak until the entire sweater had unraveled and was trailing after the bird high up in the sky like a plane at the beach trails a banner – this was the best banner ever!

No one in the family noticed until they got a note from Grandma that she was coming for a visit. Uh-oh! Where’s the sweater? Of course they couldn’t find it. Only Harry knew why.

This is where I take umbrage.

When Grandma arrived, Harry ran to her with his leash. Then he sat up and begged. “All right, Harry,” said Grandma. After I’ve had my lunch and a nap, we’ll go for a walk.”

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C’mon, Grandma. Really? You just got there. Lunch, okay. But a nap? You need a nap??

I’m pretty good about sticking to the text of a book as I read aloud to children. It seems ingenuine and just plain wrong to change what the author clearly intended the words to be, much as we will interpret them (and, in this case, the hilarious images and fashion of 1958) individually anyway. But this is the one part of this book I might have reworded slightly once or twice over the years, maybe even just omitted the “and a nap” part.

What kind of grandmas need naps, even think of naps, in the late morning having just arrived on a visit to precious grandchildren? Not the kind I wanted my children to form images of. Not me anyway, not the woman who would someday become the grandmother (Oma) of their own children. Best nip this expectation in the bud. No roses for Harry and no naps for me!

For better or worse, I have a lot to do in this one life I’ve been given. It’s always been that way. Whether working full time under someone else’s timetable or ordering every minute of my day myself, I am one of those people whose list is always longer than the time given, who never runs out of things to do, who thinks of the next thing while doing the three things that came before it. I have always lamented that I have to sleep. I like to sleep, don’t get me wrong. Sleep is glorious and needful, but sleep happens at nighttime, the way nature intended.

Napping is a foreign concept – they call it a siesta in some cultures, right? Other cultures. Napping was always, for me, an activity reserved for those days when I am so sick I can’t get off the couch. I always said If I’m asleep during the day, you know I don’t feel well.

C’mon, Grandma. Really?

Gosh, now I get it!

See this darling little fellow? This is Nelson, almost two, with my mom, his great-grandma, about to catch him as he flies downward with all speed and zero fear.

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See this darling little girl? This is Ellie, just turned four, posing with a goat at Yoder’s in Madison, Virginia, looking sweet and angelic, which she (yes, of course, because I love her very much) always is. 😊

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They wear me out! I need a nap!

 

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*No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion, Pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham, Harper Collins Children’s Books, New York, 1958

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