A short summer with deserted castles

We were at Goodwill and my kids were supposed to be looking at clothes. Instead, Oliver insisted on getting two fish tanks because how can you pass up a $4.99 fish tank? I told him he should consider starting a blog called The Fish Hoarder, but he didn’t think that was a good idea. He said if he did that, the government might take his fish away, and then he’d be forced to join a militia.

If Oliver ever founded a country, commune, or homeowner’s association, its constitution would include the right to own many varieties of reptiles and aquatic animals. There would be no limitations on this freedom no matter how many people were eaten. Nothing I say to him about how you can take better care of your animals if you have fewer of them seems to faze him.

But this isn’t a story about too many animals, nor is it intended to make any kind of political statement about moderation.

I just want to tell you about some things that have happened to me since the beginning of the summer, which is almost over. Teachers in my school district go back later this week. Students come back next week.

Going back in early August seems strange to those of us who grew up starting school in September. When we were young, the symbols that represented this annual rite of passage were apples, wooden one-room schoolhouses, and pencils. The air was cool in the mornings. You could wear a pleated plaid skirt and tights to school, not because you went to a private school and you had to, but because you wanted to. Soon enough, the leaves would be changing color. Your cells were turning over and you were getting taller, stronger, wiser.

When I was looking for a teaching job, I always said I’d still want to be a teacher even if we went to year-round schooling, and I still feel that way.  So I’m not whining about too much work. That is not the point.

It’s like Jordan Baker said in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

There was just a certain feeling of anticipation and renewal when school started closer to fall. I used to think the new year should begin September 1 instead of January 1. It  isn’t the same when school starts in August, but then, I wonder if anyone experiences anticipation the same way at 39 that they did at 8 or 11, the ages of my children. I kind of doubt it.

I started the summer by taking a road trip with my mom, the first we’d ever done alone together in my adult life. Actually, it was probably the only trip Mom and I had taken with just the two of us since my sister was born when I was 18 months old.

We went to Swannanoa, an Italianate mansion on Afton Mountain near Charlottesville, Virginia, because I had a foggy memory of that place from early childhood. I remembered flashes of stone towers, stained glass, marble staircases, and flowering arbors. I remembered a time when my mother was looking for me and worried I was lost because I had gotten out of her sight at some enchanted place. When I described the memory, she said we’d been at Swannanoa.

So 37 years later, we went back to see it again.

My memory of Swannanoa was so hazy, maybe it was fitting that on the day we chose to visit, the fog was thick enough to obscure a view of anything more than 20 feet away. The moisture hung so heavy our clothing felt almost damp and our hair looked bad.

Built by a millionaire railroad tycoon in 1912, Swannanoa was home to a couple named Lao and Walter Russell when my mother took me there as a child. They founded the University of Science and Philosophy. I won’t attempt to explain that organization’s mission, but my mother said it was “new age before everyone knew what that meant.”

This once-opulent estate is now unoccupied and starting to decay. Its fountains are dry and the gardens are full of weeds. Very Miss Havisham.

It is, however, open for tours on certain weekends.

A Virginia Is For Lovers website listed a short summary of Swannanoa’s history with the hours it is open, ticket prices, and the fact that it is “LGBT friendly.” This struck me as a declaration similar to a label on a bottle of olive oil proclaiming the product to be “gluten free.” One would have assumed.

People who like Virginia history would probably find the trip to Swannanoa worthwhile, and so might photographers looking for a Gothic backdrop.

My mother, on the other hand, was not impressed by what the current owners had done with the place. In fact, we couldn’t even make it through a 20-minute guided tour. I was very worried that mom was going to launch a full-fledged, invective-laced tirade against the retired librarian who recounted the estate’s history to a roomful of people. (I think the woman was also related to the current owner, but I couldn’t stick around long enough to verify and was grateful I wasn’t writing a travel story.)

Mom and I broke away from the guided tour and went for a walk around the estate, finally coming to the stone tower I remembered from childhood. She said she had called it Rapunzel’s tower when I was little, which I must have loved. Looming in the fog, it looked nothing short of haunted.


A stone observation tower at Swannanoa Palace in Afton, Virginia.

I wished my sister were there with us because she loves photographing abandoned buildings and ruins, but she had to work that weekend. As we started to leave, we passed a woman in a punk princess dress having her photograph taken. Mom stopped to tell her that Swannanoa used to be a very nice place, but it wasn’t anymore. It was just terrible what had happened there, Mom said. The woman and the photographer smiled and nodded politely.

I suppose that if you go frolicking at an abandoned castle in the blinding fog and the scariest thing you encounter is a 5-foot-4-inch woman with long gray hair who wants to share her opinions, you can count yourself lucky.

After we left, Mom and I ate dinner at an Asian restaurant and then checked into our motel, where I got to experience Staying In a Motel Room With Your 65-year-old Mother When You Are 39.

Me: Go ahead, Mom, have another cigarette. I’m fine.

Mom: How does this remote work? Where is CNN? Can you hear that television? I’ve got to turn this up. I can’t hear it.

When she couldn’t get any satisfaction from the news, Mom decided to watch “The Godfather.” I was about to fall asleep around 10 p.m. when she woke me up.

“You’ve got to watch this scene,” Mom said, rousing me. “It’s one of the most famous ones.”

So I watched the guy wake up to the severed horse’s head, thanked my mother for always showing me the most important things in life, and then I fell asleep. Until 1 a.m.

One thing Mom and I have in common is that we both suffer from frequent insomnia. Having read extensively about insomnia, I know that, when you cannot sleep, you are supposed to get up, go into another room, and read something boring.

I was sitting on the bathroom floor of our motel room reading Teaching Young Adult Literature Through Differentiated Instruction when Mom opened the door.

Mom: What are you doing?

Me: I can’t sleep. Did I wake you up?

Mom: You really are a terrible sleeper. Maybe you should have one of those sleep studies. Well, if you’re going to be awake, come out here and watch CNN with me.

She went back to the bed, turned on the TV, and lit a cigarette, but she was very disappointed when all she could find was Anthony Bourdain instead of some news anchor or panel of experts talking about the latest Trump tweet.

I can’t really understand why someone who is trying to get back to sleep would light a cigarette and turn on the news, but then, how many healthy people sit on bathroom floors in the middle of the night reading professional development manuals?

Mom handed me a Tylenol PM, which I took, and I went back to sleep, after convincing her to turn off the television.

Mom described our visit to Swannanoa as a trip down Memory Lane for her. On the way there, she saw how much Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she went to college, had changed in 40 years. On the scenic secondary road we took to come home, she recalled where she had turned to go to the house where she lived with her first husband. At least the road was still there.

So, while I would definitely recommend a midlife road trip with your mom, I would also recommend that whenever possible, you should get your own hotel room. Make that your gift to yourself. This advice applies to traveling with your husband, and/or children as well.

Now, regardless of what I’ll be telling high school students in a week or so about logical transitions in writing, I’ve got to fast forward two months to our last weekend of summer break, the day we got the fish tanks at Goodwill. I was in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, eating on a picnic blanket with my kids when Annabelle, 8, stood up and announced that she was going, “to wade at my own risk.”

She took the bucket and net she uses to catch minnows and headed toward the wading pools fed by natural springs in the town’s central park.

A large sign stated that children were to be supervised. No one was responsible for anything that went wrong there. No one was in charge. Everyone who waded did so at her own peril.

But it was the most beautiful day, the kind of day when it seems like nothing could go wrong. The weather was like … it was kind of … like it was on September 11.

I’m sorry. This is what happens when you are 39. Memory Lane isn’t all enchanted towers and flowering arbors.

But when she scampered off with her bucket and net I wasn’t actually thinking of September 11. I was thinking it was cute how she quoted the sign and I thought about posting something on Facebook. Because it’s the end of summer, all of my friends are posting “last splash” photos of themselves or their kids in bathing suits. I looked down at my phone for a minute and when I looked up, Annabelle was making small talk with a stout man a bit older than me – I’d say 50ish – who was wearing a bandanna. I watched him talk to her for a few minutes as other kids splashed around in the wading pools and tourists talked about which of the local cafes had decent food. Then the man in the bandanna walked away.

He was probably talking to her about her minnows. He probably has a daughter or niece or granddaughter her age.

My friends and I keep trying to figure out what exactly we’re supposed to say to our kids as they start puberty. We know we are supposed to have a talk with them, but we’re not sure what we should say during this talk because, actually, nothing our parents said to us worked.

“Some of the stuff I did when I was a teenager, I can’t even believe I survived,” my friend said the other day when we had this conversation.

“I know, right?” was my thoughtful response.

My husband Dan doesn’t remember his parents ever saying much of anything to him about sex or drugs other than, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

Somehow, for him, this worked. He has always been pretty responsible, but knowing what I do about the world from both experience and the news, I would say he is more the exception than the norm.

Dan remembers his dad saying, “Regret the things you’ve done and not the things you haven’t done.”

This wasn’t meant to encourage illegal or particularly risky behavior. It was more of a mantra for life in general. And it is interesting advice. I wonder if he said the same thing to his daughter.

Somehow Annabelle knew there was a grand castle on the hill above the park in Berkeley Springs, built many moons ago by some wealthy nobleman. She wanted to climb the hill and see it, but when I called my husband to ask his advice, he said not to go onto the property because it probably wasn’t open to the public.

We climbed up the hill, but our view of the castle was obscured by the trees. Annabelle was disappointed. Meanwhile, Oliver was worried about us being hit by a car.

My internet research indicated the castle was built by a colonel who, at 46, fell in love with a 17-year-old.

The first time he made a pass, she turned him down, but five years later, he convinced her to marry him by promising to build her a castle. Ain’t love grand?

I asked a girl working inside the hotel at the park if the castle is ever open for tours now. She said it is not, currently, because the owner died and there’s been some family drama since then, or something like that.

I told Annabelle that maybe they’ll reopen it soon and we’ll be able to take a tour.

My summer started and ended with deserted castles, which are intriguing, but sad. Even the most solid of fortresses built by the richest of men can turn to ruin in less than a generation. I suppose it should make me feel better about my own dysfunctional family and all that we haven’t been able to preserve.

When she was going to sleep the other night, Annabelle said she was a little bummed about starting school because it will be a year before there’s another summer. But she mentioned that at least she did get some really awesome new notebooks.

So if you’re wondering what to buy a kid to ease the bittersweet and seemingly premature farewell to summer, a cool notebook, sturdy binder, and a few pens and pencils could go a long way. You can probably skip the fish tank, in your case.


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