Betty Duffy

Monday, January 18, 2010

Journal From Williamsburg

I initially had doubts about a Woodworking Conference in Williamsburg for an anniversary trip. It seemed that ten years of marriage could be better reverenced with beachfront, pina coladas and hours of gazing lovingly into one another’s souls. But the trip supplies a perfect amount of togetherness and solitude, enrichment and reflection. We eat breakfast, go to classes, meet for lunch, back to classes, and have dinner and evenings to ourselves.

My husband sits at the feet of the Master Craftsmen who create period furniture using the tools and techniques of the eighteenth century. He shares the classroom with a number of retired hobbyists, and a few geeks his own age, all of whom wait outside the lecture hall before class in order to find a good seat once the doors open. The conference staff supplied each attendee with a canvas bag containing samples, notes and writing utensils. It’s quite a sight to see so many men in flannels and jeans, lined up out to the parking lot, each with his own man-bag slung over his arm.

The luxuriating in my hotel room that I had planned to do didn’t happen. I went into the Colonial village, and started talking to the historic “interpreters” who are people in period dress, trained to relate Colonial life to modern visitors through conversation and demonstration. If you ask them a question, they answer in character, but mostly, when you approach their little exhibition, they start talking about what they’re doing, “I’m dying wool using turmeric and indigo on an open fire.…”

What’s notable about a place like Williamsburg, which has been scrupulously restored and rebuilt according to period practices, is that modernity will not be suppressed. Eighteenth Century speaks, and modernity answers back. Under every bonnet and leather shoe is a twenty first century brain and foot. Cell phones flip up at the threshold of each cottage as tourists emerge from the eighteenth century.

One can’t help feeling a bit like an imposter and eavesdropper, especially since in the winter, cottage doors are kept closed, so I open each door hesitantly, peek in to see if anyone is there, and if I will be welcomed. Sometimes I want to apologize for my jeans and my modern accent and for imposing myself on their little Colonial oasis. After a couple of days, I become more bold, and start using the knowledge I am slowly obtaining to ask questions.

There are Colonial Williamsburg fans who have been coming back to this place year after year, considering themselves more at home in a different century. I could easily succomb to such a practice, as Williamsburg can provide the illusion of a more authentic life. It’s possible to ignore the Williams-Sonoma, the Talbots, and the gift-shops nestled into Colonial architecture just on the edge of the village.

One of the “wives” (as the woodworkers’ companions were known as) was an elderly woman who said that this place was her home away from home. When the wives took a tour of the Williamsburg Inn, this woman hugged all of the staff, the house florist, the interior designer, the concierge—her diamonds twinkling in the light of the crystal chandelier. Rooms at the Williamsburg Inn begin at around $600 a night. Fortunately, there are plenty of more economical options for dreamers with fewer pennies in their pockets. Since my husband gets Marriot points, we stayed off the colonial campus where the outlet malls and Applebees restaurants fizzle into the suburbs.

On the way to an organ recital at the Wren building on the campus of William and Mary, I walked behind a woman who wore a familiar perfume. I trailed in her wake for a bit trying to place the memory of someone in my childhood who also wore the fragrance. I hate to leave a memory hanging on the edge of fruition in my consciousness. There is something about the perfume that I am supposed to remember, but it never comes back. What does come back is the commercial, “White Shoulders—Wear it and the World is Yours.” And it seems, in this case, the advertisement has delivered on its promise, as the perfume is like a pied piper, luring nostalgic and hypnotized gen-x-ers into following its scent in search of dead grandmas, or great aunts.

Another of the “wives” is attending the conference with her son. She was widowed at a young age, left with an infant, who now in his late twenties, still lives with her. I told her I had left five kids at home with my parents, and was missing the baby a bit. She looked at me meaningfully and said, “It’s good that you came, because you only have now.” It turns out husbands sometimes don’t wait indefinitely for our attention.

And just in case we needed more evidence of our mortality, there are earthquakes in Haiti: hundreds of thousands dead, dehydration, hunger, complete devastation. The Colonial town is blissfully silent on the issue. The blacksmith hammers away. The cobbler sews his leather. People in restaurants still order bottles of wine, and rather pathetically, my husband and I turn off the news and go to bed. Of course, we’ll send a check to assuage the guilt of continuing to have a good time in the face of such a disaster.

And we did have a good time. Did lots of walking, since the afternoons warmed to a pleasant 50 degrees. Drank many cups of coffee and related to one another our adventures during our time apart. Strange to have something to report over dinner, to have spent time doing things that feed our interests and intellects.

The drive home on the West Virginia turnpike gives me vertigo. Each turn of the highway on its steep incline makes the car feel like it’s dangling off the edge of the earth. Said a Rosary between requests for my husband to reduce his speed. On the straight ways, we play the alphabet game, and my husband decides to put a sign in the yard when we get home that says “Xylophone” as a courtesy to people passing who might require an “X.”

Back in the burgs of Southern Indiana, the roads are like ribbons on the hills, and each house displays a concrete Grotto to Our Lady—something it now occurs to me, I have not seen much of in the Protestant Colonies. And we are happy to greet the kids. The baby nurses as though I’ve never left and bounces up and down on my lap in greeting.

In my own home after a few days in hotels, I have pause to wonder what the lady of the house has been doing with her time all these years. Has she never washed the tiles in the shower? Does it occur to her to dust under the furniture?

The woman who has just returned from vacation has all sorts of new plans, like making bread, sewing and canning. She pictures a boxwood maze in the backyard, and a raised herb garden, then to rest at days’ end by candlelight in a reproduction Campeachy Chair, just like Thomas Jefferson’s.


Dawn Farias said...

Oh, I enjoyed this post. Thank you. Glad you had a nice time.

toastburglar said...

Oh, I'm so glad you posted this! I've been praying your baby would still be nursing when you got back!
I'm glad she is and that you had a good time!

mrsdarwin said...

Ah, sounds like a lovely time! Glad you enjoyed your vacation. I hope you had a drink for me.

Julie D. said...

This sounds really wonderful and I am going to file it under vacation ideas (you know, for that time when our kids are out of college ...that being MY time of life ... and we have paid off enough of the tuition to allow us to travel again). :-)

Julie said...

We went to Williamsbueg for our honeymoon almost six years ago. It was great. Glad you enjoyed it.

BettyDuffy said...

I really would like to return with the kids, especially the older ones. I think a week long visit to Williamsburg would probably cover an entire semester of history.

Thanks also everyone for the prayers. Pumping breaskmilk for the first couple of days was really easy, but as the supply dropped a bit, I had to turn off the TV, put away the books, tell my husband to be quiet, and think baby thoughts in order to get a letdown--reminded me of watching those breastfeeding channels in the hospital after having a baby that are supposed to help stimulate milk production. It's weird, now that I'm home, and the baby is here, I don't have to think about nursing at all, and I have a letdown. They really do emit some sort of pheremone it seems. Oxytocin?

williamsburg vacation said...

Yah man I enjoyed this post

Anne O. said...

I'm glad you had such a nice trip. Life at home is always more enjoyable after a little reprieve.

Enbrethiliel said...


Betty, when you write stuff like this, I am amazed that I don't have to pay any money to read it. What a great post!