You can learn a lot about a man by living in his house for the weekend. Especially when he's not there.
The only thing I knew about him was that he taught English at VCU and even if I didn't arrive with that tidbit of information, it wouldn't have been tough to glean.
Books were everywhere and not trashy novels or current fads, but titles such as "American Traditions in Literature," "Art of the Short Story" and more books on the subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald than I'd seen in one place. Robert Penn Warren. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Lots of Hemingway, too, including a fabulous coffee table book called "Picturing Hemingway," filled with a lifetime worth of pictures of Papa and his many wives. There was even a VCU connection with several of (professor of creative writing) Tom DeHaven's novels.
A lot of good reading was on those shelves.
And the house! Actually, it was more of a cottage, situated about 12' off Ivy Creek, and about as charming as it could be despite a completely non-descript exterior.
Lots of windows looking out on the water, a wide open floor plans encompassing kitchen, dining and living space. No telephone, no TV. Best of all, a wide front porch with a swing, a rocking chair and a couple of big wicker chairs surrounded by thick bushes for privacy.
Upstairs where I slept was a low-slung room as wide as the house with six windows, including one looking out over the creek, which I immediately opened. Low bookshelves, a couple of papasan chairs and tables, a bed on the floor and that was about it. No more was required.
Why, you wonder, was I in a strange man's house, albeit that of a man I probably would enjoy talking to?
My intent was to visit my parents on the Northern Neck, but after a massive sycamore fell on their house three weeks ago, puncturing roof and windows, they had to find temporary digs until the months of repairs are completed.
Their house is large - three stories set on multiple acres- and while it's on the river and they have a dock, it's set back from the water itself.
Not so this clean-lined little cottage, where a breeze off the creek blew constantly though the windows and the water shone in the afternoon sun just outside.
It was like being on a weekend getaway at the river, not at all like being in my parents' lovely but far more formal house.
Even my parents had fallen hard for the charm of the place, not to mention its accessibility.
Because here's the thing: ten days after the tree fell, my Mom had had knee replacement surgery, a major event for someone of her age, much less someone who'd just been displaced from home.
But they seemed to have adjusted nicely and I'd chosen Father's Day weekend to visit to help care for her and make my Dad feel at least a little special on his day.
Arriving Saturday, I expected to spend a good part of my day making meals, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that neighbors were bringing over dinner, one of those small town courtesies extended when someone is just out of the hospital.
That meant that after I made lunch, my Mom laid down to ice her knee and take a nap, I was free to entertain myself.
Rooting around in the linen closet, I found an old red coverlet with tiny white flowers on it and took it out to drape over the porch swing, adding a few cushions for lounging.
Voila! Instant reading swing.
With my copy of "The Goldfinch" in hand, I allowed a good chunk of the afternoon to pass me by lost in the story before the neighbors showed up with a roasted chicken, its cavity full of pearl onions and celery, homemade bread, roasted squash and zucchini and potato salad.
Oh, and a homemade strawberry pie. My parents and I savored a lovely dinner chatting about everything and nothing, my Mom saying that food always tastes better when someone else makes it for you. Amen to that.
She mentioned how one of my brothers-in-law had commented the day before about how quiet it is around there.
For a city person like me, the quiet is so loud it's jarring. The only sounds are birds, insects and the very occasional tires on the road as someone drives by (and inevitably waves).
After dinner, I went for a walk, first to see their house, which looked badly injured in places.
Then, eager to see the sun set from as many different angles of the point as possible, I set out to walk every side road as daylight waned and the air got a bit cooler. Small boats still skimmed over the river but most of the sound was frogs beginning to croak.
We spent the evening like we used to on family vacations back when they took their six daughters to the beach every summer. Playing Yahtzee. Trading off crossword puzzles so everyone took a shot at finishing them. Eating ice cream.
I was awakened this morning (at an ungodly 7:45) by my mother calling up from downstairs, "Wake up, Karen! Time to get up!"
Turns out they'd been awake for hours and wanted breakfast. Stat.
Quickly, I made a coffee cake and put it in the oven and began frying bacon and sausage, the breeze from the creek already wafting in and mixing with the aroma of frying pig and, eventually, eggs and English muffins.
Dad opened my Father's Day card, chuckled and thanked me and put it on a table with those from my five sisters.
After I got Mom settled, I set out for a walk, heading down toward Norwood Baptist church (empty today because the shared minister only preaches the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month), past enormous drifts of blooming orange day lilies.
When I got back to the cottage, I suggested we all move the party to the front porch, sure Mom would enjoy a change of scenery.
A hummingbird flew up to the basket of purple petunias only to depart quickly when there was no feeder. By mid-afternoon, I'd gone to their house and retrieved one of their hummingbird feeders and affixed it to their temporary porch. My parents are inveterate bird watchers and I knew they'd missed the daily show of feathered visitors.
By mid-day, I rustled up a wicker table from the gazebo and with the one already on the porch, we had our lunch out there, watching a fat groundhog toddle around the yard across the road and a couple of bunnies taking their exercise.
Once it was Mom's rest time, I gravitated back to the swing and my book, occasionally looking up as a couple of tiny salt marsh sparrows industriously went about building a nest under the bush a few feet from where I sat.
After reading for nearly an hour, languor wrapped its warm arms around me and I set my book down and let myself sink into the pillows on the swing.
I recall waking up a time or two, always because of a bird song, but giving myself up to it and sliding back into sleep.
It worked out well, though, because when I went inside after finally waking up, Mom was just getting up, too. Perfect. No one would know just how indulgent I'd been.
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking, working more crossword puzzles and eating peaches before I made dinner and started gathering up my belongings to leave.
My parents don't even know when the repairs on their house will begin, much less how long they'll take, but it looks like they'll be in the English professor's house at least through summer.
I foresee a lot of book reading on a strange man's porch swing. Maybe even some of his books.
From what I've surmised about him so far, I don't think he'll mind a bit.