Monday, September 29, 2014

Houseguests and Fish

I've become a cottage groupie.

For the third time since August began, I headed the car east to visit the happy couple who live in the most charming cottage on the northern neck.

Despite warning them that their effusive hospitality was going to result in me saying yes every chance I could, they keep rolling out the welcome mat.

"Who wants to go out in the boat?" our handsome host asked seconds after arriving not long after noon. Pointing at me, he grinned, "I know you do."

I've known the man less than two months and he's already on to me.

Meanwhile, our hostess, my girlfriend, was crackling with enthusiasm; she'd just read an article about oyster gardening and was jazzed to take it up.

When I asked her who'd written the piece, she pulled out the magazine, checked and whooped in surprise. "I didn't even notice your name!"

Sometimes in life, you have to point out your own byline. What thrilled me was that my article had done exactly what I'd set out to do - encourage anyone on the northern neck with a dock to take up oyster gardening.

So, sure, I was pretty proud of myself. And hungry, too.

We began with the quintessential river meal: crabs cracked and eaten on a picnic table overlooking the river while the man of the house prepared the boat for takeoff.

You see, he's not a fan of cracking crabs (like so many men who find it far too much work for the amount of meat), so his adored wife cracks for him, leaving a pile of backfin meat for him to enjoy.

After gorging, we washed the Old Bay off of our hands and took off in the boat, a bottle of champagne in hand, our skipper abstaining as always.

We moseyed up toward Irvington and gawked at the pricey boats in front of the Tides Inn, bantered about the difference between true cottages and river McMansions and saw sailboats of all sizes breezing along.

Returning to the shore mainly because their dog Jake seemed eager to relieve himself, we took time to snack on the deck, scarfing black bean, corn, onion and avocado salsa our smiling hostess had made. It's a personal favorite, something I could eat almost daily and still look forward to.

Not that she knew that. Is it any wonder I'm such a fan of hers?

When we'd arrived, I'd seen a piece of paper on the dining room table that said "lumbago." Curious, I'd asked about it and our host, as much a language geek as I am, said he'd written it down because it's one of those worlds that has fallen out of use and he wanted to remember it.

He's right, of course, these days people complain of lower back pain but no one (except maybe octogenarians) refers to it as lumbago anymore.

Similarly, he was talking about a trial he'd attended where one of the attorneys had used the word "swale," another underused word that had captured his attention. Later he referred to me as a gadabout. How can I not get a kick out of a man who delights in obscure words?

Soon we left wordsmithing behind and took off again, his wife and I planted on the bow of the boat, pink polka dot beach towels draped over our legs, laughing and talking the whole way.

Most hysterical thing to come out of her mouth (and there were many because she's a funny woman)? "If I recall correctly, I threw up on the dog."

This time, we boated up the eastern branch of the Corrotoman to deep water areas where huge sailboats and yachts were anchored and moored.

One of the most interesting homes we saw was not up on a bluff like most of the houses around, but down near the waterline, so close we worried that the wake from the boat was going to send the river lapping at their front door.

You have to admire those who choose to live dangerously, no?

Heading back, the sun was dropping lower in the sky and everyone had an appetite. My mother has always said that children eat and sleep better near water than anywhere else and apparently it's true for adults, too.

Steak and steelhead trout were expertly grilled outside while the womenfolk made an elaborate salad (spinach, strawberries, glazed nuts, bacon, raspberry vinaigrette, oh, my!) and set the table inside to avoid the mosquitoes that had recently taken up residence on the deck.

Full as ticks, we spent the evening listening to music, talking about Grace Street in the old days, reminiscing about past dogs and wishing our hostess did not have to drive back to Richmond. But duty called.

For the second time, I got to spend the night on the bed that sits on the porch of their guest house, a bedroom with a ceiling fan, three screened walls surrounded by trees and the sounds of nature for a lullabye.

It's about the most perfect place to sleep you could imagine.

Our morning plans to boat to Urbanna and have lunch were canned once we looked at the weather and saw the massive front of rain approaching.

Making lemonade out of lemons, we came up with Plan B, even though it meant leaving the charming, little cottage: a visit to nearby Menokin to see its historical ruins, walk its trails and see Cat Point Creek on which it sits.

It's not as random as it sounds. In 2012, I'd heard a lecture at the Virginia Historical Society about Menokin and the efforts to restore it. Just last January, I'd seen an exhibit at the Virginia Center for Architecture of design plans envisioned by Harvard Graduate School of Design students.

So my curiosity about the real thing had been piqued twice.

The heavy gray skies and impending rain were a dramatic backdrop as we pulled up to the 500-acre estate (back in original owner and Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lightfoot Lee's day, it had been 1,000 acres) for a look around.

A short film told us additional history, but I was more impressed with the room full of architectural features removed from the house back in the '60s and destined to be returned once the ruins are enclosed with glass walls.

Closet doors, mantel pieces, the front door keystone and many other significant elements of the original house had been presciently stored away in a peanut barn at Bacon's Castle a half century ago and await return to their home.

The ruins are striking because when the roof eventually collapsed, it left standing two corner sections of wall diagonally across from each other and two massive chimneys, in addition to various other bits of walls and cellar, now all somewhat protected under a large shed.

Just so you know, there is nothing cottage-like about this place. It was a big house for an important man.

The once-terraced gardens that sloped gradually down to Cat Point Creek are now overgrown with trees blocking the view, but restoration of the grounds will come in phase two of the project after the house is redone.

Never one to pass up a good water view, we took the trail down through the woods past walnut trees (the ground under them a minefield of green nuts), dogwoods, American beeches, dark cherry trees and tulip poplars until reaching the creek, serene and silver on a day like this.

Old Lightfoot Lee and the wife would have had a marvelous waterfront view back in the 18th century.

Today it was all ours.

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