Whitney Pipkin is the second of four writers in the 2018 cohort of our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on site to explore ways to rediscover and repurpose place by using writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.
By way of this post, Whitney shares a glimpse into her week at Woodlawn. Read more about Whitney and her fellow residents here.
The beauty of the heavy things
by Whitney Pipkin
The rain has barely quieted its rat-a-tat-tat as I exit the car and head across the pea gravel path to Woodlawn. A blue heron traverses the somber sky from one tree-lined edge to the other, heralding the end of the morning’s downpour, for now. The sky is still heavy, though, holding back the drops that are sure to fall all afternoon.
It’s the first day of my Writer-in-Residence week at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey, and I’ve been watching the forecast for days. Rain, rain, rain, and I wonder if I’ll make the most of the former plantation’s enchanting woods and winding walkways. The grounds around me are drinking up the droplets, thirsty after weeks of sun, and I am left looking for the bright side.
I lower my chin from taking in the leaden clouds—and catch a glimpse of the pink
lipstick-colored crepe myrtles before me, branches bending beneath the weight of waterlogged blooms. Dripping with lush clusters of petals, the trees are a pair of bouquets, picked at their peak, that have just made the long trek home in a child’s sweaty palms. I am their happy recipient.
After settling in, I make my way to what will become my second-favorite room of the early-1800s home: the one with the archives. I decide to call it this even though the space is shared with the catering company that feeds guests for weddings and events at Woodlawn. Metal file folders covering one wall of the small corner chamber are filled with papers worthy of rifling through: letters from the home’s residents are interspersed with photocopies of paintings and newspaper clippings and a copy of George Washington’s will. I am elbow deep in the details of bygone lives, and I could stay for hours.
When my head starts to spin from the small print, I look at the room’s small oval window, marveling at first at the intricate panes laid out in the shape of a spider’s web. When I look through them, I see the front lawn’s crepe myrtles have followed me here. From this vantage point, they don’t look weighed down by the weather, but more beautiful for it, as the raindrops turn their delicate petals into a deeply-pink carpet on the gravel below.
The room I’m in is humid, breezeless, but I can’t pull myself away from the file cabinets just yet. I’m thinking of Nelly as the privileged, adopted, chosen granddaughter-cum-daughter of George and Martha Washington. I’m reading the letters in the folders and in the book, George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly, and the childhood version of her is coming into focus. An American princess of sorts, doted on, educated, beautiful and rubbing elbows with society’s greatest thinkers as a country, freshly birthed, was finding its earliest form.
I leave the letters for a tour of the Pope-Leighey house, a break in the rain, and return in the afternoon to find the weather gloomy again, fittingly.
For the next couple days, I get stuck on the year 1799. It’s a heavy year in Nelly’s life, one that would have made those early, exhilarating ones feel like a mirage. It’s the year it all seemed to be coming together, yet began falling apart. And it’s the first of a nearly four-year lapse in the hundreds of letters that pass between Nelly and her dearest friend Elizabeth. I decide to write a letter, between the friends, to fill in the gap.
I spend the rainy days thinking of the loved
ones Nelly began to lose that year: the grandparents that adopted her as their own, the first of the seven children she would bury out of the eight she birthed. I come home to my own pair of children that night. My daughter is sick, throwing up, back pain. I fall headlong into the brand of anxiety Nelly writes about in her heartfelt letters.
I think of the remedies laid out in her housekeeping book, the “mercurial ointment”—which we now know is poisonous—that the doctor used on her daughter Frances’ skin infection. It’s a wonder she was the one child who outlived her mother. I am bouncing between thoughts of the past and present. I call our modern-day doctor and make an appointment, hoping whatever cure she recommends won’t be debunked by future generations.
I return to Woodlawn and set up shop in my favorite little room between the bedrooms overlooking a back balcony, featuring views of yet another crape myrtle, this one just ripening into light-pink blooms against an otherwise leafy-green landscape.
Mount Vernon is off in the distance, though I can’t see the plantation for the trees from here. And Nelly’s past, the record of it at least, is in those file folders a few rooms away.
The next day, the sun finally peaks through, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. The crepe myrtles beg me to take photos of their heavy blooms, half spilt in a half-circle carpet below, dewy petals sparkling in the newfound light.
I make my way to the Pope-Leighey house and sit, uncomfortably, in the stillness, feeling the weight of it. The verdant forest outside the windows is almost motionless but for the occasional leaf flittering to the forest floor. The sun rests on a blood-red flower whose name I do not know, spotlighting, then moving again. Natural light plays a similar game inside the house, cascading in a dinosaur shape on the bench and then the carpet as its source crosses the sky.
I feel like I am breaking a rule being here, though the groundskeeper let me in. It’s too still, nothing like my life outside. I have snuck into these sacred spaces, peoples’ homes, where they lived their lives in curtained privacy. I enter cautiously, to wander and wonder.
What was it like to have a cup of coffee here on a similarly sun-dappled morning? To wake to the brightest sun pouring into the bedroom, the rat-a-tat-tap of Frank Lloyd Wright’s urgency, built into the fabric of this outside-in structure: “The day has begun, and so must yours.”
I feel the stagnant serenity this place is intended to conjure, yes, but I also feel its earnestness. Rather than resting, I am as itching as its creator to create something new from all of this, to mimic its beauty in my own small way.
More of Whitney's writings can be found online at whitneypipkin.com and thinkabouteat.com.