The old guide looked at me with a curiously intense expression. “I was meant to be here,” he intoned gravely. “I’m SUPPOSED to be here.” I looked around again at the 19th-century bedroom…the old-fashioned wash basins, the ornate gold-leaf crown molding, the windows with wavy glass…and concluded that, yeah, on some level, he probably was.
* * *
Being retired has its pros and cons.
Yes, it’s great not having a boss, deadlines, hassles. It’s cool having a week of “six Saturdays and a Sunday.” I enjoy being able to pursue my passions. But sometimes I miss my friends, the office chatter, a sense of identity and purpose.
Sometimes I wonder what to do with myself, how to fill empty hours.
So yesterday, Sue, Kelsey and I visited the Bellamy mansion in Wilmington, a rambling 10,000-square foot Victorian house built in 1861. We did the self-guided tour, going room to room, listening to the audio on our phones.
We admired the painstakingly restored interiors, the history, the information about Dr. Bellamy, his wife Eliza, and their ten kids.
Suddenly, seemingly from thin air, an old guy wearing a cap, a Bellamy Mansion shirt, and a guide badge appeared. He held his hands behind his back and addressed Sue the way a professor would address a student.
“Do you like this room?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” Sue said. “It’s very interesting.”
“Would you like to know more?” he asked.
My toes curled. It was mid-afternoon and we were the only visitors. If this guy latched on to us, it was gonna be very difficult to break free.
He continued. “Now, Doctor Bellamy was a strict Methodist and allowed no alcohol or tobacco. But MISSUS Bellamy was Presbyterian and enjoyed her sherry. Now, how do you think that worked out?” He looked at us.
I guess our expressions said it all and he laughed. “Yes, Mrs. Bellamy liked to entertain and she and her lady friends would often gather in this room on Sunday afternoons. There WAS sherry involved.” As he talked, providing other bits of information, the parlor was suddenly more lifelike, relatable. I could sort of picture it.
We trailed after him as he went room to room, gesturing and pointing and talking animatedly about the life and times of the Bellamy clan. He was a natural storyteller and he captured our imaginations: the personalities of the doctor and his wife; the kids, some good and some bummers; a nineteenth-century Day in the Life snapshot from lighting the breakfast fires to snuffing out the candles at bedtime.
As he spoke, I tried several times to read what his cap said. He sensed me looking at him and I quickly averted my eyes. He finally caught me squinting at the brim; it was something about Viet Nam. He paused. “Yeah,” he said quietly, touching his cap. “I did two tours there. Never got shot, but I did pick up some shrapnel.”
The conversation turned to him, his life. I learned that he, like me, was retired. He had settled in Wilmington with no job, no family and a lot of time on his hands. One day he wandered by the Bellamy mansion and felt an instant cosmic connection; the old house called to him, as he put it.
He immediately signed up as a volunteer guide and spent almost every day for several weeks learning all about the mansion. It was borderline creepy; he would wander the five floors and fall into reveries, almost trances, in some of the rooms. He was convinced that Mary—one of the ten kids—followed him around.
He could hear the squalling cries of babies being born, the clump of boots and rough talk of occupying Union soldiers. The laughter of children and clatter of dishes during the latter part of the Victorian era. And in the next century, the groans of the dying and radios playing jazz music and news of far-off wars.
As we ascended, the floors became increasingly warm since the windows were shut. By the time we reached the top floor, it was decidedly hot and his droning monologue made me sleepy. I caught Sue and Kelsey fanning themselves and stifling yawns.
I was suddenly tired of hearing about the Bellamys. I wished I could have quickly retreated back down the stairs, but it would have been very hurtful to our guide. We were almost done; I had to stick it out.
I was barely listening at this point, but I heard something about his son and his death in an automobile accident almost twenty years ago. I was suddenly attentive.
“The day before he died,” he said, “Tim told me: ‘Dad, you could wake up one day and find it was the best day of your life. Never stop looking.’ ”
He looked at us with a curious mixture of wistfulness, resolution, contentment. “The day I found this place…that was that day for me.”
Once again on the ground floor entrance, we shook hands and thanked him for bringing the mansion to life for us. As we walked toward the arched exit, he was standing at the end of the huge porch, his hand held up in farewell. I looked back a few seconds later and he had vanished. The nearest door was twenty feet away and he didn’t move very fast; but somehow, I was not surprised.
I hope he and the Bellamys enjoy many more years together in these, the best days of his life.