At the birthday party of a friend last weekend, taxed from added project hours and feeling not as sociable as one wants to at a gathering, I took refuge in the house, where I was able to capture photos of my friend’s collections. He is an antique dealer with an eye for handsome accessories. While the party guests talked and laughed out on the lawn, I tried to get the camera on my phone to capture light in these dim, romantic rooms. Looking back over the pictures kindles that pleasure I feel in old homes with good bones and interesting appointments.
My first memory of an old house with fine collections takes me back to childhood, up along a winding path where shaggy lilacs and intrepid honeysuckle wrestled together in the heat of a summer twilight. A small, clapboard cottage with deep porches and long casement windows, it was elegantly proportioned if not grand. Even then, though the eaves were swept clean of spider webs and the beds jealously guarded against weeds, it was a house in genteel decline. The paint on the siding was crackled and dry; the tin roof sagged ever so slightly, a sway-backed horse too long in the fields.
It was Mrs. Hansberger’s house. There was a Mr. Hansberger, too, but somehow it was the wife to whom everyone attributed the ownership of the place. It may not have been an ownership of deed and dollars, but rather the heart-felt possessiveness of steward to keep. I only went there once, standing in the dimness of the living room with a handful of other children from the church, come to check in on the elderly couple.
Mrs. Hansberger showed us things from their travels in India and Africa: a pierced fan that smelled of spices; a bentwood screen that cast curly shadows on the wall; the doors of a walnut armoire groaned as she opened them. Within the case, her mix of fine china gleamed brightly. It had been a long time since they had a dinner party, she said, taking out a saucer and tracing a finger over the design. As I recall it, she seemed wistful. But perhaps her memories warmed her. A night under a tent in Africa, laughing into a tilted glass of wine while a hand-cranked phonograph played a drowsy waltz. Beyond the wash of lamplight, there came a rustling from the grass. Birds called from the tops of trees that melted against the sunset.
I’ve grown poetic, slightly cinematic, in attributing to plump little Mrs. Hansberger memories that more justifiably belong to the life of Karen Blixen. But that is the romance of old homes, fine old things. They can transport us to times when there was elegance in the smallest domestic rituals. It is marvelous to live in an era of medical advancements, social progress, and ever-evolving communications. Yet the keepers of antiques carry our past into the rooms of our futures, reminding us that even as we download the latest app onto our phone, we might choose to light candles tonight as if it were our only light, to take out our best china, setting the table as if a baroness were coming to dinner.