Julia's Delta Retreat
Since I was twenty-five, by which time I’d been away from home for almost ten years, I’ve fantasized about building a house, a retreat of sorts, in or near my hometown in the Mississippi Delta. I hadn’t realized how long I’d actually had this particular dream until a few weeks ago when I found a love letter from the man I almost married that brought me to my knees. In it, he envisioned the place that even then he knew I’d always wanted, and that he had wanted for both of us. “Could you hang orchids from the veranda like you do in Malaysia, and grow mangoes in the garden?” he wrote. We would have a Vietnamese cook who would do miraculous things to catfish; we’d gaze out at the Mississippi in reclining wicker chairs “having some sort of long drink” or maybe “a fine old Armagnac.”
An obvious first question might be why in the world I called off my wedding to this lovely, poetic man. The answer to his own question is no, you cannot hang orchids from the veranda except maybe in the dead of summer, and we’d need a greenhouse for the mangoes. When he sent the letter, he had not yet made the trek to my home state, which is not quite as tropical as he clearly thought—he had been born in Australia, at the time lived in London, and was a foreign correspondent who had spent a lot of time in the Far East. Still, his was a deeply romantic image and one I carried around in one guise or another for three more decades.
And then, at the beginning of last year, I started building the house. Two things had happened. One, I got divorced. I became, you know, myself again and remembered how much long-dormant thoughts, hopes, plans, visions, had meant to me. About the same time, my mother, in a healthy fit of unsentimentality, decided to put our family house up for sale, which conveniently had a skinny strip of land behind it on the other side of a tall fence, one on which she had grown tomatoes and roses, across the private dirt road from the pasture where I’d kept my horse Hi Joe. (Okay, so there’s no view of the river, but the pasture is green and gorgeous and populated with picturesque paint horses.) “Please, please, please, whatever you do,” I begged, “do not sell that land.” She did not, which turned out to be a good thing since for the past couple of years I’d been secretly, actively thinking about a house there, scribbling plans on legal pads, starting a folder titled simply “F” for Folly. I kept a folder on my phone too, of Instagram images that inspired me—posts of wide unstained floorboards just like the ones now on my floor, of an English sofa with a French chintz slipcover, almost exactly like the version that sits in front of my new mantel, painted in the same Farrow & Ball Card Room Green I’d been obsessed with for years.
I’d renovated one grand house in New Orleans’ Garden District and gotten a book out of it, but believe me when I say that is not an experience I would ever repeat. Also, this house would be mine and only mine, imagined from the ground up and full of things I truly, madly love, like my books (the great majority of which had been languishing in storage since the sale of the house) and Henry the beagle (who for the first time in his life would be able to go outside without a leash, in a small hedged-in garden built just for him). I wanted an enormous meadow of daffodils (bulbs rot in the wet ground of my adopted city) and a mini-orchard of the pear trees and crab apple trees I’d climbed as a child. I decidedly did not want or need a ton of square feet (been there, done that), but I did want floods of light and the feeling of space and tall, tall windows I could throw open wide.
For that last bit, I needed an actual professional, so I immediately turned to my great friend the Birmingham architect James Carter. We scribbled on yet another legal pad in his office, talked details over dinner at Frank Stitt’s glorious Highlands Bar & Grill, and the house was not just born but pretty much perfect. Overnight, James produced a colored sketch featuring a green house with simple white columns and the orange trumpet vine I told him I’d always imagined on the front (the next best thing to orchids). We toned it down a bit—for a hot minute it looked a little like Monticello—but James knew instantly what to do and gave me one great soaring space with the necessary bits added on (bedroom, mudroom, kitchen, dressing room and bath). We consulted, a lot, with our mutual dear friends, the talented team of Courtney Coleman and Bill Brockschmidt, designers based in New York and New Orleans who share my sensibility almost to a T and who have worked on lots of projects for people I know and love.
On the ground, my sainted friend Hank Burdine, who can do pretty much anything, sweetly agreed to guide the project. Hank once built roads for a living; now he is an über-ambassador for where we were both born and raised, spearheading festivals (most recently the Delta Blues and Greens Festival in Clarksdale), serving on the all-important Levee Board, grilling the world’s best duck poppers, and chronicling what’s important in his brand-new memoir, Dust in the Road: Recollections of a Delta Boy. Hank had already introduced my mother to her new favorite carpenter, Tommy Carnell (and she’s had a lot), so he left her new house and started work on mine, puzzling over some of James’s seemingly more arcane instructions, but getting it done with his crack—and very entertaining—team, who also managed to crack me up almost daily along the way.
And then, miraculously, it was all but done less than a year after we broke ground—without any of the horror stories that had filled up whole book chapters, without me throwing myself on the ground weeping or threatening to beat anyone’s head in with his own hammer, with a few, ahem, overruns, naturally, but still, it was there just in time for Thanksgiving in all its green glory. So I did what I always do and decided to have a party.
In my experience, the best way to pull a house together is to have a lavish party that seems insanely premature or even impossible. Otherwise it will never, ever be finished. For example: In the midst of a fairly extensive redo of my Manhattan apartment, Jon Meacham’s wife, Keith, and I decided to throw him a huge birthday bash with a guest list that included such fancy (and disparate) folks as Katharine Graham and Manolo Blahnik. On the days leading up to the party, I had been sleeping under painters’ tarps. The morning of the event, the carpet layers arrived with new sisal for the entire place, and my mother was hanging pictures down the upstairs hall. Minutes before the guests arrived, my father was dispatched to Citarella for five more pounds of crabmeat just in case, and Keith ran to Gracious Home for a bedspread. And it was great. Mrs. Graham, who had just had both hips replaced, arrived early, so we ensconced her in one of the few comfortable chairs. Manolo hung out in my bedroom, where he noticed my empty shoe closet (it had just been painted), which resulted in the generous gift of multiple boxes of new shoes with which to fill it. People walked through the French windows to smoke on the fire escape; at one point it was so crowded people were holding glasses over their heads à la Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
With that triumph in mind, I figured Thanksgiving in the new abode would be a cinch. After all, I’d put on a seated lunch for twenty-four in New Orleans on the first Thanksgiving after Katrina when no more than a bare bulb hung from the dining room ceiling. A call went out to festive friends near and far. Ellen Stimson, her husband, John, her three kids, and her friend David, who is by now also a friend of mine, made plans to drive from Vermont, where they live, all the way to Montreal just to fly down to Memphis, where they would then have to get in the car again. My pal Courtney, a close friend since boarding-school days who has a PhD in theology and an iPhone screen saver featuring a shot of her with her buddy the archbishop of Canterbury, offered to bless the house. My Georgetown roommate Anne Flaherty turned up early, thank God, since on the Tuesday night when she arrived, the place could still be best described as a box museum and there was no mattress on the daybed, which supplies much of the main room’s seating. Still, we managed to get rid of the boxes, dry brine the turkey, and procure a mattress (and a mixer and countless other things) on multiple trips to Walmart, while my mother, once again, hung the pictures.
By Wednesday, things were looking good until I realized that while I had a shiny new Wolf range, there was no gas hooked up to it. Many, many increasingly frantic (hysterical, really) calls to the operators at the gas company’s headquarters somewhere near Waco, Texas, ensued. (Polite, Zen-like operator: “Ma’am, I promise he is going to get to you today—there are a lot of emergencies in the area.” Me, unhinged: “This is a freaking emergency! I have six people coming all the way from Canada to eat a turkey I cannot cook!”) Then four of the six did not actually make the plane from Canada (the four who stopped for doughnuts), so by the time the stragglers pulled into town, they had been traveling for twenty-four hours and son Eli had toted two pies (an amazing pecan made with duck fat and a deep-dish cherry that Ellen knows is my favorite) in his mother’s pie basket through four major airports so we could have them with our lunch. These are intrepid folks.
We all are: my ninety-year-old father and my mother, who, more than anyone, helped me will this house into being; so many of my closest friends who gathered around the long farmhouse table to break bread and christen a dream I’d held onto forever. We ate—a lot—and drank and were very merry, and the next night Courtney produced a script that included a blessing for almost every square inch of the house and an intermission featuring a group sing-along of the Karla Bonoff song “Home” led by the great blues pianist and singer Eden Brent, whom I’ve known and loved since she was four. Keith blessed the entrance, and Hank blessed the bar, and Anne blessed the living room, and John, who is a brilliant English teacher, blessed the library. While at least four people crowded into my fine new Kohler tub, Eli blessed the dressing room and bath, reading, in part, “Let
With that, of course, we had come full circle, as some of the same Manolos given to me by the master himself after that long-ago New York shindig now grace my new shoe closet. By the time this appears in print, more old friends will have come to celebrate Christmas and I’ll have greeted the first morning of 2019 with Henry and the horses across the way. I’ll also have played some of the tunes (my shelves are happily filled with all my old vinyl) that my former fiancé imagined us listening to in his letter: Jimmy Yancey at the piano on “At the Window” and Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie doing “After Hours.” They are among my favorite songs, but in this case especially, better suited for a reflective solo sip or two. At the party, Eden closed us down with something far more fitting and joyful: a rousing and completely infectious version of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.” Everyone clapped and stomped and sang at the top of their lungs. By the end of the night, a few inaugural dents had been put in the heart-pine planks, and the house was blessed indeed.