Scotia

An Isabel story.

Let me begin with the history of the house.

Her name was Scotia because she was a design replica of the houses in Scotia, NY, way back in the 1800s sometime. Mr. and Mrs. Walter Sanders moved to Schley, VA, to build a lovely summer home on the water. They didn’t finish before Walter died, and so Scotia itself was never completed. But Mrs. Sanders remained in the finished part of the house, alone, and lonely.

My great-grandfather owned a jewelry store in Richmond, VA, at the time and knew Mr. Sanders personally. He learned of his death and thought that the perfect opportunity for his young 16-year-old daughter would be to go down to Schley and spend the summer as Mrs. Sanders’s companion. So my grandmother followed her father’s instructions and left, not at all thrilled to be spending her precious summer away from all her friends and all of … anything, really.

But as luck or fate would have it, she and Mrs. Sanders got along marvelously and became fast friends. They visited in the years after that summer almost constantly, and when Mrs. Sanders became ill and went into a nursing home, my grandmother — then a married woman with four young children — went and saw her each and every day.

By this time, Mrs. Sanders had no remaining family. When she died, she left her estate to my grandmother. Already the house had sentimental value to Nanny. She and her husband went to Scotia frequently, and Nanny had grand dreams of completing the house as it was meant to be.

These dreams were never fully realized because my grandfather was not keen on the project, but all the rooms downstairs did reach a finished stage, porches were added, and some of the upstairs began to be worked on. There was a room upstairs for every child, plus a few extra spaces where bathrooms and closets were meant to go. My grandparents converted the downstairs room that Mrs. Sanders had lived in into their own bedroom.

There was magic at work everywhere in the house. One of my aunts spent her honeymoon there. I learned to fish there. We played croquet and bocce. We put out fires that we set on the 4th of July with illegal fireworks. I lost my virginity in that house. I learned there is nothing more painfully pleasant than an outdoor shower in ice-cold well water.

I spent hours with family and friends, eating delicious food (sometimes fresh-caught fish fried up for breakfast), solving puzzles, playing guitar and games. It was the place my father and aunts brought the people they loved, and the place all my cousins and I would bring ours.

There was magic in this house. A few years ago, we catalogued all the books on all the bookshelves and found rare, wonderful old books from as far ago as the 1730s. Can you imagine your own hands on such a thing? I’ve been stung by jellyfish there, gotten the worst sunburns of my life, been drunk at noon, camped out in the yard, walked all corners of the beach. I planted trees in a vicious rainstorm there.

Scotia stands alone on a peninsula of land that juts out between the Mobjack Bay and the Ware River. At one time, the land was likely an island. To one side lies the bay, to the other the river, and creeping in until it almost reaches the bay is a marsh that backs the house. What connects to the mainland is the driveway, a raised stretch of land lined with old cedar trees curving back to the main gate, the entrance to the property. It’s likely that Mr. and Mrs. Sanders had this driveway built, and part of the marsh filled in. They probably had to fill in much of the land in order to have enough sturdy land to build a house on.

For years, the water has been trying to take it all back. At very high tides, the driveway is covered with water, and the waves crash in the front yard. The pier juts out mostly over sand instead of water as the peninsula shifts its way around, answering to the laws of time, water, and erosion.

My father’s project in recent years has been to preserve the shoreline. He has shipped in pounds of sand and dirt and rock, which have been strategically placed to hold back the water, to shift the sand where we want it to go. But man versus nature is an old trial, and rarely has man won for long.

Hurricane Isabel was our answer.

Here in Boston, we got wind, a little rain, some inconvenience. In Richmond, they lost power for a few days, had no water to speak of, and lost some trees from the yard. At Scotia, jutting out into water in all directions, in southern Virginia, the hurricane struck full force.

There is no way now to get down the driveway by vehicle. Only by foot is it possible to climb over the downed old cedars trees and pines. When you reach the yard, you see the house: the pump house, home to my favorite ice-cold shower, is gone. The garage is missing three walls and its roof is kept on by a hinge.

Scotia herself has no siding. My grandmother’s room collapsed into the foundation and the porches were torn off. Windows are broken, the front door gone, chimneys collapsed. I haven’t heard yet of the shoreline and where the water now calmly laps as though nothing had changed.

But everything has changed. This place of utter peace and quiet, this haven of family affection, of all that I believed was good and true and lovely, is destroyed. Granted, all my family is safe. No one was killed or even injured, but our familial symbol of happiness is crumbling, is work for bulldozers and chainsaws.

This place, where all could be solved in the garden or the kitchen, where you could wake and sleep to the schedule of the sun, where solitude was welcomed, where ghosts lurked around dark corners and old books waited to be discovered … this place was Scotia. I don’t know how to write about her without sounding dramatic, but Scotia was my favorite place in the world. Scotia was where my parents wanted to retire. Scotia was everyone’s favorite child.

I called my parents as they arrived at my grandmother’s house in Richmond to tell her the news. I still don’t know how she took it. It’s possible that the house can be rebuilt, restored, all the work in the yard redone. But I question whether it’s worth it, whether another Isabel of a different name won’t come with more of the same. And I know none of my family has the money to rebuild.

My dad used to say that the entire family took for granted that Scotia would always be there. I suppose we really did. Even before the hurricane, there was so much that needed to be done: the roof needed repairs, the siding needed to be stripped off and the wood underneath restored and weather-proofed. The porches needed an overhaul and the upstairs was still never finished. The shoreline needed more and more protection and the pier needed to be rebuilt.

We all assumed that because Scotia had always been there for us, she always would be. I knew where the hurricane would hit and how hard. But there was always magic afoot at Scotia. Mr. Sanders wandered those dark hallways. The ghosts of younger versions of all of us sat in rockers on the porch when no one was there. The blue birds whispered secrets to each other in the pear trees. I’ve never visited Scotia without seeing a fish jump, a bird wheel, an osprey learn to hunt and fly. I used to look for buried treasure on the beaches, watch herons grace the marsh. There was never a dull moment in the stillness at Scotia; it was utopia, my absolutely perfect place. I never imagined a time when she would be gone.

But without tens of thousands of dollars, Scotia is just a memory, a big clean-up, another hurricane story. I still haven’t seen pictures, just heard my mother bawling on the phone, trying to describe the scene to me. I write this as a eulogy, and for my friends I know who will read this, who have been there, who have fallen as absolutely in love with the place as I was, who hold claim to a piece of her memory, who will salute all that she was to so many, for so long.

So long, Scotia; we loved you. We always will.

Article © 2003 by Caryn Ellis