57: The Homestead

57: The Homestead

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

The Homestead

Where thou art, that is home.

~Emily Dickinson

My grandparents, Hervey and Ethel Parke, lived in the home that once belonged to the famous American poet Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts. By the time they bought the house, the huge brick mansion at 280 Main Street was already over 100 years old. Emily’s own grandfather built the house in 1813, and the poet was born within its walls. She and her sister Lavinia and brother Austin lived there for years after their parents passed on.

When my grandfather became pastor of the old Episcopal church just a few blocks away, he needed a place to raise his expanding family. He bought the homestead and its three acres of property from the Dickinson family in 1916. My father, the fourth of five children, was born there shortly after the family moved in.

As a young child, however, none of this history impressed me. To me, this was simply the home of Nai Nai and Yeh Yeh, the affectionate names we used for my grandmother and grandfather. My twelve cousins, three brothers and I descended on the home each summer and at holidays. We ran up and down the stairs, sometimes sliding down the bannister of the main staircase in the front hall. Excluded from the front parlor, we children played with our toys and enjoyed games in the library. As toddlers, we ate our meals in the kitchen. But as we grew older, we graduated to the formal dining room, sitting with bare legs on the itchy horsehair chairs. We climbed high up to the cupola, looked out the windows at a vista of rooftops and thumbed through stacks of old National Geographic magazines stored on the shelves.

The great rambling attic was a place of special delight. Large black trunks held treasures from earlier centuries. A dusty stereopticon and slides foreshadowed the 3D movies of today. Stiff top hats (still in their custom-fitted hat boxes) stirred up images of Abraham Lincoln, and yellowed lace dresses dated from the same period. Letters, brittle from age, gave accounts of the Civil War.

Outdoors we enjoyed a grass tennis court — albeit crowded with weeds — and a formal garden. A large lawn beckoned children to run to their hearts’ content. Many afternoons, aunts and uncles set up a croquet set for us to use.

On summer evenings at exactly 9:00 p.m., Nai Nai would announce, “Time for bed!”

She would shoo us children upstairs, bid us a good night, and then retire to her own bedroom for the night. There she would let her silver hair down and brush it carefully before climbing into bed.

As soon as all was quiet, my brothers would sneak out of the Emily room, I would emerge from the Lavinia room and other cousins would join us from the Austin room. Together we would tiptoe down to the library and play cards until midnight.

Sprawled with our games on the floor around the fireplace, we listened as our aunts and uncles talked of growing up in the house. Uncle David, at age two, crawled up onto the roof of the garage with the help of his sister. His older brother Hervey straddled the flagpole sticking out from the third story window. Aunts Priscilla and Mary used to play “doorsie” in the scullery, a single room that had six doors leading to the basement, kitchen, dining room, backstairs, library, and hall. My uncle told us of the night when Yeh Yeh dreamed he was being chased by a crocodile and, in his sleep, climbed up a “tree” that happened to be one of the posts of their four poster bed. He screamed when his concerned wife reached over and grabbed his toe to wake him. We children loved all the family lore.

Tourists often stopped by to see the Homestead where the famous poet had lived. Some didn’t even knock. They simply walked right in. My grandmother welcomed them all. She always offered a cup of tea and an opportunity to talk about their favorite poems. When such guests showed up, we grandchildren fled upstairs to be certain our beds were made. Nai Nai didn’t mind showing complete strangers around the house! Rumors that Emily had stuffed poems in the walls of the house only added to their fascination with the house.

Then my parents moved across the country to California. Our visits to the Emily house stretched farther and farther apart. My brothers and I graduated from high school and headed off to college.

In 1965, shortly after the house was named a National Historical Landmark, my grandmother concluded the house was far too big for a widow in her late eighties to occupy alone. She sold it to Amherst College.

At first, a college professor and his family lived in the house. They agreed to open the public areas of the home to visitors on certain days of the week. Later the college trustees took steps to restore the home to look as it had in the time when Emily and her sister Lavinia occupied it. The college added wallpaper and collected furniture from the right historical period. Some of the pieces belonged to Emily herself. Eventually the Homestead became a museum. Only a few rooms were open to visitors.

Five years ago, the Parke clan gathered for a family funeral at the old Episcopal church where my grandfather had once pastored. After the service and a time of sharing memories, a caravan of family members, including my ninety-two-year-old father, drove around the corner and down the street to 280 Main Street. The sudden influx of guests filled the foyer, but when the museum guides learned that my father had been born in the house, they granted us permission to tour some of the private areas of the house no longer open to the public.

One of those rooms was my grandmother’s former bedroom. The director of the museum now used it as her office. A large desk and several bookcases filled the area, but my mind could still envision Nai Nai seated there on the end of her heavy oak bed, brushing out her hair. Memories flooded back. My cousins and I scrambled up the stairs to the cupola for one more glimpse of the town’s rooftops.

My parents and relatives referred to the home as “280.” Tourists called it the Emily House. Today, museum volunteers call it the Homestead. But in my heart? It will forever be my grandmother’s home.

~Emily Parke Chase

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