Each Thursday, I post some thoughts or bits of books or poetry I am working on.
—I call them “thunks.”
It is no secret to family and friends that one of my favorite series of recent years is Downton Abbey. In fact, during one Christmas season, any time that I was baking dozens of scones for customers of my (very) small home-based bakery or preparing meals for company, I kept the six seasons rolling on the TV.
There are many reasons why I enjoy the series (I’m Irish, but also an Anglophile), chief among them being the relationships between the family and staff, and everyone’s relationship with the house. The Abbey, the name of the family’s mansion on the Downton estate, is a central character in the program: its beauty, its grounds, its history, and its questionable future.
The sixth and final season takes place in the 1920s. The British aristocracy’s heyday is waning: estates are expensive to maintain, income from agriculture is dwindling, and the lords and ladies have spent way too much on portraits of themselves, parties to impress, and 300 rooms worth of draperies.
The Crawley family is determined that Downton will survive. The Earl of Grantham (a.k.a. Robert Crawley), the patriarch and my least favorite character (#pompous), finally concedes after many temper tantrums, that the estate’s management must pass to his eldest daughter Mary (who is #fullofherself but #smarter). Lady Mary possesses the vision and strength of character to make necessary changes to keep up with the times.
In one of my favorite episodes, the family decides to sell tickets to the public for one day’s entrance into their home—not to line their own pockets (how gauche!), but to raise money for the local hospital. On the morning of the tour, the family is shocked by the number of people lined up outside. They had no idea the community was remotely interested in the private lives of the one percent (how bourgeois!).
(The Dowager Countess, Lord Grantham’s mother (a.k.a. Lady Violet—how many titles do these people have?) who disapproves of all things modern, would no doubt be aghast at British nobility clamoring for a spot decades later on Robin Leach’s, “Lifestyles of the [Miserably] Rich and Famous.” I can just hear her asking, “What is a Robin Leach?“)
Back to the tour: one little boy wanders off and toddles upstairs. He discovers Lord Grantham resting in bed recovering from a burst ulcer.
“Why do you live in this big house?” the boy asks, completely oblivious to the status of the man sweating in the bed. “Wouldn’t you prefer something cozier?”
The lord of the manor is rendered speechless (unfortunately, it’s just temporary).
This scene reminds me of something my nephew Liam once said to me—he was 17 at the time. He was visiting us from Connecticut where he lived with my sister in a large, rambling 1830s home that had once belonged to his great-grandmother.
He looked around in surprise at our 1,200-square-foot home built in 1904 just steps from the Erie Canal. Pittsford Village is nicknamed Little Dublin for the large number of Irish immigrants who lived there and built the canal. These workers must have been quite short since my husband could not stand upright in the second-floor shower (don’t worry, he still managed to bathe—he used one downstairs in a newer addition). The ceiling was so low at the base of the stairs that all of us managed to whack our heads on it at one time or another.
“Why do people live in big homes? This is a perfect size, and it makes it so much easier to take care of things,” Liam proclaimed. “At home, it’s such a pain for me to get to the kitchen downstairs for a snack or a drink when I am all the way upstairs in my room!”
As I said, he was seventeen. Priorities. (Liam got his wish for tighter quarters when he joined the Navy a year later.)
But he had a point! His fresh eyes helped me to see our place with a renewed appreciation. There is much I liked about the house, but its size wasn’t one of them. My husband and I are tall, and I longed for a cathedral ceiling that wouldn’t bruise my forehead or a living room that had more room for living.
Thanks for your insight, Liam! (I’m glad you are back on land now and hope you are living in just the right-sized space.)
Speaking of angst over living spaces, Lord Grantham’s ulcer likely resulted from the stress of managing a huge estate on the brink of failure (not to mention his rich diet and copious amounts of champagne).
Last week’s Thursday Thunk focused on paring down and living with less—divesting ourselves of stuff we aren’t using and don’t need. My husband and I have been empty nesters for nearly five years (happy fifth anniversary in one month to our daughter Emma and son-in-law Grey!). Throughout that time, I organized closets and drawers and cupboards to reflect said empty nest, but I shut my eyes to the basement and garage (#denial). But life forced our hand and we finally had to do the deep dive into clearing out.
Last summer, my husband downsized from two jobs to one (he was a bi-vocational pastor for several years) and we moved downstate to a new two-bedroom apartment. Having previously lived in a seminary campus apartment with two teenagers and a pre-teen for six years, our current apartment feels spacious (and cleaner). We really love it. (By the way, we are empty nesters no longer—my mother flew in and feathered her nest in the spare ‘oom.)
You may know the expression, “Home is where the heart is.” But I say, your heart makes the home. Whether we live alone or with family, home can and should be a place of comfort.
I’m not referring to the creature comforts of Downton or the American version of the mini-mansion—I mean the place where we feel comforted.
A home is not just a roof over our heads or a value based on square footage. Safety, protection, acceptance, nurture: if you experienced those within the four walls you grew up in, that is a precious gift.
In season three of Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham has lost his wife’s money with a bad railway investment (though he does love his wife, he originally married Cora for her American fortune). The couple realizes they may need to sell Downton and move to their summer place nearby. He is a bit whiny and petulant about it (shocker!), but Lady Grantham is willing to adjust to the situation. (Why anyone needs another country place when they already live in a country place is beyond me, but I digress.)
So, they gather the family and take a picnic lunch to have a fresh gander at the “cottage.” Lady Mary sniffs that at 40,000 square feet, it will be too cramped for the family. The Abbey—which in real life is Highclere Castle in the south of England—is 120,000 square feet. Cora, the practical American, thinks the smaller abode is just lovely, and that they can make it into a cozy nest.
That’s perspective. Cora has a willingness to embrace change, even if it means being reduced to just 50 rooms of luxury drapes and nary a footman (good riddance, Thomas!).
Granted, Lady Mary’s new husband Matthew steps in and saves the day by inheriting a fortune from his long-suffering, now dead fiancé’s recently deceased father (don’t ask). He dutifully hands the funds over to Lord Grantham, because as the patriarch, only Lord G. is allowed to cash the checks (and he’s heard some great things about the American stock market!).
Ode to Lord Grantham There once was a lord of the manor Who was about as dumb as a hammer; He would daily declare, "My creditors aren't being fair!" ‘Til his wife became bored with his manner. KLL
PS: I’m putting down my pen for a week or two while I finish up a very delayed book proposal, attend to some other tight deadlines, and wave and sob hysterically at the airport as two of our grandbabies and their parents move to CA next week–Thursday Thunk will return June 2!
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