Same Reverie as J.E.B. Stuart’s Widow


I love to daydream and for a writer sometimes this can be considered work. The notions that pop in my head like wild violets often end up being my best ideas. It’s also how I get rid of a lot of clunkers. Inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, I considered including some birds’ point of view in my next novel. We all need a hook – so what if a few creatures twitter their thoughts from time to time? Last weekend, during a quiet moment of reflection while seated next to a mountain brook, I realized this concept was silly so off it went to the scrap heap.

My life is busy so it’s good for me to occasionally turn off talk radio, put down The Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker and sit and wait for my thoughts, much like a snake watching an ambling mouse. My family calls this sitting and staring. At first I check off the things I should be doing that day, but after a few minutes, I arrive at the heart of the matter. I try not to daydream while driving, however, last week during a funeral, a lovely tribute to a life well lived, I found myself thinking about my next novel and how I could have my main character, a lonely older woman, seriously consider stopping off and attending a funeral just for the community, the warmth, the welcome. Then, feeling guilty, I returned to the prayer at hand.

My husband and I visited our 16-year-old at camp last weekend and we stayed at an old bed and breakfast in Warm Springs. Dating to the 1700s, a rambling place that had been a tavern, summer inn, and a girls school before becoming a bed and breakfast and the owner’s home, we rented the guest cottage, looking out over a creek with a wooden bridge and hammock. In the morning I would sit on our small balcony, the fan of an old black walnut tree out front, and I’d sip coffee and stare at the water. To keep the sun out of my eyes I’d wear sunglasses and later a hat; there would be a mountain summer chill in the air so I’d put a sweater over my nightgown. My husband laughed at my sartorial splendor, especially when I’d pull out my binoculars. Lord knows what the rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels and one fat woodchuck thought as they raced by. The jays and robins reserved judgment.

There are treasures in reverie. How else are you going to notice the bend of the pink foxglove and the wave of the peach day lilies down by the bridge? Every morning I’d watch the spider awaken in the enormous cat’s cradle web next to my chair; she liked to sleep on yesterday’s catch. And delicately nibble.

Sometimes when I daydream – and I think this is only normal in these complicated troubled times – I’ll start to think dark thoughts or worry about the future and then, alas, the firm hand of strong character and assurance reaches in and pushes these clouds aside. I mean if I’m going to daydream, I might as well be perky. Chipper. Smiling. Hopeful. Leave the shadows of achy joints, sinus headaches, taxes, a busted Roman shade and the expensive garage bill for another day.

The sun goes about her calm morning and look! There is a beautiful doe down by the stream now. So elegant and proud. Obviously, a young one. Perhaps there is a fawn nearby. But no. There is no deer. I just added that for effect. You can paint with your mind you know: this is my inner Etch-a-Sketch.

In the cottage last weekend I found a paperback of antique photos from Warm Springs: hotel fires and baths and weddings. I even found two of my husband’s cousins getting married, year 1905. (He happens to be from one of those Virginia families who is related to everyone. Except me. My mother was from Pittsburgh, my dad Norfolk.) Buried in the book was a photo of Flora Cooke Stuart, widow of the Confederate general. The photo was dated 1917 and she was seated on the inn’s verandah, all widow’s weeds and a white cap, which she wore the rest of her life after her husband’s dying from wounds from The Battle of Yellow Tavern. (Shot by one of General Custer’s men. He was only 31.) In the photo she is reading a book. Her life had been very different from mine: a father, a general in the Union Army; a husband who was the Chief Cavalry officer of the Army of Northern Virginia; a family split by the war; raising three children; losing one as a youngster; spending time with her husband at the camps, probably to keep an eye on him since he loved the ladies. Then, his early death. Widow Stuart went on to a teaching career, eventually becoming the headmistress of a girl’s school in Staunton, Stuart Hall, later renamed for her. (During those years, she liked to be called Mrs. General Stuart.)

Despite the tragedies, all of Mrs. General Stuart’s thoughts could not have been bleak. She too had the love of family, the support of friends, respect from the community and like me, she could appreciate the bend of a flower, the symphony of a flowing creek, the admonishment of a blue jay, and just being lost in thought. Maybe in that photo she isn’t reading at all. She’s thinking. Dreaming. Wondering. Taking a deep breath and having another look.

The sun is nigh and I can hear the chirp of a cardinal over the hum of the air conditioner. Perhaps the cats are on sentry duty again in the front yard.

Guess it’s time to get to work.


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