New York State’s snow belt is known for its winter white layered look, wind-driven drifts, and lake effect snow. We lived there 17 years and I loved every minute of those deep, cold winters. But the miracle of that region’s brilliant summer days reside in my memory too, like the summertime pages on a new calendar.
Last August, when we visited daughter Carolynn and husband Bill for a week we lucked uponone perfectly stunning day — warm with a whiff of autumn cool. Carolynn had planned the day trip to western New York for Peter and I and her friend Robin. (With Bill at work Peter had to put up with three gabbling women by himself.) The day was so August-bright that our eyes hurt. Our destination was Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park in Canandaigua.
Now western New York State is as unlike Mississippi as a moose to an alligator. Yet, when we arrived I thought immediately of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County even though that’s a fictional place and I’ve never been to Mississippi. I’ve read Faulkner several times over but can’t recall any connection between Yoknapatawpha and Canandaigua Counties.
Certainly Sonnenberg Gardens that day had nothing in common with steamy Mississippi in summer. It was so cool in the shade that we popped in and out of the sun to warm up. Who would have thought to bring a sweater in August?
The enormous mansion evoked what today would be called “shabby chic.” It invited lingering, but it was the gardens that captivated me. The early Victorian glass houses hadn’t been modernized. There were no automatic windows or sprinklers, no obvious plant maintenance, or new plantings. Everything looked decades old, plants way overgrown, yet all healthy enough and lush. The horticulturists and groundskeepers were attentive to their jobs even with diminishing funds to pay them.
Genteel privilege overlay the grounds like a scent, lavender perhaps. I could imagine Victorian ladies strolling the paths, then settling on the mansion’s enormous porch with mint juleps, laughing and gossiping the afternoons away. I envisioned myself in an organza gown — pale blue — tripping the light fantastic in my silvery satin shoes. Peter, a ballroom dancer in his day, would wear linen trousers with a white shirt and collar starched so stiffly that he couldn’t turn his head.
Snow falls outside my window today. Just enough to make me happy, and light enough to shovel easily. People in the snow belt up north have likely had enough of winter for this season. Now is the time to sits by the fire and plan a summertime trip to Sonnenberg Gardens, or even to Mississippi.
In The Tangled Fire of William Faulkner (University of Minnesota Press, 1954) William Van O’Conner wrote that Faulkner borrowed a sense of everything in decay from Victorian and fin de siecle literature. Did that thought rub off on me when I read his books? I may have to read Light in August yet again.