I have had the good fortune to live in very cool residences my whole life. Even my place in Connecticut, a mother-in-law apartment on a quiet sloping street, was pretty great. Maybe some time I'll write about each of the places I have lived, because each one has an interesting history.
The best and most famous address I ever had was 560 N. Prairie St., Galesburg, Illinois. Unless you are a major scholar of 19th century American politics, especially the foreign service of that time, the address will mean nothing to you. But if you live in Galesburg, you know the house -- that giant one with the wraparound porch. It's the Clark E. Carr House, built by an ambassador to Denmark. It is an exquisite place: incredible leaded glass, pocket doors, molding, gorgeous wood floors, a widow's walk, a ballroom in the third-story attic. The centerpieces of the home are the massive, elaborately carved sideboard and buffet that the King of Denmark gave Carr. Enormous and dark, they were the right tone and scale for the home, which also hosted the only U.S. Cabinet meeting outside Washington, D.C. (if local lore is to be believed).
Sometime in the middle of the 20th century, the Joseph L. Fagan family acquired the property and divided the massive home into two parts by putting a wall up the center staircase. Joe, his wife Leah and their daughter Marilyn Jo lived on one side; Leah's sister and her husband lived on the other. When I entered the story in 1987, only Leah and Marilyn Jo remained. I'm sorry to say I don't really remember how Joe, a railroad employee, and his family came to own the property. I don't really remember why they decided to put up that wall, a decision that rankled some of the local historians.
What I do know is that Marilyn Jo spent the better part of her life on "the care and feeding of old houses," as she was fond of telling me. A consultant to hotel chains, she split her time between a Lake Shore Drive condo and the house on Prairie Street. She was well-traveled, fiercely independent and forever single (I think she was probably mid-50s when I knew her). She had a voice like Harvey Fierstein. I loved her, but this must be said.
Her mother must have been in her late 80s, and she was alert but failing. Mrs. Fagan spent most of her time on a daybed in the dining room, a space dominated by those giant gifts from the King of Denmark. She was very quiet and gentle, and absolutely hated Daylight Saving Time. The autumn was very difficult for her. She couldn't see well and didn't like when it got dark so early. I talked with her briefly almost every day, and always asked how she was doing. A few times she told me she wanted to go and live with Jesus, a goal I share, but found a little disconcerting to consider at age 20.
I rented the sister-and-husband side of the house, minus a few rooms that Marilyn Jo kept locked for storage. I paid $160 a month, utilities and garage stall included, and my upstairs area -- long narrow bedroom, large sitting room, and a tiled bathroom allegedly built for a visit by President William McKinley -- was largely furnished. In addition to my very crappy college-era futon and milk crates, my sitting room featured a gorgeous library table on which I wrote my first professional newspaper stories and most of the b.s. literary criticism papers I had to complete that senior year. Downstairs, I had the use of a complete kitchen, dining room and parlor, with original furnishings.
Some nights I went into the other side of the house and had dinner with Mrs. Fagan, Marilyn Jo and the home health care worker, Donna. These were wonderful times, but also a listening challenge. Marilyn Jo had an enjoyable anecdotal but heavily embroidered conversational style. If you tried to map her conversation, you would end up on branch roads in the middle of nowhere, only to double back two or three times before returning to the main highway -- if you ever did. On three things she never wavered: her love of the Chicago Bears, her father and that house.
She didn't let just anybody in as a tenant. I made the grade because when I called to inquire about the rental, I knew the house had been the location of a U.S. Cabinet meeting. (My first college boyfriend grew up in Galesburg, and he had told me that on one of our long walks. I bet he thought I wasn't listening, but I was, and I remembered it.) I was quiet and kept to myself. I agreed not to have overnight male guests or to drink alcohol on the first floor. I pledged not to steal any of the precious antiques on my side of the house. And I was amenable to an open living arrangement: the accessible restroom was on my side of the house, and Donna and Mrs. Fagan shuffled through the parlor at various times of the day.
The winter of my senior year of college she let me have a Sunday afternoon reception on both sides of the house. I was able to invite faculty from the college and my parents and friends to walk through this architectural treasure. It was a very special thing. Marilyn Jo was very generous that way.
Some mornings I would come down my staircase and watch the light come through the leaded glass in the parlor. It was so beautiful. It was like stepping into 1930, in some ways. I don't have many specific memories about living there, except for the morning my dad had a heart attack. I was in the bathtub when my mother called. I was dripping on those incredible wooden floors and I remember three things: (1) drying the floor on my hands and knees (2) Donna coming to hug me (3) sitting in the parlor for what seemed like forever, waiting for someone to come pick me up so I could get to the hospital.
Leaving college was not hard for me. Leaving that house was. About three months after I moved, I was standing in my apartment in Connecticut on a Saturday morning. I was incredibly homesick and sad. I was lonely -- probably the only time of my life when I could ever say that -- and Mrs. Fagan had been on my mind. I called Marilyn Jo. Her mother had died a few days before. That's the closest to "psychic phenomenon" I'll ever get, but I cannot express how strongly she had been on my mind.
When things weren't going so well in Connecticut, I fantasized about coming back to Prairie Street and living there. Marilyn Jo enticed me by offering to clear out the main storage room and make it part of my living quarters if I did return. Living in Galesburg would have been completely impractical, so when I did come back to the Midwest, I had to let that dream go. I went and had dinner with her a few times, then lost touch. She had a beau, and it sounded like they were going to get married. They did not.
HCB wrote me late last year to report that Marilyn Jo had died of cancer. She was the last of the Fagans. No husband, no children, no shirttail relations, even.
"What's happening with the house?" I asked HCB last week when we met in Galesburg for our occasional Friday afternoon beverage. "Did she bequeath it to any group or person?"
"It will be sold on the general market," he said. "She didn't leave it to anyone. And the contents are going to be auctioned off."
I sat, stunned. I was devastated.
This may sound stupid to you that I would be upset that some old lamps and end tables are going to be sold, but it's more than that. I can't imagine those pieces anywere but in that house. I stopped by 560 N. Prairie St. on my way out of Galesburg, as I do every single time I visit the town. I took a bunch of pictures. I peered in the windows. The rooms looked exactly the same. I walked around and looked at my favorite window. I just ached for the house. I wish I had videotaped every inch of it, or taken a million photos, or memorized it better.
I stood on the front porch and got a little teary. I'm a little teary writing this, and I don't expect you to understand. I had a 40-minute drive back to Peoria to consider it, and I can't even explain it myself. Why does this make me so sad? Not because I want to go back to my final year of college, which was pretty downbeat. Not because I wanted the house for myself, even though I think it's an incredibly special place. Not because I didn't appreciate it when I lived there -- I truly and wholly did (I just didn't do a good job of recording it).
I think it's because I know what that place meant to Marilyn Jo. The house was hugely important in her life, and in the lives of people around her. The thought of her knowing -- deciding -- to relinquish the house just strikes me as sad. I know it must have been very difficult for her to let it go into the unknown. Who will buy the pieces from the King of Denmark? Will they be split up? Will anyone tell the story of how they came to the United States, and who was the recipient, and why?
We're more than our address and Danish furniture, and there are Bible verses (not to mention trite truisms) that remind us of this fact. Still I can't help but feel a pang of empathy for someone who had such a sense of history, of place, of beauty and of dedication to her homestead.
That's why this post is so, so long. Because I wanted you to know what she did for me, and what that place meant to her, and what it means to me. I hope that whoever buys 560 N. Prairie St. [and dear Lord, I just pray with my whole heart that it is someone who does not own a bulldozer] has that pang of empathy too.