My Hotel

SO we went the week after Halloween and visited my grandparents up in New York.  It was just turning November, and when we left Palmyra at 9:00 am we were without our coats (they were in the trunk) and it was sunny and expected to be in the upper 50’s to mid 60’s.  That night it seemed that he monent we crossed the state line into New York – right around 7 pm, it started snowing.  Hard.  It was slow going through that for awhile, but Emily, the only child awake at that point – loved it.

As we pulled into my grandparents’ driveway I did my best not to look at the Hotel.  I didn’t want to see it until morning, and I wanted to see it with eyes that were fresh and not too road weary.

My grandparents looked well, despite the fact that they are really getting on in age now.  My grandfather is suffering from both bone and prostate cancer, but at 80 refuses to undergo any kind of invasive treatment.  Firstly because he is asymptomatic and happy to have gotten to 80, and second, because his eldest daughter, my aunt Patty, died last winter from a round of chemo that her lymphoma affected body could not handle.  All agreed that without the chemo she only had a few months to live, but she hadn’t been in pain.  That’s his stance, then- some time left without pain is better than being killed painfully by chemicals.

But all in all they are both well, is my point.  We got all the family updates, all the small town news, and we got our daughters past their shyness and soon we were all laughing and talking again as though we’d never been apart.

Our first morning dawned cold and with flurries.  THe girls were ecstatic.  Emily was foaming at the mouth to go down to see the river and play in the snow.  I was full of questions about the hotel. It had been sitting there, silent and sullen and sad for over a year, with nary a soul to look in on it.  I was pondering how on earth I could get a better look at it.  And the, while we were discussing this, something amazing happened.  People showed up there!  We pressed our faces against the window for a few moments, wondering who they could be, when suddenly it became apparent that they were headed our way!

It turned out to be the realtor and her husband.  She had been enlisted by the bank to get the Hotel on the market, and they had let her know that the former owners lived next door.  She was coming over with some questions.  Even better, she was going to let me go in and have a look around with her.  I helped answer some of her questions and then I got on my coat with great excitement and followed her next door.

It was cold and dark inside.  The kitchen had changed dramatically from my days there.  Mostly it was empty, with a few scattered dishes that I recognized as being the “breakfast and lunch” china.  I wanted to cry.  The beautiful dinner dishes with the holly pattern were all gone.  It got worse.  Much worse.  The place had been stripped clean.  With a few exceptions, all of the furniture and antiques were long gone.  In the coffee house (the breakfast room) there were a few tables and chairs left, one with puddles on it where the roof had leaked.  The bar in the taproom was indeed covered in mold.  The old jukebox was gone.  I bet he sold it for a pretty penny – it was a perfectly working antique, and it was BIG.

The antique phone booth was gone.  The velvet couches in the main and upstairs lobbies were gone.  The federal mirror from the dinner room that had once belonged to Ulysees S Grant was gone (sold on ebay for $1200 I’m told).  The brass beds from the older rooms were gone.  In short, everything that made the Hotel what it was, was gone.  If he could have sold the velvet wallpaper off the walls, I’m sure he would have.

I was happy that halfway through my wandering around my grandmother showed up with Emily and Paul.  Emily loved looking around with me and I loved telling her all about it.  About how the third floor was a ballroom back in the early 1900’s, and about how an elegant chrystal chandelier once hung at the bottom of the stairs and when I was her age I though it was diamonds.  At some point Emily and I found ourselves wandering the dark kitchen alone.  I spied again the few remnants of china that I had once eaten fabulous food from.  “Emily”, I said, “Not one single word”.  And I grabbed a salad plate and shoved it into my wasteband and re-zipped my coat.  Her eyes got wide.  “Mommy” she breathed out in disbelief.  “I’ll explain it when you’re older”, I said.

Awhile later I met back up with the realtor while my grandmother and Paul and Emily went back to the house to warm up.  She told me the hotel was being listed for $299,000.  Less than I paid for my house, but too much, I worried for this.  It wasn’t in such bad shape that it couldn’t be brought back to beauty, but I told her I’d rather see the bank take a lot less than it wanted over it sitting and rotting because no one wanted to pay $299,000 for it.  She seemed to be sympathetic.  We talked for a few more minutes and then we shook hands and I walked back to my grandparents’.  My grandfather asked how it went, and I produced the plate from my pants, to much laughter.  It’s not much, but it’s something cherished from my past.

I hear that no one has been by to see it since that day.  Maybe $299,000 really is way too much.  For now, I feel a little better anyway.  I have a ton of pictures, a Mary Poppins lamp from one of the tables that my grandfather gave me before they sold it, and I have that plate.  That’ll have to do for now.

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The Mouldering Remains of My Childhood

I used to spend summers with my grandparents from about the time I was 8 or 9 until I was about 16.  They owned an old Victorian Inn in upstate NY in a little old town where we knew everyone.  My grandmother was the head chef, and they served lunch and dinner weekdays, breakfast on the weekends.I spent a lot of time wandering its hallways and becoming acquainted with each and every nook and cranny, from the velvet red and gold wallpaper in the dinner dining room, to the mosaic tile floor in the lobby.

The hotel was filled with antiques – some of it original furniture and trappings, some of it collected along the way by the various owners.  I especially loved the 3rd floor – it was a long unused space, except for storage.  Modern fire codes demanded a modern fire escape , and it was impossible to accommodate such a thing on that floor without huge expense and without ruining the historical character of the place.  It had originally been a ballroom, and in the early 20th century was converted into inn rooms.  While I was there, it was all storage.  Furniture, antiques, my grandparents’ personal stuff, old pictures – it was a treasure trove for the imagination of a child!

It was also a bit creepy.  Let me state that I do believe in ghosts, and it is because of my time there.  That place was haunted, and I never spent a single night there that I did not fall asleep with my little radio playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D on a loop.  But somehow, as frightened as i often was at what was invisbly lurking in the shadows, I had a real connection to it.  The hotel was always a live being to me – separate from the living and the dead within its walls.  And I felt that I had a kinship to it, that it and I had some sort of understanding that I belonged there.

As I got older and my grandparents began to talk of selling, I became restless – I struggled during the last few visits to document every inch of the place, every little detail into my memory so I could never forget it.  For the most part, I succeeded.  I can remember the smell of the place, a mixture of the giant gas oven in the kitchen and the grill coated in centuries of grease; the popcorn , smoke, and stale beer smells from the bar, the smell of age and the damp river just a few hundred feet behind the hotel (indeed – the river had flooded badly in 1971 and brought 5 feet of water and mud  inside the hotel before receding- it took the previous owners months to clean it all).

I can recall the feel of those mosaic tiles under my bare feet ( a HUGE no no – my grandfather was admant that there be no bare feet in the hotel except in your room!).  I can even recall with pleasure the taste of my favorite meals from the kitchen – and I have yet to exactly re-create any of them, despite being given the recipes by my grandmother.  All of these memories have haunted my dreams for years now, and never far from my heart is a longing to go back and commune once more with the scenes of my childhood.

Somewhere around 1997 it was sold to a man a few towns over who was a local chef.  He made some changes over the next couple of years but ended up asking my grandmother to help out part time in the kitchen.  In this way, I was still able to gain some decent access to the hotel the few times I visited during that period (I married in 96 and soon after went back to college, eventually settling in Virginia).    Unfortuately, a lot of the changes he made were cosmetic – he began to ignore the major structural repairs that were necessary quite frequently on such an old building.  My grandparents continued to live in  the house right next door to the hotel, witnesses to its decline and eventual closing.

Two years ago the property went into foreclosure.  What sickens me most is that the amount he paid was about a quarter of what I paid for my home here near Charlottesville.

Now the bank owns it.  It has been sitting empty for most of the last 2 years.  With work demands, I have been there only briefly for a funeral , and got just the quickest of peeks at my old beloved.  It made me heartsick, and I couldn’t bear to think much on it.  Little towns like that are aging poorly in upstate NY.  As the elderly die off, very few young people stay behind.  It’s little more than a ghost town now.  There’s a gas station as you enter town, and a bowling alley on the outskirts.  There’s a tiny post office there – the kind where if you should forget so and so’s eaxact address, you can put there name and zip code on it, and the postmaster will know which box it goes in.  Beyond that, there really is nothing.  A few worn houses beaten down by harsh upstate winters.

My parents made a trip up this past weekend to see the family.  While they were there, my mother had a look around.  She took pictures and sent them back to me, with the warning that “things look bad”.

Indeed, they do.The ceiling is leaking in places.  Wallpaper is peeling.  All of the furniture and antiques have been taken, sold off.  The beautiful wood bar in “The Taproom” is covered in mold.  Mold in fact is beginning to claim most of the wood in the hotel – the banister on the staircase, the doors.   There’s a feeling of despair and decay.  “It’s died”, she told me.  “It has given up and died”.

I don’t know why this affects me so deeply.  Certainly it is sad for my grandparents and aunts and uncles.  But they’ll shake their head, say “It’s a shame” and move on.  I find that it’s not so easy for me.  I want to rescue it.  Maybe it’s because letting go of it is like letting go of everything that was once so familiar and happy about childhood.  I feel like my inaction and my inattention have been a form of betrayal, as if I could have somehow stopped this inexorable march toward death.  Even now I lack the means to even attempt a rescue – and to what end?  Would I really want to live in the middle of nowhere and run a quaint little inn where tourists hardly wander and local folk are becoming more and more spare?    It just all seems so feasible, sitting here in Virginia, knowing for how little it could be had, if I were willing to take those steps.  The guilt and sadness weigh on me as I sit here and write, and make preparations to drive up next month to see for myself.  I sense, however, that the bleak November weather in the greying town of so few will do little to help.