Master’s Lodging: (Not So) Private
Two days ago I flew home from Chicago for dad’s 70th birthday.
At the party, two lords, a former GG, a handful of Canadian senators, journalists writers, conductors, actors, one Mr. Mikhail Baryshnikov a floppy puppy in hand could be seen amongst the three hundred or so invited guests all laughing chatting and eating the Fraser tartan bow tie cake and cupcakes.
Friends of my parents flew in from all over the world and this morning they all packed in to multiple cars and drove up to cottage country for the weekend.
I was booked on an afternoon flight back to Chicago.
Problem was, I had sprung a leak.
It sprung the day before just as the party was getting started.
Just as I realised how grateful I was not to be sitting here in Chicago wondering how it was all going.
See, it wasn’t just a birthday party. It was a goodbye party.
For dad and mom and us, The Three Girls.
See, for the past twenty years my family has lived in a most unusual place.
Discerning people walking past the orange brick building might notice the driveway just past the big metal wrought gate.
A driveway and a heavy wooden door
It’s hard to picture the Lodging as it was the first time I saw it.
The basement was set up as a boardroom with a dark oak table and dark green carpeting. The ceiling hung heavy and the books looked like the kind of books that would quickly be revealed as nothing more than bindings glued to a wall. The bedrooms would make for a great photo spread but there was nothing that made one think a person was actually living in any of them. The garden was nothing but a few measly thin trees and pale stone squares.
We lived, not very far away, in my parent’s first house. The house I was brought home to as a newborn. The house I was getting excited to sneak out of at night like a real teenager. It was a house full of colour and art and music. A house often full of friends and extended family yes but a house that, at the end of the day, was populated solely by us. The kitchen was open and spacious with big windows looking out onto a back deck leading out to my mother’s garden. It once successfully hid a canoe purchased for dad’s fiftieth birthday thanks to our youthful habit of constructing elaborate forts on the coolest adaptable climbing frame I’ve ever seen.
Thinking about it now, I wonder about the conversations my parents must have had leading up to this moment. Dad had left Saturday Night Magazine to focus on his writing and had found an office at the college where I imagine he must have felt a quite at home because in fact he and it were, for so many reasons, made for each other.
Feeling quite at home is one thing but moving your family into your work place is entirely another. Mom had to be on board and we, 8 12 and 14, were about to lose an anonymity we could never have imagined existed or that we would have said we’d ever miss. Wandering around that house for the first time fragments of the conversation had with The Three Girls floated through my head; “appropriate behaviour and attire”, “fish bowl”, “Master”, “Junior Fellows”, “a public home” held no real meaning. How could it. How could we possibly imagine what it was going to be like. It can’t have taken long for the college to realise that life with the Master’s family was going to have a profound affect on life at the college. Very different, especially as the wife and daughters of the new Master refused to let the college constrain or limit their lives.
The First Master, he of the iconic beard, would have been appalled at the lack of discipline and respect the Fourth Master, he of the impeccably knotted bow tie, instilled in his women. That they both had a wife and three daughters was as far as the similarities went. No daughter nor wife of His dared waltz through His office unannounced. The very idea that a teenaged girl might, at any moment, brazenly saunter through The Master’s Office, clad in pajama bottoms and belly-betraying bra-strap exposing tank top, without so much as a knock and a “Master, may I” would have been beyond the First Master’s comprehension. That any one of them would do so to fraternize with the Junior Fellows (and staff!), smoke cigarettes and be served alcohol by the college steward would, I am sure, have caused whiskers to curl and smoke to billow out of more than just a pipe.
It felt like a mad house then; it definitely felt like one on this my very last time ‘home’. There were always people in and out of the Lodging. The home which remains standing thanks in no small part to my mother’s ‘wife’, a woman who could feed a party of 30 with far too little notice and worked hand in hand with my mother to maintain the warmth and essentially open door policy one would expect of a home with a front door marked Masters Lodging: Private. Bi-weekly dinner parties for members of the college often brought great new friends into our lives but just as often would have been gratefully cancelled if possible. Teenage antics and trials were observed by a community of well wishers and busy bodies and by the ever present possibility of strange persons arriving on the doorstep and using Our Home as if a hotel which is a sense was true. The very real and sometimes dramatic possibility of the doorbell ringing at any hour by the latest broken hearted, suicidal, career doubting student. Then again, for every one of those there was the most anticipated guest and the most relished good news of personal and academic success.
I was a horrible teenager and pushed the boundaries of relationships with students and staff but at the same time was afforded one of the safest environments in which to rebel. The other two experienced the college in equally strong but differing ways. Number Two stayed away, preferring to be something of a mystery, preferring to keep as much of herself from out of the noses of so many who thought they had a right to know more about us than most people would tolerate. Number Three, realising an opportunity when she saw one, opened her hand and had them eating out of her palm; It was not unusual to walk through the Junior Common Room and see a small child holding her own in conversation with physicists and philosophers.
The first seven year term passes and I move away to university. My room, the original Maid’s Room located conveniently near the ‘back stairs’ to the kitchen, the “it’s always going to be your room” room is redecorated as the new guest room but this change does nothing to trigger the process of saying goodbye.
Next week the Lodging will be empty for the first time in twenty years. Wallpaper will be stripped, carpets cleaned and the walls repainted. I think we – maybe I – forgot we had known anything else as the house became colourful and the rooms became full of the laughter and tears that are the essence of a loved home. Amidst the boxes and empty shelves I flashed through all the variations the house of the Fourth Master and his family went through. The influence of my parent’s time in China, the walls peppered with art and generations of family, the wear and tear of children and life on corners and the garden. My mother’s garden.
It must have crushed my mother to move from the house with two gardens, front and back, to a home with two trees and a whole heck of a lot of stone to stand around on. You wouldn’t think it now. Mom’s garden is an oasis in the middle of a noisy downtown university campus. Well, just see for yourself
The leak is back and it is making it very difficult for me to think clearly, to formulate a beautifully crafted and satisfying conclusion to this story. Like the college itself it’s time for me to, once again, remember that everything will be just fine. Remember that just because two incredible giving people did such wonderful things and caused so many wonderful memories friendships and connections is no reason we can’t take up the sword, as it were, and continue on in their good example.
I found myself thinking yesterday, not for the first time over these past few months, of what would twenty years ago us think if they could see us as we were yesterday. The last time we would stand together Master and Family. Dad’s success as Master was evident in every single part of the day and every person there would say just as much for my mother’s part in this. My youngest sister singing so confidently in a quartet the commissioned piece offered by the college to my parents, my middle sister taking after the Master as she moved her way through the crowd knowing just how to make each interaction a special one and me, pretending I wasn’t leaking just so – damn you leak – just so grateful that I could be there with my family, with all the incredible people that have made our lives for the past two decades so uniquely rich and special.
Just so grateful, that this leak – overwhelming as it may be – can be nothing less than the confirmation of the magnitude and impact this strange place as had on us and we on it. A feeling I have seen reflected in so many friends, colleagues and employees of the college.
How lucky are we all to know this feeling.