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Guilty Treasures

Historic Portsmouth houses / Wentworth-Gardener


They are all around us. But how many historic houses have you actually been inside? You don't want them torn down. You like to look from a distance, but are you supporting them? are you visiting them? Use it or lose it. Don't feel guilty. Go.



VISIT: Seacoast Historic Houses


"I'm so embarrassed," she said. "I feel guilty. It's like a shame thing,"

Tell me, " I egged. We had been talking about local history on the phone.

"Can't," she edged.

"Afraid I'll tell your secrets in the newspaper?"

"No, it's worse because I'm a real estate agent." She whispered into the cordless receiver. "You see, I should know better."

"Trust me," I whispered back.

"Well, it's all these historic houses," she said at last with a relief borne of confession. "I love them so much. They're just so beautiful."

"Uh-huh." Not quite the juicy truth I'd hoped for.

"I swear I moved to the Seacoast because of them. I needed to be near them. There's something about having all this history around, Georgian mansions, museums, old churches, forts, white colonials, capes, Victorians. It's just so, so..."

"Historic?" I offered.

"Exactly!" she said, then paused. "Are you making fun of me?"

"No way," I protested. "I'm empathizing."

And I was. We all feel the vibes that big old houses emit. They announce their presence like redwoods, towering over our brief passage. They hiss, sometimes, the way tombstones can, leaking secrets like a chorus of distant radiators. The old houses stand lonely when the weather shifts, bent in a listening stance like someone who has long outlived her last friend, cocked to hear the conversation of a different time. Then in a minute, with a shrug, they stand straight and proud with the kind of formal certainty that no one born this century can even hope to imitate. I was empathizing almost to the point of poetry but, as usual, my mouth was operating in another genre.

"Ya, you just don't see many historic split levels and duplexes any more," I said, waiting for a laugh that never came. She was still in poetry mode.

"It's like we're living in someone else's civilization," she offered. "Like we're just borrowing all this architecture."

"You mean like those gray man-eating gorillas in the movie Congo?" I did a passable ape grunt. "The ones protecting the ancient diamond mine?"

"Sort of...." she said, running with my awful metaphor. "The gorilla part seems apt for some people. Most of us have no real idea about local history. I don't know about the native Americans, the settlers, the immigrants, the farmers or the Mill workers. Hell, I don't even know about my own grandparents. Just bits and facts here and there. I mean, I read those historical roadside plaques, the big green metal ones. But mostly, I've got my head down, slogging along in my own life."

"Digging for diamonds?" I offered.


"Making a living," I explained. "You know, the diamonds the gorillas were guarding?"

She pondered this for a moment, and then she took in a deep thoughtful breath that indicated her confession was still in progress. In my silence she continued wearily.

"I must have pointed out those darn places a million times, you know, to clients. There's where John Paul Jones lived. Over there's where they found an old Declaration of Independence. That one's the oldest houses in the state. It's all part of my sales pitch, like the beaches and the school

systems and the tax free shopping!"

More silence from me.

"And do you know the worst of it?" she said, her voice grew armor plates.

"Let me guess," I seized the moment. "You never went inside these famous houses. Never took the tours."

"Not one," she sighed, then echoed, "Not one. I feel so guilty."

"Me neither," I said, waiting a soulful moment before detonating my own bombshell.

"No way!" she exploded.

"Way," I said firmly, dodging the shrapnel..

"But you've written dozens of history article."

"Hundreds," I corrected.

"And you never…?"

"Not once in 25 years of writing about this area!" I confessed. Not until recently. I thought they were too boring to go inside."

"You charlatan!" she shouted.

"You said it!" I agreed. "And that's why I resolved last year to visit

every historic house, every museum and historic site in the Seacoast, I started about six months ago. I keep a little journal."

"And your web site?"

"That's the journal." I confessed. "Just don't tell anyone."

"Trust me," she echoed, her tone accusing.

"Hey, I don't swim in the Atlantic," I defended, "but I love looking at the waves"

She smiled, or at least it sounded like a smile over the phone.

"And I never bought a Picasso, but..."

"No more metaphors, please," she cut me off. "Look, I better let you go back to your writing."

I've read the John Gray books, so I know when a woman is dismissing a guy.

"Yea, thanks," I stammered, feeling doubly exposed as both impostor and non-swimmer. My mind shuffled toward the exit door of our conversation.

"Wait!" the real estate lady cried, "The diamonds!"

"Excuse me?"

"The monkeys guarding the diamonds!" she shouted.

"Gorillas," I corrected.

"Right! Maybe that's us guarding all this history, protecting it, preserving it, you know, until someone else who appreciates it more comes along. Or maybe we can learn to appreciate all this history ourselves."

"You mean, can the gorillas eventually learn to value the diamonds?"

"Could happen," she defended her theory.

"Except that, in the movie, anyone who found the diamonds got his head torn off by the gorillas," I explained.

"Don't mess with my metaphor," she warned. "You know what I mean."

I did. She meant she was going to take a few tours.

"Sorry," I said. Timing was everything now. "Look," I added abruptly. "I better let you go, You probably have a lot of diamonds, er properties to sell." I had her on a John Gray technicality. It was my closing this time and she knew it.

"Okay you charlatan!" she taunted softly.

"History-lover!" I teased.


Copyright (c) 2005 Originally published here on February 2, 1997


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