There are a lot of beautiful historic homes in Southern Maryland, but one of my favorites was owned by my mother’s friend and mentor, Hope Swan. Gravelly Hills, as it was called, was located about 20 minutes north of our house and my sister and I often went there with one or both of our parents over the course of several years from the time I was a very little girl to when I was a young teen. The house always struck me as an magnificent elegant thing that overwhelmed my country tomboy aesthetic so I mostly skulked around, away from the adults, taking in as much as I could in the brief times we were there.
Gravelly Hills was a large house of three distinct stair-stepped sections that sat at the end of a long driveway lined with giant trees that blocked out the sun. The house had been built by Phillip Key and owned by the Key family since it was built in 1847. It had mostly fallen into ruin by the mid 20th century, but Hope and her partner Elisabeth Hoff had restored it and had it registered in 1976 on the National Historic register. I never knew Elisabeth, she had died when I was too young to remember, but she had left a legacy of beautiful furnishings, elegant gowns, and drawers full of jewelry that enchanted curious little girls. Hope was always there to greet us and show us something new or tell us another story about the goings on of the house. And then, we were left to explore while the adults talked.
Hope raised cattle and chickens on the estate and by complete accident, also an extensive feral cat community. The cats kept the mice and rats at bay and there were usually litters of kittens to find hidden in the hay bales and sometimes in a displaced hen’s nest. My favorite denizen by far was Hope’s gentle giant of a black lab, Lady, who would retrieve eggs from the henhouse that she would deliver, unbroken, to the house all throughout the day on no particular schedule but her own.
When I was small, I imagined this house to be an immense tangle of grand rooms, dark hallways, impossibly high ceilings, staircases that disappeared into the rafters, and in my mind, secret rooms and passages that were simply waiting to be discovered. It was not quite as big as my imagination, and probably contained no secret hallways, but there was a grand parlour, a dining room that could surely seat 20 or more for dinner, and an immense kitchen with a brick oven. There was also a back staircase that spiraled up what seemed to be at least five stories or more, but it was probably only three. The upstairs rooms were all furnished with heavy antiques including an enormous black sleigh bed in one room and a deep wardrobe in another than you might imagine going through and finding another world.
On the west side of the house was a pool surrounded by a brick patio and a wall of boxwoods that made it invisible until you entered through a side gate. The old pool house at the deep end of the pool had two swinging doors that met in the middle and just inside those doors was a large dresser filled with old fashioned bathing suits and caps from ages ago. The farm buildings were located about 100 yards beyond the pool and were another great adventure waiting to happen. I would swear there were at least 4 barns, but I’m probably mistaken. There was one in particular that had an immense pile of hay that one could jump into from the loft and not get the slightest bit hurt. However, that being the food for the cattle, we were often chased out of there as soon as we were discovered.
Every once in a while, we would be invited to one of Hope’s grand parties when the parlour was decked out in full holiday glory. Dressed in Christmas velvet and itchy red knit tights with brushed hair, a clean face, and polished patent leather shoes, I would be twitchy with excitement. My sister and I, and any other kids who attended, were designated a retreat in the den off of the kitchen where we could watch TV and play games while occasionally going into the kitchen to refill our drinks and fill our plates with wonderful things. I would sometimes go find my mother so I could gawk at the enormous Christmas tree occupying the parlour closest to the kitchen until I got bored of listening to the grown-ups talk about things I didn’t understand. Sometimes we would sneak out of the den to play hide and seek in the darkened upstairs rooms and although I’m sure someone knew what we were up to, no one ever interrupted our game or scolded us.
Gravelly Hills was not just the grand rooms inside, but the farm and the wilder lands out back. Hope allowed my dad and I to hunt on her land in the winter and so he and I would spend many a cold day scouting out where the quail may be hiding or the best tree to put the deer stand. From the more flat area where the house and barns stood, the ground gradually dropped away from the back of the house through open fields until it reached the woods.
The land here in Southern Maryland, located just outside DC, sits between the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Here there are a number of smaller rivers, bays, and creeks reaching into and in some cases dividing the land which results in a topography of rolling wooded hills intersected by open fields, streams, and marshes. Many of the old historic homes were situated at the tops of these hills and looked out over the marshes, creeks, and rivers from their wrap-around porches that offered a full view of the surrounding land and sky.
Hunting, fishing and farming all involve early mornings that begin long before daybreak. Being very far from any city lights, on clear nights when the stars came out you could see the band of the milky way. This would still be still visible when my dad would rouse me out of bed in the pre-dawn hours to go hunting with him. Waiting or walking for hours as our fingers and toes grew painfully cold and eventually numb, we would watch the sun rise in silent woods. Eventually we would go home, often empty-handed, but peaceful and sleepy enough to take a nap in front of the fire. These days would usually end with outdoor chores such as stacking firewood and feeding the chickens until the sun went down. The sunsets in Southern Maryland are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen. They would begin in the late afternoon as the cloud spotted sky would become brilliantly pink, all shades of oranges, and eventually red before fading to darkness.
Many people believe, rightly so, that we carry our childhood traumas and fears with us as adults. I believe that we also carry the things that filled us with wonder and delight. Hope passed away over 20 years ago and I probably haven’t been to Gravelly Hills in over 30 years, but nostaliga is a funny thing and it hasn’t left me. The pastel walls in my much less grand formal living room, the boxwoods next to my front porch, even the formal Christmas parties I hosted years ago were all inspired by those memories. I have thought about going back there many times to see if it stacks up to what my child’s mind perceived, but I am happy with the space it occupies in my thoughts for now and don’t desire to change that.