Old Houses

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I grew up in a town full of wonderful old houses. A quick bike ride across the railroad tracks and Calhoun Street would turn into a brick-paved old Florida wonderland.

The Prosser house was always my favorite with its majestic white columns. Pam favored the Victorian homes on Evers Street where she spent summers babysitting. And the homes on Mahoney Street were living tributes to the people who built Plant City either through commerce, agriculture or government service.

Years later when we decided to leave Washington, D.C. and move back to Florida, it was the inventory of great old houses that drew us to Bartow. We spent hours on the internet comparing listings of homes with the square footage and huge lawns we had missed from our 1903 Capitol Hill townhouse—which while historic was just 11 feet wide in places.

Like Plant City, this is a town full of houses with stories. Legendary Florida Governor and U.S. Senator Spessard Holland lived here, not in the big estate on Broadway but just across the street from it in the old bungalow. Down a few blocks in the great wooden house lived a composer who wrote for Frank Sinatra and around the corner from it sits the brick home where the street curves around an oak tree. Here in the “City of Oaks and Azaleas” we do love our trees. Local lore maintains that the lady who lived there sat in a lawn chair with her shotgun ready as the city crews paved the street. Guess who won?

Currently, there are several grand historic houses for sale in town and just like those childhood bike trips, I find myself weaving through back streets to check on any change in sale statuses. Realtors here should really have a disclaimer that no matter how grand your name is, locally these houses will always be known by their old family name.

We have lived in this old bungalow for almost 14 years but it will forever be known as the John Pittas house. A Greek immigrant and successful restaurateur, John lived here for over 50 years until he died at the age of 106. An avid gardener and cigar smoker, we still find the plastic tips of his smokes everywhere; middle of the driveway, under the azaleas; the garage. We never knew him but sometimes when we feel his presence we ask him to telegraph to us EXACTLY where in the yard he buried that jar full of cash we have heard so many tales about.

My husband once asked a neighbor if maybe it was the water here that contributed to John’s longevity. “No,” he smiled. “John never drank water.”

So if you catch me in the back with a shovel and glass of wine, that can be our little old house secret.

My Girl

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“It would be a great ladies clubhouse—couldn’t we put together a consortium?”

A ladies clubhouse? Yes!

Our monthly book club could gather in the front parlor. Weekly brunches featuring inventive recipes could be held on the patio. There could be a card room for those who indulge.

With the pool in the back, we wouldn’t need to drive to the YMCA ever again. The back enclosed patio would be perfect for outdoor hot yoga. No more running into the girls we knew in college with their Barbie-doll legs sticking out of shorts while your sweatpants cling to you in unflattering ways.

We could drink gin and tonics on the veranda, toasting and taunting the start of hurricane season. Garden and Gun would use the staircase for photo-shoots.

This glorious fantasy started yesterday when Cecelia and I were out on our morning walk. Exactly one mile in, we came to the most famous house in town. No matter how many times we’ve passed it, the house always calls for another close examination and talk of all the possibilities.

It was in 1991 that the house gained worldwide attention when it served as the exterior set of the funeral home of the movie My Girl. Although it was based in 1970s Pennsylvania, the film was shot here.

Built in 1906, the three-story house has been a bed and breakfast, a private home and a tea room just in the years since we have lived here.

And now it is for sale!

All we need are a few good friends who share a similar dream …and cash.

Chairing

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The text might arrive while I shuttle my children to soccer or struggle with long-forgotten algebra as I help my seventh grader with homework. Or I’ll text as I switch laundry out or leave a PTA meeting. The texts are usually just one word: “Chairs?” That single word boosts my mood and enables me to make it through the day.

Why the word chairs?

Well, our neighborhood has coined the term “chairing” to describe our impromptu cocktail hours in our Adirondack chairs. My neighbors have owned their chairs for years; picking them up in Cedar Key as a reminder of the special hold that island has on them.

Mine came to grace my yard more recently. My husband surprised me with them at Easter-choosing four chairs rather than only two, so that we could always invite the neighbors to join us. To say these chairs have revolutionized the way I live and use my yard is an understatement.

We’ll gather in one yard or the other many evenings. It’s a given that if you see the other couple in their chairs, you’re invited. It’s that Southern Hospitality that you think died with your great-aunt Millie or the kind of Southern Grace places like Celebration try to recreate, but fall just short of capturing.

Bottles of wine, antique stemware and seersucker napkins are expected. Snacks are a must—I find myself keeping pimento cheese or cream cheese and peach pepper jelly on hand at all times for chairing. Cheese straws or fig flat-bread might be featured, or if it’s been a crazy day, we might just pass around a box of Wheat Thins.

We sit and visit, review our days, discuss The Goldfinch or latest Vanity Fair article, theorize on where the missing Malaysian plane might be or discuss the great mysteries of our neighborhood, the current topic being why another neighbor keeps a step ladder in his front yard.

We stay as long as we can until the wine’s all gone or the mosquitoes eat us alive.

Knowing your neighbors and knowing them well is a luxury in these times. We four—five now that Pookie is graduated and home from Ole Miss—benefit from this old Southern way of living. Using fine china, antique wine glasses and linen cocktail napkins during chair time reminds us to cherish and appreciate the lovely perfection of ordinary days. Sharing food and drink to nourish the souls of your neighbors and your spouse is an act of love and serves to build the kind of life-giving relationship that seems intrinsic to the South.

We are the 2014 versions of Atticus and Miss Maudie in Adirondack chairs instead of on porches.

Cecelia is a military brat turned Southerner. She is an avid reader and lover of camellias, blue and white china, gin and tonics and tomato pie.