karens great aunt georgias house wp

Safe Place

by Karen Richter

In this week following the mass shooting of LGBTQ persons of color in Orlando, I’ve read much about the importance of sanctuaries, places where a person can be who they truly are. This reflection is about one of those places in my life.

The picture above is my Great Aunt Georgia’s house in Asheville, North Carolina.  It’s a lovely bed and breakfast now, but when I was a kid it was just a rambly, way too large and slightly spooky old house.  My aunt was Georgia Virginia Daughdrill (at least that was her full name when I knew her.  She was married once before to my father’s favorite uncle.  Plus – two states!).  I called her Georgie.  She was my paternal grandmother’s much older sister and had pretty much raised my dad.  My whole life, she was the same… fluffy completely white hair, frumpy clothes, and the kind of pleasant unadorned woman’s face that people sometimes call handsome.  She’s gone now, and I’m realizing now that I remain completely clueless about her inner life.  I never knew her to attend church, but she sat down with the Good News Bible every night and once, when she thought I was already asleep, I heard her whispered nighttime prayers.

The house was a character in my childhood almost as much as my aunt and grandmother.  It was there that I stayed up until midnight the first time.  We had a freedom there, my brother and I, that seemed missing everywhere else.  It’s a well-worn family story that “my Aunt Georgie says I can do anything I want.”  My mother swears she came into Georgie’s kitchen once to find me licking the end of a stick of butter when I was a toddler.  The house was the setting for a bizarrely diverse cast of characters – friends, neighbors, boarders – that seemed completely normal to me, just like I knew it was normal for the bread to be always slightly burned.  As a very small child, I thought everyone had an Aunt Georgia.  And what a world it would be if we all did.

On Chestnut Street, Dennis and I spent many happy hours searching for hidden passageways and hollow spaces, deciding whether or not the old portrait’s eyes followed us as we walked down the hallway, or compiling dossiers on my aunt’s boarders.  We knew that “in the olden days,” the house had been owned by a local doctor.  We imagined ghosts of former patients gliding by us in the parlor.  I guess we felt so safe there, so loved and cherished by this wonderful aunt with no children of her own, that we had to invent dangers to keep ourselves occupied.  Or maybe we just watched too much Scooby Doo.

One of my earliest memories is a tree falling over at this house.  It was a huge tree (an oak, maybe?).  When it fell, it shook the whole house.  The top of the tree landed across the street.  It had been diseased for some time; when it fell, a misshapen cement blob fell out of the trunk.  It was like a giant’s dental filling, and it stayed where it had landed, in the corner of the yard along Chestnut Street.  I wonder if it’s still there.  And I wonder how big that tree would look to me now.

Aunt Georgia’s house was not what I would call child-friendly.  There was no closet full of toys or bunk beds or collection of kiddie DVDs.  In the sideboard, there was a shoebox of random small toys and junk that we fashioned into all manner of pretend items.  In the living room, there was an oriental-style rug that became a wonderful garden of my favorite sweets.  In the hall was a trunk with old-fashioned shoes and photos.  Occasionally, we would pull various items out of the trunk and play ‘going to Atlanta,’ an elaborate storytelling with parties and dancing in fancy dresses. Out in the yard were snapdragons and snowballs and low bushes that became hideaways.  We swung on the front porch glider and came inside just in time for Lawrence Welk or Hee Haw.

Although she always looked the same to me, as I grew older, Aunt Georgie did too.  When I was in high school, she moved out of Chestnut Street and into a more practical apartment.  When she closed the door at Chestnut Street, we all lost something precious.

Scripture for Today: Psalm 40.11-12

So now you, Lord—

don’t hold back any of your compassion from me.

Let your loyal love and faithfulness always protect me,

because countless evils surround me.


Prayer for Today

Spirit of Life, I pause to give thanks for places of safety. May I be that place of protection and acceptance for another!