During a spring pilgrimage, Southerners travel from far and wide for the opportunity to stroll the gardens and peek under the dust ruffles of these stately mansions. In all my years living in Mississippi, I can only recall taking a tour once, during which I was shown a “secret” dresser drawer wherein treasures could be stashed. I recall thinking, “Hey, my mom’s dresser has one of those!” Of course, one would be disappointed to discover that the “treasure” in Mom’s secret drawer consisted of birthday cards, old letters, and memorabilia. Her actual treasures? Well, she stored her jewelry in Band-Aid boxes tucked away deep in the cabinets. Sometimes hidden so well, she couldn’t find it herself.
For my mom’s side of the family, the pilgrimage was a time to bust out the hoop skirts and tricorn hats and put on a show. I inherited my fondness for all things fancy from the Lucas’. Two of my mom’s siblings were antique dealers and almost all the rest were regular customers. Every family reunion had a touch of the estate sale feel. But with more casseroles and cake.For many years, my aunt Clara’s home Shadowlawn was part of the Columbus, Mississippi, pilgrimage tour, so naturally we were, too. My sister and I stood on the front lawn greeting visitors with a smile, wave, and perhaps an occasional “Welcome, y’all!” Each of my mom’s siblings would be assigned a room and provided with talking points along the lines of “the antique Victorian half tester bed” or “this vahse…” (never “vase,” always “vahse”).
I’m not ashamed to tell y’all that one of the highlights of my pilgrimage career was being promoted from lawn duty to room guide, and not just because the indoors had air conditioning. I can’t recall many of the room’s furnishing, but I’m certain there was an antique washstand (like the one we had at home) and at least one “vahse.”
During one particularly taxing day when my sister was around four or five, she climbed up on one of the beds and proceeded to nap. As the story goes, more than one tour taker was startled when Jenna moved saying, “I thought she was a DOLL!” Clearly, they do not know my sister like I do.Between pilgrimages and July 4th family reunions, I spent a lot of time exploring Shadowlawn, from the room ‘o dolls from around the world to the exotic taxidermy collection. Once, I even spent three days locked inside a downstairs bathroom. (Ok, it might’ve been half an hour, but I’ve adjusted for kid time.) While I was in there, I admired the doll whose crocheted skirt doubled as a toilet paper cover. We never had one of those. On account of “they’re tacky.” Beside our toilet? A replica of Rodin’s statue “The Thinker.”
One of my favorite things about Shadowlawn was the glass doorknobs. As a kid, I told myself that one day I would live in a house with glass doorknobs. And now I do. My walnut vanity has not one but two hidden drawers. But I’ll most likely never own a vessel worthy of being called a “vahse.” Keeping it real, y’all.
As I write this, more than two decades since my last visit to Columbus, I wish I had paid more attention as a kid. I wish I’d appreciated the opportunity for such a pilgrimage. These days, Shadowlawn is a bed and breakfast, so I could go back if I wanted to. But now that Mom and most of her brothers and sisters are gone, it just wouldn’t be a pilgrimage.
Have you toured an antebellum home? What did you think? Please do tell.