The house was built on Oak Street in a southern town. Built for the man’s daughter so they say. It looked like it was lovingly constructed. No, it was actually a package. In those days, over one hundred and twenty years ago, folks with enough money could buy the gold oak flooring, the carved door facings, the pocket doors and the stair finials all finished and ready to install. The father owned a foundry so he added the three circular porches or gazebos on the front of the all brick two story home held up by huge white columns. Similar to the hospital built on the bluffs to house soldiers during the war; but, much smaller. The house looked grand just as he thought it would. The inlay in the first room and on the mosaic flooring on the front porch with wreaths encircling hearts commemorated the equally grand wedding of his daughter. The street was lined with, of course, oak trees just like Willow street contained willows. A wonderful life was going to be lived in this town.
The early photos show an amazing picture of life at the turn of the century. White women with hair piled on top of the heads wore white flowing gowns and were bustling around the porch, ostensibly readying the house for a party. The black women were helping and could also be see around the rear of the house where they lived in an added on extension. The resting place for these women seemed to be sleeping porches. Later, their quarters were moved to the breathless attic. One of the crowning touches was a half circular window on the side next to the turret. No windows here.
In the 1960’s when using the big houses for sororities and fraternities was the custom, the big house served as dormitories. The people who would visit told stories about beer bottles being thrown from upstairs windows across the street to another house. Those houses have been wiped out for a parking lot. In fact, the big house is the only one standing from this era in the neighborhood. The University split the neighborhood in half. The portion of the neighborhood still in tact faces the mountains and is on “high ground.” On Oak Street, it often floods as the campus has reconfigured the topography. Too much rain, too few drains and as you know, everything flows downhill.
Here is where we worked. The physicians and I and a few assorted psychologists and clinical social workers. Known as The Group, we were possessed by the proud and eccentric psychiatrist who first bought the building with his colleague and envisioned his use as an outpatient facility. Rumor had it that his wife, the first one that is, was often kept in the mental hospital situated on an island on a separate part of town near the river. The good doctor, who was not so good, wanted to believe he could treat people like his wife in an outpatient setting. Keep more folks with their families. Keep them functioning better for longer. Noble ideas? No, not really, he wanted to move on with his life and the situation with his mistress being in between the good doctor geographically and his wife’s hospital room was a little too distressing. Plus, the mistress wanted a house worthy of a physician on the big ridge to the north. Having worked all those years for another local and semi-famous physician who would never leave his wife, she knew how to work the system and get the attention of a physician. Keep his favorite foods in the refrigerator, make sure the drug reps brought the barbecue from the place he loved and send more and more patients his way from her church. The well-heeled Episcopalians, doctors’ wives and friends of her sons’ family were her contribution to the practice. And, it was working.
Into this old respectable building came two young upstarts. One was a pharmacist come physician who showed great promise. The trouble with this fellow was he was a prima donna; he wanted to run the show. Never mind that he owned one-third of the practice that the old man had sold him and he brought many patients with him. They played squash every week and seemed to be jolly good fellows. The underlying tension and competition was always there. The promising younger fellow had a history with women too but his was out in the open. His favorite saying “my life is an open book.” His relatives were physicians and he felt very competent in his ability to assist patients with pain management, direct them in their mental muddling and provide support over the family system for generations. Full of self-confidence, he was the managing partner of the business. The old doctor was only the figure head. The upstart allowed him to continue to impress outsiders, patients, other physicians and providers with his personal interest in the house and his history. This man wanted a handsome place to work, loved the trees surrounding the property and the gorgeous campus filled with a multitude of flora and fauna to walk contemplating his work and he flourished. His love life, no so much. Driven he was. Relentlessness accompanied his every move.
One day, at the physicians’ meeting, a new woman arrived on the scene. Middle-aged and fresh, she was eager to learn even though a bit uptight. Her relationship with the upstart moved through the phases of hate, then respect, then competition and finally colleagueship. When she thought of him, she knew he could help patients get better. When she had her auto accident, he was the only person in the building to ask her questions about her well-being. Pain in her back worsened, even though she was going to massage three times a week. When he asked her if she was okay; she thought he could see right through her and read her soul. She did not like being pierced in such a closely scrutinized way. As she went to and fro through the building, he was always there; at the front door seeming to wait on her. While he had good reason, it was his office and his pocket door was the largest of all; to her, she felt exposed, vulnerable and gently probed as though she were a specimen in a bug collection.
One day when she was desperate to help a battered women, they got into a long discussion about how to make a plan which would protect the patient. The physician looked her in the eyes and said they could not. The woman did not want to return to her abuser. Her teenage daughter and son did want her to return. They wanted their lives to be just the way they had always been; they did not want to experience the growth that would occur if their mother did the necessary chores needed to become a changed person and not to tolerate such physical abuse.
Evening time in the big house used to be quiet before this woman came. Her methods of practicing were unorthodox but she consulted often and she got more professional as she learned to play with the children and focus on change in the family especially the parents. The noises of families coming and going up and down the winding semi-circular staircase with burgundy carpeting held by tiny gold rods at each step was a significant change for the practice. The waiting rooms did not have toys nor children’ books to help with the waiting. The old doctor made it clear that having toddlers, babies and after school hours was unwelcome in his staid environment. When the upstart physician worked late, which was not often, he could hear marbles being dropped above his head as her office was directly over his. In the months to follow, his attitude turned from skepticism to deep respect. He approached her several times as a possible friend; even to date, but he received no vibes to tell him he was on the right track. One dim afternoon, she floated down the staircase in a rose and green flower skirt and saw him standing below. “I did not think you were out after dark, sir. Did you see my sunburn?” Right there and then on that beautiful staircase carved in golden oak, the physician has his answer. He asked her to go out, become his wife and the rest is history.