Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Juxtaposing just for fun

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, and so it became the semi-official restart of my quest for writers’ homes. Most of my activities these days seem to be tied to multi-tasking (a current term that inspires an attitude of “I’m busy”); I don’t care for the feeling, though the activities are still fun. So I’m going to have to work on the attitude adjustment.

The reasons for a trip to Cape Cod were threefold, or four if you count the fun factor: hang out with friends, undertake a “field trip” for this blog, and experience a handful of places/activities to write as trips for Trazzler. After getting runner-up recognition in the contest I entered, the editors asked me to become a regular contributor as their New England regional writer, so I am now getting used to eyeing my surroundings as a travel writer. It’s fun. (Here, however, I’ll just be writing about the blog-related part of the weekend. You’ll have to check out Trazzler for the rest of the Cape stops.)

After getting out ahead of most of the traffic I crossed the Sagamore Bridge shortly before noon. My plan had been to visit two writers’ homes that day, but I didn’t want to cheat myself of the experiences by rushing through, so I decided to pare down the itinerary. After one Trazzler stop I headed to Yarmouth Port, former home of Edward Gorey, artist and funny-bone tickler extraordinaire.

It was time for a late lunch, but I opted for afternoon tea instead at an exceeding cheery spot called the Optimist Café. The name alone is enough to bring about a smile. I chose the place for my own amusement: I liked the juxtaposition of a place called the Optimist Café with the humorously macabre work of Mr. Gorey. The multicolored cottage is covered with fanciful gingerbread. Near the front door stands a sculpture of what looks like a maitre d’ fish—this strange specimen might get along with some of Gorey’s creations.

 Inside is just as fun and quirky. The room where I sat had sunny yellow walls decorated with paintings by local artists. Each handcrafted table featured an inspirational motto written around the edges. And the lights hanging from curving tracks overhead were shaped like suns and biplanes and hot-air balloons. Once I was seated I was sorry I had forgotten to bring my Gorey collection to read with my tea. But the repast was lovely anyway: a pot of Bombay chai and a pair of warm scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam.

 I got chatting with the waitress and mentioned that I was just about to visit Edward Gorey’s house. She had never been there and wasn’t familiar with his work. Two women sitting at a nearby table were curious about him too, so I mentioned several of his works and again regretted forgetting my book; Gorey work really must be seen to be appreciated. By the time I finished my tea and drove the short distance to Strawberry Lane (a modest cottage with a huge magnolia tree out back), the two women from the café were already at the house. They greeted me and thanked me for the recommendation.

 Most of the docents of the house, I learned, were friends and acquaintances of Mr. Gorey, so their comments about items, the house, and his time in it are enhanced with familiarity. The front rooms are filled with samples of his work, from childhood drawings to a weathervane he designed. Bookshelves are filled with editions for which he created cover art and illustrations, and the walls are covered with posters and photographs. Many of the window sills and sashes are decorated with colored bottles and other glass items through which the sun shines; Gorey collected these from yard sales. He also liked to gather rocks from the local beaches (and always searched for ones shaped like frogs). Many of these are stacked in small cairns in the kitchen. Nearly every flat surface is covered with them (or with more colored bottles and a small fountain), leaving only a small square of counter space for kitchen prep. Obviously, the man liked creative clutter.

 He also had a healthy collection of cats, and one photo shows him sprawled with his furry friends in what was probably a common pose during his years in the cottage. A sofa in the back room makes an unusual museum piece: its notable characteristic is the frayed places where the cats used it as a scratching post.

I felt like I was in a fantastic attic, poking through the wonderful and odd leftovers of Gorey’s life. The tour guide had fun anecdotes about almost everything, and she had barely started when my friend Susanna and her daughter HaiDi arrived. Once the tour was over we chatted and continued to poke around, marveling at the breadth of Gorey’s work and paging through some of his sketchbooks.

We even enjoyed a scavenger hunt of sorts. Among all this wonderful clutter are depictions or references to the unfortunate children of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs …”) Yes, there’s Amy face down on the stairs, and there under a display case a rug with a pair of small feet sticking out from under it (poor George). Look on the mantel for a box of tacks (like the ones Leo swallowed). When she heard us discussing them, the guide informed us that there are tiny gravestones in the back yard for each of the Tinies, except Maud, who was “swept out to sea.”

 We didn’t go looking for the markers, but we did take a look at the huge magnolia tree in the yard. It’s taller than the house and blocks the window of the room Gorey chose to use as his studio—precisely so he wouldn’t be distracted by the view. There’s also a topiary frame (partly filled with greenery at this time of year) of the Doubtful Guest standing on the back lawn. “It came seventeen years ago—and to this day/It has shown no intention of going away.”

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