I remember the very first time my
heart was broken. How can anyone forget something like that? I’m not talking
about puppy love here, or a crush, or deep infatuation or even your first real
romance. Having your heart broken, truly and totally broken, affects your
entire body and every aspect of your life. The physical pain is there, just as
real as a broken bone, only deeper, more intense. The emotional pain is
indescribable, permeating and coloring everything you do, and all of your daily
The ironic thing is that my first
broken heart came not in the form of unrequited love, but rather in the guise
of stone and mortar.
What does a magnificent Victorian
house have to do with love and breaking hearts? To a hopeless romantic like me
she was the embodiment of my deepest reverie. She was truly a thing of beauty,
the kind of lady you fall for instantly; the seductress who haunts your dreams
and blurs your days; the one you never fully get over.
I was maybe nine years old when I
first met Becky. My family had recently moved to the suburbs. I spied her
several times from afar through the dusty window of our old Ford sedan. She
stood like a grand mistress, regally dominating the landscape from her noble
perch atop a gracefully slopping hill top. But to me, she seemed more a warm
friendly companion than the dominating queen. She called to me, silently
weaving her spell. As I lay awake I could hear her sweet Siren song floating on
the warm night air. It spoke to me, beckoned me, and filled my dreams with
grand images from another era.
Soon, I was deep into exploring the
new and fascinating world around me. Suburbia was unlike anything I’d ever
experienced running the streets of south Philly. I missed the familiar feel of
concrete beneath my Converse, yet soon discovered a strange affection for the
green grass and blue skies and open spaces of my new home. Pedaling my trusty
old Columbia two wheeler one warm summer morning, I found myself at the
entrance to a long, gracefully curving driveway. Hopping off my bicycle, I
looked up in awestruck silence. Becky peered down at me from her lofty
position, her sweeping portico a welcoming smile to a weary traveler. She spoke
to me, inviting me to visit, with the tender, genteel voice of a refined lady. I
had recently finished reading Tom Sawyer
and perhaps Twain’s earthy prose struck a chord. “Hello, Becky, my name is
Billy. It is very nice to meet you ma’am,” I said aloud and started up the tulip
Becky was born in 1907. A generation
earlier three brothers, French/Irish immigrants, arrived in America with little
more than what they could carry. With ingenuity, hard work and a bit of luck,
they made their fortune. Becky was the brothers’ crowning accomplishment, a
graceful monument to the American Dream. She stood atop a peaceful hillside,
commanding a breathtaking view of the original thirty plus wooded acres through
which passed a gently flowing river. Her structure was of massive hand hewn
granite blocks; her form a unique combination of French Castle and stately
English Manor. Becky wore an elegant
sloping burnt orange slate roof; and sported grand over-square leaded window
casements. As befitting any castle, ivy covered the side and rear walls of the
main building, as well as the smaller carriage house. Becky’s corner
battlements, capped with skyward sweeping spires earned her the majestic
nickname of Château Épatant.
As I mounted the three polished
marble steps, Becky’s immense front porch seemed to embrace me. Hesitating for
just a moment, I slowly opened one of the massive mahogany doors and entered.
Instantly, I was transported to a time of stiff round collars and handlebar
moustaches; Gibson Girl hairdos and tightly synched waist lines; of high
wheeled bicycles and brass motor cars; lawn croquet and Sunday picnics. I
became dizzy, lost to the heady atmosphere of a forgotten time. It was a time
and a feeling I wanted to know better; a place I wanted to experience.
The grand entry loomed over me three
stories high. An imposing stone stairway seemed to extend to the very heavens.
I could feel the house’s rhythmic pulse emanating from the rich wooden
paneling. Becky’s pounding heartbeat met my own and we became one.
My feet never felt the blacktop as I
raced down the drive. It seemed as if my heart would burst as I pedaled faster
and faster. Scrambling through the screen door of our modest home, I announced
proudly and loudly that I was going to one day buy the old mysterious castle on
Mom smiled, “That’s nice, Billy.”
A dozen years later, I returned from
service in the Army to find my beloved Becky fallen on hard times. With no
surviving heirs, she passed unnoticed through a few unconcerned hands, finally
landing as a ward of the state. A group of investors, more interested in profit
than history insulted my lady, dividing her spacious rooms and defacing the
once lush front lawn. The newly erected tacky wooden sign indignantly declared:
Castle Apartments, Elegant Living for
Discerning Adults. However the intended residents never materialized. Becky
became a haven for transients and directionless young people. Hard rock and all
night acid parties replaced the formal cotillions in the once elegant ball
room. It wasn’t long before the owners and police alike had enough. Becky was
closed, shuttered and abandoned.
I never gave up on my desire to
purchase Becky. My daily commutes to school; friend’s houses; on dates, and to
work took me past the gracefully aging beauty. I would smile and nod knowingly,
whispering, “Someday, Becky, someday, I promise.”
My chance came a year later. Local
officials decided to make one last attempt to do something with the once proud
property. Rumors of developers wishing to erect modern condos on her grounds
abounded. The historical society failed in an attempt to raise capital to establish
her as a local museum. Working with a realtor friend, I began to lay the ground
work for making my dream a reality. During an inspection of the building, I
found Becky still strong, noble and no worse for the wear. I could still feel
her heartbeat as it matched and meld with my own.
Three nights later I awaken to the sounds of distant bells and frantic sirens. As I peered out of my bedroom
window, the night sky took on an ominous smoky red-orange hue.
My heart ceased to beat.
It took firefighters from four
departments all night and most of the next day to extinguish the massive fire.
When the smoke finally cleared all that remained of Château Épatant was four
charred stone walls. Vandals had taken Becky’s life.
As with any true love affair, I
never fully got over Becky. It was the first time my heart had been broken. It
wouldn’t be the last. But as the saying goes, perhaps the first cut truly is
the deepest. I have lived several places since then; owned a couple of houses.
Whenever I come across a Victorian style building I remember Becky. I can still
hear her voice and feel her heart beat with mine.