The May afternoon is brilliant and dry, but the porch is cool and shady, just as it would have been when my cousin, Dr. Francis Wilson, sat in his rocking chair, smoking his pipe, reading The Chipley Banner in 1913.
Closing my eyes and breathing in the stillness of his ghostly footfalls across the porch, I stand absolutely still on the steps of my ancestor’s home, facing Main Street. I’m here, in search of his stories. I know there are no Wilson artifacts in this house, but I am secretly hoping to absorb something about him through spiritual osmosis; to connect with him in some way, as I am told much of the house — including woodwork, fireplaces, hardware — are the same that his hands touched over 100 years ago.
The chains of the swing creak as a breeze moves across the porch. I turn and open my eyes expectantly — but of course, he’s not there.
A photo of the house dated 1899 reveals charming gingerbread trim and a seat on the front porch. There’s also a calf in the front yard tethered to a picket fence, and two young trees. The house appears cared for, beloved.
The house in 2017 looks similar to the original photo, except the porch now covers the entire front of the house. The yard is well manicured; the fence, trees and the calf long gone. But you can tell that the house is still well cared for, beloved.
I step off the porch and walk around to the right side of the house, where Dr. Wilson had an office with a separate entrance still intact; with a small porch with room enough for three or four patients to wait.
Popular and competent, Dr. Wilson’s medical repertoire was expansive: He extracted teeth, delivered babies, amputated limbs, fumigated houses stricken with yellow fever, counseled the alcoholic, embalmed the dead. His finger was constantly on Chipley’s pulse; what Dr. Wilson heard and saw remained within the walls of this office.
This house holds many untold stories. I wish I knew what they were, I say to my hostess.
Just beyond Dr. Wilson’s office was — and is still — a simple door separating the office from his home, opening into the dining room. Morbidly, I wonder if the dining room table was occasionally brought into service for emergencies. My hostess has no idea; but she points out details about the cabinetry, and an odd little nook where prescriptions were filled. As I pass through, I touch the old-timey doorknob in the doctor’s former office, and a small spark pops at my fingertips, the jittery, tingling electric sensation running up my arm.
Or, are you here, Dr. Wilson?
BIO: Judith M. Smith, Ph.D.
Communication, Arts and the Humanities at The University of Maryland .
This essay was previously published in Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art, in the Places to Stand online essay series.
Originally published in Saw Palm: Florida Literature & Art