mansion, garden, house

Estate Living: “Girls! Do not poke that alligator!”

Meet my mom, Maria, who died June 2019, and whose childhood overflowed with the most remarkable, bizarre, otherworldly events. Like the time she announced to her mom (Nanny) that she would not be clearing the dinner dishes because “the maid can do it.” Spoiler: there was no maid. At least not in their house. The backstory is weird. And legit great.

My mom grew up on an estate tucked into the Main Line, uber-wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia once belonging to the Delaware Indians. By the early 20th century these towns, stitched together by The Pennsylvania Railroad, were filled with elite estates, each one hundreds of acres. And this is where my Nanny and Pop-pop, young immigrants from the Abruzzi region of Italy, settled in to have their family.

Poppy was the estate’s ‘gardener’—not to be confused with the driver, butler, groomsmen, carriage master, or any of the other dozens of help—but he was clearly much more, something closer to landscape architect. A few surviving pictures show careful planning of a formal Italian garden, hundreds of trees trimmed into topiary shapes and a full, lush vegetable garden whose bounty would rival any modern farm-to-table and which supported the entire estate’s needs.

As the gardener’s kids, my mother and her sisters enjoyed a gorgeous home near the stables, playtime with the many horses, dogs, and cats and, in my mother’s case, all the elite finery showered on the young ladies in the Main House.

My mother was confident, happy, and the perfect playmate to the middle and younger sisters in the Main House who were close to her in age, daughters of a millionaire tycoon and his elegant wife. While her tomboy middle sister played outside, and her youngest baby sister toddled close to Nanny, Maria spent her days at the Main House with the girls, playing dress up with bespoke clothing worn once to balls, enjoying private French lessons and, when the season rolled in, making trips to NYC for new coats, hats, gloves, dresses, and shoes from the finest department stores.

And she loved every minute of it.

My mother vividly recalls the time they got in great trouble from one of the maids for poking the resident alligator with a stick.

In winter, she and the girls enjoyed sleigh rides to school, the jingle of the horse’s harness echoing sharply in the crisp air, hands and feet tucked into warm folds of fur. In summer, she and the girls stayed cool in their “playhouse,” a sumptuously decorated home, complete with furniture and original artwork, built for them on the back acreage near…the petting zoo. Yes, they had their own petting zoo. My mother vividly recalls the time they got in great trouble from one of the maids for poking the resident alligator with a stick.

“Why were you poking it with a stick?” I asked her once, after I was done being amazed at the concept of a backyard zoo. And a playhouse actually larger than the single family home my mother, Nanny, and I shared in the 80s.

“Because that pond had safety bars on it and we couldn’t get any closer to touch it. The other ponds were more open.”

“Safety bars? Other ponds?”

“Of course,” she said, with a how-do-you-not-understand-common-sense look, “the alligators had to stay put. And the swans and koi couldn’t be in the same pond with the alligators so they needed their own pond.” Oh. Silly me.

Once, in grade school, she asked Nanny why some kids in school had cardboard on their feet instead of shoes. This was the mid-1930s. That conversation engendered a long night—a long lifetime—of gratitude.

Given the mountains of sadness and loss that pervaded my own childhood, delighting in my mother’s feels almost…perverse. I know better than to compare my old sorrow with my mother’s bejeweled fairy tale experience. Life can shift dramatically in a second, of course it will shift over a generation. So, I don’t go there. I simply repeat her stories for posterity, reveling in the vicarious luxury and elegance, because I love them. And her. Understanding that we all have our own paths to trek. And knowing that mine rests inside my stories.

My mom was amazing and beautiful, flawed and broken. And I think we can all agree that neither she nor her little friends should have been agitating that alligator…

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