Ik Marvel is forgotten today, although in his own day he was an inspiration to such literary luminaries as Washington Irving and Emily Dickinson. What other fate could befall a modest essayist who began his popular Reveries of a Bachelor (1850) with this sentence: “This book is neither more nor less than it pretends to be: it is a collection of those floating Reveries which have, from time to time, drifted across my brain.” Yet the floating Reveries of Marvel (Donald Grant Mitchell) have a marvelous power to settle in the imagination, take root, and send forth shoots and flowers. Consider his quietly rapturous description of the great early nineteenth-century ideal of domestic bliss.
“A home! — it is the bright, blessed, adorable phantom which sits highest on the sunny horizon that girdeth Life! When shall it be reached? . . . It is not the house, –though that may have its charms; nor the fields carefully tilled, and streaked with your own footpaths; nor the trees, — though their shadow be to you like that of a great rock in a weary land; nor yet is it the fireside, with its sweet blaze-play; nor the pictures which tell of loved ones; nor the cherished books; but far more than all these— it is the PRESENCE. The Lares of your worship are there; the altar of your confidence is there; the end of your worldly faith is there; . . . there you may be entirely and joyfully — yourself.”
This past May when, after years of renting, I finally moved into a home of my own, I kept remembering this passage. My house felt like “home” immediately. I fell in love with the airy living room and its fireplace of warm-colored bricks, the patio garden with its old ligustrum bush grown to the stature of a shade tree, the bright kitchen with its chestnut-colored cabinets. Even the garage, a first-time luxury for me, was a joy.
All that delight I had anticipated. What surprised me was the manner in which home ownership became for me (to resort to a modern devotional cliché) a centering experience. This mid-century modern-style house bears little resemblance to other places I have loved, and yet as I settle in I keep reliving happy moments long past. I bathe once again in the golden winter sunlight of my childhood home in the St. Lawrence River Valley, and once again breathe in the aroma of old books and contemplate the clipper ship that sails the high seas over the mantelpiece at “Clover Hill,” my grandparents’ colonial house. I see the languid summer breeze stir the lace curtains at a beloved cousin’s Manhattan apartment, a relic of the 1920s; I gaze at the fireflies lighting up my aunt’s lush backyard. There are even faint whiffs of charmed moments in long-ago journeys, when I found myself, although a stranger, feeling unexpectedly and completely at home. The cherry trees are again in frothy bloom in ancient Kyoto, the evening sky glows again over the British bungalow in South India, the red and pink roses still pile and spill over the old stone wall in the Swiss Alps, where we summered in ’69.
What ties all these wispy memories together is not only their beauty but the sense of a vibrant Presence. In each echo from the past, I am solitary but never alone. The Presence is wonderfully kind and serene, and every one of my treasured moments, before floating away, points to a Home beyond the horizon of life.
And other people? They, too, are enveloped by the Presence. They are around the corner, just out of the picture, preparing to sit down to dinner, about to go on a stroll, or chatting in a contented circle. In a moment I will take a deep breath and rejoin them.