In 1954, downtown Ft. Myers, with its charming 1920’s-style, Spanish-Moorish architecture and its stately Royal Palms, was as prettily arranged on the bank of the great Caloosahatchee River as a table set for tea, the river that flowed past it winking sunlight and amusing itself in passing by annoying the little boats in the yacht basin.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Ft. Myers had been the winter home of wealthy industrialists and inventors. Their estates had graced either side of First Street eastward from town. By the early 1950s, however, when my family arrived, few of these homes remained and these few would survive only until the last tottering member of the family fell, like an empty garment, into the grave.
As a child too young to have read history or novels or anything but The Bobbsey Twins, these places were just old houses to me, inhabited, I assumed, by ancients, entombed in them like mummies. You never saw the old people because in direct sunlight they would turn to dust.
The Burroughs house, though, intrigued me, probably because it was hidden. A jungle of flowering bushes, fruit trees and many varieties of palms, gone mad with sun, with warm, heavy rain and steaming soil, had grown up around the house well past the roof line. This concealment of the house seemed purposeful, protective. Even its proper, white picket fence was inviolate. I dared not touch it as I stood one day gazing up at the widow’s walk, the only portion of the house that I could see above the waving tips of palm fronds. I stood there for long minutes, lost in contemplation of the mystery of the house. Why? What was I absorbing from that perfect, white and empty widow’s walk?
Against the cerulean blue sky, it was a dazzling white. Puffy white clouds sailed past it, hurried along by the wind that was swishing and tossing the palms to and fro, up and down across the flowing sea of the sky. My head swam. I felt as if I were standing upside down under the descending weight of an ocean and I reached for the slats of the picket fence to steady myself, my eyes clinging to the widow’s walk that reigned there—proud, immobile, scintillate with light above the adulation of the whipping, sun-bright palms. My eyes watered, tears fracturing the image and still clinging to the fence, I dropped my head and closed my eyes tight. But the lens of my eyes, in closing, had captured the moment, imprinting it permanently on my mind like a negative in static grey tone for over forty years.
But in those forty years, in the darkroom of memory, an image was developing; the house, which I remembered “as through a glass darkly,” was building itself around me until suddenly I was in it, inside the green glow at the windows. I could hear the soft clacking of the palms in motion above the house. And I was not alone. I felt the first stirring motions of others in the house. The people ghosting this house, like negative imprints on time, were emerging. And then Clara said quietly,
“That summer was so long, the summer after father killed himself. Hot, my God, we thought it would never end.”
BANYAN was born.
During a brief visit to Ft. Myers after I wrote BANYAN, I took a tour of the Burroughs Home. I was curious, naturally, to see if the real house came anywhere near the house of my imagination. At the time, the house had not yet been converted to the showplace it is now. Today, it is on the registry of historic homes, and is the setting for lavish social and civic affairs in “old” or “historic” Ft. Myers. But when I was there, it was just an old Victorian house, dark, dismal and empty. Nothing left but silence and the smell of decay.
I am not fooled by the old and the empty, however. I hear the creaking of the hammock on the front porch. Stepping quietly to the front door sill, I see her, the young woman in the hammock, one foot, buttoned up in white kid, just touching the floor to keep the hammock in gentle motion. She is reading. Sunlight coming through the foliage of the trees around the house dapples the porch, her boot, the spine of her book. It is so quiet I can hear her turn the pages as she reads, absorbed in the world within her book. She is escaping from the world that I am imagining into the world she is imagining.
You see, the people who lived before us did not live in the past. They lived in the present, as we do. The present is all there is, and we are all in it together, through all time.
Welcome to BANYAN, Part I.