According to Topsmead historian Jerry Geci, Miss Edith came up from Waterbury to her Topsmead cottage in the spring and always returned to Waterbury by Election Day, the first Tuesday in November, in order to “do her civic duty.” Once Miss Edith had departed, the staff closed up the cottage for the oncoming winter season.
After the ending of summer/fall house tours and in keeping with Miss Edith’s calendar, November 2021 is once again the time to close up Miss Edith’s cottage. Jenny Riggs, leader of the Friends of Topsmead State Forest docent team, organized a closing-up crew of docents and other FTSF members. I was excited to join the crew. DEEP’s Cindy McPhee and the amazing Jani Golding, now retired from DEEP after several decades of caring for the cottage, ably supported the effort.
Jenny sent us a list of directives and items. First of all, no outdoor shoes. (I brought my L.L. Bean Wicked Good slippers.) Next, wear white cotton gloves to handle books, furniture, and metal. (Reminded me of my days as a youngster at ballroom dancing school when the boys as well as the girls wore white gloves). The list of necessary items included: small pails (2 or 3), lots of clean cotton rags and microfiber dust cloths, several vacuum cleaners with dust nozzles, extension cords with two prongs (old receptacles in the cottage), leather cleaner/conditioner for leather chairs, Never-Dull brass cleaner, extra step stools with non-scratching feet, long-handled dusters, and blue painters tape for marking anything needing attention.
The first day’s crew started on the second floor. One group worked to tuck cloth covers over most of the paintings hanging on the walls, but they took down the stairway pictures of the “dead white men” (as Jani humorously calls them) and stored them covered in a closet for safety. Another group unclipped, removed, and stored the brilliantly engineered metal-framed screens from the windows and replaced them with wood-framed storm windows that were ingeniously affixed with simple bent metal nails. Yet another took down the summer curtains, shook them out, stored them flat in a trunk between layers of cotton cloths, and put up the winter curtains. The final step was to put away accessories, dust and polish the wooden furniture and drape each piece in a protective cotton cloth. And so the upstairs was put to bed for its long winter’s nap....
On the second day, the first floor closing-up called for the same treatment as the upstairs with attention to a few wrinkles. The table in the dining room needed to be unset and the dishes and cutlery returned to cabinets and drawers in the butler’s pantry. Lamps needed to be unplugged, and window condensation needed to be mopped up before storm windows were installed. And oh sadness! A cry of dismay came from Chris King in Miss Edith’s office. He had discovered masonry crumbles on the bench next to the chimney, and the map hanging on the chimney was actually damp. A glance up at the seam between the chimney and the ceiling revealed the culprit—a water leak! Jani led the crew up to the second floor attic hatchway in the hallway outside of Miss Lucy’s bedroom in search of the culprit’s entry point.
Once there, Jani demonstrated how to get up to the attic from the tiny landing hallway. She used a harpoon to catch the hook on the hatchway cover, slide it back, and pull down a counterweighted ladder. Brilliant. Jani mischievously said, “Anyone want to come up?” Indeed we did, but taller folks had to watch their heads. Talk about a behind-the-scenes tour! Nestled in a corner was the wicker furniture from the west veranda where Miss Edith used to enjoy her cocktails. Dated notes from Jani documenting old roof leaks over the last thirty years were peppered around the attic and stuck with nails to the super solid structural beams. (Thank you to architect Richard Henry Dana, Jr. for over-engineering the roof design.) As for the current roof leak, we couldn’t make it through the tiny crawl space that led to the office chimney so Jani had to call DEEP to report it.
Before we left the attic, Jani popped open the stainless steel hatchway to the roof. “Anyone interested in seeing the roof?” Only I was, even though I am admittedly terrified of heights. Feeling like a prairie dog, I stuck my head out of the hatchway opening and peeked out at the flat roof, the impressive chimney spouts, and the hills beyond. Who knew there was a flat roof hiding up above those peaked slate dormers?!
After the attic excitement, the crew finished putting the first floor to bed. When we were all done, it was a sad feeling to see the now shapeless furniture beneath its white ghostly draperies. The spirit of Miss Edith was still present in the rooms, but definitely much diminished.
Just as November was the time when Miss Edith left Topsmead and its gardens to their long winter’s nap, November is the time for us to begin closing up our year’s activities, a time to cozy down during the oncoming holidays with family and friends, and maybe even a time to take a long winter’s nap or two. Zzzzzzz...