One Sunday over ten years ago my husband urged me to take a break from the daily routine of raising three children and drive to Northwestern Connecticut to visit an historic home I’d wanted to see. I had read about Caroline Ferriday’s Bethlehem, Connecticut home and her garden, filled with specimen plants she and her mother had collected in their travels around the world.
During that brief visit my life changed dramatically, since I learned of a story that changed Caroline’s life as well– of how she worked with a group of Polish concentration camp survivors and brought them to America. I ended up writing a novel based on the story, Lilac Girls, coming next spring from Ballantine Books.
This past May I re-visited the Bellamy-Ferriday House. It was strange but wonderful to take the same house tour I took ten years ago. I felt the same excitement on the tour, but this time it was different. After years of researching Caroline’s life so intensely and after writing so many scenes that take place in the house and gardens, it felt like coming home.
The house is very much the same, just as Caroline left it, kept pristine by The Connecticut Landmarks, to whom Caroline wisely left her beloved home. It was emotional seeing Caroline’s bedroom…
…and the view from the bay window her mother had built as a sixteenth birthday gift. Looking out over the lovely garden Caroline and her mother built together, such a healing project after Mr. Ferriday died at a young age, brought a tremendous wave of emotion.
I was thrilled to turn the corner of Caroline’s bedroom and discover a new addition, a portrait of Caroline as a young woman, recently gifted to the house. The portrait is lovely and makes her presence come alive in the room. Taking photos of the house interiors is not allowed, but it’s worth a trip to the property to see Caroline’s wonderful furnishings and artifacts firsthand.
Beyond this arbor you’ll find the garden from which I brought home one of Caroline’s lilac’s offspring on that first trip. It keeps alive a long-time tradition of Caroline’s mother, Eliza Ferriday, of sharing their plants with others.
The new site administrator Erica Dorsett-Mathews welcomed me, shared her excitement about Lilac Girls and introduced the site horticulturist George McCleary and his wife Carol (below), who take painstaking care of Caroline’s gardens, grounds and orchard. George knew Caroline when he was a teen growing up in Bethlehem and told me wonderful stories about her.
It’s a labor of love for the pair, who intimately know every plant in the garden and work tirelessly to keep it as Caroline wished. George is bringing heirloom apple trees with wonderful-sounding old names like Sheep’s Nose and Sops of Wine to the property to repopulate the lovely old apple and quince orchard adjacent to the house, below.
Carol took me through the garden, told me the latin name for each plant and filled me in on Caroline’s favorite roses and lilacs. Heaven!
Caroline didn’t just love her exquisite old garden roses like her Jean D’Arcs and the pair of Katharina Zeimets she inherited from her mother. She gave equal opportunity to common violas (above), lilly-of-the-valley and the most splendid lilacs. The lilac fragrance adrift in the air that day was like medicine.
Sometimes I think some sort of cosmic force led me to the house that day so long ago, since the process of finding an agent to represent the manuscript and the offer from Ballantine Books to publish it was full of strange but wonderful coincidences. But however it happened I’m grateful every day that it did and can’t wait to share the story with the world soon.
For more information about taking your own tour of Caroline’s house click here: http://www.ctlandmarks.org/content/bellamy-ferriday-house-garden
It’s well worth the trip!