Day Two Hundred Seventeen: August 4
In 1740, planter-merchant John Mullryne built Bonaventure (“Good Fortune”), a six-hundred acre sugar plantation on a scenic bluff eight miles downriver from Savannah, Georgia. Over the decades that followed, Mullryne expanded his interests in rice and sugar, and by the time of the revolutionary war, Mullryne’s holdings numbered more than ten thousand acres. As the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia, Mullryne’s eldest daughter, Mary, married the planter to the south, Josiah Tattnall.
Tattnall entered the service of the Continental Army and rose to the rank of Brigadier General, as Major General Nathanael Greene’s right-hand man, key to the strategy at Cowpens, South Carolina that turned Cornwallis; made him recognize that he needed to resupply and turn his army towards Yorktown, Virginia to resupply at the port where, of course, he was trapped by Washington and the French fleet under Lafayette.
At the end of the war, Brigadier General Tattnall returned home to Bonaventure, which he had by now inherited outright from his father-in-law. Tattnall served as the first U.S. Congressman to represent Georgia from 1791-1795, then a U.S. Senator from Georgia from 1796-1799, and finally Governor of Georgia from 1800-1803. By the time of his death in 1803, the Tattnall holdings stretched from Savannah, Georgia to the outskirts of modern-day Jacksonville, Florida.
Upon his death, Bonaventure plantation passed to his eldest son, Josiah Tattnall, Junior, who served as Commodore in both the United States Navy and Confederate States Navy. Commodore Tattnall was the last of his family to own Bonaventure; following the war he sold all of his holdings to pay reparations and taxes. The occupation government established Bonaventure as a pauper’s grave, similar to Congress’ establishment of a cemetery on the Lee family estate at Arlington to ensure the Lees could never live there again. From 1868 – 1907 the old Bonaventure was a festering, putrid swamp. Victims of yellow fever outbreaks in 1882, 1891, and 1900 were buried in shallow graves, some still alive.
The City of Savannah condemned Bonaventure in 1907 and opened the city cemetery on site in that year. The ruins of Bonaventure House were town down in 1958 to facilitate an expansion of the city cemetery. But Southerners know that the past is never really gone, and Savannah is a city built on its past. Sometimes that past is peaceful and serene. Other times, it can be noisy. If you believe in spirits, you may know that paranormal researchers consider Bonaventure one of the most haunted cemeteries in the country, and Savannah nearly always appears in a “top 5″ list of most haunted cities.
If you believe in spirits, and if you listen to the stories, you’ll soon learn that not everyone, or everything, is bad or evil. There’s at least one legend of a happy time at Bonaventure that may speak to us in this day. What we know is this: In 1786, Josiah and Mary Tattnall were throwing a dinner party in honor of the birth of their first child, Mary Mullryne Tattnall, when Bonaventure house caught on fire and burned to the ground. The facts end here, and the Savannah legend is that on this warm summer night, General Tattnall felt that not even the house burning down could stop the party, so he ordered his staff to make up the tables in the yard, and the party continued into the wee hours of the morning, long after the candles burned down, lit by the blaze of Bonaventure burning down around them.
Local legend has it that when walking in Bonaventure Cemetery today, on warm summer nights, the sounds of an eerie and long-ago party can be heard so hearty that not even a house fire can dampen it. Those who have heard that long-ago party report the bodiless sounds of laughter, glasses clanking, plates being served, and the music of harpsichord and violin. On muggy nights when the wind blows in the Spanish moss, lucky visitors hear a party across the ages. Is it real? That’s for you to say.
Today, on August 4, 2012, we are in Pennsylvania for a different sort of party. Mommy’s parents have sold their home and are moving within two weeks to Gaylord, Michigan. My in-laws are legendary entertainers, with a broad circle of friends that we enjoy reconnecting with every time. Parties here feature burgers, dogs, homemade slaws and salads of all kinds, and icy cold beverages. There is laughter, and storytelling, and joking, and “My, isn’t he getting big?!?” The guests at these parties were Mommy’s childhood friends. They were at our wedding. They witnessed the baptism of my children. It’s a long way from Pennsylvania to Michigan, so now, with the moving truck coming in less than two weeks, they hosted a final luau-themed barbeque to say farewell to friends they’ve loved so well for so long.
As our party blazed on past the dinner hour into the night, we paused to take this picture, all of us standing together at this great house and solid home. Each person, and each family, have been special people in my in-laws lives for many years. This was Mommy’s childhood home, the place where I had Easter dinner as a college freshman and was sent home with more leftovers than I ate, making my future mother-in-law the hero of my college friends far from home. This is the house where I came to ask permission to ask Love if she would marry me and love me for three forevers. This is the place where we snuck early on a Saturday morning in autumn 2008 to tell my in-laws that they would have new names: Oma and Opa.
There have been memories made and identities forged here at this house that nothing can destroy. On this night, in this place, a fire burns. It is the fire of people who love us, who drop everything for us, and whose well-wishes shine across all our days. By the light of this fire we are welcomed, warmed, and the steps of our lives are illuminated to make clearer. From this place we take this fire to love others with the love we have been given. If you believe the legend from Bonaventure, you know that goodbyes are not forever, and not even one night can contain this party or this fire. Generations from now, long after we are gone, may this party go on and this fire continue to burn as a result of the good people who lived here.