It was a crazy kind of a week for us here in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the foot-hills of the Appalachian Mountains. Actually it was quite normal until water started spirting out of a pipe that the washing machine drains into – when I wasn’t washing any clothes… and the water coming out smelled of sewage. I called the woman we are renting from, who called our daughter and told her that she had booked a room for the three of us at the Graylyn Estates for the night. The next 24 hours were spent in a soft, surreal, pampered haze.
It was arranged that we could have a 12:00 check in so we threw a few (not very appropriate for a 4 1/2 star hotel) clothes into our overnight bag, and drove 12 miles to the Graylyn Hotel and Conference Center owned and operated by Wake Forrest University as a non-profit to provide student scholarships. We entered the entrance of the stately Norman revival-style manor house built in the early 1930’s as the country estate of Boland and Natalia Gray, and were greeted by a butler who warmly welcomed us and directed us to the (out-of-sight) reception desk.
After a flick of a pen for a signature we were escorted to the Mews where another butler carried our bag to our room and informed us that there were unlimited ice cream bars (the really good kind), butterscotch cookies, and hot chocolate in the room next to the Mews reception desk at 3:00. After the butler carried our luggage up to our room, Jim wanted a little nap and I read on the balcony until Sharon arrived (she left work early). Sharon and I decided we were ready for an ice cream bar, and I also wanted to try the hot chocolate because I wondered if and how hot chocolate could be really special. I’ve had lots of different hot chocolates in my days… this hot chocolate made my eyes go big and my knees weaken. It is so good that they won’t give out the recipe and we have since been scheming how we can get another cup without paying for a room.
We decided on an early supper because Jim’s symptoms were acting up due to the stress and rapid changing of plans throughout the day and a quiet meal will usually help him. Across the front and back of the mansion there are sun rooms that were set up for conference break-out rooms. There is also one off the dining hall that is of similar design to the photo above but with tables seating four. We were the first to arrive for dinner and when I asked if we could sit in the sunroom I received a subtle bow and an “Of course, ma’am.” We are not big eaters so I also asked if we could choose from the menu of the Grille Room located on the lower level. Our waiter asked if we were staying the night in the hotel and when I replied yes, he replied “You may eat from any menu you choose, Ma’am.” We choose three appetizers and a main course so we could all try a baked brie with cranberry and walnut chutney, scallops in a blackberry gastrique, crab and asparagus with white truffle hollandaise sauce, and and a delicious ravioli. My mouth is watering as I am remembering every delectable bite.
We slept soundly that night with the door to the balcony ajar, and woke the next morning to the song of an early spring rain and birds singing in the shower. A van was waiting to transport guest to the manor house for breakfast where we were greeted with a bow of the head and “good-morning” from two butlers waiting a discrete distance inside the entrance hall. We had breakfast in the dining room and relished the attentive service that was respectful of our space and conversation along with perfectly prepared and served food. As we were finishing I mentioned to my family that I felt so at home in the surroundings that I had to stop myself from telling the person serving us that I would like another cup of coffee by the fire and expecting that it would be delivered there promptly and graciously.
Because of the rain, we decided to spend time exploring and relaxing in the public rooms that were so inviting that it was easy to image living in this environment of privilege. Jim picked up a Wall Street Journal and found a comfortable chair by a fireplace. Sharon and I (with camera in hand) went exploring.
From the formal, but comfortable, living areas we walked into another sunroom with a very large fireplace but set up for informal play. What caught our eye were wrought iron and glass doors opening up to a balcony over a large room with art deco tile and painting. We were speculating that it must have been an indoor swimming pool. We were the only people in the area and as we were wondering about the area, a butler appeared as if beamed down with the sole mission to help. There is a pool under a cover and there is still some water in it but it hasn’t been used in years. They use the space for conferences and weddings. He suggested we go down the winding staircase to the right and explore the women’s restroom and shower/changing room that has a door leading to the pool area. It has the original 1930’s decor with upgrades to make it functional for today’s visitors.
Yes, I felt like I was living in a hazy dream, soft around the edges. I also became aware of a nagging discomfort underneath that glow of being special, of being waited on, of being privileged. The man who built this home in the early 1930’s bought 87 acers from the R.J. Reynolds estate, of tobacco fame. Gray moved through the ranks to become President of the company and when Mr. Reynolds died he became CEO and Chairman of the Board. I appreciate beauty but become uncomfortable when I think about how some beauty is created through a vast inequality of wealth or exploitation of others.
What a gentle and magical time we had in that 24 hours, cocooned in a make-believe world of wealth and privilege. How easily I slipped into the role of expecting my every need to be met by someone else. Maybe because I do have a life of privilege – although at a lesser degree than the Reynolds or the Grays. Yes I am privileged because I am white in a wealthy nation that still enjoys the freedoms that democracy affords and my husband and I were able to build a nest egg to support us comfortably in our aging years. Taking advantage of our privilege brings me joy but I also carry the burden of awareness that equality and justice just don’t exist for most of the world’s people – even for most of the citizens of the U.S.
Is it possible for us to create a world where all are served and comforted equally? Is it possible for a world where the privileged person washes the feet of the disenfrancised, the marginalized, the poor. Where the privileged finish by saying, “There ma’am, there sir, is there anything else I can provide for you?” – said with respect and humility. With tears in my eyes I have to admit that privilege doesn’t reach in both directions. As I am aging I am working hard to figure out how to live with this reality that brings both joy and deep sadness.
What a wonderful challenge, Bren. To see more on this topic follow this link.