Becoming an innkeeper is a curious transition that starts with worrying about all the little details (do we have enough toilet paper? Is the boiler working?) and eventually transforms to a place where the small interactions with one’s guests can make or break a year. On that front, 2011 is a very good year.
Thus begins the tale of the red chair. We moved to Woods Hole last year and made numerous trips to the swap shop (a wonderful institution at the town dump where you can drop off or pick up gently used stuff) and one day we found these two painted red wooden chairs. Pretty solid, I said to my husband. Yes, perfect for our new porch, he mused. So into the trunk they went, paint peeling a bit, dirt crusted in the corners but a nice solid color, definitely worth cleaning up.
Six months later, in January, the small pond behind our house froze. We decided to go skating one afternoon. I grabbed one of the red chairs to help the kids get their skates on. It was glowery and cold, with the light threatening to turn to actual darkness. The pond was grey, silent, ringed with houses many of them dark in winter. I stamped my feet to keep warm, listening to the skates whisk across the ice. Cold and too dark now, I hustled the kids inside for dinner. As we cleared the gear, I looked back and noticed we had forgotten the red chair. There is sat, alone on the pond. I snapped it’s portrait with my handy iPhone.
Later that evening, I posted the picture on Facebook as part of my photo project (“365” – I attempt a new picture every day). The image of the red chair ignited my FB friends and fans — I have never received as many comments. People wanted copies of the photo, poster size. I explained that this picture was taken on my iPhone in low light — unlikely to look very good blown up beyond 5×7.
One day in March, I received an email from a prospective guest from Santa Barbara. She was coming to Boston to see her boyfriend and they were looking for a good place to stay. She had seen my photos of Woods Hole on Facebook and wanted to come to the Woods Hole Inn because Woods Hole looked so beautiful (which it is, BTW). Wow, I thought, all the way from the west coast…it really is a small online world. She booked the room. As we got close to the date, she emailed again. She was a photographer, she said, and she loved my picture with the red chair. Could she borrow it over the weekend for a photo shoot?
Well, I have to admit my first reaction was, huh? Now that is an unusual request! That’s MY chair. Then I remembered the swap shop. This is not my chair at all, it is a chair passing through my life and I need to share it, I reasoned. It is meant to be shared. I loaded the chair up in my Prius, drove it over and parked it on the front porch of the Inn.
We had a family obligation that weekend and I left the Inn in the hands of my very competent staff. When I came back, on Monday, the chair was still on the porch and I asked — did our guest use the chair? Oh, I told her where it was and I think she did. Well, did she say anything about it? Nope, said she had a good time, that was it. Hmmm, not very satisfying after hauling the chair across town but I brought it home and forgot about it.
About a month later, the red chair guest emailed asking for our address. She had taken a picture with the chair and wanted to send me a copy. She said the red chair had opened a whole new place in her work and she wanted to thank me. I emailed back that she could just send me a digital file or post it on Facebook but she said no, she had something to send me.
Turns out our red chair guest is a professional nature photographer. And a really good one at that.
About two weeks later a huge package arrived — what is this, I thought, what have I ordered now? I opened the package, and there was the most incredible shot of Nobska Beach in winter, with the red chair out on the beach before the crashing waves. I was literally breathless looking at this image, tears welled. It was such a simple composition, both the chair and the beach so familiar to me and yet a totally fresh and new juxtaposition. The winter waves crashing toward the grey sand. The snow fence perfectly framing it, inviting me in. Breathtaking.
I carried it around the inn like a teenage girl with a Justin Bieber autograph. Look at this! This came from our guest! Can you believe it #@*?!! It’s the red chair! I put it right up in a prominent place by our guest water cooler. I put a little sign next to it with the photographer’s website. I emailed her a love note of appreciation.
So now, whenever I pass this picture, I think about the dialogue we have with our guests. Sometimes it’s as simple as can I have another towel, or where is the best place for dinner tonight? Or repetitious, yes the Martha’s Vineyard ferry is right across the street. Or even disappointing, as when someone is tired or grumpy.
But this dialogue always involves the give and take between real people who come to the inn with the rich back stories of whole and interesting lives. It reminds me that we mostly scratch the surface when there are oceans of personality, talent, life experience floating underneath the rote interactions (here is your room key, breakfast is served between 8 and 10, the parking lot is right behind the building). I wonder if we added questions like, what is your favorite color, what does the ocean mean to you and have you ever read Sartre? — would we learn more or just scare people? Probably the latter.
For me, the metaphor of the red chair is the invitation to come explore yourself in a quiet and beautiful place. It is an open seat at the table of relaxation. It is the beckoning hand of civilization, marking the edge of the wildness of nature where you can lose and find yourself at the same time. It is the dialogue between artists and innkeepers, dreamers and shop-girls, lost travelers and those that welcome them into warm beds. We are all – on some level — lovers of destination, landscape, color.
What does the red chair mean to you?
To read an update on this story, check out this post.