Author Anne Fadiman in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down writes about the importance of storytelling in the Hmong culture. She explains that the Hmong keep their history alive by starting any new story at the beginning of the world and going forward from there. I love this idea because it reminds me that any moment in time is part of a much larger story – just threads in the fabric of life- and that everything is connected and part of something else. If I tell the story of The Muse from the beginning of the world, it would be too long for our first blog post, so I will start with what happened in 1971 to begin our journey to become innkeepers.
I grew up in a house built by my grandfather not too far from The Muse. I had a friend who lived on my street named Karen who was 3 years older than I was. When she started high school English class she was assigned a pen pal in another English-speaking country to whom she was to write and explore the concept of being separated by a common language. Her pen pal lived in Durham, England and was Andrew’s older sister, Cheryl. This was in 1971 – before the internet and SKYPE and social media – when an 11-year-old girl would have some trouble locating Durham, England because the globe on the teacher’s desk only had London starred in England. My friend would show me the letters as she received them, and I can still conjure to this day how exotic it all was to me. A small envelope with a picture of the Queen in the corner, onion skin paper, beautiful handwriting in blue fountain pen ink. And the letters were so interesting – at least to me at that age. Anyway – I think my constant, pesky inquiries about these letters – “Can I see it, hold it, read it, keep it?” must have worn out my poor friend. One day, without telling me about it, she asked her pen pal if there was anyone in England about 11 years old who would like to write to me. Cheryl asked her 12 ½ year old brother if he wouldn’t mind. Well – I can’t tell you how excited I was the day out of the blue a letter was delivered FOR ME on onion skin paper in a small envelope with a picture of the Queen in the corner. Inside was a picture of a little English schoolboy in his “Hogwarts” uniform with a two-page letter describing himself, his family, and his interests ending with a polite request that I please write back to him. I immediately took my bike to the Ben Franklin to buy a tablet of my own onion skin paper and some Air Mail envelopes, and what began was a 20-year correspondence between the two of us.
In 1983, I announced to Andrew that I was getting married to my college sweetheart. What came back was a very heartfelt letter admitting his love at first sight for me since seeing the little picture I sent him of my 11-year-old self, and his dismay and disappointment that it was not us getting married. I was surprised and wrote back a very practical letter pointing out the logistical complications of such an idea. Guess which one of us is the more romantic? Anyway – a few weeks later I got a long-distance phone call from England. Crazy! Calls back in those days were $100 for a few minutes. It was Andrew calling to say that he was planning to come visit me and stay for my wedding.
He did come, and we had the nicest visit. We were old friends by then albeit through letters, and it was a very special experience to spend time with someone that I had literally grown up with in this unusual way. Now when Andrew tells our story – and someday you may want to ask him to tell it to you because he tells it so much better than I do – on my wedding day it was all he could do to not be the Dustin Hoffmann character in “The Graduate.” He held it together and didn’t make any kind of spectacle but did make a vow to himself that if we were ever single again at the same time, he would make his move to marry me.
We wrote for another 8 years after that until his jealous fiancée sent a letter that I had written to him back to me marked in big black letters “UNDELIVERABLE.” I didn’t think too much of it at the time, figuring Andrew must have moved and would send me a letter before too long so I would know where he was. But instead, we lost touch with each other at this point even though both sets of parents were alive and still living at the original address we had starting writing to and would certainly have forwarded letters we had written there. But somehow, we just stopped. Neither of us ever forgot about the other, but life got busy and time went on and the letters were no more.
In 2010, there was this new thing called Facebook. Both Andrew and I were on it because of our kids, but neither of us was doing much with it besides following them. One day Andrew decided to see if he could find cousins and old friends living in other countries and he decided to look for me. Fortunately, I had never changed my maiden name, so he found a Mary Ellen Hermann with a picture that he thought might look like me 20 years on and he sent a FB friend request. It started like this…”Mary Ellen Hermann, hmmmmmm, I wonder if you are MY Mary Ellen Hermann. If so, then”…and what came after that was no less than 18 unique identifiers. If I was his Mary Ellen, then…on and on the list went of things he remembered to be true about me. I was laughing at all the things he was recalling and impressed at his memory. At the end of the message it said – “And if you are not my Mary Ellen then my deepest apologies for troubling you to read all this”. There he was – ever the proper Englishman with impeccable manners.
So of course, I accepted the FB friend request and we went back to regular contact via emails and FB messages. We had years and years of things to catch up on – including the stories of disastrous marriages. And Andrew – true to his word, made his move when we were both single again. At one point, I went across to visit his parents in England and he came to see me there. He brought back a satchel filled with every letter I had ever written to him. On my long plane ride home, I assembled these many letters in chronological order and reread them. I was shocked to see all the secrets I had told him over the years and I realized in that moment that he had been “My Person” all along.
We visited each other back and forth for several years and then on December 31st, 2013, Andrew arrived in Milwaukee to stay. We married on February 22, 2014 which was the anniversary of him “finding me” on Facebook.
While we were planning how and where we would get together for good, I came up with the plan to start a bed and breakfast inn in Bay View. I had been watching the neighborhood come back from the edge and turn into “THE place to live and play” in our city and thought an urban guesthouse would be a great addition to the scene playing out around us. So, I purchased an old house which was a run- down 3-family rental with great potential and proceeded with Andrew to turn it into The Muse Gallery Guesthouse. This solved the problem of what Andrew was going to do for a living while here and served as a wonderfully fun (well not every day, but most days) way to create something together.
I’ll write another post someday about the trials and tribulations of renovating a Victorian home – especially when you are as innocent and inexperienced as we were – but for now I’ll end by saying we have been open for 5 years and loving it. Come visit and see what we have done! You are more than welcome.