Reflections from Riverbrink

After a life-changing move, home is where the boat is at this riverfront refuge.

Writer: L. Beth Bonifant | Fall-Winter 2022
I know I’m not the only one who thinks of a special place when they hear “The House That Built Me,” an emotional country ballad released by Miranda Lambert in 2010 describing what it would be like to return to the house where you grew up. When I first listened to it, we were bracing for our big move, and I knew everyone in the family would become nostalgic when they heard that song.
I didn’t grow up at Brinkwood, but from the time I was 15 I was sure there a lot. The Victorian era farmhouse in Charles County was my husband’s family home, constructed for his great grandparents Grantley and Philomena Edelen. Soon after marriage we built our own house on the farm where we would live and raise our children for the next 25 years. All houses hold many memories, but one built in 1889 holds memories for many. Perhaps that’s what makes old houses so dear. When we resolved to leave Bryantown we looked for a soft landing to help take away the sting.
Over in the next county another old farm was going through changes too. Time and tide had worn away the edges of Waterloo Point, a peninsula of flat farmland in Colton’s Point bordering the Potomac River on one side and St. Catherine Sound on the other. While its unprotected shorelines eroded unabated, the farm’s handsome old house with brick chimneys on each end eventually succumbed to the river. Later, when the property was sold houses began popping up on the point with prerequisite seawalls, still large portions would remain undeveloped until a group of investors purchased the remainder of land on the Potomac side in the 1980’s. “Waterloo-on-the-Potomac” was a 120-acre tract originally subdivided for the purpose of selling five-acre lots, but by then St. Mary’s County had implemented development restrictions requiring farmstead divisions consist of 15 acres or more.
The parcel we came to call Riverbrink would pass hands multiple times over the next 20 years until we acquired it in 2008. Each previous owner had met circumstances of illness or death precluding construction attempts. I wasn’t sure if we’d be cursed or blessed, but since I’m not superstitious we followed our broken hearts retreating deep into St. Mary’s Seventh District, leaving our familiar lives behind.
Sited on approximately 17 acres, Riverbrink is a combination of woods, field and marsh with landscaped lawns and gardens. Arriving here you may have the sense you’re visiting an old tidewater estate as you motor up the long gravel drive, but the residence is just 12 years old. Nearing the house as you pass a barn there are two old crooked concrete posts marking its entrance and salvaged from the beloved family farm and property’s namesake, Brinkwood. Other things that leave an impression of time and antiquity are the period style garden shed with wood shake shingles, enormous oaks and many large boxwoods throughout the setting.
Reminiscent of the English coastline’s White Cliffs of Dover when morning sun illuminates its steep bare banks, Westmoreland County is located directly across the river in Virginia while Robert E. Lee’s Stratford Hall lies slightly southwest. The views also encompass St. Clement’s Island with its landmark 40’ white cross, erected in honor of the 1634 first landing when English colonists arrived on the shore. During quiet times when the river is undisturbed, it’s easy to imagine what the New World looked like to them. Even if you squint it’s hard to see another house seven miles away in Virginia and our neighbors on the Maryland side are indiscernible too. Once endangered, there are so many eagles here it would hardly surprise me if they’ve outnumbered their predecessors. Whether performing morning skirmishes with the osprey, gliding across our field or silently perching in the plentiful tall pines, we enjoy a comfortable coexistence.
Wildlife is abundant. Sometimes just leaving the house in my car is like visiting a safari drive-thru when all creatures great and small make a group appearance in the driveway. I’ve heard of animal crossings before, but not all at one time! Let’s face it, if you have any kind of yard at all in Southern Maryland you’ve been visited by deer, but apparently Riverbrink has become the birthing center for Colton’s Point. While we’re busy oohing and aahing over speckled nurslings dropped on the doorstep, their lactating mothers fuel up on clematis and roses. I love babies too, but it’s a bridge too far when Bambi Sr. scrapes his antlers on my Coral bark Japanese maple again or the Temple of Bloom tree.
Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but I prefer English boxwood. It’s a good thing deer don’t find them as appealing. The current count is 56. I know that sounds like a lot, but when your yard seems the size of a national park you just keep planting things. In front of the house there’s a boxwood circle in the middle of a pea gravel drive, out back they line a river promenade. Their elegant dark green globes pop up other places too, having a genteel influence on the natural landscape.
Taming the wilderness at Riverbrink has been a challenge. Waterfront restrictions require a light touch and creative solutions, especially when a considerable amount of your acreage is in Critical Area. It took time to create a sense of law and order out of a raw thicket, and it’s still a delicate balance. The loblolly pines reproduce with such vengeance I’m afraid we’ll wind up living in the Black Forest one day. There are areas with old-growth oaks, like the one right in the middle of our front yard, just one of its branches alone is the size of a full-grown tree. I worship its venerable existence, but it sure makes me dread raking in fall. Leaves, sticks and pinecones are a relentless chore, my husband, Ed, is still trying to convince me it’s a small price to pay for living in paradise. Along with the oaks and loblollies, American holly and black gum are other natives that dominate this tough coastal terrain.
Following my father’s passing in 2019 we began sculpting the “Don Williams Memorial Camellia Trail;” he often said they were his favorite. The trail winds through the woods between the house and barn under a high canopy of oaks and pines. Forty various camellia shrubs take turns blooming, sustaining the show through several seasons. Starting in fall Camellia Sasanqua take the lead with selections like pure white “Autumn Moon” and “Bonanza,” a pretty peony-like fuchsia-red flower. “Yuletide” has become one of my favorites, displaying cheerful red flowers with bright yellow centers setting amongst dark green leaves, but I confess it’s the Japonicas that really have a hold on me. By January they start gaining momentum, blooming their heads off into early spring. Suddenly I’m on the Ashley River in Charleston cupping their soft heavy blossoms in my hands.
When our household made the move to Colton’s Point, our oldest was already established on his own, our middle son was in the process of independence and the youngest was halfway through high school. While bridging the gap to empty nesters, we wanted to build something that would remain manageable as years went by. “Virginia Farmhouse” by William Poole Designs had the same cozy dormered appearance as our former house, but with the convenience of covered front porches and an attached garage.
We envisioned a house that might seem as if it’d been here for generations like nearby Riverview, a historic house on Canoe Neck Creek in Oakley built for my (7th) great-grandfather, Luke Gardiner in the early 18th century. Clad in handmade oversize Barlow brick, Riverbrink mimics that compact colonial exterior with chimneyed ends. Complimenting the brick’s rosy hue, a tan colored mix was added to the mortar for instant patina.
Some of the other attributes we favored about this house plan were the first-floor master suite for aging in place and an unobtrusive garage facing away on the far end fostering the effect of a dwelling enlarged in stages. Never hiring an architect or designer during the process, instead Russell Versaci’s book, “Creating a New Old House” became my go-to guide for conjuring up a gracious home without a past.
We bucked some design trends and embraced others. No way could we do without a formal dining room, and what modern family doesn’t need a front parlor these days? The latter is painted blue in similar fashion to the one that was at Brinkwood. A transom over the pocket parlor doors adds architectural interest and light with hand blown “bull’s eye” glass. But traditional design doesn’t have to be boring. Papered with a wild fusion of flora and fauna from Thibaut’s Tidewater Collection, the dining room is mockingly referred to as the Jungle Room in recognition of the extravagant décor.
Incorporating “open concept,” contiguous space spans the back of the house encompassing the kitchen, a casual dining area and family room with fireplace. Further increasing flow, an enclosed waterfront porch extends the entire expanse opening into all the rooms. A lofted ceiling above the kitchen lets in lots of natural light from second floor windows and creates more visual space. Character grade white oak random width wood floors feature predominantly throughout the house.
Still the heart of the home, off white colonial-style kitchen cabinets with granite countertops are accented by an island and built-in desk topped with teak wood, but most guests are charmed by the clay tile mural over the cooktop. Custom made by local potter. Sarah Houde, the backsplash depicts a white heron standing at the edge of the shore next to the marsh with a faint image of the island’s white cross in the corner.
A lifelong collector of antiques, the house is furnished in new and old finds, and family pieces. Except for window coverings and fresh upholstery, we moved here with everything else we needed. Upstairs above the garage, a rec room paneled in barn wood is furnished with This End Up furniture, our first purchase as newlyweds in 1980. A Waterford chandelier picked up on a trip to Ireland in the 1970’s dangles in our dining room now, but once it sparkled at Brinkwood where it was my mother-in-law’s pride and joy. Old photos and portraits of ancestors from both sides are welcome to wall space here, including the imposing 3’ image of great, great grandfather Edward Valentine Edelen that first festooned Brinkwood’s front hall for over 100 years. But not every heirloom is as obvious; a delicate Eastlake Victorian brass doorknob opens the front door to our home now. We recovered the knob from the remains of Brinkwood’s original front door discovered rotting in an old chicken coop the day before it was burned down. Yup, and only a couple of sentimental fools would drag the family cast iron claw foot tub all the way to Seventh District.
Life takes you unexpected places, but love brings you home. •