Women are like elephants; I like to look at them, but I wouldn’t want to own one. —W. C. Fields
I often use this quote as a volunteer at the Peirce–du Pont House at Longwood Gardens. It always produces a knowing laugh from the men and protests from the women. Either way, it gets their attention.
I then add the segue, “I feel the same way about old houses. I like to look at them, but wouldn’t want to own one.” I explain that is why I enjoy volunteering at the House. I get to examine every hidden closet and stairway as if it were my own, but without any of the responsibility. Something always needs repair in such an old house, but no one expects me to fix it or maintain it. Not even clean it, although I will pick up the stray shriveled leaf or Kleenex.
I come in near the Christmas season, and find the decorations are up, arranged by talented people far better than I could have done. No one nags me to haul them all down from the attic, or to put up the tree. I just enjoy everything and proudly point out the features to the visitors. What could be more perfect? (Well, there used to be a cat I could pet, the most tolerant cat in the world, but he went on to cat heaven. That was perfect.)
I do not even have to water the plants, trim them back, or change them when they fade. There is an unsung army of people who take care of these things. I am only the face the visitors see.
I have lost any desire for ownership. None of this has to be mine. What would I gain by ownership? We are only the temporary caretakers, preserving objects for future generations of others to enjoy. My reward is when visitors step into the House and literally gasp at its simple beauty. When they express their appreciation of the House to me, I accept it personally for all of the others, and thank them, as Pierre would do if he were here.