Earlier this month we spent a fleeting end-of-summer day at the PNW coastal family home of Gretchen Duggan. Though I was 10 minutes from my own house, pulling into the long tree-lined drive felt like discovering a portal into another world, rich with sensory magic. Gretchen is one of the most thoughtful, intentional, and "rooted" people I've ever met. Over the course of the day, everything I have come to know about her in the last many years finally "clicked."
Most of us discover who we are once we leave home in search of what magnetizes us. Contrastingly, Gretchen's sense of self seems wholly (and beautifully) established in the time, land, and sea of her youth.
In the interview below, Gretchen shares details and glimpses of her childhood home that feel deserving of a private journal. We discuss the transformative power of places, the passage of time, and the idea that home can be found anywhere there is a sense of knowing or belonging.
These photos simultaneously do and absolutely don't do justice to your childhood home. Can you tell us more about this little slice of the world you grew up on?
I can tell you more than we have room for, so I'll adhere to "slice." Set on the northeast shore of the Key Peninsula in the South Puget Sound, this home I came to as a four-year-old is a place one reaches by crossing bridges. Though it's not an island, there's a sense of a place apart. Leave the main highway. Drive on a road between water and water, skirt a lagoon, pass the fish hatchery, take the corner by the oyster farm, slow down by the pastures where horses snuffled carrots and apples from our hands as kids. Turn down a gravel drive. See how the branches meet overhead. See how the sword ferns are dusty in late summer. Follow to the end, where a sweet gum towers like a church steeple and you're here.
Our home, set atop a sandy bank, faces south with a view down the length of Carr Inlet. When it's clear, we see Mount Rainier over the treetops from the garden. On days thick with fog, heavy with rain or low clouds, the far shore disappears, and we could be anywhere. Foxes dashed across the beach rocks in my early years, and my brother spotted a black bear alone in the dark one evening. People live in modest houses clustered around little lakes, big waterfront vacation homes, single-wide trailers, log houses, and manufactured homes. I've had friends in all of them. It's a place that's changed since my childhood—fewer trees, more people, more stop lights—but I think we keep the beauty by insisting it's still there, changed or not.
Having a childhood home you can still return to in adulthood feels like a fleeting pastime. How has your sense of belonging changed over the last (almost!) 40 years?
When I see home through my adult eyes only, it's a beautiful place, but it takes entering through the window of my childhood make-believe to experience it as a whole world. Parts of the homeworld are gone now, and each loss tore at me when the change was fresh, but I've held fast to the place it's always been in my mind, layering the old with the changed new.
In childhood, the world of home included our house, the lacy canopy of the remarkable Japanese maple in the yard, the woods out back full of fir, alder, salal, cedar, hemlock, huckleberry, blackberry, snowberry, sword ferns, and trilliums in the spring. Home included the beach, the bleached sand dollars, my favorite moon snails, and particular characters on the beach like a wishing well log and a giant, partially hollowed driftwood trunk we could climb into called "the ship."
The world included the elderly widows living on either side of us—each the mother of grown twin sons, each a story unto themselves. The world extended as far as our feet could take us on the beach: to the mouth of Glen Cove in one direction and Minter Bay in the other. It included the waters of the inlet, explored in our Drascombe Longboat, the seals, jellyfish, and Dall's porpoise we saw when we sailed her.
My neighbor widows and the trees out back are gone, the once-woods divided into lots. The wishing well shifted and decomposed; the ship sailed away. We never see foxes anymore, and my house of dreams down the beach with the yard that floods at high tide is gone, too. It's been years since I moved away, and the longer I live elsewhere, the more I worry whether I can still claim it.
But the thing is, when I go home, it feels like the place knows me. Even though I'm an ordinary adult with errands, chores, and bills, my sense of self is still rooted in this world, intricate with smells of sap and seaweed, mysterious in its saltwater depths, cyclical in the sweep of the tides. I've worked to make my home elsewhere over the years, so while I once only said I was going home when I came here, now I can say I'm going home when I leave as well.
To say you are a reader seems a bit of an understatement! What in your childhood rooted you so firmly in the love of reading? What draws you towards a particular book these days? Are there any stand-out titles from your life or recent years that have been particularly formative or, *gasp* – fun?
My parents opened my older sister, brother, and me to the world of books from the very beginning. Dad was reading The Hobbit aloud in the house before I could walk or talk. Mom's fast friends with Miss Elizabeth Bennet and everyone else created by the inimitable Jane Austen. We loved listening to a bedtime book called Grandfather Twilight, involving a gorgeous pastel sunset and a gleaming pearl he set into the sky. I'm resisting opening my reading journal to help with this question, so I'll only give an answer I can make without referencing anything other than my memory.
Anne of Green Gables books through, but not beyond, Anne's House of Dreams. A book I've particularly loved for the power and skill of the writing in the last couple of years is Jesymn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing. She makes the text sing in another language, one we didn't know we spoke until meeting her words on the page. For a bit of fireside escapade, I enjoy the Molly Murphy Murder Mysteries, by Rhys Bowen. I feel particularly grateful for How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith; it's a volume of nonfiction, but there's never a doubt you're reading the work of a poet. Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard, has been with me for decades. LaRose, by Louise Erdrich is hard and glorious and hilarious. Please read Circe and The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. That's not enough, but it will never be enough, so it's enough.
Your life is rich with themes of storytelling. You've always been a hungry reader, and your degree is in English with an Emphasis in Writing. It doesn't feel a stretch to imagine there is a story (or many!) you've written or hope to write about your biological family's home. What peek can you give us into the fruit of that experience and creativity?
Yes, when I write stories, they're always rooted in this place, on this peninsula. Story is where I can re-enter the make-believe of my childhood when our yard, the beach, woods, and widows all floated outside of time in a world without brands or cell phones, computers, or much to do with practical botherations like how to make money.
"Ghosts in the Water, People in the Trees" is set at Harriet's house across the road by the horse pasture. "Our Sister Opal" is set right here in the yard and on the beach where I grew up. "Loneliness Creatures" explores the world inside the house of our beloved New Zealander neighbor-widow, Connie.
I have a whole collection of stories, some with shared characters, others related only by place, that I'd like to print. They're my fullest expression of home though they don't engage fully with the "real" world. It's this world where the water reflects the sky unendingly, but with my rules, rules that allow children to run a bit wilder, old women (witches?) to live longer, boats to stand in for cars, people to speak with trees.
There is something very visceral, maybe even magic, in your childhood home that I think is palpable even through a photo. Can you talk about the idea of a place holding magic qualities?
I'm very touched you felt that, too. There's so much memory for me here, those layers of old and new I wrote about before, and I resist seeing without those layers; I don't know what others see, and I can feel a bit protective. When I look at the cedar, I remember stepping into the curtain of low sweeping branches to scatter flower petals all over the floor of my "house" under the boughs, an invitation for the fairies to come. Without that memory, is it just a cedar tree? (But, really, "just" doesn't belong in front of "tree.”)
When I'd grown beyond my tree house years, the magic could sometimes pull me fully clothed into the winter waves, the crash and spray of saltwater flying against the bulkhead irresistible. I knew I was part of it. It's harder to access that knowing now. Maybe, as an adult, though I still see into the make-believe, I can also see outside it. Imagination weaves spells around us; look at any child speaking to a companion you can't see.
I had a wealth of magical materials to draw on, feathers falling from eagles and dropping from gulls, the croaking rasp of a Great Blue Heron gliding over the waves, berries to mash with leaves and mud into potions on a stump out back, dogs who followed me down the beach and romped after fish in the shallows, trails where no adults could look out the window and see me, but the magic of any place comes from noticing whatever there is to notice and weaving it with meaning. I could find signs and stories in the tracks worms ate into driftwood back then, meaning in a seal rising to the surface, a portent in a bald eagle's call, and I probably still do.
Do you experience any kind of inertia returning to the place you call(ed) home now? Regardless of whether it manifests in relational behaviors or a tendency to raid the pantry, many people say they return to their childhood self in a way when they go "back home." Is there something transformative for you about this journey, or does visiting your childhood home feel more like an extension of your present life?
It's both. I've never had a long period away from this home. I attended university locally and came home nearly every weekend in the early years. After school, I moved to Tacoma, a city just half an hour away, and that's where I still am. But I breathe what feels like my real air when I get to my family home. And I head for the pantry—where my parents keep a grocery aisle's worth of dry cereal—right away.
I find myself sliding around on the hardwood floor in a gangly, long-ago ballet lessons kind of way. Home evinces humility and utter belonging. Because that's the table where I was crabby during a card game, and there's the counter where math homework made me cry. This grass is my wedding aisle. I stood here on the deck to say my vows. The giant Japanese maple I climbed and swung from with sister Siri, brother Nels, all my cousins, and any friend I liked well enough to bring home is the same tree my nieces disappear under.
What does home mean to you? Can home be more than a place or family? We like to think of our clothing as a wearable version of home because of all it can imbue. Are there items in your own closet that stir up similar feelings of comfort, trust, and respite?
Home is belonging. It is knowing and being known. So I think it can be more than a place or a family. Home can be a landscape, community, self, a voice, a smell, a creature, even a jacket or dress. I'm thinking of three items I still wear in my closet that are home clothes and one that I'd desperately love to wear, but just can't. A pair of white Saltwater sandals I've had since middle school. The jean jacket Mom and Dad gave me in high school that I embroidered with a white feather on the right sleeve. A faded cotton dress with a tie-back waist, puffy sleeves, and strange, round, quilted pockets I found at a thrift shop in Seattle in college.
The one I can't wear is the custom blue sweatshirt my parents gave me when I was five or six featuring a silkscreened Golden Retriever face on the front and blue velvet letters in the back spelling Gretchen's Golden Belle, the registered name of my beloved dog. Once, the high tide swept the tiny sweatshirt away, but it washed up at a neighbors' place, and they brought it home to us. It hangs in the back of my closet, and I would probably save it if our house caught fire despite being raised by two firefighters.
You and your partner work together in real estate. You two could easily be described as the head (him!) and the heart (you!) of your business. How has your own experience of land, house, and home shaped the what and why of what you do professionally?
It isn't work either of us ever expected to do. And in many ways, it's a stretch for me coming from completely non-entrepreneurial people. I can find my place in this work by drawing on a deep respect for home and what it means for people and by doing many things the slow way. I seek a sense of story in each of the houses we represent, listening carefully to how our clients speak of their homes so I can reflect it back to them and out to anyone searching for a place to belong.
A house can be modest, in rough shape, or completely romantic—no matter what, there's dignity there. We've also created together a way I can be in this work and be myself—a way to bring in all the layers—while also supporting community efforts and organizations. So, I do things by hand. I take my time, give my time, and share the story of Tacoma in ways I hope are inviting and meaningful.
What Elizabeth Suzann styles are you most drawn to for wearing around the house? This could mean anything from beachcombing, a cozy evening by the fire, to a picnic lunch on the patio.
Imaginary dress-up! This is just my style. I'm in the Harper Tunic for wading in the shallows at low tide, slipping tiny sand dollars and feathers into the pocket. Later that evening, by the fire with a cozy book, I'm pulling the Florence Pant on underneath. But if I'm celebrating a family birthday or having friends for tea, I'd wear the Georgia Midi Dress. The Clyde Trench is coming with me for long walks from fall to spring with pockets full of agates, seeds, acorns, a handkerchief, beach glass, or any other treasures that make me feel at home.