"When I was a child, I'd collect tadpoles there, frogs' eggs, the jelly," recalled Lord, who five years ago embarked on a quest to connect with the father she hardly knew. Henry F. du Pont and Winterthur: A Daughter's Portrait (Yale University Press, $27.50) is the result of that journey, sparked by the magic of the cottage and the yearning it unleashed to learn more about the man she called Daddy and Dads.
"I didn't know him, but I always loved him dearly," Lord said on a visit to the cottage from homes in Connecticut. A founder of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven and a former research affiliate with Yale's Child Study Center, Lord has written before, but mostly papers for psychoanalytic and pediatric journals. Her 70-plus years have also included marriage, children and grandchildren.
She frames this memoir of her father between observations as a child who knew better than to frolic amid the antiques and as an adult who came to respect the fact that her parents were "people of deep feeling but showing or sharing emotion. . .was not part of their makeup."
She paints a picture of Henry du Pont (1880-1969), blessed with a seemingly unlimited fortune from the family's gunpowder business - his major challenge being to use it creatively. But to do so, he had to transcend a youth spent alone, inept and adrift.
In her research, Lord found her father's penchant for detail invaluable. The household logs he kept during six decades detailed which of 58 sets of china were used when, who came to dinner, and what was served. Lord also plumbed the archives of the nearby Hagley Museum and Library, where she traced her ancestors back to Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, who at 23 was praised by Voltaire for his economic treatise and poetry. And she examined correspondence, including more than 100 letters exchanged between her father and Jacqueline Kennedy, who as first lady tapped du Pont to advise her on a restoration of White House interiors.
Growing up at Winterthur, Lord was intrigued to find secret places in the trees, ponds, hills and bushes, but felt overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what would become a 175-room mansion.
She was drawn by sports, specifically basketball, broad jump and high jump. But family time was usually spent collecting seashells, joining Ruth's mother at the piano in song, or playing bridge.
"Those were the days when I visited my great-aunts every weekend," Lord said. "It never occurred to me to say I didn't want to."
She denies her childhood impulses were much dampened, but it's hard to imagine she had much fun.
"My nurse helped me get away with things," Lord pointed out. "I'd hurdle pieces of furniture in the hall.
"She watched as I climbed trees."
* As a child, Lord began to crave a house smaller than Winterthur. She transferred those feelings to the Golf Cottage, which she discovered on a walk one day on her father's golf course, daydreaming of romance.
In her mid-30s, Ruth, her first husband, George Lord, and their children would stay there when visiting her parents, who'd moved into a house nearby when Winterthur became a museum in 1951.
Still intrigued with the cozy abode, Ruth wrote to her father, expressing her love for the landscape and requesting that someday, he leave her the cottage.
The letter, which went through several drafts before being mailed, met no reply. "Had I overstepped some boundary, made too brash a request, somehow offended my father?" Lord wrote in her book.
When she finally saw him several months later and pressed the issue, Harry, as he was known and 76 at the time, said: "I'm much too old to change my will."
But he ended up doing just that.
Perhaps his change of heart should have come as no surprise, for du Pont and his daughter shared a bond. When it came to the Winterthur landscape, she wrote, "we were both in its thrall."
The site had been in the family since the 1830s: It's where Harry returned at age 22, following a faltering academic career at Harvard and the death of his mother with whom he'd been close.
At Winterthur, he found solace in running the estate and overseeing its crops and livestock. Harry would also join his father on trips to Europe where he'd pursue his horticultural interests, expanding his knowledge and ordering plants in grandly increasing numbers.
The garden that so impresses many visitors to Winterthur today - the March bank, Harry's venture into a "wild" or naturalistic design - began with the purchase of 29,000 bulbs, including tulips, daffodils, miniature iris, grape hyacinths and snowdrops in 1909. The following year, he ordered 39,000 more. While abroad, he also visited famous gardens and met noted gardeners.
"Harry now had the bit in his teeth," wrote Lord, and his confidence would soon impress Ruth Wales, whose family had been neighbors of the Roosevelts in Hyde Park, N.Y. Over a four-year period, Wales would go from disdaining Harry to falling deeply in love with him, and the couple were married in 1916 when he was in his mid-30s - a move, wrote Lord, that "helped him rejoin the human race."
By his early 40s, Harry du Pont had extended his aesthetic sense to the interior of the home, embarking on his love of decorative arts and antiques.
With the death of his father in 1926, he began to create the home he wanted, and during the Depression, more than doubled Winterthur's size.
Then, in 1936, he did something that still amazes his daughter. On the eve of her 14th birthday, he took Ruth and her sister out of school for a year for a round-the-world cruise.
Besides the chance to learn about exotic places, it was an opportunity for the girls to have their parents close at hand.
"We had an awfully good time," Lord remembered. "They were very good company."
* In the living room of the cottage that so captured her imagination as a child sat a smiling photo of Lord and her second husband, John Holmes, on a tram at Winterthur.
"My husband was such a help and inspiration" with the book, she said tenderly, speaking of the research they'd done at the Hagley Museum and Library. Holmes died in 1997; the book is dedicated to him.
Across from her were a gently worn couch and side chairs that reflected the intimate scale of the room.
"They're reproductions," Lord said, casually dressed in slacks and sneakers. "I don't know anything about furniture."
The fragrance of lilacs picked from bushes by the house hung pleasantly in the air, reminding her of the visit she'd just had with her family.
"I love this place and was thrilled to have them here," Lord said, chatting easily about her daughter and two sons and the traveling she'd done in Europe with her granddaughter Amelia.
Did Lord pursue gardening as her father had, meticulously recording observations about plants and designing gardens?
"I like to grow flowers to have them inside the house, but I don't study them scientifically," she said.
Like her father, however, she loves to arrange flowers and "fuss with the dining room table."
Lord descended a flight of stairs to point out the low-ceilinged dining room and a watercolor of a stone building she playfully attributed to "the school of Andy Wyeth."
"It reminds me of the countryside here," she said.
The renowned Chadds Ford artist and his wife, Betsy, have been family friends since Harry's days at Winterthur, and Lord was delighted to receive "a wonderful letter" from Andrew recently.
She retraced her path up the steps and reached for the rear door. Opening it, she glanced at a bed of ivy before bending to pluck out a weed.
"I've been meaning to do that for days," Lord said, satisfied. Then she turned her gaze out toward the horizon and the rolling hills she's loved so long.