Curators of the past


We step out of the sunlight into the dusty shade of the old building, stepping carefully over debris and chunks of plaster.

Thick square beams hold up the structure, new supports show bright beside the old, weathered ones. The walls have been pulled down between the supports, and I can see straight through, to the front.

The ceiling above sags slightly. It’s stood there a century and a half.

“I don’t know how well you can see, how well you can envision what we’re doing here,” he tells me. And I blink, trying to close out the image of dust, of decaying bits of wood, of pipes hanging out of walls and stairs that sag with every step. I try to see what he sees.

He sees a library, with big storefront windows the way it used to be, back when it was a furniture store turned funeral home. He sees computer stations upstairs; art hung on the walls, for display and for sale. He sees businesses renting rooms upstairs.

He sees the old shell of a building, narrowly saved from demolition three years ago, brimming with life again.

I follow him up one flight of stairs, praying they hold. Each step sinks in the center under his feet.

The second flight, to the newer attic, is narrow. I steady myself against the wall, and regret my choice of footwear. Balancing on heels in here is a safety risk. Behind us, the other man comes more slowly, breathing heavily, his cane striking loud against the old wood.

You can see the river a stone’s-throw away, on the other side of an old mill that, if possible, is more dilapidated than this old building.

He tells me the stories. It was a store first, eventually turned into apartments. There’s still old wallpaper with ducks in blue neck-ribbons in what was once a kitchen, an old tile backsplash speckled with the ancient remains of grease and food from years gone by.

And when we leave, stepping carefully over debris back into the sunlight, he asks if I have time and we walk down the street toward the river, to the small museum filled with donated artifacts of history.

There’s a replica of the old canal, and he tells me of the rules of right-of-way. He pauses to admire an old tuxedo; the doctor that delivered him, delivered his mother, too, used to wear it ages ago. I move slowly behind him. None of this matters, really. It’s not part of the story. But I come here so rarely and I figure it’s a chance to build connections.

And there’s something captivating about it, about the way family history has morphed into community history. They talk about the ’39 club, girls from the high school class who stayed tight through old age. Every one of them could sew, and the old treadle sewing machine one used is sitting in the front room of the small museum. Two young faces peer out of a yellowed photograph; they died in the second World War, my tour guide shares a name with one of them. He was his father’s best friend, died just before he was born.

I arrive late back at the office, but all the way back, while I watch the sunlight on the creek that follows the road and the purple and white flowers climbing up the hill, I wonder why it is that it is the old, the aging, who cling to history like that. Why we, young now with energy and strength to accomplish more, don’t see the value of it.

Maybe that’s the way it always is. Maybe those carrying the old stories now were, in their own youth, as uninterested as us today. Maybe, when you’re young, you’re so busy looking toward and planning for the future – working and building careers and raising families – there’s no room left for the past. Maybe it takes age, slowing down, memories formed and built over our own lives, to really appreciate those stories.

But we move from place to place, chasing jobs, chasing dreams. I don’t know if there will be any of us left in these small communities to take up the torch, keep the past close in our minds, remembering.

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