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Standing outside to peer in The Memory House

February 18, 2010

I settled in to read a book called In The Memory House by Howard Mansfield last night, and ended up in a self-reflective funk, wondering why I’ve chosen a field that by its very nature is certain to bring loss and heartache.  The nature of history is that things go into the past, and the nature of historic preservation is a selection process whereby some things are consigned to history — whether it is remembered or not is another matter — and some are allowed to slip from the landscape or our collective consciousness.  Demolition.  Loss.  Ignorance.  Forgetfulness.  Perspective.

Mansfield touches on all these issues in the book — how we choose to honor or ignore the past, why we choose to remember what we do, the shift over time from who decided and how things were honored.  It is thoughtful, inspiring, hopeful, and just a tad cynical.

It was the prologue that got me feeling that keen ache; a feeling I know well after years of moving and returning to find myself an outsider, childhood landmarks lost.

A Lost Spring

There was a man I loved to visit.  He lived in the house he grew up in — a wonderful, warm, cluttered house that seemed larger inside than out.  There were long hallways and rooms, and a barn lined with the things he had collected — antlers and bones, small animal skulls, wood of all sorts.  He would carve animals on these or paint scenes of how it used to be.  He carved my wife’s wedding ring.

I could have listened to him tell me stories for hours.  He knew how many turtle eggs it took to make enough mayonnaise to last the summer.  In his stories he could remake the land, clear away the woods and bring back the farms he knew in his youth, the trains, the factories making clothespins.

His house is two hundred years old, shaded by a maple tree probably as old — the tree is what you look at first.  The house seems to be keeping the tree company.  He told me once that it used to get so cold upstairs in his sisters’ bedrooms that the nail heads in the wall would frost over.  And in summer it would be so hot up there.  But they would run down to the swimming hole and come back and slip under the sheets — real cool.  The swimming hole was a marvelous place.  It was fed by a spring.

Some years back, the state widened the road and built a new bridge.  They had to drop a cement slab on that spring.  Pluggged it right up, he told me.  It took quite a load of cement and a bit of engineering, but they stopped the spring and the bridge goes through straight.  You wouldn’t even notice it.

When I pass his house and that great maple tree, I picture the spring, and the children swimming there in summer twilight.

And when I am away from this corner of New Hampshire, down among the landscape of haste — parking lot and highway, mall and condo — I look into the faces of my countrymen and I think of the plugged spring.

Howard Mansfield, In the Memory House

We bemoan the loss of a way of life we imagine once was (and maybe it was really that idyllic, in some ways) yet we pave over a new fast lane in our eagerness to get to a life of cheap convenience, as though tube socks from Walmart matter more than a stream where children can play and forge a lifetime of memory.

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