Ordinary monuments

After a fourteen-year absence, I recently visited the town of my birth. It is one of those venerable Eastern towns, a county seat since the early 1800s. Its streets are lined with oaks and maples a good deal older than my grandfather, and its old brick houses and businesses are all in some degree of decay or restoration - a fallen cornice or a boarded-up window here, sandblasted brick and gleaming white columns there.

As I drove through I was surprised, and a little pleased, to see that not much had obviously changed since my departure. Not that my leaving should have made the town stand still. But one sometimes comforts oneself with the thought that one's past is like fine crystal, etched with indelible events and places, ringing clearly when tapped. Tossed into the present, however, this crystal has been known to shatter.

Nearing my old home, I passed a barn that I used to play in. Here was cause to stop for a moment: I was astonished to see it still standing, since it was ramshackle when I was growing up. I remembered leaping from the loft door down into - well, whatever we had when hay was scarce, which was most of the time. Sometimes we leaped into nothing more than a huge pile of oak leaves raked up over the dirt driveway. I smiled to imagine the neighbor running from his house, his face bright red, yelling at us to get away from the barn. He thought we were crazy, jumping twelve feet into leaves. He was right; but we were young, and so we were sure he was the crazy one, getting so upset.

All this crossed my mind as I approached the barn, and then something happened: I saw what was really there. A handsome old barn, all right - too handsome; painted a deep rust color, with windows along the loft wall and fine, carved doors along the ground-floor walls. The doors and brass nameplates; these announced professional offices.

I was glad, in a sense, to see that the old shell of the barn had been preserved, but it was not my barn. The barn of my memory, still intact as a memory, had shattered against the present fact of this hybrid, this odd compromise.

As I thought about it, I was not greatly disappointed. Memories are, after all, never fragile when kept as memories; left to themselves they often become reassuring and companionable. As the day passed, I discovered many buildings that had changed more or less: my old house, for example, or the fine old brick elementary school that I attended. I was pleased, in this last case, to see that the oak tree my sixth-grade class had planted - the class of 1968 - was now a leafy 30 or 40 feet tall, a healthy adolescent.

Yet the old barn and its renovation stayed in mind - not sorrowfully, or pleasantly, but simply as an unfinished sum, half of an equation whose other term I had not yet found.

I returned to my home 3,000 miles away, and found myself staring one evening out the bedroom window. I live in a suburban area in California, built on what was once lush fruit-growing land; a few, very few, apricot, plum, and peach orchards still remain.

I gazed indifferently at the apartment house next door, and then at what stood behind it, on a tiny, oddly shaped piece of property. It was an old building, of wood, with a tar-shingle roof and what must have been 75 years of ivy covering the side facing my apartment. Though I had never paid much attention to it before, I liked to glance now and then at the evening sun on the roof, on the ivy; the colors were magnificent, with a special depth that only dusk or dawn light can give.

As I watched the sun on the building this particular evening, I realized forcefully what I of course already knew: This was a barn. For some reason, ridiculous by any real estate standards, it had not been torn down with the orchard. Here it was, squeezed in between these new apartments, utterly out of place. At my window I could smell the odors of its weathered boards, its shingles, its luxurious ivy - old smells, dated smells, nothing like diesel exhaust, say, or plastic.

At that moment I wanted to keep the barn as a barn - not to shatter memories with its loss, or to relegate it only to memory, but to keep it real: to let it draw its past into the present. This is what my old childhood barn had not done, could not do; the uses had all changed, the building had changed, and the old shell had a kind of pretentious quaintness to it. But this barn, beside my modern apartment, had all its record of experience intact: its odors, its spreading clapboards, its rare evidence of rootedness. It had been what it had been for a long time; it spoke of a longevity of human values, of work and play, and of a certain way of life, as much a part of it as its wooden frame.

In thinking these thoughts, I was not trying to stop time, to defy progress or change. Nevertheless I am - as we all are - a child not of one time but of many times, gathering through intuition and education the experiences of many ages.

That barn reminded me of something that I intuitively wanted to protect - rootedness after pioneering effort, patient labor, renewal, endurance. These are qualities not easily visible in my part of the world. That they turn up again and again in literature and history - in Montaigne's essays, or Thoreau's journals, or Frost's poems, or in the settling of the western United States - is simply external confirmation of their intrinsic value. Yet they become obscured if in the tide of progress their most vivid representatives - such as my old barn - are consistently plowed under to make way for whatever the moment demands.

I don't know what the fate of this particular barn will be; I hope I will be watching the sun set on it for quite a while. But it has already given me the other term of the equation that I was pondering. It has shown me that not all memory adds up to zero in the present, or needs to be locked away in contemplation of itself. There is another kind of memory - a cultural memory - that persists in the ordinary monuments of an earlier time, and, when properly considered, shapes the present like the touch of the most admirable old sage. It is a touch that, far from interfering with our originality and inventiveness, gives that originality a context and measure, separating it from mere fad. It is the touch of life itself, which has sustained us, and brought us to where we are.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.