For the last nine months, I’ve been in charge of developing activities for the non-profit where I work part time. Key phrase: nonprofit. Translation: we need programs for seniors but we don’t have any money. Find a way.
As a result, I am working with the historical society to produce a “then and now” presentation featuring our town. This involves sifting through overflowing files for old pictures, then driving around and taking current photographs of the same locations. Once I pull it all together into a PowerPoint, we’ll show it. It’s a proverbial win-win. The town’s elders get some entertainment and the Historical Society (even more of a not-for-profit than Elder Affairs) gets a copy of the final product to do with as they see fit. The process has been educational for me and fun, but more than anything else, eye opening.
You see, our town is old—as in, discovered-by-John-Smith old. Driving around in 2012, I think nothing of passing houses that have been standing for over two hundred and fifty years. The area is a treasure of antique buildings and winding roads that began as cow paths, and for as long as I’ve lived here, I’ve had the sense the place hasn’t changed much since the beginning.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. After digging through the files, I am overwhelmed by all that no longer exists. Three ornate Victorian hotels of the same name all burned to the ground. Grandiose estates, torn down and replaced with suburban colonials, a catholic church, too small for the congregation, obliterated in favor of a vanilla (albeit larger) 1960’s version, a row of stores demolished by the town improvement society at the turn of the 20th century. I would have never suspected the quiet grove now housing a war memorial across from our town common was the former site of a dry goods store, a bakery and a “public market.” Gas stations, car dealerships and guest houses—all gone.
Even much of what endures, is barely recognizable. The inn at the heart of town has undergone so much restoration, only its address offers a clue that it’s been in business since 1704. The harbor, the home of a flourishing mackerel fleet and a healthy shipping-building industry, now supports a commercial base made up of a handful of lobster boats. They bob at their moorings amidst an array of recreational vessels.
Early history remains in the geography I pass daily, sure, but now I realize nothing is really the same. I’ve learned, through this process, that growth cannot come without loss. Back at home, as I listen to slick and desperate-sounding advertisements for the pen industry during back-to-school-season, I get that the personal computer has prompted the loss of handwriting, the private phone—the loss of the party line, email and texting, and video conferencing, the loss of letters—and through all these improvements, we’ve gained, right?
Would I want to traverse muddy roads, while avoiding horse “deposits” along the way? Probably not. Would I want to wash my clothes via a washboard before lugging them out to dry? Well gosh, I have a hard enough time doing laundry as it is. Imagine having to heat water on the stove in order to take a bath? Would I want to return to a time when I couldn’t vote? To live in an era when I’d be considered my husband’s property? Are you kidding?
And yet, I can’t help but be sad for that which no longer is. For polished mahogany stair rails and carriage houses, for local butcher shops, blacksmiths and fish mongers, for neighborhood schools and linen dresses and long, slow cooked Sunday suppers enjoyed with extended family. For barns and open fields and brick train stations, for wooden hotels peering over the sea and for fisherman delivering their catch to stores less than a mile away. It was a way of life, and there’s no one left to tell us about it. All that remains are the clues we find in old photos.
The most I can hope for I guess, is that someone figures out how to time travel before my life is over. If they do, I’m going back with whatever the digital camera equivalent is at that point in time —and I’m turning the setting to “video.”
If you could time travel, where and when would you visit?