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Tuesday
Jul262011

Antiquities 

The city where I grew up was settled by veterans of the Revolution, carving out regulated boxes of Ohio farmland as the first colonies in Virginia were already well past their centennial celebrations.  I do know narrow streets, and old ones, and the wide grids of the Southwestern desert, but this business of crossing doorjambs older then my entire state is something else entirely.

It strikes me because it’s graspable.  Here lies all that can die of John Quincy Adams; there is one of the lanterns hung in the Old North Church.  Since I'd lingered until closing time, a staff member of the Hancock-Clark House in Lexington invited me to assist her with closing the shutters of the window beneath which John Hancock and Sam Adams shifted their feet on floorboards of native wood, tapping their hands on a richly appointed table and awaiting the arrival of Paul Revere.  She was well aware that what for her a housekeeping task was, in this time and in this place, a brush of the fingertips on a rooted time and place. For some it was a duty call, standing an eleven year old and a nine year old next to a swinging wooden sign and hitting the shutter. “There, see?  You’ve been Somewhere Important.  Where are we supposed to go next?” 

And in a hard drive wipe the moment could be gone, dead in the moment those in the photograph are—the obnoxious wheels embedded in the sneaker of the son, the contact lenses and the hybrid logo on the car—this place they might remember to their children, but not the fading colors of a burshed-against touch screen or what the grey bar of the iTunes store looked like mid-download.  Luck and a forgotten box in a closet won’t preserve any of this.

In my work in the library, I can see the round handwriting of the second First Lady referring to “Mr. Jefferson” and “The President” and see her patience, the weight of her personality.  When her husband writes about his political enemies the ink is thick, the words harder pressed.  But as I type I see… what, electrons, the same width and height as that of my mother’s or my student’s, or my Senator’s, years worth of work lifted or obliterated in an instant.  They are easier to decipher than the words of Abigail Adams, yes, but in many ways more difficult.

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