The public library in my hometown was among my favorite buildings to visit as a little girl. Leading up to its grand entryway were smooth steps from either sidewalk direction; I can still hear the soft tss-tss-tss of my little soles landing and sliding a smidge at each rise. The opposing sets of stairs met at a platform facing the enormous doors, and the imposing limestone edifice welcomed me into its world of literary delights like a stern grandfather with a playful heart.
When I was in my teens, it was razed in favor of a new structure a few blocks away. But the destroyers left standing the great limestone facade which still adorns that block forty-plus years since, now surrounded by rejuvenated green space.
An old friend once opined that leaving the fragment behind seemed silly to him. I could not see it more differently. To me, it is a brilliant gesture of admiration for an architectural exemplar of that era, as well as a connection to childhood. The sun is always shining in my memories of those library visits, and a glimpse of the gray face still warms the little girl in me.
In contrast to how we often think of the term, there is nothing inauthentic about the facade. It is beautiful and true; it’s just that other parts of the old library can no longer be with us. They remain present by way of the mind’s eye.
I have been present here at the Chronicle less frequently while I’m working on a longer project, an endeavor that also entails the mining of memory. Along the way, I keep probing the reasons for wanting to get the story out. I don’t wish to merely idealize the past or, heaven forfend, get ‘stuck there.’
Rather than trying to hang onto something it might serve better to let go of — the harder we grasp at the past, the further away it flies anyway — I mean to treat the looking-back as an entryway to understanding in the present. Beyond taking stock to celebrate what I can, and to mourn what I must, a return visit to an earlier era furnishes a foundation for interpreting the self and the story as I go.
Perhaps my friend isn’t considering such a foundation, instead seeing the library facade in isolation, out of its element. It makes less sense with no context, and I suppose could make its familiarity stale rather than reassuring.
But to those who chose to preserve the piece, it must have represented a connection they expected the populace to find ongoing resonance with.
It certainly does for me, both in terms of the community and personally. It is alive and informing — and represents a dot on the map between who I was as a little girl and who I am now.
Another dot on the map has to do with inner rooms rather than outer walls, with home settings rather than public ones…
When I was a young mom searching for a flat to rent, there were very few places I looked at that I didn’t instantly take to. I loved the experience of looking for a place, of inspecting barren spaces begging to be furnished. I think now it was about reveling in the sense of potential. Reimagining myself and my belongings in fresh environs augmented a hopeful spirit.
As with the diverging impressions of the library facade, I suppose the same blank rooms that projected eager readiness to me could evoke in others emptiness and abandonment.
But to this day, I still like peering into empty apartments ready for new tenants. I tend to envision what could be on the way to fill them more than to rue what is no longer there.
(I am, of course, moved mournfully by what’s no longer there in other frameworks. Those are different dots on the map.)
From the excitement of exploring the library, to the hopefulness of picking out a place to live, to the relative settledness of my situation at the moment, I’m reminded that the story is still in motion.
And as quickly as it passes, every era of our days, down to this micro-moment, instantly freezes like a statue into the story — becoming snapshots in place of potentialities. Yet there is malleability in how we continually interpret them — in how we make sense of the points that stand out, in the arcs we highlight in the retelling.
While I take care to avoid living in the past, in recounting its gifts and losses and themes, I hope to preserve what is solid and beautiful about the architecture there.
Nice piece, Katherine. The library entrance invited you into a portal of your past, and may open that door to others to see it that way. It reminded me of my families moves when I was growing up, and the adventure for a kid of a new place to live, and memories of making these places one’s own. Patti and I recently had a similar experience when we moved to the Fox Valley. I wonder what an ancient Greek might ponder if he or she could time-travel to the Acropolis, and gaze inside.
Thanks for the comment, Tom. Love hearing what it touched off for you. 🙂
This is beautifully said. I wish you all the best in your writing, and I hope when it is finished, little excerpts will be added here. It did look like it was an amazing library to go to.
How very kind of you, Polly! (I mean, Polly’s felines…) Interesting idea; I’ll ponder its excerptability when the time comes.
All the best to all of you!
Thanks, and Happy Fourth still!