Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Unearthing Local History

Last week I got in my first gardening days of the year. I spent hours weeding dandelions, pruning the hydrangea, planting poppies, bachelor buttons, violas, and scarlet runner beans, training the clematis, turning over the garden and getting the greens in. During this process I found countless rusty nails, a handful of porcelain chips, a couple unbelievably large rusted bolts (how could I not have come across these before?), and a four inch shard of glass. (And that's nothing compared to the bent spoon and hockey puck I found last year!)

All this takes me back to my last house where I found similar items in a similar veggie patch every spring, despite turning over the soil and double digging that dirt and sifting out the roots and rocks for five years. And then there's my parents' garden where my mom found (and likely continues to find) random flotsam from bygone eras and previous tenants since we moved in two and a half decades ago.

I enjoy thinking about this stuff. The people who lived and breathed and cried and laughed right where I am sitting now and their way of life and their trail of breadcrumbs that leads me back to them. I like thinking about what it would have been like in my neighborhood when you could still find creeks with fish in them, alleyways with outhouses, and streets with streetcars.

It's my sincere case of nostalgia that causes me to find this as fascinating as I do and so I got a kick out of it when there was a knock at my door one afternoon last week. Assuming it was a mom friend and her girls come for our play date I invited the knocker in verbally from down the hall. To my surprise a middle-aged man opened my door. Apparently he was friends with the boys who grew up in my house in the 70s. He was able to enlighten me as to the stains on my hardwood floors (black Scottie dogs), the pink 1961 license plate nailed to the ceiling of the garage (three boys lived here and worked on dirt bikes and hot rods) and that hockey puck I found beneath a dead rhododendron in my garden (alley hockey and errant pucks).

In this vein, here is a poem I wrote a few year's back after visiting a dear friend's father who found some nifty odds and ends while renovating his house in small-town Ontario.


Lynn’s old house hid countless relics.
During renovations he found newspapers
and a dozen shoes in the walls.
Four coins in the crossbeams for luck. 
Outside, after the thaw, there were daffodil bulbs
in the grass, a marsh, and a rowboat in the field.

Bridget O’Neil had been buried for a hundred and thirty years
when her scribbler turned up behind the stairs,
one guilt-ridden Victorian phrase per page
copied meticulously in her nine year old cursive.

The O’Neils had seven children
and a summer kitchen.
They bought the land from the Burns,
the Protestants, not the Catholic Byrnes.
Those veins of vanity ran deep enough 
to provoke a bar fight ending with a nose bite; 
bank embezzlement settled the score.
Touted tales told by cattle farmers
at the barley houses on the ridge.

This has always been a one-horse town,
though back then it had a one-room schoolhouse
and the hardware store sold two sizes of men’s pants,
34 and 42; muddy farmyards never minded suspenders.
Driveways have always meandered into the mist
and the creek in the ditch is nothing new. 
The same dandelions work at uprooting the house.

“Barnacle Bill” on the victrola, a nail for a needle,
and yes, black cherry pie on the sill.
A night in Erinsville yields more
than five toads crossing the road.