“But things like this they had to pass,
Sunk in the sand on the Arkansas,
This rosewood sofa that clutched the sun
With every foot a gryphon’s claw;
The saw it shining far ahead,
They turned to see it far behind,
And dreamed of men who dared not lose
The things they dared not hope to find.”
Thomas Hornsby Ferril
I was reminded recently of childhood explorations of abandoned towns and abandoned lives. Sand-covered wash bowls and dirt-crusted medicine bottles. Falling buildings with wooden sidewalks that were covered in the desert soil. Blazing sun overhead, possible death in the shade beneath the creosote. Keeping one eye out for treasures and the other for snakes and colorful lizards.
Back then, I’d hesitate before picking up a bottle turned purple from the sun because I knew that someone had poured its contents into a spoon for a loved one’s illness. It represented the long nights of waiting to see if the person would get well. Or wouldn’t. The bottles, left carelessly behind the houses or in the town refuse pile, were made of leaded glass that started out clear, but would turn the most amazing shade of purple after laying in the sun for ages.
I’d wonder at the sight of a hammer’s head with the handle nearly eaten away with time and sun and weather and I’d think about the walls it might have helped to build and the coffins surely it helped to seal.
We would find all sorts of items that filled me with a sense of humbleness that is rare in children. You see, each thing we’d find was once held by another human who was long gone. Some woman might have cried over the broken pitcher & basin. A child might have been sad that the toy soldier was missing the sword. A man might have sworn as the edge of a hoe bent when it struck stone beneath the soil. Everything had a story that we were never to know. These people didn’t leave behind journals or diaries. Or, if they did, the desert harshness destroyed them over the decades.
Once we found a wrought iron Murphy bed, completed with three of the finials on the posts. My mom insisted that we figure out a way to bring it home and we borrowed my uncle’s truck to come back the next weekend and load it up. She sanded and smoothed away the rust blossoms and painted it a creamy white and it looked old and new at the same time.
Our house was full of a strange mix of antiques from my great-grandmother, treasures from ghost towns, and “modern” trinkets (such as the slab of a tree that was made into a clock that had a million layers of polyurethane). We had miniature cottages from Ireland, scraps of papyrus from Egypt, animal figures that had been made of Mt. Saint Helens’s ash, and even a torn-out calendar page in its own frame..
All of these things are lost to me, of course. When she died, I only got photographs and scraps of paper with her thoughts written on them. But my memories of those times are still with me. One day I will finish writing them all down.
Cherish the past, build a memorable future.