I was on a return trip home from Philadelphia when I found myself driving north thru New Jersey, past the community where I lived until 1959. In a fit of nostalgia, I decided to stop at our old house to take a picture to show my kids. However I knew in my heart that the picture was really a ruse to get me to go see what I really wanted to find. It was a big old boulder that was a landmark in the neighborhood that I lived in until I was 8 years old. I made the detour. I had not been back to that place in almost 50 years. After a serious effort getting my bearings amidst the suburban development that had displaced pastures, dairy barns and woodlots, I found the street and ultimately, the house.
While I was truly moved standing there looking at our old house, I knew that what I really wanted too see wasn’t the house; I wanted to see the primary resident of the open public space just beyond our yard. It was the boulder that we used to call “THE ROCK”. Thinking back on it now, I realize now that that massive, solid boulder probably was only 4 feet wide and 5 feet tall. I was very little at the time when it was an integral part of my life. I had to work hard to climb up onto to it to sit down to gaze at the world below. I wondered if it would still look big to me now.
I took the picture of the house and thought about that structure and the changes in my life that happened there. Then I went out behind the house to look for my dependable – solid old stone friend. I walked past our yard to the public space and the boulder. With great anticipation I turned the corner looking for the tree that I remembered sheltered the boulder. I came upon the site and discovered that both the tree and the boulder were gone. My shock and disappointment was naive and embarrassingly significant. Boulders are supposed to be big, heavy and permanent, how could it be gone?
That boulder was not only a friend but it was a landmark in my 8 year-old universe. More significantly, it was solid, unmovable and it was dependably, always there for me. It was there when I needed a place to lick my wounds after my mother yelled at me for some dorky thing I had done, or more likely forgotten to do. It was there when my report card wasn’t so great and I was feeling bad about my prospects and myself for the future. It was the place that I went when I wasn’t picked to play in a game. Most noteworthy it was the place I retreated to when I was 8 and a half years old and I was trying to sort out one of the most isolating complexities of my life till then, the incomprehensible news of the death of my father. I sat on it that cold October afternoon while my world changed around me. It provided the stability and resolute assurance that I needed at that moment.
The dependability and permanence of that rock in an unpredictable world was important to an eight year old. Beyond me, that boulder was a nexus around which the busy life of all the kids in the neighborhood revolved. It marked a meeting spot for after dinner summertime hanging out. It was the meeting spot to meet for the walk to the first day of school when summer was over. It sat there waiting for us to come home from school each day so we could play around it until it got dark and we were called home to dinner. It was home base for hide and seek on Saturday afternoons. It was a wagon or a car to shoot our cap guns from behind when we were playing cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers. In essence, the rock was a place where we came together to grow up and collectively escape the world and privately sometimes to deal with the world.
Now, where my boulder once sat so resolutely, was an ignominious bench and some shrubs. As I stood there mourning the loss of my old granite companion, I wondered how many of my old playmates of 50 years ago thought about that rock. I wondered if anyone ever came back in search of it as I did . . . only to be disappointed, as I was. My boulder buddy was gone.
Dejected, I dropped glumly onto the impertinent bench that had the nerve to displace the proud ancient rock at the throne of the neighborhood. I thought about THE ROCK and those times gone by. I realized that at 58, here I was again sitting in this spot trying to sort out the complexities of the universe, but this time, I was really alone. Maybe in THE ROCK's absence, the act of me sitting on that bench became my own tribute to THE ROCK and the changeability of the seemingly unchangeable.
It was then that I realized that the only place that that big old rock really still remained was in my own memory and the memories of my playmates wherever they might be scattered across the globe. I wondered how many of them were still alive; if they were alive did they remember THE ROCK? I wondered if my sitting there could proxy for them in the act of remembering, because they no longer could be there.
As I sat there contemplating my missing dependable old boulder, I acknowledged what I already knew too well. I knew that places are in a constant state of change, but regardless of their physical state of change, places do remain intact and ever unchanged in one place . . . our memories.
It struck me as I sat there at this “bench memorial” to my old stone buddy, that the only way that we can really revisit places that were so important to us so long ago is through shared memories of those places with those people who were there with us. By reuniting to share memories I thought, we recreate the places and times of our past and savor the sweetness and the sadness that they hold for us.
Paul McCartney turned 70 this year. I guess it was inevitable that our rebellious rock idols of our teen years in the sixties would become the philosophers and sages in the new millennium when we are in our fifties. Paul wrote some lyrics a long time ago that we probably didn’t appreciate back then when we first heard them.
However they resonated with me at that moment, sitting there where my rock used to be. The two snippets of lyrical wisdom that we listened to forty years ago are: “My past is ever present” and “You are going to carry that load a long time.”
I take from Paul’s wisdom, that we are all in each other’s lives every day in our memories; furthermore that the joy and angst of those memories are carried with us for a long time.
I realized that day there on that bench that I would have never found the peace that I once found sitting on that rock even if it was there. After almost a lifetime, it could no longer be there for me. I had changed and my needs were more complex now. And that is OK, because what is important is that it was there when I needed it. However, the 8 year old in me still wonders where it is though.
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