When you turn a certain age in our society you are considered a senior citizen. Since we are a youth-worshiping culture, the appellation senior citizen is euphemistic.
You get an invitation to join the American Association of Retired Persons when you are fifty, I think. Maybe thirty nine! They offer discounts at hotels and so forth. It’s enticing. And they provide household hints about retirement and writing wills.
So I decided to start to work on my memoirs. It seems a bit early, but you never know. They remind us that you never know. I’ve been writing portions of my memoir in sermons and Dear Friends letters for thirty two years, so I have a jump on it.
A couple of weeks ago I started writing about the places I’ve lived. Location, location, location. We’re always trying to locate ourselves. “Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor, ‘What place is this? Where are we now?'” Sandburg.
When I was at my daughter’s house last week I had a couple of free hours alone and decided to drive to Woburn where I lived from 1950 to 1954, important growing up years from ten to fourteen. I drove around, looking at places about which I’d been writing just a few days before. A wave of nostalgia washed over me as I sat in my car in front of Horn Pond where I went swimming and fishing during those years.
Then I drove to the house where we lived on Court Street. It’s run down. The paint is peeling, the roof is worn out, clapboards are split. My brother Bill tells me that the house has been a rental for years. It looks terrible. And the big yard we played in has shrunk to postage stamp size. In truth the yard is the same size- it just seems so small, now.
I drove down Church Street, which is twenty yards to the left of the house, and just as steep as it was then. I remembered the icy day I got on my Flexible Flyer, with my brother Art on the back. We went flying. I was sitting up, steering with my feet. The problem was, the sled was going so fast that it took a long time to react to movement of the runners- it was almost impossible to steer.
Church Street makes a slight turn to the left at the bottom of that hill, and there was a car parked against the curb on right. I tried desperately to maneuver around it, but failed. We hit the back of the car and slid under it, helter skelter. I can still feel the place on my left leg where the muscle was badly damaged.
Then I drove to the church where I had perfect attendance in the seventh grade, and won a prize for memorizing the most Psalms. I walked around the building and realized how huge it is, the opposite feeling from the small yard at the house. The church is in almost as bad disrepair as the house. Paint peeling. Shabby.
I tried the front door. Silly. Then went around to the back to the door which I had almost always used, but now it has a handicap ramp. It was open and I went into the back hallway and entered Fellowship Hall and the memories flooded in. I went into the classrooms off the hall- more memories.
Then I started upstairs to the sanctuary, wanting to find the rope on which I had swung to ring the bell, when it was my turn, which may have been only once but seems like more. I paused, thinking I should find an office to announce myself, but continued up the stairs to the main entrance.
I was surprised there was no bell rope hanging there, as I recalled. False memory. I went up one side of the double, curving staircase to the foyer in front of the sanctuary. I opened the door to the sanctuary and was thunderstruck- I couldn’t believe the size of the place. It’s huge! It was as if I had never been in that sanctuary. Granted, it’s fifty years since I’ve been there, but I confused it with the Congregational Church I attended in Wilmington after that one. The church in Wilmington is not nearly as big.
I stood there, staring, remembering the Rev. Dr. Gray, who had said to me one day when I was ringing the bell- or was it the one day when I rang the bell?- “Frank, have you ever thought about becoming a minister?” How I wish I could sit and talk with him now.
Then I looked for a guest book on the table at the back of the sanctuary, and found none. But I did find the ushers’ attendance record book and read the statistics for 2002: Sunday attendance, 35 adults, 5 children; 34 adults, 6 children, and so forth. Dismal. The place was booming when I was there in the early 50’s. I felt sad for these signs of aging badly. I found the bell rope in a glass-faced A/V room they built in back of the organ loft.
On the way out I looked for someone with whom I could announce myself. In the kitchen I found an older man sitting at the stainless steel counter reading the paper. We exchanged introductions. Art told me that he that he is married to the church secretary, and I told him about my connection to the church and Dr. Gray. “Way before my time,” he said.
He acknowledged the changes in the place and said that they have a new minister who has ‘big plans.’ He half smiled–the kind of half smile that hopes to avoid disrespect, but says, “We’ll see how his big plans go, and they’re not likely to go any different from the others who have had such big plans in the past.” Something like that.
I got back in the car with some sadness, but glad I had paid homage to my fond memories in that special place. Driving through downtown Woburn I realized that it, too, is rather worn. I thought, “But at least there’s still a downtown- everything hasn’t given way to the malls.” I smiled as I drove past Santoro’s submarine sandwich place where I bought a big Italian sub on it’s opening day fifty years ago. I remember paying $.35 for that sandwich, but I couldn’t remember where the bell rope hung in the church. Memory is strange in its selectivity. I’ll keep at it.