This evening I traveled back in time, and at the same time fast-forwarded. It was a visit to part of my past and a look at what will be the future for one small community library.
The evening started with a trip to Charleston to visit the AT&T store. Long, painful cell phone saga I won't bore you with. On the way I saw a trooper's car with flashing lights in the median. The reason was quickly clear-a ladder in the middle of the interstate and 5:00 traffic. Fortunately for me the ladder was on the opposite side of the road, but it looked pretty scary over there as people veered around the ladder. A little further on a car with emergency flashers sat on the shoulder--and a young woman and tiny child were walking up the road. I pulled off and gave her a ride to the gas station just a few miles away, then back to her car to put the gas in it and see her on her way. I don't usually stop for such things because we all know it's not safe these days--but it was so hot and that little one was so tiny. The young mother was a college student, bright and personable. I hope she does well in life; she's working hard to make it happen.
At the AT&T store in the mall--I feel so out of place in big malls, they are really not my kind of place--a lady came in with her tearful daughter to report a stolen cell phone. Apparently the phone was swiped right off the girl's lap as she sat in the food court! Good grief. An ugly scene was playing out as I left, with the accused thieves mouthing off to the security guard. The police arrived as I was leaving, and I wished the mother and daughter good luck. It was a strong reminder of why I do not like malls.
I traveled on to a reception at the new library I helped to plan when I was still the facilities manager for the library. The library was supposed to be completed in March, two months before I retired, but construction delays kept pushing back the opening date. It is finally ready to open on Monday, so this was a sneak preview of the new building before it is open to the public. It is beautiful. It was astounding to see all those dreams and plans realized in vibrant color. Purples, red, beiges, soft greens and other colors create a lively palette with patterned carpets and retro-look furnishings. It was good to see so many friends, and to meet the man who was hired into my position.
When I left the library, I decided to take a back way to the interstate to cut off some miles. I used to travel this road every work day when I worked at a small branch in Clendenin, West Virginia. I used to feel like I knew the people on that road though I actually knew no one along the route. I would make up stories in my head about some of the places and people I saw.
Like the lady who lived in a small gray house right beside the road. Her home was always pristine, the porch floor looked waxed and every year at Mother's Day a pot of petunias or impatiens appeared on the porch. She tended the flowers carefully and they retained their beauty until killing frost. In my mind she had one son who lived just down the road and looked after keeping her yard mowed and putting the plastic on her windows in the fall. He came to visit each Sunday, I thought, and she made dinner for him, maybe white beans and cornbread, or roast beef and mashed potatoes and canned vegetables from her root cellar. Once a week he took her shopping. Her husband was a World War II vet who passed away peacefully in his sleep and her son moved her to this little house so he could care for her. That was the story in my mind, anyway. Now the little house is empty and no one is mending the roof or caring for the porch floor. Perhaps she's in a nursing home now and her son visits her there on Sundays.
Then there was the elderly man who lived in a house with many windows in the front, but somehow still looked dark and lonely. It might have been the tall evergreens in the front yard or the way the house was tucked into a hollow between steep hills. He drove an old Datsun truck every day six miles to Elkview, probably to sit at McDonald's and drink coffee as the conversations and lives of others swirled around him. Then he would get in his truck and drive home to sit in his dark house, alone. He never drove over 25 mph; he had no reason to hurry, after all. Impatient me would wait for some short straight stretch and roar past him like so many others did but I felt guilty leaving the old man to potter along by himself on that narrow road. Perhaps (very likely) he was also a vet, of World War II or maybe Korea or both. Maybe his wife died years before and he was left to fend for himself, a man who had never cooked or washed his own clothes or shopped for groceries. So he was doing the best he could, but the house got older and more decrepit along with him. Now his house is empty, the overshadowing trees hiding it and the memory of the lonely old man from view.
There were the Blue Trailer Dogs, too--they slept in the road in the early mornings as I hurried on my way to work, never moving until I came to a full stop. Only then would the motley assortment of hounds and mutts s-t-r-e-t-c-h, yawn and amble slowly to the roadside. I never saw the Blue Trailer people so I thought maybe the dogs lived there alone, sleeping on the 70's-style couches, drinking from the toilet and stealing food from the bowls of other dogs in the neighborhood.
The white two-story Victorian house had seen better days, but the red rose hedge in front made up for any shabbiness on the house's part. An elderly lady lived there, and sometimes she would be outside, wearing a straw hat, gloves and boots, pruning the roses or walking with a lively step up the road. She always waved; a lot of people waved to me, actually--they saw my car so often I think they believed I lived somewhere along the road. Now the house is re-sided with vinyl; tall white columns and a high plantation-mansion-style porch have been added. New windows stare blankly at the front yard where the rose hedge once startled the morning with its richness. No one is living there now but I suppose someone must be getting the house ready to move in.
And finally there was the lady who had a pet raccoon. I often saw it following her across her yard, ambling as slowly as she did from one place to another, inspecting the bushes and doghouses along the way. The dogs paid the raccoon no mind. Her house is still there, and it looks about the same although there was no sign of the lady and her pet.
I drove slowly along the road, remembering the places and trying to recall the woman I used to be as I sped by in my little white car, always in a hurry in the morning, slower at the end of work days that seldom ended after eight hours and often saw me heading home well after dark. Why was I in such a hurry, I wonder? In the end, I am just as old as I would have been without the rush and stress. Yet in the midst of my hurry I still noticed the people and places of the road, imagining their stories.
I realized tonight that this narrow road was the first place that I did what has become habit for me now--traveling to a place and imagining the lives of those who live there, soaking up the atmosphere and finding the heart. Which is what I also do as a storyteller, visualizing the story, being mindful of the details, living in the skins of the characters.
Thank you, little curvy road, for the gift your inhabitants unknowingly gave to me.