Back East

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The oldness of Boston comes through the soles of my shoes and shows against the outline of the roofs. When I told my small son that the city was over 300 years old, I could hear the stretch in his voice as he tried to encompass the centuries. It isn’t so much different for me, when I see the alleys with bricks and stones undulating slightly over their slopes. Our own Northwest city, born in the nineteenth century on fish and lumber, feels like a western movie set by comparison.

My feet are trying to listen to the layers and layers of other human feet that have passed over these same spots since it was first colonized by Europeans. I want to set my hand on the brick pavers where they are wearing away pink on the edges. Even if they are just replacement bricks put in 100 years ago, atop older bricks or gravel, I still feel sure they have supported the buckled shoes of the Pilgrims. Like someone who goes to touch a friend who got the autograph of a favorite celebrity, I want to ask to touch the hand that touched the past, as cranky and severe as it was.

The streets do not meet at right corners, but come together like a spider web. Trying to find my way on a map I think, “It looks like one of those strange sepia maps of London in the age of exploration!” When I stand on a corner and gaze up I think “Look! Is that an actual chimney pot?” I try not to get distracted while driving by the oxidized green of gutters and ornamental cornices, contrasting neatly with blue sky. Television antennae from the 70s sit in the intersecting rooftops built in the Industrial Golden Age. Bay windows pop out in strange places on the backs of town houses on Beacon Hill. Modest apartment buildings in Roxbury have curved towers built into their corners. There is an unexpected amount of vinyl siding.

Making my way through the different segments of the City, trying to take my child to the Zoo or Aquarium, I feel like the City is rootbound, with parts of it wrapping back on itself and regrowing together. The old painting from college history comes back to me, idealized colonialization in North America, a white woman gliding inexorably westward out across the plains, pushing away bears and dark skinned people and bringing covered wagons in the flowing folds of her skirt. Except now what I picture is a pot breaking open and green roots and shoots stretching out north and westward, like the enthusiastic and invasive wisteria in my garden undermining the grass and covering everything it can. I ended up where the vines met the sea, and I have traveled back to where the roots are still sitting in a hard coil in the remnants of their pot.

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