There are so many moments, as we age, when we seem to be hit on the head with our own irrelevance. I swear, sometimes it just makes me laugh!
For example, I live in a very, very rural part of our state. As I write this note, I am surrounded by the sounds of crickets and wind in the trees. I can hear my dog breathing. I live in…. how can I put this?…..I live in the woods. To anyone who has met me in the last 20 years, I am the very definition of a “country mouse”.
But this was not always true! Unbeknownst to my young friends and relations, there was a time when I both lived and worked in the heart of Boston. I took the T every day; I walked around the neighborhoods, streets and historic areas to visit friends, to take classes, to play, to eat, to have some fun. I knew the city as it looked way back then like the back of my smooth, unlined hand.
This week I have found myself thrown once again into life in the city. Only this time, the landscape has changed. While I was out in the wilderness having babies, they moved the buildings, changed the traffic flow, repaired, tore down, rebuilt and replaced. And so I have found myself on very familiar ground, but lost in all of the new and updated.
What a funny feeling! As I followed my very young friend through the streets of the city, I was more often confused than secure. I was bewildered by the glittering signs and brand new buildings. I couldn’t always see my gritty old city under the glamorous “pedestrian walks”. After a time, I began to realize that not only had the city changed, my place in it had also changed, immensely. While I was seeing the Boston of my youth, my young friend was seeing the area only as it is now! Unlike her clean and crisp perceptions, my own view was colored by what used to be. Like everyone’s worst image of the old lady Aunt, I found myself repeatedly saying, “This used to be…” and “I remember when….” I horrified myself even as I savored the memories of time gone by.
For example, I was telling my friend what it was like back in the last 1960’s, when the ground had just been broken for the new Prudential Center. My Dad used to drive us by the work site, saying, “This is going to be the new skyscraper in the city!” We didn’t understand, back then, why anyone would want to put up a tall, elegant building in a neighborhood of empty warehouses and abandoned factories. Today I drove past the Pru, gazing at the glittering buildings, upscale shops and chic restaurants. My young friend only knows the Copley area as it looks now: rich, expensive, trendy, elite. She can never imagine the memory that I have of the same streets when they were empty and desolate and hopeless.
As we walked through the North End, I wanted to keep saying, “When I was in college….”. I wanted to tell her all about how this section of Boston used to be inexpensive, isolated, and so very ethnic. My grandparents came here when they first immigrated to America. They were married here. I used to come here to be surrounded by the Italian language and the immigrant perspective. I never would have envisioned the line of well dressed Americans standing outside of Mike’s Pastries. This was a little slice of the “old country” for me! For my young friend, the North End means expensive restaurants, lots of tourists and clean, upscale, rebuilt streets. She can never appreciate the changes that those images represent!
It can be so hard, as we get older. I want to keep showing my younger friends, and my kids, the world that I knew when I was their age. Faneuil Hall was a scary, dark, abandoned place where we only went so that we could eat the cheap food at Durgin Park. The North End was where we went to see St. Leonard’s Church. The Prudential Center was a new, expensive attempt to update the city. The Charles was filthy, the harbor was toxic, the mood in the city was grim. This is the Boston of my memory. This is the Boston that I love.
But just as I know that the city of Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty no longer exists, I also know my memory is of a city no longer real. My views and impressions are as old and as dated as the lithographs of the 1820’s. They are only relevant to those who seek them out.
Oh, good Lord. As I walk through the streets of Boston, remembering the city of 1975, I am as antiquated as those old Patriot activists. Oh, my God. I am history.