I pastored a small rural church while I was in seminary. On more than one occasion, I asked directions to go visit someone in the community I didn’t know and I would be told, “Well, they live in the old Turner place.” Come to find out, the Turners had been gone a good thirty years, had sold their land to the Wilsons, who in turn had passed it on to the Smiths; but it still the old Turner place, named for someone even the old timers had a hard time remembering.
Ginger and I spent the afternoon with a friend who had come for his daughter to look at Duke. She is a junior in college and beginning to think about where she wants to study. After they had seen the campus, they came to our house so we could go to dinner. Ginger had a meeting first, so I played tour guide to share what I knew about Durham. Thanks to the Neighborhood History Walk our neighborhood association does, tours friends gave us when we moved here, and a little reconnoitering of my own, I can put together a pretty good little tour of our fair city, though, after I talked about the old Erwin Mills buildings on Ninth Street and the old tobacco buildings at Brightleaf and American Tobacco, I wondered if I didn’t sound like I was giving directions to the old Turner place. I was telling history that I didn’t experience as though I knew what it meant.
Pick any church building with stained glass windows over a hundred years old and there will be names most folks in the congregations would be hard pressed to recognize. Within the last year, the last survivor of the German concentration camps died, meaning those chilling stories that compel us never to forget can no longer be told in the first person. As a collective, the human race has forgotten more than it has remembered; there are only so many things we can carry. As a youth minister in the mid-eighties, I remember my shock when one of my seventh graders, who would have been born in the early seventies, picked up a Beatles record of mine and said, “You mean Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?” Alas, the trivial example best makes the point.
the bones of a building don’t have
the guts to tell you the whole story
the faded cigarette sign painted on
the wall isn’t the whole picture
I’m digging in the used bin at Offbeat
Records in Brightleaf a tobacco building
turned into a tune shop whose days
are numbered thanks to itunes
the vacant lot at the end of our block
once held the house where John Loudermilk
wrote Tobacco Road and I find myself
hard pressed to sing more than the title
the day is coming I know when someone
will ask about a new place and I’ll say
it’s where the old record shop used to be
mourning both music and memory