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Archive for September 21st, 2011

A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.

–Joan Didion

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My friend Linda from Texas one day in her blog  brought this quote from Joan Didion to my attention and it has stuck in my mind for some time.  It seems to especially apply itself to those places and memories from our past that have long passed from the sight of the general public, places that I often run across when doing genealogical research.  Towns that have vibrant stories and a rich , interesting past but are nearly vacant now, the memories of that place now resigned to an existence in a few aging minds and a few timeworn photos.

My nephew and his wife recently went up through the Adirondacks and I told him to look for the village of Forestport where my grandmother’s family had a large presence in the late 1800’s and early 20th century.  Her father, my great-grandfather was a prominent member of the logging industry there, employing hundreds of loggers who harvested the timber of the Adirondack and sent it on barges down the Black River Canal to the Erie Canal and onward to build the booming cities of the east.  After his trip, he said that he had been through Forestport and there wasn’t much there.

In my research, the town had taken on its own life.  There are many photos like the one above of the rail station where my grandmother used to come and go (she might even be in that crowd) give evidence of a bustling place full of life.  There are a few books that document the town at that time, talking about the many characters who built the village in the southern forest of the Adirondacks and rebuilt after it burned to the ground on several occasions.  Other books document its place on the Black River Canal, the barge builders who worked there and the men who kept the locks made the canal work.  All attest to a place full of life.

Yet now that is all nowhere to be seen.  That life is a mere reflection in a few minds who have any interest in such places.  Like me.

I wonder often how close the memory I have wrestled from reading and looking jibes with what actually was.  Have I added more life, more vibrancy than actually existed?  I suppose that’s where Didion’s words enter the equation.  Because I care for some reason, that past, that memory of place has become my possession somehow.  Remade in my image, as she said.

It’s an interesting concept and one that doesn’t necessarily just pertain to place alone.  It may work for all memory, all history– events and people, for instance.  History belongs to those who remake it in their own image, for better or worse.

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