Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Objects as witnesses

As an accountant, I find myself with long stretches of time where I’m processing something routine, soulless and time consuming. NPR podcasts have been a lifesaver.

I’ve been hooked on This American Life for over a year now. The show has been on NPR for over a decade (it sometimes takes me a while to find things). It’s really an amazing show and actually got me to return to writing. They essentially pick a theme and then have writers contribute fiction and non-fiction pieces focused on that theme. Their entire library of shows is available on the web here.

If I had to pick a favorite though, it’d definitely be The House by Loon Lake. For this show they devoted the entire hour to Adam Beckman’s story. As a young boy while vacationing in rural New Hampshire, he and some friends happened upon an old abandoned house. Inside, they find a treasure trove of junk – kind of like a rural version of the Collyer Brothers. Young Adam begins to amass a collection of what he finds, letters, personal items belonging to the Mason family, presumably the last occupants.

It is as though the lives lived there had abruptly disappeared, leaving these remaining artifacts untouched. You can’t help but to feel as though something sinister has happened.

Beckman goes back to the house each summer again and again, summoning the courage to explore deeper and deeper into the mystery of what happened to these people. Some years later when he returns, the house has been leveled without a trace. Beckman grows up and though adolescence, his preoccupation with the Mason houses eases, but he always keeps the cache of artifacts.

Years later, Beckman decides he wants to go back and find out if he can solve the nagging mystery of his childhood – what happened to the Masons? What he finds is not what you’d expect.

Ruminating over artifacts from the past is something that actually gives me an adrenaline rush. There is something very powerful in returning to the mysteries of youth. Childhood and adolescence present us with so many unanswerable questions that never get solved.

There is one part of this show that gives me the chills each time I hear it. Beckman’s mother never discouraged his obsession with the Masons. If anything she encouraged it:

“…it was so overwhelmingly abandoned..no one cared to resolve something…that was very offensive to me. Here was a carcass of a house, of a life – nobody cared to give it a proper burial. I felt that it was important that somebody should care. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven year old boy. Objects have lives…they are witnesses…”

Beckman’s mother then goes on to read a letter from 1940. It is written from a hospital where a woman (not the recipient’s wife) has had his baby. She begs this man to come to her quickly and bring money. She begs him to acknowledge her and her baby. It is wrenching to hear these words and you ache for this woman and her child. Objects have lives.

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