I was heading out the door for my morning walk with the dog when I noticed a nattily dressed older gentleman strolling down the sidewalk. “I didn’t take your parking spot, did I?” he asked with a smile. “I used to live on this street a long time ago. Just came by for a visit.” I don’t know what it is about my neighborhood that inspires trips down memory lane, but I’m not complaining. Just like that, an ordinary morning took an interesting turn.
The gentleman introduced himself and explained that he and his family had lived in the very first house built on the street, back in the 1930s. He went on to describe each house and its occupants, by name and profession, in great detail. The two sisters who lived side by side and couldn’t have been more different. The men who rode to work on the streetcar. The man who came home from war blind, but you’d never know it. He knew every neighbor by their voice, and would always grasp his wife’s elbow when they went out, a chivalrous gesture that masked the fact that she was leading him instead of vice versa.
The man painted a scene of long-ago Christmas Eves, when the neighbors would string lights from the trees and gather together to sing carols. The land we now stood on was once an apple orchard, he told me, with a creek running through it where a street now was. I could almost picture the old-fashioned cars rattling down the rutted dirt road.
I’ve always been interested in historic houses and old buildings. In elementary school, I did a project on a historic row of painted Victorian houses in my hometown. I got to meet some of the residents and hear their stories. I snapped Polaroids of the wrought-iron railings and intricately carved wooden moldings. There’s something about stories from the past that makes old plaster walls and crumbling brick steps more interesting.
Back in the present, as the owner of actual crumbling brick steps and cracked plaster walls, old buildings have lost some of their magic for me. I fantasize about living in a home where the doors meet the frames at right angles, with unchipped bathroom tiles and smooth walls free of layers of old wallpaper and paint drips. I can’t look at my house without a running tally of repairs and contractor fees going through my head.
The family that lived in our house back then had 5 children, the man told me. When the father went off to war, the mother and children moved into the basement and first floor and rented out the top floor. My eyes widened at the thought of 6 people packed into our small basement. And I think *I* get cabin fever stuck in this house with 2 kids?! I wondered what kind of boarders occupied my bedroom. Did they soak in the same old iron tub with the same black-and-white tiles, now littered with Spiderman bath toys?
I could have listened to this man tell stories all day. But I had a walk to take, work to do, kids to pick up later. But he had brightened my day by reminding me of something I often forget in my Groundhog Day existence as a harried mom of young children: life won’t always be like this. Not in a “hang in there, it gets better” or an “enjoy every minute while it lasts” kind of way. Just as a simple, basic fact of life: time marches on. I’m not the first person to raise kids in this house, and I won’t be the last.
I have plenty of moments of real magic and joy in my life. I also have days that are long, dull, and/or stressful. I loved this chance meeting with a stranger because it shook up the predictability of my day and reignited a sense of possibility. That’s something that often goes missing for me, along with my phone charger and the matching sock.
There’s a line in the movie, This Is Where I Leave You, that stuck with me. A free-spirited character says to a less free-spirited character: “Anything can happen. Anything happens all the time.” Just step outside your door and you’ll see.
NEWS O’ THE DAY: Speaking of old buildings in Baltimore, the city is hosting its first Doors Open event this Saturday, Oct. 26, when 42 sites from the old Montgomery Ward factory to the Charles Theatre (a former streetcar barn) will be open to the public.