Before there was that rusted “7” in front of the Portland Museum of Art, that square was perhaps my favorite place in town. It’s so easy to conjure an image of it in my head. There was one year, when I was very young, that my parents and I walked downtown in the middle of a snow storm. You know that feeling when you’re driving in the snow and the flakes are falling at that specific angle where it looks like they’re all rushing right at you? As we were walking across the intersection of Congress and High, the snow changed from those light flakes you can hardly see to the fat, slow-falling flakes that quickly envelope you, as if on purpose. I remember looking up and it feeling like Christmas. It’s odd the moments that stick with us.
In one summer of my youth, I was in bed, and it was probably the first year I had begun to sleep in, as I recall waking up and it feeling like mid-day. In reality, it was far past midnight — no cars humming or drinkers returning from Ruski’s. But there were bird calls; seagulls, I believed. I looked out the window and didn’t see any gulls, yet they were so loud. I figured the calls must be coming from Congress Square, several blocks away, but that’s another trick of the mind. Whenever I hear seagulls I think I’m under the dry, baking sun in front of the mini-Flatiron Building between the square and the museum.
When I did a summer program after eighth grade with the Telling Room, my favorite spot in Portland became the garden behind the Longfellow House on Congress Street. We’d walk up there for lunch, as it’s really the only green place in all of downtown that doesn’t reek of fish. There is rarely anyone there, and for that reason I don’t like to tell people about it. It was like my own private urban paradise, my secret garden.
I’ve never been one to attach a lot of meaning to places. Homes, yes. I’ve lived in the same one for all 18 years of my life, so every nook and cranny has some memory (precious or otherwise) attached to it. My grandparents’ homes have some meaning, as well. As I write this, there is an air of death about both of them. My maternal grandparents’ house, like those grandparents themselves, is deteriorating rapidly. It’s not at all the neat and cozy abode it was in my youth, where we’d all gather for Christmas. Now it’s just a reminder of what a clusterfuck that whole situation has become. In my previous column, I wrote about the nice aspects of having older parents, but this is decidedly not one of them. It is not at all fun to watch my mother deal with her parents’ aging process.
The paternal side is an altogether different situation. To me, they seem nowhere near as old as they actually are, and it is not they themselves that cause their house feel a little death-y in my mind. They live in a rather bougie suburb of NYC, and they always say their house is the worst in the whole town — that the second they die, it will be torn down. They’re probably right, too. They were going to move a while ago, then changed their minds at the last minute, but since then it seems they’re always trying to give us stuff. For example, my father has these very tall and skinny ’70s-era speakers mounted on his shop walls now.
This purging of possessions makes me uneasy, but I never was good with change. Because they live in New York, we don’t see them very often, and this makes the changes in their house more noticeable when we do visit. It’s like we show up and find they’ve emptied out the whole den and donated everything to a veterans’ organization. The feeling this causes is sadder than nostalgia. Perhaps I’m just at the age when people begin to compare everything to how it was when they were young.
That’s what I love about outdoor spaces like Congress Square. They were never mine, so when they change I don’t feel disconcerted. Put up four walls and suddenly, when a chair is moved to the other side of the room, I feel upset. But plant a whole new garden in a public place downtown, even one of which I have many memories, and it’s like, “Wow! Those flowers are really pretty!”