Packrats and preservationists

Since I first found myself in the preservation world a little over a year ago, I have tried to make sense of how I ended up here. I’ve been a fiction writer by instinct since I first held a pen, and more recently by training; I know more about the construction of a sturdy narrative than I do that of a wooden-frame house. So, I’ve been building one out of my memories to assure myself that there are no real holes in the plot of my life (and the very fact that I am doing that, I think, makes me a preservationist).

As I suggested in my previous post, I have identified a preservationist gene bequeathed to me by my grandparents. Another thread in my self-explanation is that I have long suffered from the accusation of being a packrat. While I can’t deny an aversion to spring cleaning, I refuse to admit to rodent tendencies of any variety. What some call packratism, I call preservation, and the essential difference is the act of curating.

I like to think that I approach my own life with an archival mindset, for my own sake. My collection is not nearly as organized as that of my grandmother. Hers is like the archive of a national museum, mine more like a local department of buildings. I keep things that most people might consider garbage (or preferably recycling matter): tickets, receipts, bottles. Contrary to the common belief among my loved ones, however, this collection is not a slovenly compulsion but follows a standard protocol: I keep an item if I associate it with a memory, and if I know that throwing it away will drastically decrease the likelihood that I will ever experience that memory again. Sometimes I wonder if this practice is shamefully materialistic, but what I value is not the material itself so much as the history it represents.

I feel exactly the same way about buildings. James Marston Fitch, who founded my graduate program, referred to historic preservation as “curatorial management of the built world.” The reputation of our field would benefit, I believe, if we could promulgate the understanding that preservationists aren’t just saving buildings because of an inability to throw anything away.

Preservationists are not hoarders; we are curators.

Dates and foundations

Vera Taylor, 1920-2010

I spend quite a lot of time considering what it means to spend time. One conclusion I have reached is that, to me, dates are objective correlatives, talismans of memory. I tend to equate forgottenness with loss; if I will have no way of recalling in exactly a year’s time what I was doing on today’s date, the present seems doomed to oblivion.

Maybe parallel thoughts led my grandmother, Vera Taylor, to begin the journal that she kept for decades. Cursive words and a stack of black, bound volumes hold a daily chronicle of her life: where she went, what she did, and who was there. She held phone conversations at her desk, jotting the news she learned from family and friends; when she would ask for a name to be spelled, I knew what I had said somehow merited recording. She noted special meals, and sometimes seemingly mundane ones; “Don’t you want to remember what you ate for breakfast growing up?” she would ask, enticing me with the threat of lost memories, however small, to start a journal of my own. But I never did for more than a few weeks at a try, and Grandma remained the only diarist in the family. Through the years, we had many evenings of cherry pie and debates over family chronology — attempts at calculating the date when someone’s old friend came to visit, or when someone lost a tooth — that Grandma always concluded with, “Let me check my journal.”

I will never forget what I was doing on this date last year, when I drove with my parents and sister from Grandma’s home in New Braunfels to the town of Uvalde in southwest Texas. I remember the day as a series of passed places: the house where Grandma’s mother lived, where my dad remembered visiting his own grandmother; the singing school where Grandma’s father-in-law, my great-grandfather, taught — now an empty lot; the department store where my grandfather worked long ago; the cemetery where he was buried, and where we lay Grandma beside him, one year ago today. Places are talismans of memory, too.

The last direction my life took that Grandma was aware of, was that I would soon be entering the Historic Preservation program at Columbia’s architecture school. When I told her of my plans, she said that Grandpa, who had owned a lumber yard and was a self-taught architect, would be proud. She insisted that I lay claim to his old drafting table, although I can’t claim a single bit of his design talent, and from a back room she retrieved sets of Grandpa’s blueprints for the houses he designed and built for his (my) family. To the degree that my being a preservationist is genetic, a large portion of those genes come from Grandpa, and an equally large portion from Grandma. I know that she is just as much to blame because of the fact that those blueprints were folded in a box labeled “blueprints,” one of many labeled boxes in her house, and that her immediate response to my announcement was to reach for her journal. Grandma was the archivist of her own history and, therefore, of mine.

Today, then, seems a fitting date on which to begin this blog. storybuilding is not a journal per se, but a means of preserving my own experiences and thoughts, not because I assume their worth to anyone else but because I value them for my time spent. Here is where I will store stories and write about adventures that occur, ideas that occur to me — usually about preservation, and its intersections with literature and art — and perhaps occasionally, just for the record, what I ate for breakfast.