The Currency of Memories

by Robert P. Barsanti

On a bright Saturday in early May, one of the young men and I bought a dress shirt at Murray’s. Sometime in the winter, or at some other time when I wasn’t looking, the men’s section of the old store had been rearranged. It hadn’t been rehabbed into oblivion, nor were there new subdivisions in it, nor did the Preservationist need to be called. The dress shirts were no longer behind the counter, the bow-ties weren’t spinning on a rack, and the winter coats were gone.

I felt myself go faint in the light of such change, then slowly recover my composure. With professional help, the young man was measured, a white shirt was selected, and my bank account lost a sum of cash. Lunch followed. On the back deck of Met on Main, we sat near a trio of older women. They wore scarves, purple, and bright smiles. One of them told the waitress “It’s her birthday. We come here every year for her birthday.” Then they ordered a round of beers and the fun began.

Saturday was a good day to be on the back patio. The wind skipped over us, but the sun warmed us on the bricks. If you sat still and watched closely, the buds on the tree were slowly building. The season was creeping into place, and in some weeks, a line would form for our tables and the wait staff would be scurrying. But not now.

I did not ask, but I wondered when the three of them started celebrating birthdays out here. That location on Main Street had had more than a few businesses in it over the last thirty years. My memory, sodden and hole-ridden, has the Espresso Café and the Sweet Shop, and I can remember a few others but the names, menus, and signage have slipped into the outgoing tide.

We are an island of mementoes. Every store, every window, every brick is soaked into memory. Since so little of downtown changes year-to-year, summer-to-summer, the reminders become overpowering. Nobody walks through the Natick Mall with the ghosts of history leading a tour. But downtown Nantucket, from Murray’s down to the Pacific Club, stays about the same. The ghosts sit on the benches and bike down the bricks. If you are of an age, you can’t look at the building across Federal Street from the Hub, and not remember Tonkin’s. The buildings remind us of what they were.

And they remind us of what we were. For me to remember how Murray’s and the Espresso looked like, is to remember who I was. I was younger, stronger, and dumber then. So many of my blessings and curses were unimagined. I have survived much and squandered even more with a take out cup of hazelnut coffee in my hand. The present can be the vision when you walk through the structures of the past. Fifty becomes twenty in the shade of a brick wall and the warmth of a May afternoon.

History has a currency. You pay your initiation fee in stories, then retell them for a membership fee. The more stories you know, the richer you are and the more rooted you become.

Later that night, I sat outside an old friend’s house with old friends in the fading light and the building chill. Almost all of us had worked together for twenty years and could trade stories the way bridge players trade trumps. In the gathering dark, we talked of Teddy Kennedy and his adventures at the Muse. I had been a bouncer and Ritch had been a bartender and we had been there. We had worked through Phish, through NRBQ, through the knock off Chippendales and even the Dave Matthews Band. We bid up our mutual histories and played our cards over and over, with chips shuffling this way and that. We play this pleasant game. We are who we were in the stories. The past gives us life and character. The currency of history falls over time. The number of people who remember Bingo in the window of Hardy’s grows smaller and smaller every year; the card players at the table drift away. We only impress ourselves with the stories. Those who came here more recently will nod and smile, then move on to pick up another blouse from Lily Pulitzer.

Time wins this game. At a recent yard sale at the Brotherhood, I bought a framed picture of Grace Grossman. Grace sat in a wing chair in the sitting room at the Jared Coffin House, smiling into the camera; well dressed, mannered, and in her element. And I bought the picture for two dollars. I could have picked up the pictures of Lucretia Coffin Mott and Maria Mitchell for the same amount, but I left them for someone else.

I knew Grace only tangentially. We had met, we had been introduced, but I was someone more familiar with the upstairs bathroom at the Muse than with the front rooms at the Jared Coffin House. But I remembered the good that she and her husband had done for the island. I know what she represented.

It’s hard to see Time conquer her and leave her on the cobblestones for a few bucks. Her deeds should hold the implacable force off, but they won’t, not even for Grace. It didn’t for Gilles and Phil at Murrays, nor for Mimi at Mitchell’s Bookstore, nor will it for any of us trading stories on the back deck.

But it is May and the summer is before us. History is an old man’s game. For the young man with me, his stories begin now, when he had lunch with his father. He may remember his father’s Bloody Mary, his macaroni and cheese, or even the chatty group of purple, beer-drinking ladies. The ghosts cannot enjoy the day. No currency can buy the bright sunlight of May, when lunch has arrived, a young man has a new white shirt (for Prom!), and the afternoon awaits. The past only hints at what we were, not what we will be.