Patina of Memories

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March 25, 2012

If only I could take back the mouse clicks. The ones that showed how much had changed in the once out-of-way neighborhood in Nashua, New Hampshire, home of my early childhood. I haven’t been back since moving to Florida in 1959. It was spring. I was in the third grade. Then this week while researching the maternal branch of my family tree, I found a notice in the Nashua Telegraph about my parents buying our house in 1955. I didn’t remember the street name, Intervale, but knowing it now meant I could visit virtually via Google Maps and Street View. That thought triggered a young boy’s memories. The gray Cape Cod-style home alone on a large tract. The big hill across the wide street, all trees except the sled and flying-saucer trails that my brothers and I carved. The steep, wooded slope that dropped off behind our house to a small tributary of the Nashua River where we ice-skated in perfect desolation. The path that took over where Intervale ended and meandered up another hill toward mystery.

The first Google map showed me things I didn’t know. A long U-bend in the river cradled the neighborhood, more proximity to more water than I had realized. Some land along the river and behind our house has been a sprawling park since 1969. Oddest of all are the names of the four streets nearest Intervale, streets I prowled on bike and foot with brothers and friends: Tampa, Daytona Beach, Miami, and Orlando, the area we moved to and where I lived and worked most of my life. No doubt the coincidence struck my parents but was lost on a third-grader who never wanted to leave.

A click to the satellite map showed new streets and a claustrophobia of new houses blanketing our sledding hill. Zooming in on Street View, I “strolled” the neighborhood. Everything I recalled had shrunk: Intervale was narrower, the hills shorter, and houses smaller—except ours. Additions had made it nearly unrecognizable. There was no mistaking the path near where our lot and the street ended. One day I followed the path until it petered out. I kept climbing a winding route up the hill through autumn leaves, a long journey. I heard water. It was a small creek coursing toward the river. The water was milky green or blue, but not a hue one associates with water. And it smelled bad. Later my parents told me the color came from the tannery and explained what took place there. If they were concerned it didn’t register.

A Google search found a slew of news about the Mohawk Tannery, which operated for sixty years until 1984. The Centers for Disease Control has identified how many people, including children, live within a mile of the site. This includes anyone living in our old house, which isn’t the long journey from the tannery that I remember—only the length of two football fields as the crow flies. Health risks from a witch’s brew of dioxins and other toxic chemicals left behind in the ground and the water are a significant concern. The chemicals stripped flesh from animal hides for all those years. Now they’ve stripped the patina from my memories. What else have they done?