In class last Wednesday, the heavy doors of 219 Hartwell Hall opened and closed without reason. The windows were shut. No students were passing.
Each time the door opened and closed forcefully, I looked to a different student to corroborate. I knew what people would think, and I wasn’t crazy. Hartwell has its own haunted history. I’m not the first person to abandon skepticism.
This week I will move to a new house–an 1860s Victorian on a village street in the college town I grew up in. As I write my novella amidst the packed boxes in my house, I consider the matter of space. It took me so long to get going on this piece. It was so much larger in scope than anything I’ve written before. The short stories I’ve written nearly all my life seem like mudrooms in size compared to the grand, living room-sized novella I write now.
The house we will move to is twice the size of the home I sit in as I type this.
On Friday, in class, I discussed with my students the Hartwell Takeover of 1970–a Vietnam protest that occurred in the very same building we sat in that minute.
The Hartwell Takeover: Brockport students smoking pot in the hallways, skinny-dipping in the (then) swimming pool (now, Strasser Dance Studio), a student on LSD climbing the bell tower, and a cultural center just around the corner from the building set afire in protest.
I asked what had changed in all this time? I urged them to consider how everything around us had changed. How can we not explore the space we live in? Even its past?
It’s probably the reason I love old houses. And thrift stores. And museums. It’s probably the reason I’ve never left my hometown. I take the word “roots” literally.
I have always tried to imagine myself in a time-warp. Who was standing in this same spot–in the quaint farmhouse where I now type this–40 years ago? I happen to know that the house we’re about to move from was a college house in the 1970s. Perhaps the students who had protested in the Hartwell Takeover were strumming guitars or drinking Gennys in this same space?
My parents’ house was built in the 1880s. As soon as we got our hands on a copy of the deed, in the 1990s, my father and I scanned its history, and I placed each family in context, imagined them in the kitchen and on the front porch. I longed to hug them, to hear their arguments, to rustle through their closets.
It’s part of what we do when we write, and probably part of the reason I had such a tough time with the novella at first. I fought with the setting of a home for unwed mothers, when I’d never been there. How could I go to where I’d never been? I had to relocate my mind to some place foreign–something I’d never done. I write the stories of the place I grew up as I imagine them, but more importantly, as they could have been experienced in human terms.
When that door in Hartwell opened and closed, who was there? Was it the force of another door down the hall sucking the air from our space? I don’t know. Maybe I don’t want to believe that. I like to believe it was some part of history, some student from another time taking a peek.
The house I will move to has its own history, and most of the facts have been researched and recorded by a village trustee, but I have a lot of wondering to do, still, a lot of supposing to do in that space.