It’s a time to get real cozy with your local surroundings. Maybe you never noticed that house three streets over with the chicken coop in the far side of the yard. Maybe you were tempted to slip a note in their mailbox offering to trade toilet paper for eggs. Maybe you changed your mind because that’s like swapping the Hope diamond for a handful of acorns. One of the places I recently became aware of in my own back yard-ish a beautiful rambling preserve that sits on 80 acres of wooded land known as the Brooks Estate.
The Brooks family were part of the Puritan migration to Massachusetts in the 1600s. Thomas Brooks settled in the area in 1660, promptly securing 400 acres of land for his family, like any self-respecting white colonizer would. The family made quick roots for themselves, reproducing successful and noteworthy progeny like runners of string beans for more than a century. A John Brooks served as Governor of Massachusetts from 1816 to 1823. And decades before, in 1775, records show that an Edward Brooks took up arms against British soldiers on that April day when the first shots of war rang out from nearby Concord, Massachusetts. The story goes that Edward’s wife, Abigail, served cocoa to the scrappy, New England Minutemen as they traveled passed the estate back to Boston after the battle. I’m hoping there was something stronger in those mugs than chocolate.
The family amassed its fortune first through farming in the 1700s, and later, in the 1800s, through savvy business ventures in marine insurance, which has to be as glamorous and high-stakes as it sounds. The Brooks family had a lot, and they gave even more: they donated money to build schools and churches, to commission artworks and underwrite public projects. And like a lot of their fellow Massholes, they were also slave owners.
The partial remains of a long brick wall sits 50 yards of so from what is now the main entrance to the grounds. It fronts a shallow stand of scrubby woods bookended by houses in a residential neighborhood. The smart red bricks stand out from the low rock wall running on either side; it stands out from everything around it, giving it that anachronistic feel like finding a payphone in Silicon Valley. A plaque placed on one side of the wall commemorates it as The Slave Wall: built in the 1700s as part of the entrance to one of the main properties by an African man named Pomp who belonged to the Brooks. Later when I looked online to find out more, I read that the Brooks owned slaves from about 1720 to 1783 when Massachusetts began to gradually phase out the abhorrent practice. The historical documents I read noted that even though the Brooks were not “industrial-scale slave owners” (because: better?), their role in the historical institution of slavery is “definitely the low point in their history” (also: understatement of the century).
As I continued on with my walk through what remains of the estate grounds, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pomp’s wall. And that’s how it kept coming back to me, not “the slave wall,” but this person’s work, a record of their being. There was a body, a human being, an entire life in every brick, ever drop of mortar that went into making what is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, even as it was created under untenable circumstances. I was here, it seemed to say. I was a life and a soul and had a story of my own. I was here. I mattered. I existed.
There are so many historical nooks and crannies in New England that it often seems like you can’t take fifteen steps without stumbling upon a house or park or rusting boat anchor bearing a marker that tells of its significance. I’m that person who stops to read those while the person I’m with keeps walking before getting a block ahead and realizing they’re down a plus one. Plaques and markers give us facts, but not the story. The facts help us to not forget, but the story helps us to remember. Pomp’s story, which will likely never be truly told, is our collective story right now: the people behind doors and plastic barriers and protective gear. I am here. I matter. I exist.
These mornings when I’m out for my walk, I pass new relics of a nascent history, of stories in the midst of their tellings. Sidewalk chalk drawings of hearts and flowers and rainbows, of statements in blocky text that read things like “We’re in this together!” and “Stay positive!”
I see drawings tacked onto the window panes of houses and doors. Cheerful scenes rendered in magic markers, shining with the kind of undefeatable optimism that only children seem to have in infinite supply. On other doors and fences and on a few car windows I see messages of gratitude and encouragement for healthcare workers, mail carriers, food delivery people, and first responders. I know these missives repeat and multiply in cities and towns and neighborhoods all over the country like kaleidoscope images. It’s the most impressive bucket brigade in the history of the world. A call longing for response.
There are human beings behind the walls with stories of their own. We recede behind our masks and coverings. We isolate and pull further inwards like collapsed stars. We wait and watch the sky for a sign that the weather is shifting. And we still find ways to reach into the breach to find one another, affirming we are here. We matter. We exist.