I can’t remember ever carving my initials in a tree, but I did once slice open a young, tender branch of a sapling and squeeze a penny into it. My plan was to return some time later and lop off the branch to see how it had grown around the penny.
Naturally I forgot all about it until many years later when I’d moved far away. I suppose there’s a chance that my penny is still there, woven into the fibers of that branch.
This thought pleases me. It’s an interesting human compulsion to want to leave a mark on the world. I don’t think it’s shared by any other species. And while it can provoke some bad behavior in the form of graffiti (or “tagging” as it’s called by practitioners), even that can sometimes be quite beautiful. There are a couple of colorful tags on rocks along the highways I commute that I’ll miss when they are inevitably cleaned up by road crews.
While working on this month’s story on the Palace Theatre centennial, I was taken on a fascinating tour of the building and got to see lots of spots that are virtually unchanged since the grand old theater was built 100 years ago. On one wall, hidden beneath the balcony, a section of plaster was covered with scratched-in initials. Peter Ramsey, who was giving the tour, didn’t know how long they’d been there, but it’s possible they date back to the original construction. I live in a 200-year-old house and some of the old penciled measure marks in the barn/garage might date back a century or more. And if you’ve even climbed Mt. Monadnock (or plenty of other peaks), you’ll certainly find spots where hikers from long-bygone days chiseled their names and proclamations of love for posterity.
Before we left the Palace I noticed that the new seats on the orchestra level have small brass plaques attached to the arm rests. Peter explained that it was so that patrons could purchase a seat and inscribe a phrase or family name — in effect make an enduring gift of a small piece of a beloved place. Then he launched into a story.
The day before Christmas he had seen one of the Palace’s faithful crew of ushers alone in the lobby, crying. He asked what was wrong and she said she had just bought one of the seats. It was for her daughter’s child who had died five days after birth. The daughter and her husband were coming that night and would get to see the plaque and inscription, so she was feeling emotional.
Peter was touched, but curious. “Why did you buy a seat for the baby?” he asked.
The usher said that, since the child had such a short life, a seat at the Palace might — if only symbolically — help make up for all the things she missed. “I wanted her to be somewhere that she would be happy,” she said.
I looked out over the rows of seats with their placeholders for such tributes, many already claimed, and wondered how many other stories, just as touching, were hinted at by the names and mottoes engraved in brass. Like pennies embedded in the green wood of a tree, those plaques will be woven into the growth of the theatre: each marking a memory of the past and a message to the future.