Thursday, October 26, 2006

Of Monuments and Markers

It was my studious son who reintroduced me to the literary genius of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Spens is taking an English literature class from Mr. Nielson and had been assigned to unravel the mysteries of Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil. All I could remember about the tale was that an early American preacher had curtained himself off from reality, forsaken quality of life, abandoned love and died a lonely, misunderstood martyr; or something to that effect.

Twin Rocks Trading Post
Twin Rocks Trading Post in Bluff, Utah.

Spenser's mother sent him to me, claiming her high school home work duties centered around higher math, science, social skills and hygiene, not literature. She said it was my job to interpret indecipherable metaphor. Laurie told our son that I was somewhat skilled at creating semi-believable missives and might be able to help him bluff his way through this assignment. Spenser was frustrated by the subtleties Hawthorne had so skillfully woven throughout his message, so, putting aside his skepticism, Spenser asked me for help.

Approaching the story with an open mind, I completed it with disillusionment. Looking at Spens, I shook my head in frustration and told him all I had gotten from the story was that Mr. Hooper was a NUT; he had passed up a babe to make a statement that no one wanted to hear or see for that matter. "Well, that was helpful," said my cynical son, "With that interpretation, I'll be sure to get an A." "No worries little dude," I said, "Mr. Nielson and I played high school football together; we are tight. Just remind him of our glorious past and you will score big." Spenser sat back, viewed me with an amused air and said, "Yeah, I heard about that. Mr. Nielson told me to never speak of it; something about the sins of the father possibly causing the son a great deal of grief!'

Having failed miserably at evaluating the scholarly mindset of the past and present, I wandered off to ponder my personal reality. I sat down at the computer hoping to dial-up the internet and tap into an educated interpretation of just what the heck Hawthorne was trying to say. I hoped that with a little insight into the author's logic, I might redeem myself in my son's eyes. I googled Nathaniel Hawthorne and came up with twelve thousand some odd hits. The first highlighted listing was titled The Ambitious Guest. I have very little patience for filtering through internet listings, so I clicked on the first entry and began to read.

What I found in this story, contrary to a overly zealous dude parading around in a black veil, was something I could personally relate to. The story of The Ambitious Guest tells of a closely-knit family in the business of serving travelers. What struck me most was the similarity between this historical family and ours. In the introductory paragraph, Hawthorne writes, "They had found the 'herb, heart's-ease,' in the bleakest spot of all New England. This family was situated in the Notch of the White Hills, where the wind was sharp throughout the year, and pitilessly cold in the winter, giving their cottage all its fresh inclemency before it descended on the valley of the Saco. They dwelt in a cold spot and a dangerous one; for a mountain towered above their heads, so steep, that the stones would often rumble down its sides and startle them at midnight."

Substitute Bluff, Utah for New England, sharp wind for red wind and cold for hot and you have the Simpson family and Twin Rocks Trading Post. In the third paragraph of the story, I was again struck by the similarity of our situations. "Though they dwelt in such a solitude, these people held daily converse with the world," Hawthorne wrote. We too are privileged to share refreshing moments with a culturally diverse mix of friends and visitors on a daily basis. The unique introduction we receive to the outside world via our guests provides us a familiarization, communication and education few can claim in such an isolated environment; a treasure indeed.

In Hawthorne's story, a passionate young guest finds warmth and simplicity of spirit in the New England family. As time goes on, he opens his heart and expresses his dreams to them. The youth's secret is a desire to find personal satisfaction in life and to leave a legacy of honor and glorious substance that future generations will recognize long after his death. It is his wish that he not, "pass from his cradle to his tomb with none to recognize him." The story was too close to the bone for me to ignore; I was enthralled and read on.

"As yet," cried the stranger--his cheek glowing and eye flashing with enthusiasm--"as yet, I have done nothing. Were I to vanish from the earth to-morrow, none would know so much of me as you: that a nameless youth came up at nightfall from the valley of the Saco, and opened his heart to you in the evening, and passed through the Notch by sunrise, and was seen no more. Not a soul would ask, 'Who was he? Whither did the wanderer go?' But I cannot die till I have achieved my destiny. Then, let Death come! I shall have built my monument!"

The adults of the family were drawn into the conversation, they spoke of opportunities lost and desires unfulfilled, but also of unsuspected twists and turns in life's road. Looking upon their children, the bounty of their harvest, they found themselves happy to have declined more worldly desires. The general consensus was contentment and happiness. The heart of Hawthorne's message, for me, was the youth's concluding statement. "There now!" exclaimed the stranger, "It is our nature to desire a monument, be it slate or marble, or a pillar of granite, or a glorious memory in the universal heart of man."

Hawthorne states, "Every domestic circle, should still keep a holy place where no stranger may intrude." Yet in his story, the writer found a way for the reader to witness the innermost wishes and desires of an intimate group. Their dream of leaving behind a monument to their existence became extremely personal. Because of the parallel lifestyles, dwelling places and desires to leave a lasting memory, I longed to know that the family had achieved their lofty goal

Alas, this was not to be. The sacred mountain towering above their heads let loose a thundering, scouring landslide that ended any hope of future recognition for this thoughtful and conscientious group. Each and every one of them was brutally interred among the rock and rubble, not a trace of their existence remained. Looking up at the towering twin spires of rock and faulty mortar above our humble heads now makes me terribly nervous. I fear that any positive mark we might desire to leave upon this earth may be reduced to a stain upon the sandstone. What a dreadful thought!

With a great deal of thoughtful consideration, I solved our dilemma. I have left instruction with my wife and children that if the cliffs surrounding our romantic and dangerous place of business release their tenuous grasp and entomb us, we are to be left as we are. They have been instructed to simply place a plaque upon the largest stone stating that here lie a goodly number of the Simpson clan. We will then have achieved our dream of a spectacular grave site and monument to our dubious trust in the stability of sandstone. With this solution we may obtain posthumous satisfaction. I apologize in advance to anyone else caught in the landslide, but, in this case, the needs of the few are greater than those of the many. Rock on!

With warm regards,
Barry, Steve and the Team.

Copyright 2006 Twin Rocks Trading Post

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