And Then What Happened?: Woe, the change

  • PARATI

For the Recorder
Published: 1/24/2021 3:53:37 PM

The day you walk into any town is the day the region’s history inaugurates for you. This is the way it is here, the way it should stay moving forward, and anything that veers off that track is wrong. Never mind that those who came before you have their own set of righteous memory and tradition; this, here and now is the way it should be, according to me and to my sense of right. Ya heard me?

When I wandered into Ashfield in 2005, the world for me was set. The people who eyed me with suspicion, wondering what I might turn their little Elmer’s Store into were people whose family lines populated the place back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Their hooks were sunk into those who carved the town out of the woods and settled it. They were born to the place fair and square. What credentials did I have among them?

To me, those people were Ashfield and the fact that most of them disdained my new version of their old store just solidified them more. The fact that I couldn’t entice them in to dine, regardless of how many gift certificates I gave away just made them more authentic. Good food? Maybe. But it wasn’t the way Elmer did things. Their distrust never offended me; I just saw it as encouragement to act and react responsibly. To earn my place in town.

After I sold Elmer’s in 2018, the traditionalists smiled and said that well, I had tried, and maybe I was OK after all. Doug Mollison even told me one day that I was a “welcome foreigner” and his words warm me still. Those who had disdained me now invited me to sit with them at the counter up at Neighbors Convenience Store (an institution originated by Ted Day in the ’30s, then passed to his son Charlie; presently owned by Phil Nolan) and they told me of their own growing up; how every building was tied to an old way, an old story, people now gone, but woven into the constitution of the town. I listened to the stories and I loved them as much as I did the tellers, loved having worked my way, finally, into their acceptance.

But Ashfield in 2005, in 2010, in 2015 was headed to a T in the road that finally smacked into itself around 2020 — when the living elders started falling away, joining the original settlers and their descendants in the graveyards that anchor the town to history. There are the youngsters who come behind them, but what do they know of snow so high you had to climb out the second-story window to leave the house? Of the way it was before cars, computers and internet; when the whole world was Ashfield with more than 100 working dairy farms, and all the businesses a town could need to accomplish anything it wanted? When all of the focus was inward and your past was as close as your present?

Even Elmer’s under my watch, as a breakfast, then lunch and dinner restaurant, did its traditional job of supporting local community for those who gave us a try. It maintained itself as a place where you could come learn what people were up to, who was with whom and what happened next.

But the crush of the pandemic changed all of that, to where no one even knows who bought Mike Skalski’s house last fall. I finally asked Mike, but back in the day, the real day, I would have heard the waves of news welling up the street! Now the people I see walking are unknown, new people, from that place known in New England as, “Away.” I talk to them and find out they’ve just moved to town, come here from Northampton and New York, seeking country, seeking health, but without connection, here in these days of social distance.

What brings me to this today? The news that Del Haskins, our fire chief, is retiring this summer from his line of civic duty heading the departments of fire and emergency, and that his wife, Karen Haskins, who has served us from behind the counter of Neighbors for the last 26 years, is making her last breakfast sandwich there on Jan. 29. Word as to who will take over from Del isn’t yet known and as for Karen, no one can take her place, no matter how hard they try. Del feels it’s time for the town to get its own full-time, professional fire chief, a smack in the face from the way it’s always been done in this town, but it’s time, he says. Things have changed.

And I, only 16 years in, look around and think, “Hm. That’s not how it was before. You young’uns over there, you don’t know how this town was back when I owned Elmer’s. Karen’s gone home, Del will soon go, too. Not the same. Ya heard me? It just ain’t right.

Nan Parati lives and works in Ashfield, where she found home and community following Hurricane Katrina. She can be reached at NanParati@aol.com.

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