There’s an episode of This American Life that I’ve listened to three times now. It originally aired in 2001, but the first time I heard it was as I was driving to meet friends for dinner, probably in 2012. I was so engrossed by the story that I sat in my car in the restaurant’s parking lot to finish listening. I was 20 minutes late to dinner.
The episode is called “The House on Loon Lake,” narrated and reported by Adam Beckman. When Adam was a kid, he broke into an abandoned house in the small town of Freedom, New Hampshire. The house was filled with things, objects, treasures. Somebody had left all of this behind. In the story, Adam returns to Freedom as an adult to find out what happened to the family.
The story kept me glued for several reasons. I love a good mystery story, for one. I could also relate to Adam’s mischief. When I was a kid, maybe ten years old, I also broke into an abandoned house with a friend at the end of our street. We called it a mansion — it really wasn’t a mansion, but for the town of Mountain Grove, it sure seemed like one. (The median income for a household is $21,131, and 28.2 percent of Mountain Grovians live under the poverty line, which is twice the national average.)
Given its stature — why would the richest family in the town abandon their house like that? — the house was ripe for mystery and rumor, especially for a fourth-grade girl with a wild imagination. There wasn’t much inside the house, except a grand piano. The pool had been emptied of chlorinated water, but standing water from rain had reached maybe a foot. Leaves floated in the water. It was, for lack of a better word, gross.
But I digress. There’s one passage that causes me to pause the episode so that I can sit in silence and mull over its meaning. I’ll leave you with it, an exchange between Adam and his mother.
Adam Beckman: When my great grandparents fled their home in Czechoslovakia, they’d left furniture, paintings, letters, all very suddenly and never returned. My mother tells me that all those things probably still exist somewhere. With that in mind, she couldn’t bear to see the Nason things rotting away like they had.
Adam’s Mother: And here’s a spoon. It’s all very melancholy, all these little remnants.
Adam Beckman: Why is it melancholy?
Adam’s Mother: The abandonment. The abandonment is melancholy. In a way, it’s worse than throwing away, much worse. I can understand one family being obliged to flee or run or abandon, but that nobody else cared. That it was so overwhelmingly abandoned by everybody, that nobody had cared to solve something, to resolve something. That was very offensive to me. It was like leaving a corpse. You don’t leave a corpse. And that’s a little bit the feeling that I had. That here was a carcass, the carcass of a house, of a life, of a private, and nobody cared to pick it up and give it a proper burial.
I thought that it was important that somebody should care. That somehow, somebody was leaning over these words, reading them, unfolding these letters that somebody had bothered to write. It really didn’t matter that it was an eleven-year-old boy who cared. Objects have lives. They are witness to things. And these objects were like that. So I was, in a way, glad that you were listening.
Objects have lives. They are witness to things.