Not All Abandoned Structures Need a New Purpose

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As I write my newest work-in- progress, I find myself unintentionally working in details of structural collapse and revival. The story revolves around one woman’s journey while she revives her family’s resort in northern Maine. She returns unexpectedly to find it showing the tell-tale signs of neglect. While she works to repair what has been neglected at the resort, she begins to repair what is neglected inside of her. As the theme has unfolded in the story, I’ve thought back to the sights I’ve seen during our travels cross-country as an Army family—particularly the abandoned structures of the plains of mid and western Nebraska.

We were stationed in Omaha for nearly two years when my husband was assigned to the MEPS. Omaha turned out to be a jewel of a city. We fell in love with it. However, we knew there was more to Nebraska than just Omaha and some outlying corn fields. Coincidentally, after getting settled in military housing outside of the city, we discovered friends of ours from Maine moved to a farm in Bladen, Nebraska. Bladen was in the middle of nowhere, literally. They invited us to spend a few days on the farm. As we drove on I80, leaving the buildings of suburban Omaha behind, the landscape grew bleak. The shopping plazas faded. The housing developments dissipated. The sky opened and nothingness came into view. Once we left the interstate, pavement ceased to exist. The dust kicked up, coated our truck, and completely obscured the rear-view. The occasional crossroad came into view. Then another, and another, broken only by a farmhouse, windmill, or fence.

I’m normally one for appreciating the natural elements of such surroundings. I collect driftwood, shells, and sea glass from our beach adventures in Maine and Massachusetts. I have pinecones and rocks from our time in Pennsylvania. I have a buffalo skull from Kentucky and a tumbleweed from Colorado. Despite the immersion of the natural world as we bummed around Bladen and the surrounding land, it wasn’t the natural elements that drew my eye or my camera lens. It was the interspersed man-made structures. A church left empty with a faded white sign with black lettering, abandoned homes, and the barns that looked as if they had melted all captured my imagination.

I stood in front of an abandoned house—a home. There wasn’t one window left intact. The porch would’ve collapsed had I dared approach closer. Half a curtain swung side to side in what must’ve been someone’s bedroom. A chimney which worked to warm a family decades ago barely clung to the side of the house. A chair, tilted and beaten, remained where someone had placed it, perhaps to watch the sunset. The wind roared through the entire structure, blowing away decades, or more, of memories and stories that house must’ve held. I wanted to wrap my arms around it, hold the memories in, repair the holes.

As much as an abandoned house still whispered if you stopped to listen, it was a church that yelled to me. It was empty, yet it stood strong. While faded and clearly untouched for many years, it could’ve welcomed a new congregation with open arms and without warning. The steps were flat, not tilted or sunken. Chipped paint speckled the boards, but they were straight. The windows were intact. It stood at the corner of crossroads. Nothing else in sight. I stood in the center of the road and looked in all directions. Silence filled the space, all except that church. It had to have been the site of weddings, baptisms, Sunday services, community meetings, and funerals. People must’ve come from all four corners to worship, celebrate, mourn, maybe shake their fist in the air and question some tragic event they couldn’t understand. Now, for reasons my friends who were new in town and their friends who had been there for generations didn’t know, it stood empty. At first, I thought this was a waste of purpose. Surely someone could open the doors, dust off the pews, open the windows, and once again say a prayer or two. It would still be a perfect spot for a community meeting or a wedding. It would be perfect for something, anything, I thought. My mind raced with purposes for the desolate church. Then, as I stood letting its image, its quiet presence pierce through the bleak landscape in every direction, I realized it was fulfilling its purpose perfectly as is.

So, as I work on how my main character, Molly, will be transformed as she transforms the space once neglected, I find myself trying to keep in mind not all structures need refurbished. Not all structures at the fictional resort, as in the plains of Nebraska, need a redefined or renewed purpose. Abandonment or neglect, of a structure or by those we love, can be left to stare us in the face. It can fulfill its purpose by being left as is.

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