Lum: Making time for time travel

Su Lum

My mother died in 2007, a few months shy of her 100th birthday. With her would go not only the end of an era that had spanned three generations, but the house and grounds that we had each considered — in our own ways — to be our own.

I went back to close the house with what was left of my family, knowing that when this task was finished I would never see the place again; none of us was in a position to be an absentee landlord and no one had the least desire to move to Boonton, New Jersey, so there it was.

Friends of my mother who had begged to be first in line to buy it were now too old to consider it; local historical societies were sorry, but it would be too expensive a venture.

So the house, which is on the national register of historic homes, meaning that new development must avoid actually touching the original building, had to go on the block, and I would never be able to stand to watch it happen.

But I wanted to remember it, wanted to soak it in and absorb it until my memories could only be removed by surgery.

When I wasn’t carrying books and going through papers, I was in something close to a trance — looking, looking, looking in every corner of every room, behind every door of every closet, up the rickety curved (spidery) staircase to what we called the slave attic over the living room: one low-ceilinged room containing hundreds of ancient textbooks, 1940s vintage clothing and a broken Confederate Army drum.

The living room, with its huge fireplace and Dutch oven, was built in 1739, some 35 years before the Revolutionary War, while the “new part” was appended 50 years later. The house came with 7 acres of land, almost half of which was across the road between the house and the river, where the little peeper frogs kept us awake with their din on spring nights and where we ice skated on little lakes among the swamp hummocks in the winter — land that is now so much of a forest that you cannot see a glimpse of the river.

Long gone are the markings in the ground where our rough-hewn swing stood, with ladders up the sides and top, but I can see it with my mind’s eye and the sizable sand box where the cats used to leave their nasty little treasures for us. A few feet away the garden hose lay curled where we, running, couldn’t wait for the water to turn cold and drank the rubbery swill whose drippings fed the lilies of the valley that grew against the house.

The dank smell of the (spidery) basement; the big maple and oak trees that were half a century old when we bought the house in 1939 ($7,000) and are still standing. It seems I spent half my life in those trees and going up and down my attic window with my two ropes, Tillie and Jane (“It looks like rain, you’d better bring Tillie in”). Later, it was out the attic window, down the roof and the rickety trellis on midnight trysts.

I could go through that creaking house without a light or making a sound. It was so mine that it was an appendage, present in my dreams 60 years later.

Just as the trap was about to spring on the gallows, the town of Boonton stepped up and bought the house and land to preserve it. We couldn’t have been more astonished or delighted, and I actually could go back and see it again if I wanted to, not that I need to; it’s all in my head and properly furnished there, down to small toys fallen through knotholes and my mother’s braided rugs.

I often practice this form of historic preservation in Aspen. At Main and Spring streets, changes are coming to Bertha Kelly’s cabin, presently enlarged and sporting an American Family Insurance sign.

Bertha was the daughter of James “Horsethief” Kelly, a local photographer who captured Aspen at the end of its heyday and used his young daughter as a model in many of the images.

We all have our stories. I wish I had gotten to know Bertha, who, when I got here, was the old lady who lived in that little cabin on the corner and walked about town squeezing one of those hand exercise balls, carrying a heavy air of anger. When she was found dead inside, there were hundreds of glass-plate negatives strewn around the cabin waiting to be saved and boxes of letters to lovers and poems to her mother.

In other words, it’s a fully furnished picture in my mind.

Su Lum is a longtime local who has been listening to time-travel audible books. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at