Burns and Tom Sheehan have a lot in common. Both are descendants
of Irish immigrants. Both studied English at BC. Both experience
a touch of schadenfreude any time Notre Dame loses. Both
served in the armed forces (Burns in the Second World War, Sheehan
in the Korean War). And both have lived almost their whole lives
in the working-class town of Saugus, Massachusetts (population:
26,000), some 10 miles north of Boston.
This last fact makes them rare. Mobility has become an integral
feature of U.S. culture--during a 12-month span in the late 1990s,
for example, more than 17 million Americans relocated to another
county, state, or country. Burns, a retired educator, and Sheehan,
a retired technical writer, find this troubling: The memories of
a place fade fast, they feel, when people aren't rooted there. So,
two years ago they took action. "I was dropping by to see John every
day," Sheehan says. "We found ourselves bouncing names back and
forth, and suddenly we realized that there were things on the very
edge of our memories. And it dawned on us that if we forgot them,
they'd just be gone, forever. So we said, 'Let's do it. Let's pull
together a book.'"
The result, which Burns describes as an attempt "to put a hold on
forgetting," is A Gathering of Memories: Saugus 1900-2000.
It's a lovingly compiled volume, 488 pages long, that's full of
a century's worth of personal recollections: tributes to resident
public servants, athletes, and musicians; stories and photos of
white-bearded Civil War veterans; accounts of harvesting ice on
Lily Pond; histories of vanished buildings.
The book has been a hit among Saugonians (as town residents call
themselves), and profits from the volume, which has sold out its
initial printing of 2,000 copies, will provide a college-scholarship
fund for Saugus students who have demonstrated a commitment to academics,
the humanities, community service, and--of course--Saugus.
Sheehan talks fondly about how working on the book has made him
realize that the whole town of Saugus is his extended family. Burns
is a bit more philosophical about what he's learned. "Go near a
memory," he says, "and it strikes back and does things to you. Touch
other people's memories and you come to know your own better."
Lester is a freelance writer living in Boston.
Photo: Gary Wayne Gilbert