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In the Presence of the Past

by BROOKE GREENBERG | June 4, 2023 at 2:08 a.m.

"I think the American people lose a large part of the joy of life because they do not live for generations in the same place." --Douglas Southall Freeman

The beauty industry and the health-care complex peddle many an unhelpful notion, one of which is that middle age is something that happens to our bodies. As of this week, I'm convinced that it's something that happens to us collectively. It's felt by the body social. Middle age exists entirely in the look exchanged by lifelong friends when they see each other at funerals.

The adolescent anxieties are gone. Life turned out well. We found love, found work; beautiful children are running around. And here we are, at a funeral. That's the look we give each other. That is middle age.

Funerals are more than a source of comfort to the bereaved. A well-attended funeral gives evidence that the collective body continues on. In an age when we constantly repeat messages that things are falling apart, that the center will not hold, a well-attended funeral gives evidence of social cohesion.

We're adhering to one another, and to our common past. Whether we are in Warren or Lake Village or Little Rock, we are here, we showed up, we are among people we've known all of our lives.

Whether we are close to them or not, we love the people we've known all of our lives simply by virtue of the duration of the acquaintance. The passage of time gives depth and value not just to friendships and family relations, but to merely pleasant, shallow contacts.

That is why some of us who are from Arkansas could not live anywhere but Arkansas. By staying in Arkansas we get to partake of some of the joy that Douglas Southall Freeman is talking about, the joy of living for generations in the same place.

Richard Butler went to funerals. Lots of them. Sometimes two on the same day. He always saved the bulletins. Now and then he would bring one to the bar at the neighborhood restaurant where we met up on Monday nights, sometimes joined by an old newspaper editor who would have supper and a scotch before returning to the paper till midnight or 3 a.m.

Today is the third anniversary of Richard's death. He's never far from my mind, because I'm still close to his places and still see some of his people. I walk by the first Hotze house on Main Street, the 1869 Italianate that Richard bought in 2001 and had restored. I walk by the block of 20th Street where, at one time or another, Richard either occupied or restored each house. I commend his Encyclopedia of Arkansas entry and Bill Bowden's featured obituary for this paper to anyone who wants a reminder of all of the good things Richard did.

Richard's knowledge of other people's family histories was one of the most unusual kinds of intelligence I have ever encountered. He seemed to know everyone's grandmother's maiden name. For those who like to dwell on the marvelous interconnections in this small and wonderful state, Richard's company was an oasis.

When I met Richard, I had just moved home to Little Rock after a decade in Fayetteville, where many people I met were private and reserved in a big-city kind of way. So I was not quite sure I was saying the right thing when we had just been introduced and I said, "Now you're a Remmel and your cousin is Cathie Matthews?" He smiled his slow, sweet smile. He was pleased. He was glad to be known.

He was around 70 at the time, so he'd already been to a good many funerals. His obituaries were in high demand. He wrote them for people still living. They asked him to. They knew he was good. I would love to have an index of that work.

Richard's heart was broken in 2013 when fire took Palmer's Folly, the 1870s house that he and Jeremy Carroll had almost finished restoring in Monroe County. The editorial page of this paper ran an obituary for the house, including these sentences I keep pinned to a wall: "Survivors include shocked mourners throughout the state, especially those who understand that historic preservation is not just an ancillary activity, a hobby for antiquarians, but an elemental part of life in the present. Palmer's Folly made the past very present -- a presence."

The past as presence. The old editor who wrote that died 10 months and two days after Richard. But as he said of Palmer's Folly: "And yet the old lady will linger in our lives. For nothing fine is ever lost."

Brooke Greenberg lives in Little Rock. Email

Print Headline: In the Presence of the Past


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