So I’m sitting at work crying. The reason is, this morning I found out that a fountain in my hometown of Geneseo, NY was hit by a large truck and badly damaged. This fountain is the most recognizable and beloved symbol of Geneseo. It is a large granite pool that sits in the middle of Main Street. At its center is a column topped by a small bronze bear that holds a welcoming light in its paw. It has held this light high in good times and bad. It celebrates all the holidays with us. It has played a large role in countless pranks over the years. It has provided water for livestock. It is an anchor for students coming to Geneseo for college, and for those of us who have travelled too far away from home.
As a young child I remember marching past the fountain in the horrible Halloween costumes my mom made or bought for me. She was not crafty. I remember standing by the fountain Christmas caroling, and watching Buzzo’s Marching Band on Memorial day. I played my french horn in the elementary and high school marching bands, and my nephews played trumpet and trombone years later in those same bands marching past that same fountain. As a senior in high school, I rode past it in a World War 2 jeep, on my way to recite the Gettysburg Address by the War Memorial in the town park. Vintage war planes flew overhead in tribute to the fallen.
My Mom watched every parade, every year and clapped so embarrassingly loud, cheering for the firemen all in step, in their crisp uniforms. Cheering for the firetrucks as they drove past the bear and the fountain. She applauded veterans, boyscouts, cubscouts, tiger scouts, brownies and girl scouts, convertable cars with teenage beauty queens and octogenarian war heroes. All under the watchful eye of the bear.
We all had to drive around the fountain on our road tests, sweating out the challenging left turn off Center Street. My grandmother, when she first moved back to New York took her driving test in Geneseo. After knocking down garbage cans on Center Street, and bouncing off the fountain in her classic Cadillac, she was denied a license. She never could figure out what all the fuss was about.
As teenagers, weekend excitement included driving up and down Main St, looking for other teenagers to look at. We’d drive from the stop light on the south end of Main to the center of town, around the fountain, back to the light… over and over. We followed the cars of the boys that we had crushes on. I don’t think they ever knew we were there.
My Dad was chief of police in Geneseo for many years. The fountain was large in his professional life. I remember him protecting it on Halloween, after the kiddie parade, when “vandalween” began and all the “bad” kids were out there with eggs and shaving cream. He had countless stories of hauling college students out of the fountain, of trying to prevent them from putting soap in it to make mountains of bubbles that would overflow on to Main Street. He understood how impossible it was for them to resist playing in it. His job required him to keep them out. I am sure that he ended up in it a time or two when he was their age, but he never admitted that. The bear was stolen more than once, but usually it was returned in a few days. Nobody liked it when the bear was missing, but again, folks understood how irresistible it could be. A famous photo that made it to the Tonight Show was taken by the fountain. A donut shop had opened, fortuitously, next to the sign for the police-only parking spot. Jay Leno thought that this was hilarious. I visited my cop Dad there on cold days, putting my hands over his ears to thaw them, because a knit hat was out of uniform and not to be tolerated.
So, I’ve been crying off and on all day, thinking about the fountain, and home, history and community. I think of all the people around the world who are suffering such huge losses as a result of war and terrorism. If damage to the fountain has made me this sad, how do they survive the bombing and defacing of ancient art work, the looting of museums, the absolute destruction of whole neighborhoods, whole cities? How do they live with the death, disappearance, homelessness and refugee status faced by the people they know and hold dear. What if my whole hometown had been destroyed? What if I had to flee my home, family, neighbors, community because of bombs raining down from the sky, in cars, or strapped to bodies?
I am so grateful to have grown up in a beautiful, peaceful, friendly small town. Main Street is vibrant and creative, mixing local color and depth with the energy and abandon of college life. I moved away more than twenty years ago, and still see many people I know and love every time I visit. These kind, community-minded people are a treasure. It isn’t always easy to live in a small town, but they do it with grace and style, and a very good sense of humor.
There’s a bench out front of Aunt Cookies Sub Shop. It is a perfect place to watch life happen in Geneseo. It is right next to the fountain, where the cars all have to slow down. You can look up Center street toward the Riviera Theater. For so long the Riviera inspired sadness, as it slowly decayed over the years. But now it is a symbol of rebirth and hope. The Riviera was in terrible shape, and people whispered that it couldn’t be saved. Luckily they were wrong. If the Riviera can rise from the ashes, so can the bear and the fountain. I know my home town is up to the challenge. I pray for the bear and the fountain, and all the people around the world who suffer from loss of community, family, identity. May they all find their way home, to a warm light held high, just as the citizens of Geneseo are lit by the light in the paw of a small bronze bear that watches over Main Street.