Of all the things, I’m routinely in and out of, there are none more than doors. Doors are a signature feature of my daily life.
Coming or going, we meet doors at almost every turn. I would reckon that in the course of my lifetime, I’ve come and gone through millions of doors. Yet I rarely take notice of them. For something as omnipresent as doors, they remain surprisingly invisible. And so, in reflection, it seemed surprising to me a while ago driving along, I noticed several doors. The doors were hanging in an old derelict motel located just north of Easton on Route 50. At first glance, the doors were a sorry sight, but for all their wear and tear, I found the sight of them compelling, enough so that I pulled my car over to have a closer look.
The motel was brick, the one-story kind, stretching out like a set of row houses and arranged in a semi-circle forming a courtyard in front. Except for an occasional beer can, there was surprisingly little rubble in the courtyard although only a few panes of glass remained in any of the window frames. The sidewalks were overtaken with a luxuriant growth of weeds and vines, and oddly, a flower or two sprung up from between displaced bricks as if to affirm that there is always life manifesting itself amidst the ravages of time. Inside some units I saw scattered junk: old furniture here, some wire there, metal cabinets. In one unit, I saw a small alcohol stove, a couple of plastic chairs arranged as if for conversation and two mattresses on the floor. This unit, unlike the others, appeared to be a way stop. The motel although derelict, still provided a modicum of hospitality to some less fortunate travelers on their journey to another and hopefully better life somewhere on the Delmarva.
However, my eyes were drawn again and again to the doors, most of them still intact, half open, their fronts lit by the sun, highlighting the darkness within as if in its terminal condition the motel was declaring that even in its twilight days that it was still game to do what it always had, that is, provide hospitality and a functional door to assure the safety of tired travelers.
In summers, up and down the Peninsula, motel populations swell with happy vacationers on their way east and south, “downee ocean” as Marylanders say. Cars are packed with bags and toys for the beach while kids repeatedly ask ‘are we there yet,’ all seeking the sun and fun of the Delmarva coastline. Folks come from Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and other cities as they have for years. For the last several years they will have passed this abandoned motel just north of Easton and probably never noticed it, in the way a motorists’ eyes hardly see the road as gazes remain fixed on the cars in front of them. After a while, on long drives, it’s easy to become inured to the passing landscape that’s so flat here, except for more garish billboards, like those up and down the highways that display advertisements for restaurants, motels, casinos and lawyers who. dressed in suits, assure us of the kind of aggressive representation that we are entitled to for being victims of our misfortunes.
The small abandoned motel north of Easton certainly had its day – not even its sign remained – and the only witness left to honor its contribution to the life of past summer migrations to the Peninsula were its doors. The doors still hung on their frames, still able to open and close. A few locks worked so some doors and could still provide one of a door’s most important historic functions, that is, to safely secure its inhabitants for the night.
For many, the word, “motel” doesn’t imply real class, any suggestion of elegance as say, the word “hotel” or “inn” does. The inn of colonial times, which we have romanticized today, may have then provided you a bed, but no hot and cold running water, heating in winter or screens on the windows and air conditioning in summer. Forget indoor toilets. You’d get a chamber pot or have to use a privy, and probably share your bed with strangers. Our modern motels, however marginal they may be, have a leg up on any inn of old. Comfort trumps class for most travelers. Today, in the humblest of motels, we enjoy most all of those amenities denied travelers in colonial times, including our choice of whom we’d prefer sleeping. In that sense, the derelict motel I saw may be more representative of the inns of old, than the trendy reproductions of today.
Of all the doors at the old motel that intrigued me the most, was the one designated room number ‘9.’ I wondered as I watched shadows play around the curled folds of peeling paint, what those stories may have been that the door had overheard, tales by people who had once come by to stop and to rest on their journey ‘downee ocean,’ and often somewhere beyond.
I imagined that the face of that door, like the faces of some of the many aged men and woman I’ve come to know in the last several years for whom each wrinkle that time had etched into them, had a story. And indeed, the door façades too were rippled with weathered wood and peeling paint. They had become a silent witness to stories which will be lost to history.
One day as I drove by I saw that the hotel had been razed. Only an empty lot remained leaving barely a trace of its existence. A brief seizure of melancholy overtook me, in the way that I often feel visiting old historic grave sites. I know nothing of the people interred there except, when reading epitaphs, I hear a distant voice whispering to me: “Remember friend as you walk by –– as you are now, so once was I”
Doors open before us. They close behind us. And then one day a door finally closes behind us for the last time. I wonder though, when that door having closed behind me, will I have entered a whole new world that had been there all the while but unseen since the door had not yet been opened to me.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.