Discovery on a rainy day Diana...

A MEMORABLE PLACE

January 07, 2001

A MEMORABLE PLACE

Discovery on a rainy day

Diana Friedman

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

My husband and I love to travel, and last spring headed to Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia's Allegheny Mountains. With nature hikes, wildlife and a pristine lake, it promised the rustic experiences I craved for my city children.

But we awoke Saturday morning to a pounding downpour and a wet weekend forecast. Holed up in the lodge, my 5-year-old daughter pestered us for quarters for video games, while my toddler son insisted on hiking the dining-room baseboard vents. By nightfall, we were ready to tear off each others' heads.

The next day, my husband was determined to go hiking, so I packed up the kids and drove into the tiny nearby town of Thomas.

The main street, flanked by boarded-up buildings, appeared deserted. But a few doors were open, and we peeked into one storefront. Sleek mobiles of recycled tools hung from the ceiling, while dangling from a clothesline were artfully arranged baby clothes, casual dresses, evening gowns -- garments spanning a woman's life. It was a gallery, and when the director saw us peeking in, she waved enthusiastically.

As she ushered us over to a tray of bonbons, she explained that the food was for an opening.

"Is this a play?" my daughter asked, as she and her brother devoured the chocolate. I started to tell her that it was probably not for kids, but the director insisted we stay.

The dresses had belonged to an Italian immigrant, a resident of the building for many years, and the artist who had borrowed them had also collected an oral history. As the tape played, the artist used the dresses as a backdrop to act out scenes from the elderly woman's life. For 45 minutes, my typically frenetic 5-year-old sat transfixed for her first performance art piece.

Afterward, we wandered into another gallery where the artist-in-residence held my daughter on her lap and showed her how to turn wool into yarn on a homemade spinning wheel.

We had, it seemed, stumbled into the rebirth of a dying town, propelled by the presence of a local art renaissance. Downtown Thomas had recently been designated an historic district, and with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, residents had brought us face to face with some down-home West Virginia hospitality and a journey through local art and history.

The next day, as we packed to go home, both kids giggled furiously as they played on top of our suitcases on the luggage cart. As I marveled at their seemingly infinite ability to make the best of whatever situation came their way, I realized that despite all the rain, we had gotten exactly what we came for: unspoiled and noncommercial experiences, just not in the form we had planned.

Diana Friedman lives in Takoma Park.

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