CLINTON — If you look closely at The Rock, you’ll see kaleidoscopic layers of paint that have adhered to it across generations now. Multicolored emblems of municipal memorials painted after winter snowstorms and amid summer heat waves.
Week after week. Year after year. Cherished memories of football glory. Wedding anniversaries. Birthdays. The mileposts of life.
But mostly The Rock, a Clinton landmark that over time has morphed into a cherished and closely guarded local tradition, is a memorial. A huge ice-age boulder that has become a communal gravestone of sorts.
A place to pay respect to accomplished citizens and to colorful local characters. A place, however briefly, to mark the moment. To say goodbye.
Across Route 70 from the town’s courthouse and just feet from the crystal-clear waters of the Wachusett Reservoir, it has been a Clinton landmark since the turn of the 20th century when the 10-year effort to establish the Wachusett Reservoir concluded in 1905.
“A glacier must have just placed it there,‘' Terry Ingano told me the other day as we stood in the shadow of Profile Rock. “It’s always been sitting there. It’s a great thing. It’s history.‘'
And, for as long as most locals — like me — can remember it’s always been a billboard of our town, an ever-changing slideshow that celebrates life in a small and close-knit community that sprang up along the banks of the Nashua River.
Ingano should know. He taught school here for 30 years, 24 of them at Clinton High School. He later was Clinton’s schools superintendent, concluding an eight-year run in 2017. He’s also president of the Clinton Historical Society and knows more than just about anybody about The Rock’s place in Clinton’s history.
“It’s pretty well-respected,‘' he told me as cars whizzed past the courthouse and the rocky landmark. “You don’t fool around with it. If you put your parents’ names up there, no one’s going to come up and cross something off.
“Other than of late [with the Black Lives Matter movement], it’s really never been used for a political statement. I don’t think if you were running for office you would write your name on it and say: Vote for me. You don’t do that kind of thing. It’s a memorial.‘'
Yes, it is. When my father died at age 90 in February 2014, most of his eight children and 18 grandchildren piled in a caravan of cars to paint the rock in his memory. When my mom died 10 months later, we returned to honor her in multicolored paint across the face of that old rock.
“It’s a Clinton landmark,‘' David Notaro, 58, told me when I visited with him and other members of an informal men’s group that Ingano convenes for one hour on the first Tuesday of the month.
Notaro’s parents’ names were on the rock — marking the fifth anniversary of their deaths — until just days ago when Bob Pasquale’s memorial went up, honoring the former Clinton selectman who also served on the local school committee.
If some consider the tradition an act of civil disobedience or — worse — vandalism, they haven’t lived here very long. Or know the people who do — or did.
“What makes it unique is that it’s respected by everybody in the community,‘' said Tom Valerio, a retired teacher and lifelong resident who recalls how his classmates, killed in a horrific car accident, were memorialized on the rock in the 1960s. “It’s representative of the town and sticking together when need be. I think it’s fine.‘'
So do I. It is fine. Actually it’s become iconic.
“It’s kind of like our own Old Man of the Mountain,‘' said Ingano, referring to the giant and naturally formed granite profile on Franconia Notch that crumbled in 2003.
Over the years, the rock has featured poignant messages and beautiful images painted in the colors of the rainbow.
It has memorialized my old Pearl Street homestead — where my parents raised that large family and then welcomed 18 grandkids. It’s honored a variety of Clinton High School graduating classes. It’s paid tribute to an old neighbor, Fran Coleman.
All of them homemade bouquets and amateur works of arts.
But The Rock probably has never been lovelier than during its yearly tributes to another old neighbor of mine, Maureen Bonin Bedard. She was the beautiful little girl from our neighborhood who grew into a loving mother. She also had the voice of an angel.
Maureen died in early December 2010 after a battle with cancer. She was just 41.
After her funeral, at which her brother Michael Bonin — now an elected member of the Los Angeles City Council — delivered a eulogy for the ages, a group of her friends came up with a great idea where many great ideas take hold: over a table at the Old Timer, a now-closed but still-cherished local watering hole.
Maureen loved “The Rose,‘' one of Bette Midler’s signature songs. Wouldn’t it be great if we painted the rock with that theme in Maureen’s memory? It was a question they quickly answered.
Cindy Baer, one of Maureen’s good friends, took the lead. And still does each year.
For Mike Bonin, now serving his second four-year term in LA, it’s an ephemeral tribute to his sister and a beloved symbol of life in a small town.
“I haven’t lived in town for 30 years, but once a Clintonian always a Clintonian,‘' my old neighbor told me this week on the phone from Southern California.
“To me, it’s an expression of this really human impulse to both grieve and celebrate a life jointly and publicly as a community,‘' he said. “The Rock was social media before there was Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. And the memorials on that rock are some of the most Instagram-able images of Clinton.‘'
He knows the impermanence of it. In fact, our tribute to my mother after her death, replaced that year’s lovely tribute to Maureen.
“You’re trying to honor and extend a life, but there’s a built-in impermanence to it,‘' Mike Bonin said. “When it goes up, you know it’s like this shooting star and it may not be there in a day. And it certainly won’t be there in a month because someone else will be memorialized there.‘'
That means another trip to the Rock to honor another son or daughter of Clinton. Rollers. Brushes. And an eye-catching design. There’s a life to honor. And there’s an old rock to paint.
“It’s a unique tradition here,‘' Cindy Baer said. “Sometimes you can see how many inches of paint there are. And you think about peeling back those layers of paint from all those years. There’s a story on each layer. It’s kind of cool.‘'
Yes. Cool. And a tradition that has stood the test of time and remains as solid as that giant rock by the side of the road to Worcester, just a stone’s throw from a majestic dam.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.