Bells

Fri, 11/04/2016 - 10:45am
Category: 

We are in that time in the fall when first morning sun is still too far to the east to spill through the south-facing kitchen windows and provide that flood of sunlight that is the saving grace of those cold winter days when it is warmer when I come downstairs than it is in early November. By noon, though, when Autumn is not outside barking at some imagined being, she positions herself solidly on the floor, sprawled in a pool of golden comfort, favoring it even over the living room chair we both claim as our own.

“Languid” I think as I step over her, knowing with a single sound, such as the crinkle of the bag that holds a favored food, she will spring to life. She is at least dry, my dog who goes out in the rain, it seems simply to come in for a “rub-rub” with an old towel.

I do not know when I first heard Judy Collins sing “Albatross,” a song on the hugely successful album “Wildflowers,” a title which easily dates it to the late 1960s. It might have been when it was new, or a few years later when I was in college, it may have been on a roommate's record, a vinyl LP. The only certainty is that I loved it upon first hearing and it has never left me, those seagulls flying...

Silver on the ocean stitching through the waves

The edges of the sky. 

This morning a call from a local hunter surprised me. It began with mention of a sound he'd never heard before and I expected it to be the call of an unusual bird; rather it was that he had heard, over on Beacon Hill, in the calm morning, the bells of the Harbor Church.

The “I wish I had written that” line of gulls weaving that perfect seam that holds together the ocean and the heaven is followed by:

She hears the steeple bells ringing through the orchard

All the way from town

I came from a small, island town, then an exquisite dream from another time, beautiful to summer visitors who stumbled upon it and delighted in still depressed real estate prices. Photographs of winter in the 1960s show a place not merely closed but forgotten, the landmark National a great gray ghost prominent to anyone arriving on the ferry, a fishing boat on the shore where it had sat since the 1954 hurricane. The parking lot and wharf — the Interstate dock we had trouble imagining fitting within the embrace of the granite jetties where a smattering of fishing vessels still moored — had been constructed but the stern loaders, which would change building forever, were not yet in service. 

There was a bell, still, in the tower of the West Side Church, one years later I had the honor of ringing at one of the last weddings held there but that was, well, on the West Side, and I am horrified to realize I do not know if there was one in the steeple of the Center Church at the old Center.

There was none in the “big church” on Chapel Street and the bell at the church overlooking the Harbor, where I had attended Sunday School and “helped” my mother at various events, was in many ways a statement on the times: in my earliest memory it sat on the ground. There was a narrow spire on the church, then, so the bell remained, waiting for someone to come along and hoist it into a tower that did not exist.

Somewhere in the 1960s an attempt at “hanging” that bell was made. It was affixed to a timber set on two posts, not far off the ground, one that, as I recall, rotted and gave way to the great weight. It was not “our” bell, it had not been salvaged from a former church building, and it was eventually sold for scrap. 

The very concept of “steeple bells ringing... all the way from town” which I imagined not as a simple tolling but a sort of music, probably from some British movie or one of those gothic novels teenage girls read back then, always, it seemed, set in Cornwall, at the edge of the sea, was beyond the reality of my little town.

The details, I am sure, are buried in records in some box on the nature-abhors-an-empty-space that is the third floor of the Harbor Church. My memory is vague, but I remember my mother talking of how Dr. Aber, a retired minister of my childhood, had longed for bells and so bells there would be, or a modern day version of a carillon, bells-on-tape, projected from speakers high in the gable end of the old Adrian Hotel.

They have been upgraded, and even now I am sometimes surprised by the sounds, commonplace for decades, now. In high summer, their ringing at five in the afternoon can pass unnoticed; other days, in the spaces between the rumbles of the engines, people have remarked on hearing them from the boat. One whole summer, set in June to ring before a four o'clock wedding, the bells were forgotten in the hub-hub of the season and I would see people checking their time pieces with a puzzled expression they do not adopt at five.

It always fascinates me the way these things overlap. I hear of bells, go off searching for an old photograph I know I have in a file, somewhere, settling finally for one published in a cookbook in 1965, then see a friend's son has sent one of his goofy one-liners off into cyber space, as he often does, between photos of his beautiful daughter. Today: “I don't give money to those Salvation Army bell ringers because I know they're just going to buy more bells.”

If I cannot have early sun flooding my kitchen I settle for the thought of steeple bells ringing all the way from town.