January Road

Fri, 01/20/2017 - 9:45am
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There was an after the storm lull this morning, a moment of near calm, in which the sound of the ocean, a muted surf, rolled up from the beach. When I opened the west-facing front door to let Autumn out I was met with the distant beep-beep of a truck backing up, an early visitor to the dump/landfill/transfer station, drifting over the width of the island from the end of West Beach Road.

The wind picked up a bit, and while the body of the rain moved out to the east, it left in its wake a half-hearted drizzle that will stall the day at first light long into the morning.

It is around 40 and feels warmer, especially when I go to my mother's little weather diary from the 1970's and find references to snow and drifts, to no school and no boat. It was only nine degrees in 1976, with cold vapor, sea smoke, rising from the morning ocean. She noted simply that she and others flew to New Haven for the ordination of the new, young minister who would arrive soon thereafter.

Not recorded in her even penmanship but fixed in my memory is her story of the pilot having a difficult time getting the plane started for their return flight in the dark of a January night.

Forty feels even warmer as I flip ahead through the 40-year old notes and find references to both the Old and New Harbors being frozen, the same pages I read every winter to remind myself that weather of our memories, cycles of high drifts and thick ice and deep mud, was, in fact, dreadful.

The wind is not the brutal cold sweeping down from Canada, rather the raw, wet northeast that comes down the coast. There is a small craft advisory posted, a fact I learn from a weather site, not the tall signal tower at the Coast Guard Station.

It is a reminder of a time when we watched for the flags by day and lights by night and listened to forecasts so broad they covered “from Eastport to Block Island” and — I learned at college in New Jersey — “from Block Island to Cape May.”  It was not then “I've never heard of Block Island” it was more “I never met anyone from. . .” or “I always wondered where it was. . .”

We were excited to see “Block Island” in that weather report context in a grade school reader, embedded in a tale about a boy gone out on a fishing boat probably with an uncle, a popular convention of the day. There we were, in print, in a textbook we presumed was used across the nation.  And no one in the story stopped and asked “where is Block Island?!”

There is even a book of poetry from 1954, the existence of which I discovered in the usual way, searching for something else: “Eastport to Block Island” with a sub-title “High Winds from the Northeast.”

Such were our slight brushes with fame, when we were the very center of all the weather from the top of Maine to southern New Jersey, before we fell off the map, at worst, or, at best, became relegated to some unidentified dot floating off the coast of Rhode Island. We would be a line in a story, in a maritime novel, in a tale of pirates and treasure, references that had people decades later saying “I'd always heard of Block Island” without being able to pinpoint when or how.

Today's reality is just another bleak winter day, when the fields are brown but the grass down the lane weirdly, brightly green, and the red berries of the season almost glow on leafless branches. The road at mid-day is not enticing, unless one is a big golden dog. It is chill underfoot and damp, but not shifting and soft, a combination of no deep freeze, several truckloads of stone over the years, and very little heavy traffic.

At the turn onto Mansion there is evidence of the past snow, not in the dirty refusing-to-melt mounds that were still at the bounds of the parking lot and along the road around Bridge Gate in town yesterday, but in ridges of torn sod, the unavoidable result of a plow scraping a winding surface with uneven edges. 

The wind had lessened by early afternoon and the sound of the ocean was louder than it had been in morning, but there was no sun to counter the lingering breeze. I thought of an older lady who lived across the fields who had had as a very young girl a first job tending my dad and his siblings for an hour outside, giving their mother a break from them.

She was bedridden and blind when we last spoke, but recalled with ease the riot of colors that filled her flower gardens, the long-ago cool, hard, low-tide sand beneath feet freed from stockings and shoes when going barefoot was not widely accepted for young ladies. On a warm summer day she remembered of that winter child-tending, scores of years past, walking down this road away from the house only to turn, away from the low sun, and be faced by the wind blasting from the northeast. I was struck by the timelessness of the natural world.

It is only a breeze, not an assault, when I turn back and find in the tall grass, winter dead, bowed by the wind, beaten by that rain, yet another forgotten Autumn toy, a thick rope, this one green and white, sodden and heavy, a momentary distraction.

I am half-way across the yard before I realize that while Autumn prances off with her “prize” I was the one truly distracted; the grass, unlike the gravel and stone road, is as sodden as the rope and by the time I realize my error wet has crept up into my everyday but not every-weather shoes.

Shoulda stayed on the road...