Reaching for the sun

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 10:00am
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It is the last day of January and it is snowing softly in mid-afternoon, wreaking far more havoc on the mainland — where multiple crashes are being reported on the highway — than on Block Island — where the distant horizon moves between sharp and fuzzy and back again. 

It does not promise to be much of a storm but it is the end of January, not so long from the anniversary of the early February Blizzard of 1978, the legendary snow that, we are reminded every time a snowflake falls, is imprinted on the DNA of Rhode Islanders, even those not alive or living in-state that winter. An afternoon radio host, stuck in traffic, calls in and rants that “it isn’t like this anywhere else” as he tries to determine why nothing is moving, a fool’s errand.

Later, the headlines are of 55 automobiles and two school bus “crashes” but the text more references “incidents” without major reported injuries. The specifics cited bear witness to the PSAs that harp on the fact that drivers of SUVs need remember they cannot stop on a dime on slippery roads. There is in this state an odd preparedness undone by a sense of urgency to get home born of that long ago blizzard.

Block Island took a lasting particular source of pride from that storm, which was terrible, with winds over 100 m.p.h. and whole roads “lost” to great towering drifts. The ocean burst into Sachem Pond and washed the debris of an angry sea, seaweed and wood, up the beach, into the parking lots and onto the Neck Road. A storm a few weeks earlier had been deemed the “worst in nine years” but the Blizzard would stand in history. It merited more words than my mother usually wrote, but “no boat” appeared only twice, then “no mail, but boat ran, mainland roads closed.” 

The power was out down here for about 25 hours, and the Mansion Road, not yet under the jurisdiction of the Town, was so badly drifted it had to be bulldozed open. My mother was not from Block Island but she had lived here long enough by 1978 to be sure she noted such events as cargo transport planes filled with heavy digging-out equipment landing at T.F. Green Airport. We had, she declared, no mail because of mainland roads. 

We had those great drifts but, unlike much of the state, especially in and around Providence, we did not have cars stuck on an Interstate, buried in mounds of white for days, hindering snow removal. While the state remained in a declared emergency our roads were cleared and we had to obtain special dispensation to open school.

It was not until Monday, Feb. 13, that that mainland log jam was completely broken and the single notion in my mother’s little diary was “last Monday’s mail.”

We had survived a week without mail, in a time when a hand-written note was not the cherished rarity it is today, and the nightly television news was supplemented by print magazines that arrived — and were read cover to cover — every week. I know I spent some of the storm writing long letters on a manual typewriter, chronicling the progress of the blizzard, the opening of the Mansion Road, the time without power. The pages were history by the time they were posted. 

Today, my personal mail is almost entirely junk and bills; the news comes online with an immediacy that was unthought of in 1978. Now, a full post office box translates to a few slips of printed text after the circulars and solicitations and envelopes are left in the recycling bin. Still, one never knows what will be there and there is always a sense of anticipation and possibility that once in a while is rewarded by a note, a card, even a package of something ordered that comes as a surprise days after hitting that online “confirm” button. And there is always someone at the Post Office.

This snow did not last; Autumn’s first paw prints crossing and recrossing the yard never filled to become soft shadows of themselves. A white blanket did cover the land and hold the fading light, reminding me that the we have hit the final turning point of winter, the day the sun rises before seven and sets after five, fractionally, but irrefutably and irreversibly. 

There was a spell of clear calm, when the air had that newly scrubbed smell that I will always associate with the storms of my childhood that seemed to come in the day and run into the night but end before the sun rose, blindingly bright on a world blue and white and silent. 

When it is last-time-outside late I go only to the door with Autumn, and stand in the entry, waiting for her to come bounding back to me. I’d earlier thought of shoveling the walk but it did not seem worth it — and neither did I wish to disturb that gift of quiet — and by “late” I could hear the soft rain falling onto the snow and ceased worrying about freezing and turned to towel-rubbing a dog from wet to damp.

Earlier, in a brief afternoon blast of white, I also considered moving the car at least outside the last turn that drifts in the slightest snow, a caution that in a very un-Rhode Islander turn of optimism went the way of walk shoveling.

Still, there remains something quite unsettling about coming into February with a string of no-boat days and terrible winds but no deep, lasting, memorable snow. 

The morning-after yard is sodden and messy. The snow from the roof is melting and oozing out of the downspout turning any lingering white a slushy gray. Suddenly I remember the iris by the door, protected from north and east winds, inches high, reaching for the end-of-January sun, and for the spring that lies somewhere on the far side of February.