My topic this week was Landmarks of our Lives, not milestones or turning points but literal landmarks, one caught at the edge of a photo of the sky the other night. It was Cozy Cottage, the first house on the Neck Road north of Beach Avenue.
It has been there my whole life, long ago, white then, likely as paint changed, a little house rebelling against being white, always peeling. Then it was a soft green, which did adhere, now it boasts simple shingle siding. The structure remains the same, small, with the enclosed porch of a certain era, perhaps some windows slightly altered. It was a good start, heading home, then I was distracted.
It is not unusual in summer for me to reach a certain point in a conversation and have some one say “Are you Martha Ball?” generally from a reader of this paper, or a reference someone had made to a building or family no one remembered.
I think it was still in August, someone asked me that same question and then told me he was the postmaster in Wyoming (Rhode Island). He had not seen Gardner in a while and was concerned. I realized that last I had heard someone said he was not doing well. I learned before the beau-
tiful tribute in last week’s paper that he had gone to meet his Maker as I imagine he would have put it. And see his parents and so many others gone earlier.
For years there have been times, often in summer, when I have thought I simply have no more words. Then a gift comes unexpectedly, last week that Gardner enjoyed reading my words from his childhood home. And my heart sings.
Gardner Phillips was someone I barely knew growing up; he graduated from school the year I was born. His younger brother was older than my older brother but I think most of us thought of Gardner the same way, as an older, even to a child’s eye handsome, and kind man.
I knew who he was, of course, and on rare occasions saw him, but that was the extent of it until several years ago, now, when I started receiving letters from Gardner, sparked by some mention of something in one of my columns. I recall in particular, writing of the dining room of the old Adrian Hotel, now the Harbor Church, a separate structure out back, which I remember only as a dark storage place.
It was torn down in that mad round of demolition I now attribute to the cumulative impact of the hurricanes of 1938, and the 1954-5 triad of Carol, Diane, and Edna and the fear of another Big One running up the coast, and I think one in 1944 that is generally a footnote.
My specific memory was of the men carrying table tops, red and white old cloth-covered planks, into that dark space, it seemed many of them wearing their good plaid wool shirts. The legs of the tables were pipes with threaded tops, perhaps some of us, orphans of Roll Call dinner, our mothers in the kitchen, our fathers feeling more comfortable for being useful, allowed to carry a pipe of two, or perhaps just trail along.
Gardner remembered those tables and a dinner of a group with a name I had not heard but close enough to what other referred to as the Rod and Gun Club, the organization “everyone” seemed to think had been behind the dam no one knows is there, the earthen bank that turned Mill Tail from a swamp to a pond. Water protection my father said, fire being right up there with hurricanes, probably with more statistical proof.
Time was when people could afford the luxury of a drilled well, they guarded their old cisterns, close to the house, an immediate source of water to use while the firemen ran lines to the nearest ponds. We have an underground water tank at the Southeast Lighthouse because a former board member swore he’d have lost his home to a fire but for keeping the cistern.
It was a lovely little scrap Gardner sent me, qualified with the good times they had back when no one had anything but they fished and hunted and broke bread together not realizing they were creating memories that would stretch over the decades.
He sent Autumn presents, whole boxes of them, and I never had the heart to tell him Autumn was extremely picky, favoring pieces of ropes and branches of knotweed over all else; even tennis balls do not interest her. And sometimes collections of the notepads one gets for contributing to causes, a telling sign, some were organizations working for Native Americans. And calendars, as if he knew my organizational skills were lacking,
although no number of sizes and styles could much help someone who writes “noon” on a summer weekend day as if I would magically remember where and what!
But it was the letters, written on lined paper, in a sort of printed script, not the penmanship a whole generation of teachers tried, with little success, to impart to boys of his age, but totally legible, if lacking artistic uniformity, more the hand of someone who worked in utilities all his life and had to write notes people could read this year and next.
Usually, there was something that had triggered a memory, all those years ago, a gate that was supposed to be open suddenly closed, and that conversation that became familiar all along the coast, the you-walk-through-my-land-for-pleasure-but-I-cannot-walk-through-yours-to-put-
There was a trip to the Town Clerk’s Office, when it was a very part-time place in the Champlin farmhouse, and giving the Clerk some statement that may or may not have been recorded.
And sometimes there would be tucked into the pages of remembrance a bit of cash for the Roll Call at the church, to be slipped into the plate without mention, his acknowledgment to a world gone by but not forgotten. Never without grace and goodness, a lesson for us all.