The Muted Colors of Fall

Thu, 10/10/2019 - 7:15pm
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It is October and there is a storm gnawing around the edges of the day because it is October and in October the wind blows and the rain falls.

We had an extraordinary summer with very little “weather,” a strange fact given that the grass remained green through August when it is usually brown and dry and seems ready to scream when touched by a foot or a mower. There were no weekends lost to bad weather or, worse, forecasts of bad weather that proved wrong.

We had our near-perfect summer but now it is fall and in the fall the storms arrive.

The widespread reactions remind me how long I have been watching the island change. When I was growing up we didn't even have a boat on winter Sundays, that we would someday live in a world where so many plans would be altered by no boat for a day or two — or three — was beyond anyone's imagination.

This week, riding along Mohegan Trail, I was stuck by the lily pads in the ponds, wide leaves empty of flowers but there, floating on the surface on a calm day, in a waiting for winter mode. East to west is the way to travel, it always has been, I do not recall a time when that long view west, across the ocean to the Montauk radar tower, was not a part of riding around the island.

So, turning around at Painted Rock, and heading east, back along Mohegan Trail, was weirdly disorienting. I knew exactly where I wanted to be, which pond of a few along that road offered the best view of lily pads but fell into that strange “where am I?” feeling when stopped where I thought it was.

I looked over across the pond, expecting to see a particular house, a known landmark, and instead saw the tall peaks of newer structures, poking up against the sky. Finally, I found the chimney, only the chimney, but a familiar, a distinctive, chimney. A pole star it might as well have been, it set me so securely where I thought I was before that disorienting lack of reference points.

Then I heard a ker-plunk, like a stone dropping into the water, then a second, accompanied by a splash. Little frogs were leaping from the tall grasses at the edge of the pond, seeking shelter from invaders from the unknown.

The pond went from a softly rendered Monet painting to an illustration from a long-forgotten children's book, a frog, perhaps even smoking a pipe and/or wearing a hat, sitting on a lily pad. They moved quickly, and I had another flash of memory, being down in the field on a summer's evening and my father suddenly grabbing something at his feet. I think we came home with a live frog and there the memory ends.

The view is clear, the pond only visible because the grass on the far side of the guardrail has been cut. It is likely a rail put in years ago when it seemed we were suddenly remembered, and low metal fences were installed everywhere there was a drop along the side of the road, especially when that drop ended in even the most shallow water body. The standards were federal, we were told, and had to be met.

I have a vague memory, one of those which may or may not be accurate, of a vehicle or two going into this particular pond, Jack's Pond, we called it, not, as is so often the case, for someone long gone and, in truth, little remembered, but for the man who lived in the house with the familiar chimney.

Now there are the lily pads, in muted colors, scattered around the pond, empty of summer's flowers. A childhood friend of my dad's, a child here for the summer, with his parents and two brothers, recalled picking them and hurrying to the long porches of the big hotels to sell the fading flowers to ladies in rockers.

It is a story that has always intrigued me, a window into another world, a time when a Providence tailor would pack up his family and bring them to Block Island for the season, not to vacation at a fine house, or period cottage, but to live and toil at a tiny store on Dodge Street. His sole occupation was pressing the clothes of those ladies — and their gentlemen — who sat in the shade on those long porches and took strolls under parasols and rides in horse drawn carriages, livery provided by their hotel or rented from another.

The living quarters had to have been sparse, and hot, with the charcoal heated flat irons fired during the day, but the whole outdoors was there for the taking for his three city boy sons who thought they had the best summers of anyone, ever. The land was truly wide and open and it would have been easy to locate and skitter down to the water to grasp the fragile flowers. Telling the story for the upteenth time I find myself finally wondering if the ladies even wanted the flowers or just to be rid of muddy little boys who had somehow managed to invade their genteel afternoon.

The storm is picking up as the day wears on and sunset nears. Years ago I was talking to my uncle in California, complaining about this weather, and another endless fall storm, and he reminded me “they always last three days” — a simple truth we seem to have forgotten. I don't think he had lived here any length of time since the 1930s, or even on the East Coast since the 1960s, but knowledge of the power and fury of the raging ocean never left him.

It will end and the sun will shine, but the seasons will have more markedly have changed, the leaves that were falling blown away by the storm wind. I wonder how the lily pads will fare.