A powerful illusion
Many months ago I heard rumors that what is commonly known as the Capt Willis House, one of the sentries guarding the portal to the Neck, was being demolished. Dumpsters arrived, some activity took place, then attention was focused on the building of a structure in its side yard. It seemed to be a garage, then very non-garage windows were added and I figured it would all become clear in due time.
Then I was asked if the application for demolition of a house and construction of an accessory building was this parcel. Being my mother’s daughter I have a set of little plat maps on my desk and was able to confirm it, in fact, was.
There was a string of Willis houses along the road, the oldest, the family homestead, tucked back and quite out of sight, due primarily, to wild scrub. I grew up knowing the places by the names of the owners, even that still-in-the-family one different than it had been generations back. There were a lot of Willis houses all about, a point brought home to me one night when the late Bobby Rose explained an application for a dormer as “like Merwin Willis’s” and the Rolodex in my head – such a better visual than a “sort memory function” providing one remembers a Rolodex — started spinning. Bobby just gave me that look of his and sighed “Calico Hill.”
So, the house slated for demolition I grew up knowing as Andersons’, a sort of adjunct to Mrs. Frieberg’s Breakers across the road. I have recalled it before, the early memories laced with the colors of the archery bull’s eye to the north of the house and the red pennants of a sort of golf “course” covering the hill behind the house and the south lawn of the Breakers across the road. There was the green car of the man who mowed the expanses of grass in summer, after the first growth had been cut for hay. He left in the cold months and collected from his travels colorful stickers that adorned his back windows. At Christmas, we received fancy cookies in bright metal boxes, layered with red, pleated paper, from Mr. Anderson for whom my father did some of that early mowing. They probably came from a Swedish bakery up in Massachusetts where he lived.
I don’t know when the Breakers, or the Bayside a half mile to the north, closed as boarding houses, only that when I went to work at the Cottage Farm the boss, Mrs. Gravel, remarked that she was “the last of the Swedes on the Neck,” running places that offered full meals every day to all guests.
“Offered” is a misrepresentation, if the others were like her, and I’ve no doubt they were, there was nothing optional about meals, you stayed there, you ate what was put before you. They were, Mrs. Gravel, Mrs. Quist, and Mrs. Frieberg, known for their cooking.
To this day, I think of those two houses, owned by the same family, sitting on the first rise, facing each other, as my half-way home guidepost, the line after which I am embraced by the safety of the Neck. I think, also, that they stand clearly visible. That south lawn of the Breakers was long ago broken, a house built and landscaping established, at first seeming to crowd the space and as time went on I came to wonder how I imagined such a thing.
There has been building and landscaping and wild growth on the east side of the road as well and privet planted, a buffer between both houses and the increasingly busy road running between them, but memory can provide a powerful illusion. They are still my sentry posts.
The world has changed since I was a child and people sat on front porches, waiting for someone they knew to drive by so they could shout out and receive a wave in return. It was summer time on Block Island. It is that Anderson house porch, as obscured as it is, that I will miss seeing, that little round perch on the corner, a place where I was once
honored to be a wedding officiant.
It added dimension to the simple structure, a touch in direct contrast to the spartan box attached to its rear. I was surprised one winter day decades ago, when I wandered the Neck after school and came up from the pond shore to look across the empty Breakers lawn to see the facade, so small, straight on, without the angled perspective gotten from the road so close to it.
At first, I think there are few changes to the photo in the snow, taken in February 1965 by a young teacher living in the Bayside. A back ell is gone from the Breakers, another gone and replaced on the Anderson house, a second story added to the little ranch north of the Breakers, and Saylors’ — then Crawfords’ — cottage, the lone house still painted white. The only hedge, by Crawfords’, was a lean-over-to-talk height, no more than that of a picket fence but a sturdier buffer given the nearness of the road that had, until the summer previous, hugged its green curve.
It is, again, the vegetation, that so alters the landscape.
The world changes, a fact I am bemoaning as I turn the corner from Connecticut onto Old Town Road, and see in the drive of yet another one-time Willis house, two water company workers. It is a beautiful May afternoon, my car window is down and when the superintendent calls out “Hi, Martha!” I wave, a welcome reminder that we still have glimpses of that old life all around us.