The cousins and their families are walking out to the North Light. My pace is not what it used to be I tell them and time is at a premium, I will stay behind; it is not until I look out along the beach that I realize they, too, have grown older. But I remain in the parking lot, looking at the big pond at the end of the island, realizing how very long it has been since I have done so for more than a moment.
It is a long trip for them, from Seattle and Denver and Durango and Philadelphia and they have not been here since they brought their father’s ashes “home” to rest in the cemetery with his parents and grandparents back to the late 1600’s. Now it is their mother’s urn they carry, she who held this place in her heart as much as any native born Islander.
There is no one left in that generation of our family, no longer any buffer between us and mortality and there is also the shadow of those of our own generation who have passed, the brother of these visiting, our cousin in Michigan and another in Massachusetts.
As much as those losses — and our own aches and pains — the land tells of the passage of time. It has grown up between the parking lot and Sachem Pond I am realizing, all bayberry and beach grass and wild roses in the rose-hip bearing stage of their season. “The land used to be clear” we keep telling the next generation but it must seem a fanciful dream. “Over there... ” I start to explain and realize we are seeing only a wall of green, be it carefully planted or grown wild.
Then they are back from the lighthouse and we head south.
My older cousin points to the expanse of open water that is Sachem Pond in September and tells these grown children “Dad and his brothers used to ice boat here.” Their points of reference are of a higher technology than those old fliers made of planks set on old car leaf springs under whatever salvaged sail they could find. We go up Bush Lot Hill, passing the lot where a close friend of her father’s long had a summer house. “He visited Dad in California” she remembers and tells one of the stories we all grew up hearing, how he was too short for the Army Air Corp but did exercises and somehow managed to stretch himself enough for that one important measuring. I always thought “is that possible?” and only now wonder if he was another of so many World War II veterans who were accepted, their slight deficiencies overshadowed by their dogged determination.
It is a very short stay for them, and a crash course in Block Island and family history. We attend the program of the Historical Society’s annual meeting, and head to a local pub for dinner. A few tables over is a local man who visited California last year and made a point to go to the place where our great-great grandfather panned gold. The next day came a sojourn to the cemetery armed with a handwritten family tree and a map that needed more footnotes than I had time to compose.
Some of us went to the farm where our great grandmother was born, and her son, our grandfather was raised after her early death. Most of the acreage is in conservation, with only a few more houses than were there 100 years ago, and those clustered around the old farm center. The land runs down to the bluff, wide and open, but every time I am there I am surprised it is as elevated as it is, with a clear view of the Montauk tower and often, of fishing boats, pleasure craft mostly, competing to harvest the sea.
I remember the story of the threshing machine blowing apart in the ‘38 Hurricane but not of our grandfather’s cousin’s reaction that “someone else is going to have to buy the next one” and completely forget about the pound fisheries in the waters beyond this land.
We look over to the little house, rebuilt but true to the original where Miss Dickens lived with her collections of books and records of the weather and birds. “I remember visiting her!” my cousin who had the benefit of summer vacations here before the family moved to the West Coast says and talks a bit of the older lady.
It is extraordinarily beautiful here, but I know too much of this place and never visit this part of the island without thinking of the weather those who lived on this farm and in that little house to the west endured, long before indoor plumbing and electricity. Whittier was not completely off with his poem “Palatine” — Winter did laugh at fires of peat.
Finally, we returned to this house, with our bounty of seafood and summer corn, and filled the kitchen with steam and opened every window and door we could. We feasted as the sun went down, as the night boat slipped past, its lights still visible despite all the overgrowth. We settled in my dining room, clutter pushed aside — it is family after all — and recalled their father and grandfather, my Uncle Cash, sitting in the same space wondering how it was he and his brothers and sisters and parents and one winter cousin from the mainland spent most of their waking winter indoor hours in the one room. “And there was a stove in here and... it didn’t seemed crowded!” he marveled.
Already, they are gone. Now, I have to get that extra leaf out of my table, before clutter finds it way back to cover its increased surface, and, I must go to the dump with a great bag of lobster shells and corn husks and paper towels that were our nod to the reality of a wonderful but messy dinner.